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3/23/2006
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Avoiding Costly Collaboration Deployment Mistakes

There are several costly mistakes a company can make when selecting and deploying a collaboration solution.  The primary mistake is a company’s poor understanding of its own requirements, causing it to select the wrong product – which can prove very costly.  Cost overruns can also be incurred during deployment, or after the system has been deployed and its use by employees increases.  Careful precautions taken early in the selection process can keep a project on budget.  Here are four key areas to evaluate during the vendor selection process.

1.  Product scalability and performance. Ask each vendor for customer references who have deployed the solution.  When you talk to those customers, see how similar their environment was to your situation. Here are examples of high-gain questions you should ask them:
• What hardware, operating system (OS), and database did you use?
• How many people use the system?
• How many people can log in at the same time?
• How much data can be uploaded into the system by a given number of users?

If the vendor cannot provide you with access to customer that is at least as large as your company, then ask the vendor to provide you with results from their own performance and scalability tests.  There are several labs in North America and in Europe that will perform scalability and performance tests on systems and provide third-party non-biased results.  Without this data, and/or feeling uncomfortable with the test results, can lead to unexpected hardware and software expenses as the system grows to accommodate new users. 

Additionally, software integration issues can cause deployment delays, and that in turn can hurt a system's ability to scale and perform.   I have found that some vendors will tell you that their solution runs on a list of platforms (i.e., operating systems and databases) -- yet that doesn’t necessarily imply that their systems will scale or perform equally well on each of those platforms.  When dealing with Open Source vendors, this may be one of the greatest problems you may encounter.   

2.  Feature gaps and roadmap alignment. As you start your vendor evaluation you will find that every vendor has their own strength and weakness and none of the vendors have all the desired features.   Vendors will most likely attempt to convince you that their next release will solve your needs.  Understanding a vendor's future release and roadmap is important, but carefully understanding the current product and its gaps, and aligning your choice with the vendor who can solve most of your needs, will reduce many possible costly risks.  

Customers who select a vendor based on promised features incur the possible risk of delayed deployments, unhappy users, and expensive customizations if the vendor is not able to deliver on their promises.  On the other hand, those who select a vendor that fits best with their current needs, but whose roadmap does not align with the customer’s direction, can also incur possible risks, such as outdated and uncompetitive systems.         

In order to insure proper alignment between your strategy and a vendor, it is important that requirements are properly documented, current solutions are thoroughly evaluated, and product feature gaps are identified.  Pilots are perfect mediums to conduct your analysis.  Once you understand the shortcomings of the system, make sure to engage the vendor’s product management and engineering teams to ensure roadmap alignment.  Knowing what is needed, what will be delivered, when, and by who will help minimize any potential costly risks from product and roadmap misalignment.  Also, the more informed you are, the more likely you will be able to set expectations with your own customers; consequently, making the project more successful. 

3.  Installation, training and customization costs. Several collaboration vendors try to maximize their additional revenue by making their product expensive to customize and to use.  Their thinking seems to be that this will entice channel partners to push their product more, or that it will generate additional revenue down the line from consulting work.  You should keep this in mind as you evaluate different collaboration vendors.  The goal should be to find a vendor who can produce the functionality needed with minimal customization work, and one that has an existing community of users that freely shares enhancements and customizations with each other. 

Make sure that installing the product is easy, and that learning how to set up the product and educating users isn’t too expensive.  Some of the knowledge management strategies and methodologies may require consulting, but good documentation can help minimize costs.  By not properly evaluating installation, training, and customization costs and available documentation, you will greatly underestimate potential costs that will come to later haunt you. 

4.  Out-of-the-box experience. Some companies are not completely satisfied with a product, yet choose it anyway with the intention of customizing it to fit their needs – sometimes making elaborate changes.  The more elaborate the customization, the more challenging and expensive it will be for customers to upgrade to the newest version of the product.  Consequently, when selecting a vendor, make sure the “out-of-the-box experience” either meets your needs or can be minimally customized to do so.  If collaboration functionality can be easily added to a portal, then this may be the best medium for customizing the product to fulfill the customer’s requirements.    Ensuring that new versions of a product can be easily deployed into an environment can decrease additional development costs. 

The more time invested up-front in defining a project and evaluating vendors, the more accurate ones budget and timelines will be. 

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