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Technology at Your Fingertips
Chapter 1: Knowing What to Do

Chapter 2: Knowing What You Need

What is a Needs Assesment?

Who Should Do Your Needs Assessment?

Who Should Participate in the Needs Assessment Process?

What are the Steps in the Needs Assessment Process?

Functional Needs

Technical Requirements

Security and Ethical Standards

Writing Your Statement of Needs

What Should Be Included in a Set of Functional Specifications?

Chapter 3: Knowing What You Have

Chapter 4: Knowing What to Get

Chapter 5: Knowing How to Implement Your Solution

Chapter 6: Knowing How to Train Users

Chapter 7: Knowing How to Support and Maintain Your Technology Solution
Chapter 2:  Knowing What You Need

Functional specifications contain a description of the technical capabilities your technology solution should have.

What Should Be Included in a Set of Functional Specifications?
Up to now, your task has been to describe the needs of your organization that might be addressed by technology. Everyone knows that technology generally means computers. However, there are many components that make up a computer system, and you may not know what all those components are. (In the next chapter, you will learn about computer and networking technology components.) So the discussion, thus far, has focused on a "technology solution," rather than a computer system, that will meet your needs.

Even if you are not thoroughly knowledgeable about computer and networking technology, you may know enough to begin considering how to address your organization's needs through the use of computer systems, including the reengineering of some existing procedures. If so, you will find it worthwhile to follow up the Needs Statement document with a Functional Specifications document. A Functional Specifications document states in detail what exactly an upgraded (or new) computer system should be expected to do (rather than what your organization should be able to do).

Consider this analogy. You're shopping for a new car, but you first create a check list of your needs. Your investment must be able to:

  • Carry your family of four (and perhaps occasionally a fifth person).
  • Keep the four of you (and your luggage) comfortable on day long trips.
  • Handle smoothly on rough or unpaved roads.
  • Keep up with freeway traffic.
  • Get reasonable gas mileage.
  • Retain its value after four years of ownership.
  • Be easily serviced.
  • Etc.
With a list such as this, you are ready to visit some showrooms and locate some reasonable cars to purchase. (With cars, unlike computer systems, building your own is rarely an option worth considering.) Without such a list as above you're more apt to flounder, and end up with a vehicle that doesn't meet your needs.

The Functional Specifications document plays the same role (as the list of car characteristics) in specifying what capabilities the computer system must have. You don't care how such a system works internally; you do care what services it delivers to those who will use and maintain it.

There are many different views on what should go into a set of Functional Specifications. Consultants and product vendors tend to recommend their favorite or proprietary methods of data or process modeling, function charts, and other items that most non-technical decision makers find very difficult to understand. The best rule of thumb is to view the Functional Specifications as a concise description of a new computer system's capabilities, which can then be compared to what can be bought from a commercial vendor or built by developers.

When developing a Functional Specification, determine whether it makes sense to include details related to your current computer system, the information in the system, and processes the system performs. Even though the current system may do some things fairly well, there may be better ways to do the same functions, or there may be ways to combine functions to improve efficiency.

This is a place where you may need to work with someone with technical expertise to help you think through these more technical specifications. It is probably wise to give some thought to your technical requirements now, rather than to expect a vendor or consulting firm to cover all these areas in their response to your bidding and/or purchasing process. Be sure to have a vendor respond to your specific technical and functional requirements. Don't accept a proprietary solution developed by a vendor in response to the needs they perceive you will have.

Figure 2.3 contains a suggested outline for a Functional Specifications document. This document is organized somewhat like the Needs Statement, but it is concerned more with the characteristics of a system itself than with the requirements it would meet. Include all the information that you feel comfortable with; but don't feel like you must include everything.

While the terminology in the sample Functional Specifications document may look technical, it is just a listing of the information your system has to address, the functions you need your system to perform, and performance specifics on how much, how fast, and how many users need to use the system. Here is a description of the types of items that might go into a set of Functional Specifications. Section 1 just provides an overview and introduction to the functional specifications, hence the descriptions start with Section 2 - System Contents.

Section 2 - System Contents
This section could include a description of the types and amount of information the system is expected to maintain. In addition, it can address the connections among different types of information. Section 2.2 might describe the types of files, programs, and materials that will be used specifically for the purpose of instruction. Examples relating to various subjects would be helpful. For instance, English classes may need to have online access to reference materials, tutorial programs, enrichment materials, and teacher guidelines, as well as the use of word processing programs and the storage of "portfolios" of student work.

Section 3 - System Functions
In this section you could list specific functions you want your system to be able to do (or your staff to be able to do using the system). These functions could fall under the following categories: System Storage and Retrieval Capabilities, Calculation and Processing Capabilities, Reporting and Output Capabilities, and Telecommunications Capabilities. For example, you might want each of your classrooms to have access to a central repository of information resources such as encyclopedias and dictionaries.

Section 4 - Access and Capacity
This section contains some of the specifics that must be considered when selecting a solution for your particular situation. Some of these include:

  • Desired hours of operation.
  • Security requirements.
  • Backup frequency.
  • Disaster recovery.
Also to be considered is the capacity of the system in terms of the number of potential users, the number of users who can use the system simultaneously, and the amount of information that can be stored.

For security purposes, your software and network specifications must allow you to restrict who has access to the system, who has access to specific programs, and even access to data elements within programs. You need to have software that will search and report viruses and vandals to you. You will also need backup and recovery tools, which will help with security as well as other disasters. It is at this point that the technology committee should meet with the people in the organization who are already providing these services. Whether it is the college registrar's office or the school district, county, or state department of education, many of these questions might already have been answered. Remember the Wheel! It does not need to be reinvented?

Section 5 - Interfaces
This section should specify, to the extent possible, which other networks you must be able to communicate with, and what information you must exchange with them. For instance, you will want to specify whether all computers within the system must have access to the Internet or some other network, and what types of information you will transfer across the network (e.g., student transcripts, shared participation in online instructional programs). In addition, you may want to specify that you will allow parents to communicate via electronic mail with teachers and administrators. Another type of interface you might consider is with local, state and federal education agencies for the exchange of routine data.

Beginning with Chapter 3, you will learn more about the technical components of computer systems and functions. The information in Chapter 3 will help you prepare your Functional Specifications document.

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