How do you decide what, if any, software to buy? It seems everyone has a software solution to sell you. Looking at product demos, you realize the power of these software packages - and that many of the features they offer overlap. Common sense dictates that you can't buy all the software out there. Instead, you must determine your needs, and then narrow down the possibilities to those products that will do you the most good. Let's look at how to do so.

First, list your business operations. What are the major functions you perform? Certainly, you do accounting - so accounting software is essential. Depending on the size, number, and frequency of bids, you'll need bidding software to stay competitive. Do you engage in design work? Design/build? Do you manage projects? What about other functions? The Sidebar, on page 44, lists many of the business functions you can improve with software.

The distinction between improving and replacing functions is critical. A common misperception is accounting software eliminates the need for an accountant. What the software does is improve the speed and accuracy of your bookkeeping and calculations. You probably have used engineering design software, and know it's no substitute for engineering judgment. The same is true of software for other functions.

Next, look at how you run business operations. Before you add software to automate, make sure the process is correct - or will be correct with that implementation. For example, it's a waste of money to install an electronic accounting system if you are merely automating an accounting system that isn't FASB-compliant. If you don't know what FASB is, you definitely need an accountant.

Many companies have successfully upgraded their operations at the same time they moved to an electronic means of doing them. For example, one company that had no formal system of project management looked carefully at how its people managed projects. The major finding was no single project manager had an overarching grasp of project management, so each had weaknesses that negated the others' strengths. A software vendor put on a training class that gave the "big picture," and then showed how to implement it in software. Within weeks, these people transformed themselves from paper-shufflers and crisis-handlers to effective project managers.

Much of engineering work consists of repetition that software can eliminate. For example, rather than draw symbols for electrical components, why not buy a library of them? Rather than look up motor data, why not have them on a searchable CD? The same works for the National Electrical Code - your productivity and accuracy should be greater when using the electronic version.

Finally, look at your resources and compare them to your needs. Do you really need to devote resources to developing in-house skills with 3D CAD? Probably not, but a technical drawing package is well worth the limited investment. If your existing software does what you need done, is an upgrade worthwhile? Possibly, if newer software will introduce new efficiencies, free up resources, or leverage existing resources. For example, document management software can save hours of wading through file structures trying to locate a drawing, invoice, letter, or proposal.

Look at your resources from another perspective. With your existing software, can you interface well with your customer? Suppose your customer wants online project management, and you do your project management with single-user software. In this case, you'll have to turn down work or buy the software you need to do it.

Last year, informal polls revealed people were unaware of what current software can do. For example, almost nobody knew project management software now allows people in different time zones to add comments to the same drawing in real time. Nor did they know their software could tell them which crews would have certain capital assets six weeks from next Tuesday, or who would have that projector tomorrow.

As a result, many were not realizing the gains in revenue, planning flexibility, asset utilization factors, and efficiency they could and should have been realizing - simply because they didn't know the tools for achieving those gains existed. However, when those same polls were conducted at several trade shows, they showed much different answers. With so many software vendors giving tutorials and demonstrations at the trade shows, awareness was high.

Now you have a picture of what your software needs are and how to satisfy them. This picture will help you determine your return-on-investment (ROI) for a purchase. But the primary purpose of developing this picture is to determine what holes to fill in your software infrastructure. Once you reach this point, you are ready to examine individual software packages.

Examining software. You can divide software into two camps: integrated and stand-alone. The trend is toward integrated. For example, you buy bidding software that exists as a module within a larger system. The vendor may not necessarily produce the larger system, but its software will tie in to most general accounting systems or enterprise-wide systems.

A software package that uses a proprietary database structure might have some advantages in terms of purchase price and possibly performance on an individual machine, because it has less code. But it will cause inefficiencies in your overall operation - mostly because it requires entering the same data many times.

In general, if a software package won't integrate with other software, you shouldn't consider it. When investigating software choices, don't get caught up in the jargon and acronyms. Simply ask: "Will this allow me to enter my data once, so they show up both in this system and in my enterprise-wide system?" If the answer is no, then keep looking.

As you look, you'll see some packages address more than one functional area. If all you need is bidding software (because your company already has software for the other major functions), you don't need to buy the enterprise edition of bidding software. You should still buy one that can integrate with your company's other software, because eventually your company may standardize on bidding software and that feature will be a requirement. Foresight in this regard can prevent converting to new software later.

Sidebar: Functions Software Can Improve
- Accounting
- Bidding
- Capital equipment management
- Contract development and administration Correspondence
- Design
- Dispatching
- Document management
- Facility layout
- Human resources management
- Maintenance
- Materials management
- MSDS library
- National Electrical Code compliance
- Payroll
- Permit application
- Project management
- Safety management
- Sales management
- Time sheets
- Tool tracking
- Training programs