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February 1, 2006
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Look for vendors with sufficient tools and practices to ensure a successful software implementation

The responsibility for software project implementation often resides with an organization's operations or information technology management areas. This is not only true in behavioral health and substance abuse organizations but across other sectors, as well. For example, the Project Management Institute ( has formed numerous special interest groups by sector (such as education, government, aerospace, etc.), illustrating the broad reach of project management processes through a variety of businesses.

In the larger context, successful, forward-thinking IT departments realize a project implementation affects not just IT but the entire organization. The impact is typically felt in many processes, procedures, and departments’ daily work. Therefore, it's important that you select a software vendor that views project implementation (and management) as an essential element of the software purchase or upgrade, not simply as an “add-on.” Choosing a vendor that does not have sufficient resources to successfully implement your software purchase can lead to frustration, costly delays, and perhaps implementation failure.

The discussion of the implementation process actually should begin early in the software-sales cycle and be an important factor in your purchase decision. Your vendor's account representative should take the lead in building a realistic picture of the implementation's scope and costs, resulting in a comprehensive project plan. Below are some specific tools a vendor should be using to manage the implementation process; find out before the purchase if your preferred vendors are familiar with and use them.

Work Breakdown Structure

Ask potential vendors if their implementations employ a work breakdown structure (WBS). The WBS is a deliverable-oriented grouping of project elements that organizes and defines the total work scope of the project. Each descending level represents an increasingly detailed definition of the project work.

The WBS is a good tool for developing accurate project cost estimates, from the bottom up, based on each of the implementation tasks. The more detailed the WBS, the more accurate the estimate. A WBS task could be as simple as a ten-day conversion process, or it could be more detailed, identifying all the deliverables required for installation or conversion. In the WBS, each category could include subcategories and additional details, such as:

  • Build extraction processes, two days

  • Submit brief conversion test, one day

  • Review brief file, one day

  • Refine extraction, one day

  • Submit full test file, two days

  • Review full test file, one day

  • Approve test file, two days

Developing an accurate, deliverables-oriented WBS involves pulling a starting point from one of several templates the vendor has created from work on past projects and determining whether it is optimal to phase in each implementation component concurrently or sequentially. Your vendor's project management team and business and system analysts can build out the WBS on a progressive basis until a realistic picture of the project emerges. A detailed WBS can be helpful when assigning staff's project roles and responsibilities. For example, the WBS can be used to calculate the amount of your staff's time needed versus what your vendor will provide.

Statement of Work

Also ask potential vendors if they use a statement of work (SOW), a narrative description of products or services to be supplied under the contract, based on the WBS. For example, if the WBS deliverable is conversion, the related SOW line item could identify exactly what would be converted and each person's responsibilities. Providing the SOW to match to the WBS clearly shows you each of the expected deliverables and starts to match the project plan to the contract.

Enterprise Project Management

The Project Management Institute considers it critical to the success of any large project to have a comprehensive project plan that encompasses more than a WBS. Ask prospective software vendors if they use enterprise project management (EPM). To achieve strategic alignment, businesses are increasingly managing their activities and processes as projects—proj-ectizing” their business to monitor performance more closely. This effort requires an enterprise view into all projects, thus the use of EPM.

EPM can help ensure that the implementation process stays in sync with vendor capabilities and customer requirements. Some software vendors use Microsoft Project Server or similar programs to set up and track progress on all active implementation projects, and to forecast resources needed for all active and proposed projects. If a vendor can't manage its resources effectively, your project could be sidelined for a long time and face unacceptable delays.

A software provider can incorporate each key area of its operation (development, project management, business analysis, training, etc.) into an EPM system, enabling it to effectively align projects with available resources and automate project management activities. EPM data repositories can be used for all components for the project plan—the WBS, communication plans, change-control documentation, risk plans, issue logs, lessons learned, etc. These tools significantly improve team collaboration and, through standardized templates and processes created by a vendor's project management office, provide true corporate visibility and memory into each project.