When purchasing a new PC, printer, software or a completely new system it is your responsibility to receive confirmation that your requirements have been met. The purchase of new technology will at best involve you in many hours of demonstrations, telephone calls and negotiation. At worst, you will risk losing £000's while compromising the success of your business and seriously affecting the morale of your workforce.

This is not to say that suppliers are intent on damaging your business. On the contrary, every IT supplier can provide a system that will contain high levels of functionality. For some intermediaries (personal, commercial, life etc), the system will be a perfect match – for others, it will fail by some distance to meet their individual needs. However, business is business and suppliers are hardly likely to outline the reasons why you should not purchase their system and will quite reasonably focus on their particular strengths.

The challenge before you is to establish a method of filtering through the products offered to you in order to arrive at the system which matches your needs in relation to the budget allocated to it. Creating a formal specification of requirements will assist you in this challenge and provide a method of avoiding suppliers that are big on promise but small on delivery.

Why specify requirements?

In addition to the above points, the specification of requirements will:
- Enable you to think through what you require and how your purchase will be integrated in to your business
- Provide or seek confirmation of what the new product will do – therefore enabling your supplier to supply the correct product
- Result in obtaining a fixed price for providing the full solution – rather than having to purchase subsequent add-ons that were demonstrated but not included as standard.

The document also serves as a useful reference point for discussions with staff and the ultimate decision-makers.

Evaluation of your requirements
Be sure to specify your requirements appropriately. "You get what you pay for" is a handy reminder in this respect and so the more functional points included in a document will increase the likely purchase price. If some elements are "nice to have" but not essential include them in a separate section.

A specification of requirements
In drafting your document, you will need to consider the following sections:

Purpose: Explain why you need the product and what it is required to do.

Integration: What level of integration is required? For example, will new software be on a stand-alone basis or does it need to be integrated into the current administration system via a network?

Functional elements: This will be the core section of your document and you should therefore be clear how the system should operate and the business flows it will need to cater for.

In terms of software, include diagrams of your preferred screen layouts. These can then provide a basis for specifying your requirements. For example,
- The maximum number of key strokes/mouse clicks to achieve actions
- The range of activities required at each level – create transactions, accept payments, issue letters etc
- Presentation of information – do you want outstanding accounts, diary entries and contact details on the same page?
- Security – will certain areas require password protection?

Whilst defining the functional elements you are also stating the inherent usability of the system. Usability is the concept of designing a system (hardware or software) that allows users to easily (and quickly) achieve what they set out to do. It should be accommodating for new users but flexible enough to provide short cuts for the more experienced operator.

In addition to these points, a system should also generate a sense of enjoyment in its use that encourages greater learning of its additional capabilities. To obtain further information on this concept, access the internet and conduct a search on "usability." For those of you who don't have access to the internet contact me at the address below and I will be delighted to forward general information for you.

Performance: How will you quantify the required level of performance? Subject to your type of business, you may express this as "Quotations within ten seconds and record retrieval within five seconds." Performance specification will also cover the level of capacity such as storage of 5,000 client records or 10,000 policies. Having included speed and capacity expand your requirements to include precision - this will certainly apply to quotations systems (guaranteed rates) and the quality of ink jet or laser printers.

Operational requirements: An area often overlooked is the requirement for location, cabling and a request for additional information that may affect the installation of new equipment. This may be something as simple as a new network card or important enough to require completely new cabling and a separate electricity supply.

Other: Include the "nice to have" elements in this section. More importantly, however, is the need to incorporate requests for information on the level of maintenance, confirmation of compliance (Y2K, PIA, EMU etc) and the potential for expansion of the system.

Quality assurance
Before posting your completed document to your preferred suppliers pass it through a critical vetting process that addresses the following points.
- Ambiguity – avoid "woolly" phrases such as should, could, perhaps and fast.
- Completeness – have all functions, limitations, capacity and integration requirements been covered to an appropriate level?
- Verification – have you included a method of measuring the accuracy, precision and capacity of your requirements?
- Consistency – ensure that requirements do not contradict one another.

The requirements document will be the start of your purchasing process and will provide you with the confidence to make an informed decision on your final investment. However, during your negotiation process retain an open mind regarding the suggestions of your suppliers - perhaps there is a different method of achieving your requirements? On receiving quotations go ahead and test their solution by contacting reference sites, receiving additional demonstrations or speaking to your local user group chairman (if appropriate).

This article marks the conclusion in the series regarding IT strategy that covered the establishment of your mission through to implementing changes via action plans. These form a set of practical tools to use at any stage of your business development but if you require assistance in planning for your future training and IT, requirements contact me at the address below.

- Ian Danby is an independent IT consultant with 15 years industry experience. You can contact Ian on 01905 20577 or e-mail iandanby@globalbusiness.freeserve.co.uk .

Alternatively, post any requests for information to Global Business Solutions, 8 Watchetts Green, Worcester, WR4 0RT.