Buying and commissioning ICT
OK, so you want to buy some ICT. It might be a new PC, a whole new network and server, a website, a database, some technical support or a new strategic plan. Where do you start and how do you make sure you it goes right first time?
1. Decide what you want and then find out what you need
Everything starts with a business case. If you are clear about why you are doing this, what the impact and benefits will be, what the drawbacks will be (perhaps things will be more difficult during a development or changing process), who will be impacted and how they feel about it, you will know what's coming! It's difficult to adequately justify projects in retrospect and much easier to get buy in across the board if you can explain the rationale in simple terms.
2. Work out your budget
You might have £200 pounds to spend or £200,000. Either might be too much or too little but be realistic about what you have and what you might need. You may decide you need to fundraise for additional money. However, if you've been clear from the step above about what you need, you already have a clear funding case to go to the funder (and your trustees) with!
3. Be clear about exactly what you want and use expert help
Telling a supplier you want a website or a database opens a whole can of worms - is it one page or five hundred? Is it to record names and addresses or is a full case management system? Buying a PC is easier - they tend to be fairly standard although you should be wary of buying a higher specification (and paying more!) than you need to.
This is a classic case of using some expert help to define exactly what you want. This might involve bringing in an expert colleague, paying a consultant to support you or even using a volunteer (perhaps from IT4Communities). If you know you need a website, but don't know the first thing about them, you really need to get the support of someone who does.
4. Source your suppliers
There are a limited number of directories including ICT suppliers (not least NCVO Approved Consultants and the supplier lists on LASA's Knowledgebase). Your local infrastructure organisation may also have a supplier list available. These are good places to start. The ICT Hub is currently developing a Suppliers Directory and this will be available in the Summer.
Talk to people and organisations who've done what you're planning to do. They may be able to recommend (and equally importantly, to steer you away from) suppliers.
Don't just pick a name out of the phone book. Decide who and how you might want to work with someone. Bigger charities might prefer a more corporate feel to their supplier. A small community organisation might want a sole trader for that intimate and personal touch. Go with what feels best to you. Good suppliers come in all shapes and sizes.
Choose a small but reasonably sized number of suppliers. You need enough to make it a competition but not too many to turn the selection process into a full time job.
5. Issue an Invitation to Tender (ITT)
The invitation to tender can be the key to commissioning work. The ITT needs to describe what you need (in the technical sense) as well as explaining the purpose of the project and describing your organisations. It should give the supplier a good overview of whether they might want to tender and what they can expect when they do. The better your ITT, the less questions and queries you'll get and you should receive a better standard of proposal.
Use your supplier lists to circulate the ITT. Be ready for more work than you expected, or less interest than you expected.
6. Shortlist and then interview your suppliers
At this stage, you'll have a range of proposals and you need to shortlist. We used a scoring framework and a number of interviewers to review proposals. This gives a clear 'league table' of proposals from which you can interview the top few.
The number of suppliers you interview will depend on the resources you have and your endurance for interviews. Five is a good number and you can normally get a good overview in about an hour. Remember to space out your interviews so you get a break in between (interviewing can be a tiring process, whichever side of the table you're on).
Use experts in the particular field to check out your suppliers. It's difficult to commission a website costing tens of thousands of pounds without having a good strategic AND technical understanding of websites. No one wants to be bamboozled by suppliers, even less so to find that out after the job is done.
You probably won't get everything you want as soon as you want it. You can negotiate on time and on budget. There's no point being too hard line on projects, equally you should remember you're paying the supplier to do a job. Build a relationship, develop trust, meet face to face when you can (perhaps informally - it doesn't have to be across a boardroom). Don't always insist on dragging a supplier to see you - go and see them! Know when you need to be hard and firm and when you can be flexible.
8. Apply sensible project management
Project management can look complicated but it's usually pretty simple. Know what you need to do, when, who with, how, why, what it costs (time and resources), how it fits with everything else you do and keep track of all those important documents and key decisions. Oh, and make sure SOMEONE is in charge (the Project Manager) on a day to day basis.
Project management doesn't need to be full time but an effective project manager is either generally available or can delegate the task to someone who is. A word here about Project Sponsors. A project sponsor is someone who makes the major decisions and takes overall responsibility for the project without having day to day operational charge. This might be a Chief Exec or a trustee. In the smallest projects, you have a sponsor (the Head of the Organisation or a trustee) and a project manager (the person dealing with everything day to day) who might also do all the activity.
9. Create a schedule and stick to it
Easy really but distractions happen. Remember it's not realistic to expect your supplier to have a 24 hour turnaround if you take two weeks to make a yes/no decision.
10. Be realistic about timescales and budgets
Good work costs money. Many projects can be completed with volunteers but the bigger and more complicated the project, the more expensive the resource. Be realistic about what can be achieved with a given budget and timeframe and remember you don't have to do everything at once!
11. Be nice to the ones which didn't make it
Offer feedback to the people who tender for your work - this might only be informal but if you have something to say, say it. Not every client will have the same expectations but it's useful to the suppliers and might even get a better result for you (or someone else) next time.
12. Make it happen
Don't take your eye off the ball. Manage the project and your relationship with the supplier and above all, keep your end of the bargain. That means feeding back when you need to (not three weeks later), paying on time and being flexible to things going wrong.
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