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Issue Date: April 2008

Local software is often the best option

10 April 2008
Chris Wilkins, CEO, DVT

Although there is inherent complexity in making a software purchase, many IT and business professionals still love to complicate the business of buying or building software. The good news is that it can sometimes be easier than you think.
Two popular dilemmas, especially in the cost-conscious South African market, are investing for the future by buying more complex software than currently required, and being asked to state, in a frightening level of detail, the entire list of business rules associated with often unknown business processes and functions. Add to this the pressure on operational staff to deliver revenue and profit, and the task of selecting appropriate software can significantly raise executive stress levels.
Here is a typical problem that is complicated by a multitude of possible solutions.
Content management, in some form, is used by most medium-sized to large companies. There is a growing need to disseminate and maintain an extensive library of information imbedded in hundreds or thousands of digital documents. The diversity of this distributed and decentralised information serves individuals well, but fails the collective need.
Fingertip knowledge and fast, reliable searches for finding specific information not confined to your business department are now contributing to the success or failure of business to act in a collectively intelligent manner.
There are a slew of content management solutions available from international vendors. The decision starts here. Do we buy an international product or a local one? There is a tendency to believe that global solutions or products offer more complete solutions than local ones.
The psychology does not stop with software functionality. There is still a lingering and pervasive view in the IT industry that if it is a global solution it must be a safe bet. The problem is cost. South African companies are forced to evaluate local software products first because of cost considerations. Many companies also opt to buy custom-built software for the same reason.
Now here is the rub. If the price was right, all of us would buy the most comprehensive and functionally rich software available. We might not need all the functionality right now, but we could hedge for the future. Unfortunately, these products or custom built solutions come at a price.
Beyond current needs
The other part of the puzzle is that the custodians of corporate needs, in this case information or content, can rarely define exactly what they want. Especially if the solution extends beyond current operational needs. And why should they? It is logically impossible to really decide what you want before you get a chance to try it out. Would you buy a car you had never seen or driven, even though it was guaranteed to have four wheels and an engine? 
What this means in the world of software for business is that you will never really know what you want until you can test-drive the software and develop your subject matter knowledge to a tipping point. This is when your knowledge reaches saturation levels and you are ready to make informed and conclusive decisions in a short period of time.
The answer can often be found in an interim solution. After all, no software is permanent, and business changes on a regular basis. We constantly try and make do with the minimum we can for the longest period of time! Even so, we still think we are engineers building a dam that lasts for 50 years. Have you ever heard of dam upgrades or a river that flows the other way three years after the dam was built? But changing business needs require regular upgrades and must accommodate multidirectional rivers.
A good example of an interim solution would be to buy locally developed software at a fraction of the price of a large international product. In our content management example, this software would typically have solid, but not comprehensive content management functionality. The vendor which sells the product would have a number of local clients, and bring specific content management expertise and knowledge to the party. This would include the ability to build additional software to supplement the specific needs of a business and provide training and support.
The rationale is that it is better to buy software that can be implemented in three months or less at a reasonable price and thereby allow the business to rapidly develop expertise and understanding about what it really wants.
It is better because a lower cost, interim solution will:
* Significantly reduce time to market.

* Avoid premature and excessive spend, making the purchase decision quicker and easier.

* Allow spend to be spread out over multiple budget cycles.

* Significantly improve subject matter expertise.

* Result, over time, in an informed and expertly judged decision to invest in a sophisticated product that possibly delivers more functionality.

* Provide a solid learning experience before spending large sums of money.
Conversely, the interim solution may run successfully for a longer than anticipated, thereby eliminating the argument that more sophisticated and complex software was ever needed in the first place.

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