Choosing a business information system Featured

9:51am EDT July 22, 2002

Business information systems are a bit like the weather. We hear and talk a lot about them. They have a tremendous — sometimes defining — impact on our businesses and daily life. Yet getting a handle on them and understanding how to select and implement the best system for a business can be an arduous task.

At its core, every business information decision must be guided by a comprehensive strategy. That ensures compliance with existing needs and guards against unreasonable obsolescence — which occurs far too often. Here are some guidelines for selecting the right system for your company.

Filling needs

Today’s business information systems must go beyond more complex and sophisticated analytical and reporting capabilities. They must also operate faster and in real-time. Accuracy is a given. So consider three key characteristics that all systems must achieve: specificity, flexibility and safeguards.

Specificity relates to solving the functions performed and required by an organization. When we work with a business, we will first develop an “as-is” model, which charts the existing functions such as how cash is handled, purchasing, invoicing, intrafirm materials ordering and so on.

This model is developed, in part, through group interviews, which encourages employees to report mistakes and problems with the existing system, while warding off fears of criticizing the company. Next, develop an RFI, or Request For Information, from business information systems vendors. Proposed systems should demonstrate actual tasks, not generic or theoretical situations.

Flexibility. Each person in an organization must be able to access the information needed to complete their tasks, while assuring security access to critical and confidential data. Furthermore, the capabilities of any system must be matched by the capabilities and comfort level of people using the system.

Safeguards. As businesses put more valuable information online to interface with vendors or allow access by a sales force or staff at diverse physical locations, security becomes paramount. Proprietary information that directly relates to a company’s competitive advantage in the marketplace is of particular concern.

Completing the business circle

Take a two-step approach when implementing a new business information system.

First, the new system is implemented, but without changing modification or program customization. This rapid deployment approach allows for correction of errors or bottlenecks that have made the system necessary in the first place. Once everyone is comfortable and capable with the system, bring enhanced or additional capabilities online.

Business owners and executives must view the modern information system as a sophisticated instrument of business strategy, not merely a tool. As a result, with respect to selection and implementation, the business information system should meet these six criteria:

  • Have the endorsement and active involvement of management;

  • Be headed by a project manager, an authority distinct from the MIS manager or department;

  • Be cross-functional, with input from users in all function areas;

  • Be designed to satisfy both existing and reasonably expected future needs;

  • Receive appropriate training support;

  • Be bottom line oriented.

In this way, businesses can be prepared to direct their fortunes, rather than be buffeted by competitive winds. Jacalyn S. Goforth, a PriceWaterhouseCoopers partner, is the leader of the Middle Market Advisory Services Group in Detroit. Robert S. Putrus, P.E., CMC is a senior manager at PriceWaterhouseCoopers, specializing in business information systems. For more information, call (313) 446-7106.