The first thing to consider is whether there are any general requirements which are a prerequisite for your decision. Examples of this may include requirements about the sort of company with whom your organisation would consider doing business.
Are you prepared to contract with a small supplier that offers good product functionality or do you feel there is greater security in dealing with a larger organisation? The answer to this question may depend on the scale of the development being considered and how central it is to the institution’s mission.
It is advisable to involve your Finance or Treasurer’s Department in decisions of this nature. They will normally be able to carry out an initial check on a company’s status at an early stage in the evaluation. Credit reporting can prove to be an invaluable tool at this stage.
Are you in the market for a specialist product which may have a limited user base or do you ideally want to identify a market leading product even if this means compromising in some areas of functionality?
Are you prepared to sign up to the company’s standard licensing terms, do you wish to impose your standard contract on them or do you want to negotiate a contract? Your answer to this question may depend on the size of the project and the extent to which you are undertaking any bespoke or developmental work. This does however have an impact on your procurement route especially where procurement is subject to EU regulations.
You also need to have a clear idea which of these options might be a realistic proposition for your potential suppliers. Our resource on working with commercial suppliers: establishing a contract will help you navigate this particular minefield. In particular we look at the differences between purchasing a software application and entering into a contract for the supply of cloud services.
Does your organisation have a defined IT architecture strategy and, if so, does this impose any constraints on your project? For example you may be committed to a single hardware or database platform which means you need to identify software which can run on that platform.
As of late 2011, many institutions do not yet have a defined strategy and policy for use of cloud services but it should not be assumed (as some over enthusiastic sales people would have you believe) that it is wise to enter into such arrangements without advice from your IT specialists.
In all cases it is advisable to involve those responsible for your IT infrastructure at an early stage. Even where there are no formal constraints on the technology, you need sound advice on whether the technology you are evaluating is sufficiently robust and scalable for your purpose and whether you have the in-house skills to maintain and support it or would need to buy in skills. The approach that Manchester Metropolitan University has taken to managing its technology portfolio using what it terms a ‘core plus’ model may be of interest in relation to this topic.
For a system that is intended to be used by students or staff remotely, such as a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), it is important to consider browser and remote access requirements. For example, will your institution’s firewall allow offsite access? Anytime, anywhere access to college and university facilities is fast becoming the norm but it still pays to ask these questions – in some early VLE implementations the need for remote access was overlooked causing embarrassing issues after organisation-wide roll out of the software.
Nowadays you need also to consider remote access from a range of different end-user devices. For some types of application performance and usability via smartphone devices will be critical.
Archiving capability may also be required to meet legal and organisation requirements. Archiving and storage can be particular issues in relation to applications such as VLEs storing learning materials and e-portfolios and related applications that may store learner-generated content. Such content is becoming increasingly media-rich and the need to maintain an archive of resources rich in video and other forms of digital media demands significant storage capacity.
There are a range of external hosting options available. Cloud services may offer cost effective and convenient solutions but you need to remember that free or low cost services may not always remain so and that cloud storage may not always fulfil your requirements in relation to data protection and security for some types of information. There is a lot more information in our cloud computing guide.
Describing your functional requirements can be a very tricky issue. You need to strike the right balance between just describing what you do at the moment and coming up with ‘blue sky’ ideas that aren’t achievable.
It is an odd fact that, when considering requirements, even non-technical people are tempted to delve straight into describing the detail of how an IT system or application could/should work. Very often what they will describe is the way they do things at the moment with some minor improvements. This is not our recommended approach.
In order to give yourself the best chance of performing the function in a manner that is both efficient and effective you really need to stop thinking about an IT system and start thinking in terms of business activities or, even better, services.
Guidance on improving organisational efficiency will encourage you to think in terms of services changes the dialogue between IT specialists and other stakeholders. In particular our enterprise architecture guide looks at how enterprise architecture is being used as a strategic tool to align organisational vision and goals with the business processes and systems that support the organisation.
One away to approach your requirements definition is to think in terms of a pyramid with: strategy at the top – why you are doing something; tactics in the middle – what you are doing; and operations at the bottom – how you are doing it.
It is always worth starting by reviewing the strategy. If you can’t answer the question “why do you want to do this?” the project is already in trouble. We recommend taking a customer focused approach to answering this question. Consider “how does this help our relationship with the customer?” In most cases the customer will be the student.
If you either can’t identify the customer or can’t see how your project fits into the customer relationship maybe you need to rethink your objectives.
Next you can turn your attention to what it is that you need to do. Again you should start by looking at this in broad and simple terms. If you find yourself already embroiled in a huge amount of detail you are pitching your thoughts at the wrong level.
There are three components to any business process:
Having answered the question “why are you doing this?” you need to consider “what do you need the process to achieve?” ie, what are the outputs?
It all sounds straightforward but you may find, particularly where you are working with end users, that you ask either of these questions and the answer they give is, once again, to explain exactly what they do at the moment. They can easily confuse ‘what is‘ and ‘what should be‘. It is often useful to involve an outsider in these discussions to bring in greater objectivity.
Eventually you will get down to the detail of what data you need to collect and what kind of transformations you need to undertake to achieve the required outputs. You will probably need to undertake some form of process mapping and process analysis to aid you in setting out the requirements. We cover these topics in greater detail in the process improvement guide.
Having mapped your existing processes you may wish to apply some analytical tools to help you identify issues and problems that could be rectified when you implement a new system. It should be stressed that the sort of analysis we are talking about here is process analysis not IT system design but it can help you to identify the sorts of facilities you want to look for in a new system.
We advise leaving detailed process redesign until you have purchased your IT system and are working on implementation otherwise you could waste a lot of effort. Understanding the issues with your current processes however can only help you at this stage.