5 Basic Questions for Better Technology Choices

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The last two years have caused a significant amount of soul-searching within school operations as we attempted to get in front of and then ultimately respond to the pandemic. One of the most frequent concerns was whether our existing information technology and operational technology would allow us to respond quickly enough to the changing nature of everything associated with  our virus response. The frustrations associated with using old tools in new ways coupled with the waterfall of federal money is causing many school leaders to reconsider a broad range of technology products in their operations. 

Our concern at CESO is that an almost equally significant pile of money is going to be wasted on technology that is not well suited, not well implemented, and or not well used. The bright lights and sizzle of features and functionality shown during demonstrations has the potential to blind users from establishing a structured and rigorous process for selecting the right technology for now and the future. Our purpose here is to offer a roadmap for setting forth on the journey into the marketplace.

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Selecting the best option for your organization requires you to be clear about why you are buying, what you are buying, and how you will integrate it into your operation. While addressing all of those concerns is a topic for other days, CESO Consulting believes that slowing down and addressing Five Basic Questions about why you are considering a new technology purchase makes it far more likely that in the end you will get what you want and what you need. Our experience suggests these Five Basic Questions are relevant whether you are a finance director, operations manager, transportation director, fleet manager, technology director, or facilities director.

 

Our 5 Basic Questions are:

Most of the time the answer to this question is “Our current product does not work.” While this is certainly a problem, it is more than likely not the problem you have to solve. More considered problem statements are:

  • Our teachers and staff need to be able to communicate effectively while remote so we are looking at a cloud based phone system that seamlessly extends their experience to any remote location with internet access or any internet connected mobile device. 
  • We have a need to better manage preventive maintenance for our HVAC systems so we want to purchase a CMMS.
  • We don’t have a strong understanding of employee recruiting and our success or failure rates and reasons so we want to purchase an applicant tracking system.
  • We want to start high schools later but don’t know the impact on transportation costs so we want to purchase routing software.
  • Our cyber insurance policy requirements have changed so we need to purchase a tool to help us manage MFA across the enterprise. 

These problem statements provide really important guidance for both the specification development and product search process. Also of particular note, they are brand agnostic. This agnosticism lets us define what we want and need rather than who we are comparing products to in the absence of a well-defined set of requirements.

As a side note, the current software “not working” is much more likely a problem of poor setup, poor implementation, or poor integration than it is an outright failure of the product. As a result, it is critical to revisit the core rationale for purchasing a product to determine whether we need to replace the system or reimplement what we have. Clearly defining the data needs, the business process needs, the reporting needs, and the integration expectations is a must if you are going to truly find a tool that helps you solve the problems you face. Doing this before you go out and purchase a product is ideal, but even an ex-post assessment of the problems you are trying to solve will provide strong guidance in the replace or reimplement decision-making process.

At least as important as knowing what you are trying to fix is what you might break if you buy or replace a product. While we may hate to admit it, organizations often build process and procedure around the capabilities of their technology, rather than vice versa. This can have an insidious impact on any desired or actual product transition because it is hard to separate the process from the product. Developing a process registry, specifying how the product you are thinking about changing impacts each process, assessing the severity of the impact of the change, and determining how hard it would be and how long it would take to change the process is an effective way to ensure you don’t create more problems than you fix.

We often become so enamored with our new product options that we forget how tightly and deeply integrated our old product is within our operation and our organization. One of the hallmarks of a CESO Consulting project is a structured, thorough, and documented risk assessment. We know that having a process that defines what data and systems each product connects to is critical to ensuring that we have well defined specifications and clearly articulated integration needs, because among the worst things we can do is take down other organizations’ processes because we switched out our systems.

Let’s be honest, support operations are rarely first in line for support. Outside of payroll and human resources, most support operations fend for themselves and rely on vendors for things outside of connectivity to the network and passwords (and some of that is even going away as the SaaS model takes hold in more products). What this will mean for any new purchase and the retention of any existing system is that more emphasis must be placed on defining and assessing a company’s support infrastructure. CESO Consulting can help you create a due diligence process that allows you to fully understand the scope, capabilities, and processes associated with seeking and actually receiving support. We believe it is much better to define and analyze this increasingly critical concern at the beginning of the purchasing process rather than after you are already frustrated by bad service following a purchase.

Recognizing we might only get one bite at this technology apple requires us to be extremely focused on the generational nature of the tools and technologies we purchase. This reality means we don’t have a lot of room for failure. Consequently, when specifying and selecting a product we need to be very focused on both our present and future organizations. As a result, we should be defining sustainability by thinking:

  • How long do we think we will be using this system? (Remember the computers used to process some taxpayer data are 50+ years old!!)
  • Will this system scale if we get bigger? What if we get smaller?
  • Can the system adapt to and adopt new technologies that we are likely to use?
  • Can the system be supported (both functionality and technically) over the life of our use?

Technology will be a critical element in transitioning school operations to our post-COVID future. However, no technology is a substitute for clearly defined purpose or for purposeful thinking. If you want to make better technology choices for your organization, contact CESO Consulting and let us help you work through our Five Basic Questions.