Chapter 4: Knowing What to Get|
Select a technology solution that best meets your organization's goals and needs, projected costs and expected benefits.
What kinds of things should you consider?
There are many things you need to consider before making a final decision (or a recommendation to the ultimate decision maker) about the desired technology solution. You know what you want and what you've got, and by now you have seen lots of examples and possibilities. Now you need to weigh these possibilities against your organization's capacity. There are many different labels and buzzwords commonly applied to these types of analyses (build versus buy analysis, feasibility study, alternatives analysis, etc.). Rather than focusing on the jargon, keep in mind these basic questions that must be answered:
Because this phase is so important, you may need some help with these types of questions. If so, you may want to develop a small advisory team consisting of:
Considering Your Software Options (In the Office)
Chances are, your technology solution will include a number of different software products and applications. Some of these software products may work together efficiently because they are part of a suite (such as Microsoft Office Suite, SmartSuite, or Corel Office) or because they have been specifically programmed to take advantage of a particular operating system. Often, however, you will be choosing a set of software packages that do not relate to one another and may need custom programming to make them work together. For instance, you may choose a student information system package, a personnel information system package, and an accounting package from three different companies. If you want to use information from two or more of these packages (such as personnel and payroll), you may have to have special programming done to create an interface among them.
Figure 4.1 lists the key software design options you should consider for each type of software application you need.
Figure 4.2 illustrates that there is a trade-off between the amount of effort needed to implement these types of solutions and the cost of the solution. The trade-off between these components may be vitally important to your organization.
As you can see in the figure, the options are listed in ascending order with regard to the cost your organization would incur, and in descending order with regard to the amount of effort your staff would need to dedicate to implementing and maintaining the technology system. Note, however, that the diagonal line doesn't quite touch the corners of the rectangle, because all alternatives involve a bit of both. Even custom development is likely to involve some additional costs above and beyond the cost of program development such as having to purchase software development tools. On the other hand, completely outsourcing a function still requires some internal effort, if only to negotiate and administer the outsourcing contract.
Many education organizations find that many of their technology needs are handled best by service bureaus or outsourcing agents. If you decide this is the best solution for your needs, you need not limit your search for service bureaus or outsourcing agents to the commercial world. In many parts of the country, there are county and regional education agencies, college/university consortia, and state information management offices that offer technology services to individual institutions or school districts on a cost-recovery basis. Some states have well-developed cooperatives providing information processing to education agencies.
There are several key questions to ask when looking for a service or product that will meet the needs of your organization.
If you opt for a market survey in search of a software product, there are several published compendiums that you could consult, such as those published by DataPro and Auerbach. There are also many sources available on the World Wide Web that can provide copious information on commercially available products, and listservs where you can ask questions of colleagues in other parts of the country. Some of these sources are listed at the end of the book. Finally, with respect to software and software development, you will want to make certain that all applications are "web enabled." That is, the applications should run over the Internet and be viewable over the World Wide Web. While this raises security issues, they can be solved. And with web enabled software, you won't have to worry about the computers or the operating systems that are in use at your remote sites. (Translation: If a school system can't decide on a single operating system, web enabled applications will run on Macs, Windows or, even, Linux machines.)
Doing a Build Versus Buy Analysis
Modifications or additional features may be desired. If you identify a software product that meets most - but not all - of your requirements, you should determine the options, costs, and staffing needs for modifying it to accommodate your remaining needs. If the product still seems to be a viable option, then contact should be made with the software manufacturer to ensure that support will still be provided even after you have modified the product.
Modifications that add or change a software product's functionality are generally feasible. Modifications to improve the speed or other aspects of a product's performance, or to enable it to run on different types of hardware, are usually not feasible. Therefore, you should not attempt to make them. Technical software compatibility and performance problems may reflect fundamental aspects of the product's code (i.e., formulas for operation) that can be changed only with great difficulty and by persons with a thorough knowledge of the program.
While customizing a current software product's features to match an organization's needs can increase the software's usefulness, and may eliminate or postpone the need to replace it with a different software product, the organization must determine that the costs of the modifications can be justified by the anticipated benefits. On a cautionary note, be aware that customizations to any commercial software product may cause your organization's copy of the software to become out of sync with the basic product, so that future releases or updates from the developer may not work with your customized edition.
Once you have answered these basic questions about software products, you still may have to address some additional questions about hardware. In some education organizations, some staff use IBM-compatible computers and software, while other staff use Apples and Macintoshes. Accommodating existing hardware may be more trouble than it is worth if the equipment is outdated or if your organization has computers using different platforms. There are still many glitches encountered when networking different computer platforms, although it is possible if the equipment is not too outdated and there is software available for use on both platforms. You may prefer to accommodate the platform wishes of your various staff members by spending the extra money and effort to develop a system that keeps everyone happy (rather than declaring that everyone must use the same platform). New solutions to networking are being developed every day.
Software for Classrooms
Evaluating Your Human Resources
When your staff is evaluating the resources needed to implement and support hardware or software, be certain that they consider the classroom environment. Since the most important activity of our "business" is the education of students, we must concern ourselves with what happens when a prepared lesson cannot be implemented because the system will not do what is expected of it. Is there staff at the school that can help the teacher? Can the vendor respond immediately?