Optimizing HR Software Demonstrations

By James Michael Brodie Apr 1, 2006
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HR Magazine, April 2006 How you manage vendor demonstrations can improve HR software selection.

You're in charge of overseeing the selection process for a new HR software system for your organization. It seems like a daunting task since software selection is a complex process with significant long-term consequences. Further complicating your decision is the fact that there may be many HR solutions on the market that can fulfill your business requirements and preferences. Differentiating these products is important and requires a careful approach to ensure that the tool you choose best addresses your business needs.

A vendor demonstration is often the best way to see, and to show others in your organization, what an HR system can do and how it can enhance your business. By actively managing the demonstration itself, you can improve the results of your selection and build organizational support for the system’s implementation.

Before the Demonstration

The work your organization does in the early phase of the selection process will be of benefit during the demonstration, says Elaine Orler, a principal consultant with the Newman Group, a recruiting and talent management firm in Phoenixville, Pa.

Before the demonstration, Orler recommends working through a “discovery” phase that involves gathering systems information, identifying business needs, prioritizing system requirements and framing a technical solution.

This early work also involves choosing a project team to lead the selection process and to take part in the demonstration.

Donna L. Keener, SPHR, director of human resources at Salisbury University in Salisbury, Md., and a member of the Society for Human Resource Management’s Special Expertise Panel on Technology, says that in making up a review team, you should “think about how well you and others charged with the implementation understand your organization, its culture, its ability to accept major change, and, most important, short- and long-term plans.

“If a new system is going to change the way a manager accesses data or performs certain job duties and a representative is excluded from providing input in the process, that could lead to a resistant and less-than-accepting end user when the system goes live.”

Heide Dolan, practice manager of the time and labor management consulting services division of Wise Consulting Associates, an HR consulting firm based in Baltimore, says the review team should include a broad spectrum of shareholders: “Any vested part of the organization should be represented. However, it is important that participants have knowledge of the organization’s defined system requirements before the demo participation.”

Minding the Gaps

To establish specific criteria that your team will want to see highlighted during the demonstration, it is important to know your current system’s shortcomings. Identify areas of process and functional weakness, and plan for a demonstration that will show how the vendor’s system responds to these issues.

It is also important to consider the future needs of your organization and incorporate scenarios into the demo that will give you a sense of whether the new system can easily adapt to organizational changes. During the demonstration, spend time reviewing features that allow your organization to understand how the system would serve your unique business functions and adapt to your workplace environment, says Dolan.

“Walking through the entire processing cycle, including how managers view and approve entries, how exceptions are handled, and how data would be imported, can give demonstration participants a feel for how the product would fit in with their business environment,” she says.

Be sure to allow enough time to adequately evaluate each product. For a comprehensive HR system, that might mean spending two days per vendor to work through the key processes and to involve a variety of HR process specialists and end users, says Paul Hamerman, vice president of enterprise applications at Forrester Research, a business and technology firm based in Cambridge, Mass.

Making a List

Although your organization may be eager to see what products are out there, and what their capabilities are, it is best to hold off on scheduling demonstrations until after system requirements have been fully communicated to potential vendors and vendors have had a chance to respond to them.

“There is no sense in seeking out a demo of an HR system that cannot meet the needs of the organization,” says Keener.

Dolan says pre-screening vendors enables organizations to weed out vendors that cannot meet identified needs, saving time and frustration during the demonstration process.

“Only those vendors that have adequately responded to an organization’s request for information should be invited to participate in the demonstration process,” says Dolan. “If an organization has done a good job of succinctly defining its needs and priorities, a short list of vendors should be sufficient.”

Keener suggests scheduling demonstrations with at least three vendors. If during an initial fit-gap analysis—which compares the system’s functions with the company’s specific technical requirements—you find that more vendors appear to meet your business needs, up to five or six is acceptable, experts say.

Get Scripted

Setting the agenda for your product demonstration may require preparing a script specifically tailored to your organization. Unlike a standard script prepared by the vendor, a customized script enables you to focus on your organization’s most critical needs.

In preparing your script, Dolan says, it helps to frame your organization’s anticipated goals by stating your:

  • Business problem.
  • Objectives.
  • Current HR systems issues.
  • Options and alternatives.
  • Organizations goals.
“A script allows the organization to view features most critical to its environment and aids the team when comparing product capabilities,” she says. “A tailored script can help expose strengths and weaknesses in a product by ensuring appropriate amounts of time are spent reviewing required capabilities.”

Hamerman says a tailored script should require the vendor to show how the software handles specific business process scenarios, such as hiring, salary administration or payroll, and says these scenarios should be based on how the company intends to use the system in the future, rather than how it would perform with legacy processes.

Keener recommends that customers develop a comprehensive list of key questions to guide the demonstration. These questions should take into account your organization’s current needs and how you want them met.

“Spending the time and effort up front is necessary,” says Keener. “If not, then expect to see a standard product demonstration that may or may not meet your business needs.”

You also might want to introduce an unscripted surprise or two during the demo to see how the system responds to unanticipated demands, experts say. This is your chance to “kick the tires” and see exactly what the system can do.

After the demonstration, have members of the review team complete surveys to document how the proposed system met each of your organization’s technical and business needs, says Hamerman.

Soliciting feedback from your review team can help ensure that you don’t overlook a major consideration; otherwise, a missed problem could result in additional costs and challenges if the product ultimately fails to meet expectations.

While there are many ways for your project team to assess scores following an initial demonstration, experts suggest using your original review criteria to gauge which product has come the closest to meeting your organization’s needs. The product that comes closest would receive the highest score, and others would be rated in relation to the leader.

Narrowing the Field

If no one product emerges as the clear winner after an initial demonstration, a second demo may be necessary. Large, complex organizations may also want to schedule an additional demonstration to evaluate specific processes or technology that may be impractical to cover in one presentation.

While this demonstration should further differentiate products, it also provides your organization with an opportunity to resolve any concerns that the vendor needs to address before you make your final selection.

“It takes a lot of coordination to pull off a successful demo event,” says Orler, “but, in the end, the vendor can demonstrate its strengths and the review team gains a better understanding of the product’s capabilities, and everyone wins.” 

James Michael Brodie is a freelance writer in Baltimore.

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