Marathon Consulting - An Information Technology Consulting Company, located in Virginia Beach, Virginia

Packaged Software (COTS) Selection

Marathon has assembled a team of senior Business Analysts and technology experts who have been performing packaged software (COTS) selections since 1985. This volume of work and the experiences derived from it have allowed Marathon to develop and execute an effective Requirements Definition and Package Selection methodology. The methodology has been utilized in dozens of client engagements in all types of organizations, ranging from small non-profits, through local governments, to global manufacturing and distribution firms. When the methodology is executed, the projects have a 100% success rate.

Replacement of a mission-critical application with a Commercial Off The shelf Software (COTS) product and the required packaged software selection process is one of the riskiest IT projects an organization can undertake. Package selection is often affected by such factors as:

  1. Ill-defined business requirements resulting from a lack of specificity
  2. Insufficient consensus on requirements and relative priorities
  3. Lack of management commitment to the packaged software selection process
  4. The inability to clearly communicate the business requirements to the software vendors
  5. Lack of continuity between the software selection and the implementation plan
  6. The possibility that internal politics will affect the software selection process

Adding to these internal project factors is the probability that the scope of the project will result in an elevated level of visibility throughout the enterprise. Therefore, any project or organizational disruptions will be highly visible and gather the kind of notability that adds to the risk.

The Marathon software selection methodology accounts for all of these factors. Specific tasks, milestones, and methods have been developed with two goals in mind:

  1. Identify the software solution that gives the client the optimum blend between functionality and cost
  2. Minimize project risk, both in the software selection and the eventual implementation of the selected software product

The Marathon software selection methodology segments the process into two or more major phases, depending upon client need. The two phases that are present in most software selection projects are 1) Requirements Definition, and 2) Software Selection. If necessary, a middle phase may be added to scientifically answer the "Build versus Buy" question, if the "Build" option exists.

Phase One of the packaged software selection process is the definition of business and technical requirements for the new system. This also includes client-specific constraints such as budgetary factors, ability to manage an application of far reaching scope, time lines, regulatory activities, and others.

Requirements are defined through a series of executive, managerial, and user interviews to identify functional requirements. User and work group operations are observed.

The first deliverable in the packaged software selection process is the Requirements Definition Report. This comprehensive management report is the cornerstone for all packaged software selection tasks that follow. The Report contains the Requirements Traceability Matrix, descriptions of client work flow, and a set of Preliminary Recommendations intended to focus client attention on those internal factors that could impact the software selection process or eventual implementation.

The Requirements Definition Report and its final acceptance by the client requires a great deal of scrutiny and interaction with the appropriate levels of client management and staff. As noted previously, the Requirements Definition Report must accurately reflect all of the factors affection the packaged software selection.

Phase One of the packaged software selection project is characterized by the following:

  1. A very high level of client and client management interaction
  2. Incrementally defined milestones that enable client management to monitor project progress
  3. A significant level of emphasis on the definition of relative requirement priorities
  4. A disciplined Change Management process, directed toward controlling project scope
  5. A tight Risk Management process, striving to prevent risks from becoming issues
  6. A huge amount of two-directional information and knowledge sharing

When Phase One is completed, requirements will be identified and prioritized; consensus will be achieved; and expectations concerning the packaged software's functionality will be aligned.

Phase Two of the packaged software selection process addresses the identification and evaluation of viable software solutions. It ends with the identification of the optimum solution. In cases where the packaged software selection process is executed, the eventual identification of the optimum solution is usually a clear call.

Identification of viable packaged software vendors begins approximately 75% though Phase One. The software selection team typically has a sufficient understanding of the requirements and constraints to identify packaged software vendors who fall within the client's range of requirements. The viable packaged software vendors are selected to receive a Request for Proposal (RFP) and respond to the client's requirements with a proposal.

Vendors are provided with the specifics of the client's functional and delivery requirements and are required to respond to each individual requirement. Vendor responses are scored in accordance with the defined requirement priorities and each vendor's ability to meet those requirements, either through existing software functionality, or proposed software modifications.

Results of the proposal scoring portion of the software selection process are discussed in detail with the client. Relative strengths and weaknesses are considered and one or more vendors are invited to demonstrate the capabilities of the proposed software.

Marathon coordinates the software demonstrations as part of the packaged software selection process. This enables the client and vendor to focus their energies on the high priority items and maximize the time spent on this part of the software selection.

During the demonstrations, vendors are expected to validate their specific responses to the defined requirements contained in the RFP. Failure to do so results in a lower score.

At the conclusion of the demonstrations, Marathon conducts a series of meetings with the client project team to determine if enough information is present on which to make a purchase recommendation to management. If so, the purchase recommendation is consolidated list of recommendations concerning the purchase of the software and the pending implementation.

The final deliverable in the packaged software selection process is the Vendor Evaluation Report. This presents the results of the vendor evaluation tasks, including the purchase recommendation. It also includes a series of final recommendations, with supporting rationale, for client consideration. The delivery of the Vendor Evaluation Report concludes the packaged software selection project.

The client benefits resulting from a structured packaged software selection process include:

  1. The client establishes a strong foundation of known requirements and relative priorities
  2. The client develops a solid understanding of what the selected software package will and will not do
  3. Investment requirements are clearly defined
  4. The risk of omitting a major functional requirement is greatly reduced
  5. The risk of selecting a weak vendor is greatly reduced
  6. Internal issues that can impact the software selection and eventual implementation are identified for management attention
  7. The use of a structured software selection process sets the tone for the implementation project
  8. Marathon functions as the client's advocate during the packaged software selection, setting the stage for continuity throughout the implementation project

In addition to the use of a structured requirements definition process in a packaged software selection engagement, Marathon frequently uses this method when a large custom software development engagement is under consideration. All of the benefits associated with Phase One of the packaged software selection process transfer to a software development project.