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Establishing Selection Criteria for Contract Management Software

Aug 17, 2007
Once you've determined that doing a better job of managing contracts is a priority and that the best solution is off-the-shelf software, the next step is to establish selection criteria.

You'll need to consider whether client/server architecture, in which users access the system directly, or ASP, in which they access it via a web browser, better suits your needs. There are plusses and minuses to each.

Advantages of web-based programs include portability and, sometimes, price (particularly for organizations with large numbers of read only users).

Disadvantages include security, speed and screen display.

If you purchase a turnkey solution that you host yourself, you have to be capable of working with hosted web-based software.

If the vendor hosts your data, security is a prime consideration. And should you ever want to get your data back, be sure that the supplier will return not only your source documents but also the meta-data derived from those documents.

Access speed can be an issue because of the vagaries of the Internet. The speed of screen refreshes can be problematic for data entry, sorting, searching, and reporting functions.

Web-based programs offer limited control over how information is displayed. And users may find the inability to easily access pop-up and multiple windows simultaneously and move windows out of the way awkward.

Advantages of client/server programs include security, speed and screen display.

Client/server software is not as universally accessible. But commonly used remote desktop technologies like Citrix, Virtual Server, and Terminal Services make distance computing practical. Access speed is more consistent and dependent only upon factors that are under your control (the traffic on your network, for example). This is important if most of your users will be manipulating data.

Your initial investment in client/server software may or may not be higher, depending upon the proportion of your users who are read/write. If you're comparing client/server models to hosted ASP solutions that charge monthly fees, remember that those fees are ongoing and are often based upon the number of records in your database. As your database grows, so do your costs.

With client/server systems, security is not an issue. Your data is never out of your hands. You're storing it and controlling who sees and works with it.

Client/server systems also offer much better control over how and where information appears on the screen. This can favorably affect ease of use.

Danger, Will Robinson! Whether you choose ASP or client/server architecture, be sure that the system will store your data in a standard, non-proprietary format. Any proprietary format should raise a red flag.

For one thing, you may want to work with your data from the backend, either for reporting purposes or to tie into other databases.

Infinitely more important, however, is the ability to move your data out if necessary. You may never need to get your information out of the system, but you must be sure that if you need to, you can!

When you think about features, keep it as simple as possible. Ask whether a program meets your basic needs.

When you evaluate a product, be sure that it will store the specific information you need and that you're comfortable with the way in which it allows you to view and retrieve the data. Consider whether there layers of complexity that you don't want.

Flexibility is particularly important with packaged software. Is the program too narrowly defined, or not targeted enough? If the software is intended for general business use, is it agile enough to accommodate your specific requirements?

How friendly is the user interface? How complete and accessible is the documentation? Is training needed for all users? Or optional for those wanting a jumpstart?

What costs are involved in implementing the software? Does the vendor charge for help with installation? Is user training required, and, if so, what are the costs?

Is the system scalable? Can you start small and upgrade to a larger version later? An upgrade path allows you to leverage your investment in time, money, and knowledge of the software.

Look for responsive technical support. Make sure the supplier will provide personal responses to technical questions. Check references. Has the software been relatively trouble-free? How effectively does the vendor work with customers to solve any problems that do arise?

Evaluate the payback period. Packaged software priced at less than $10,000 that does not require consulting services offers a favorable price/value relationship even for many small companies. Although you may not be able to project ROI with great accuracy, it's intuitively clear that your new system will begin to pay for itself as soon as an automatic reminder prevents payment of a penalty or enables a timely notification -- even the first time you retrieve a contract record from your database instead of sending your law firm to research its files.

Summarize your core requirements in a brief list. Here's a sample of criteria you might use. Just add sub-points to the list where necessary.

1. Easy to use
2. Priced within budget
3. All charges (software, installation, implementation, training) knowable up front
4. Stores the data you need to store in a way that makes sense for your organization
5. Provides visibility into key contract provisions
6. Supports automatic alerts (visual and/or via email)
7. Includes a way to store or link actual contracts, notes, and related documents
8. Simple to administer in your environment
9. Offers robust security that doesn't interfere with ease of use
10. Responsive, responsible technical support

Outlining the criteria for your contract management system is, of course, just the beginning (although it's a good one). Implementation is still ahead of you, and designing and building your database is not a trivial project. But knowing what you're looking for in contract management software will go a long way toward making sure you choose the product that's right for you.
About the Author
Judy Tucker works with emerging companies in planning, project management, and communications and helps them get the most out of contract management systems. Find out more about how contract management software can save time and money at www.contractassistant.com 877-509-7500.
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