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Putting the "soft" in Balanced Scoredcard Software Selection

When it comes to advice about choosing Balanced Scorecard software, most writers and practitioners tend to focus their examination on an organization’s perceived technical requirements, spending pages outlining what the prudent investor should look for in the way of analytics, compatibility with other systems, drill-down capabilities, and dozens of other intricate considerations. No one will dispute the importance of a robust technical environment, and, in fact many software vendors rely almost exclusively on their product’s technological functionality to win over new clients. But is a technologically advanced solution really what you need from a Scorecard software solution?

Sadly, while many software implementations excel from a technical standpoint they ultimately fail where they matter most: allowing leaders to navigate their chosen strategic path, providing insights to make better business decisions, and energizing the overall strategy execution imperative.

In this article, as the title implies, I’m going to take you beyond the bits and bytes of the application decision and provide you with three simple questions that reside squarely on the softer side of software selection. But make no mistake, while the questions may arouse jeers from pocket-protector wearing techies, or double-talk from overzealous salespeople, they are fundamental in nature, and vital to the success of Scorecard automation.

Question One: Who’s Running the Show – Business or IT?

You’re investing in a Scorecard software tool to act as an enabler – an enabler of strategic communication across your enterprise, an enabler of swifter decisions, and most importantly an enabler of better performance resulting from the availability of timely and accurate information on the success of your strategy. To utilize any Scorecard automation tool effectively, you, the business user, must be in control.

Over time you will gather insights that reveal whether or not your chosen strategy is leading to improved business performance and financial success. As this information accumulates, it’s crucial that users have the knowledge, skills, and ability to manipulate the information residing in the Scorecard software in a meaningful way in order to extract its maximum value. If every chart popping up on a screen produces blurred vision and necessitates having the CIO on speed dial, you’re in trouble. Anyone with a vested interest in the organization’s success, and that means every single employee from the C-Suite to the shop floor, should be able to easily maneuver within the software, turning that most elusive and valuable of intangible assets – information - into real value.

A crucial consideration is whether business users, who in the face of new information may be forced to make course corrections to the organization’s strategy, are able to reflect those changes in the software itself. The purpose of a software tool is to assist you in telling your strategic story, clearly outlining the path to success. Strategy by its very nature is about change, and if you’re forced to rely on a team from IT to update the software every time a change in strategy is necessary, you’re not in control. What’s worse, that loss of control could equate to failure in the marketplace as you wait for IT to update the very tool you’re relying on to provide real time information that will ensure you stay ahead of your rivals.

When forces dictate that a change in strategy is necessary - and in today’s turbulent environment those forces seem ever present - the business user must possess the ability to easily model changes to key Scorecard elements such as objective, measures, and targets, easily and effectively. Only then will you be able to gain the advantage a software solution holds.

Question Two: Will the Vendor Model your Scorecard at No Charge?

This question falls under the umbrella notion, and potentially frightening concept, of ‘total cost of ownership.’ All software solutions require an up-front implementation from the vendor that includes: configuring the model, establishing bridges to data, registering users, etc. The cost of this implementation can sometimes be several times greater than the cost of the software itself, thereby padding the profits of the vendor and causing you to avoid your CFO like the swine flu.

During the sales process you can be certain your software suitors will be assuring you the implementation process will be the technological equivalent of changing a light bulb – quick, easy, and effective. As in all things, however, actions speak louder than words and you need assurances the actual implementation will not be time-consuming or more expensive than you originally anticipated. Challenge the vendors by asking them to model your Balanced Scorecard in their tool at no cost. If their implementation process truly is straightforward they should jump at the chance to showcase their efficiency in meeting your needs. Any hesitation on their part could signal a bigger price tag down the road for you.

Question Three – Check References Carefully

When you ask for client references, chances are the software vendors will swiftly provide you with a list of organizations at which they’ve recently performed installations. The key word there is recently. Put yourself in the shoes of a company that has just implemented a Scorecard software solution. They undoubtedly performed extensive due diligence, and after considerable deliberation chose a product they felt could best meet their needs. And of course, along the way the process entailed significant investments in both human and financial capital. Now their vendor comes calling and asks them to serve as a reference for another potential client. At this point they probably have very little actual experience using the tool and have yet to glean significant benefits from it, but the protective veneer of recency ensures there is a very low probability of them admitting to a poor choice, even if initial indications aren’t entirely positive.
To counteract the phenomenon above, as your software vendors are giddily handing over their list of sterling references, I’d suggest you also request information about implementations that didn’t go as planned and ask to speak directly with those clients. What are the common elements of their discontent: price, service, functionality?

Should potential vendors gloss over the request to speak with dissatisfied customers, imploring you that no such injured parties exist, there is a back door through which to conduct your sleuthing. Go to the Waybackmachine at  www.archive.org. Here you can search historical versions of websites, going back many years in some cases. Go back a few years for each of your potential vendors and look at their client references, then ask if those clients are still references. The answers, one way or the other, will be revealing.

Buyer Beware

It’s easy to be dazzled by technological bells and whistles when software vendors demonstrate their product’s wizardry. As science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke once commented, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” But functionality is just a single component of what is arguably one of the most important decisions you’ll make during your Balanced Scorecard journey. Asking the simple questions outlined in this article will allow you to pull back the curtain of magic and make a software decision that will ensure you stay on the path of strategy execution for years to come.

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