Sunday, August 15, 2010

Database Options: Packages, Bespoke and Generic CRM (part 2)

If your organisation believes that you have a unique requirement which means you have to develop a bespoke database then this blog post challenges you to consider if this really is the case. In the first part of this post, I detailed my beliefs on the pros and cons of packages vs bespoke systems vs “Hybrid CRM” solutions. And in this second post, I lay out a process which you can use and consider if you do believe you have a unique requirement.

Find out if your requirement is really unique
First of all, you need to find out if what you think is a unique requirement really has not been addressed by other charities using alternative systems or methods. I realise this can be hard to do so here are a few ideas:
  • Talk to other charities like yourselves - or even not like yourselves - but who you know went through a similar exercise
  • Talk to database suppliers and consultants (email me! I’m happy to help if I can) and ask their opinions. Database suppliers in particular will probably be delighted to speak to you about what they could do to help.
  • Look at not-for-profit technology resource web sites for leads and different approaches: itforcharities, TechSoup, LASA's NFP Suppliers Directory, VolResource
  • Visit trade shows
  • Post questions on web-site forums and email discussion lists
  • Ask your employees of their experience at previous charities
  • And, of course, search and browse the web
If you find your requirement is partially unique…
If this is not an oxymoron, just how unique is your requirement? Is it just different data you need to record? A handful of additional fields? One extra entity? Partially different functions? A different process?

If you find this is the case then consider the following options:
  • Consider using an existing package but with customisation. Consider if a database package can help, even if it means customising/bespoking it and/or if it means almost meeting your requirements (see below).
  • Consider using functionality which wasn’t initially made for your requirement – although this does come with a caveat: don’t wander too far from the original aim of the software or future developments in that package may not support you.
  • Try changing your processes. Packages are often designed so that they work best with processes which work in a particular way. Ask yourself if your processes are really the only way you could do things, or could you fit them around a package’s approach?So how can you find out if a database package can do this for you? As above, get the package suppliers into your office and ask them – there’s nothing they like better than the thought of a few extra pounds/dollars for doing such work…
In fact, some database packages are pretty good even for bespoke work. Blackbaud’s Raiser’s Edge has its API module, Care from IRIS has offered web services and bespoke/customisation for years, ASI Europe have just announced new web services for their system, and Ciber UK provide Ascent which is good for customisation. And ESIT has taken ThankQ, essentially, historically a fundraising/membership package, and done some great bespoke customisations on functionality on all sorts of areas outside that; very impressive. Even at the lower end of the market (cost-wise) Redbourn have offered additional work on Advantage Fundraiser. Please do note all these are just examples and other database suppliers might also provide similar approaches.

Often, package suppliers are very happy to offer bespoke/customisation work which can form a new module for their system, so although it may start as bespoke work, it will be offered to more charities later and thus become part of their standard system. Quite a common path for many suppliers. Maybe you could even share the development cost with other organisations and/or with the developer? ITSorted and Centrepoint Computer Services are just two examples of companies who have used this approach.

“Hybrid CRM” Solutions
One of the most exciting, new options of recent years for organisations with some unique requirements are to use one of the CRM solutions such as Microsoft CRM, SalesForce, CiviCRM, Pivotal, ODM from Gallery Partnership and so on.

As discussed in the previous post, they are designed to be used across a range of industries. SalesForce’ AppExchange has proven extremely popular and Microsoft now has a similar offering and has approached its future releases with XRM (the idea that you can extend CRM significantly beyond its original goal) as one of its core ideas.

How important is technology?
I do appreciate that one issue for many organisations is that web access can offer so much benefit for integration, roll-out, remote access, home users etc that the technology platform can be extremely important. Unfortunately, some web applications are not as functionally rich as Windows packages. So if you can find a Windows package option but not a web-based solution, but that technology is key for you, then at the end of the day it will come down to business benefits. Would you gain more from having a Windows package and possibly running it across Citrix/Terminal Services, or would a web application with slightly less functionality be better for you?

If it’s really unique after all…
But if you really do find you have a unique requirement, then try asking the following: How much does it really matter? What would the impact be if you couldn’t have such a function? Or only partially have it? Is it a nice-to-have feature or really business critical? Is it for fundraising or service delivery - i.e. who does it affect – you or your clients?

Could you use a package for 80% (90% etc) of your requirements and accept that you can’t do everything perfectly for your final 20%? Does only that final 20% (10% etc) need to be managed elsewhere in other ways? Could the package still help with 50% of your unique requirements (e.g. recording contact information and contact made with those contacts but maybe not a specific issue aside from that) and could you do the other 50% on another system.

At the end of the day…
Of course, at the end of the day it is entirely feasible that you have a unique requirement and will decide that your best approach is to develop a bespoke system, in which case, go for it. But I hope that by considering the package options first you can thus rule them out and have a true business case for your development project.

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