How to Select an ECM Vendor in 9 Steps

By Richard Medina posted 03-14-2013 20:15


This post provides a proven 9-step process for selecting ECM software and implementers. Once you’ve clarified your Current State, defined your Future State, and planned your Roadmap, it’s time to select a solution and vendor. It seems like I’ve done this several hundred times over the last 20 years, so the advice is based on seeing what works (and what doesn’t) over and over again, for many organizations and in many industries. The goal of the solution selection process is not to end up with a chosen “tool” but no real idea about what to do next. The goal is of course to get the best solution -- but also to use the process as the preseason, so you’ll be as effective as possible when the contract is signed and your implementation clock starts running. This is a different approach than most folks take, whether they are buyers or suppliers, but it’s worth the extra preparation and attention to detail.

1. Develop a “medium” list of candidates.

The ECM market has been consolidating for years, so your medium list for products might be pretty lean. It might narrow down to IBM, EMC, OpenText, and Hyland, or Microsoft SharePoint, Alfresco, Box, and a few others, or you might just be consolidating down from the products you have implemented in your organization.

But of course there are several ECM-related technology categories that have not consolidated because they are relatively new or contain specialized subcategories – social media, e-discovery, and information rights management, for instance. In these cases, you could be looking at many candidates.

Even if your set of candidate products is small, you could also be selecting a system integrator (SI) to implement those products, which increases the potential choice of solution providers to hundreds. Note that there’s far more variability in the SI space than in the ECM software space, and the adequacy of each solution depends heavily on the specifics of each proposed team and solution (rather than on the general characteristics of the software, which are relatively invariant). So it’s wise to cast your net wide if you are evaluating SIs in addition to software products. It will be easy to filter out the most appropriate candidates for the next, more in-depth level of evaluation – but only after seeing each vendor’s reply in a later step.

To develop the initial list, use a set of criteria like the following. To merit membership on the medium list, candidate vendors should meet at least most of the following:

  • For SIs, relevant product expertise and proven footprint
  • Some focus on your vertical industry, with reference-able customers
  • National and global presence (if relevant to your organization), with readily available resources to all your organization sites
  • Sufficient vendor stability
  • Adequate depth on the bench (resources that are adequate, available, competent, and relevant to your implementation)
  • Previous work for your organization (or been suggested by your organization), including quality and success of current or previous work

You should land on a list that may just have a few candidates (if you are just selecting ECM product suites), but as many as 6 to 12 candidates if you are selecting a solution in one of the unconsolidated technologies categories or if you are selecting an SI as well.

At this point (i.e. where you are just compiling your medium list), don’t engage with the candidates in any serious manner. When you begin to engage with them, you should have a plan and methodology – as outlined in the succeeding steps of the vendor selection process (below).

2. Validate and prune the medium candidate list.

Quickly review and validate the candidate list, making corrections to the criteria and scores as necessary.

Focus on the relative ranking of the candidates and then prune any off the bottom that you don’t want to take to the next step.

Do some “what-if” analysis, but none that requires substantial effort or time – or much additional information. Gathering additional information will require engaging in some way with the candidates, and, again, that should be done according to a plan and methodology.

3. Assign a designated team, including a point person for vendor contacts, to the selection process.

We’ve found it most effective to regard the vendor selection process as if it were your first “project” with this vendor. Your high expectations for project execution should be in play – e.g. whether the supplier follows directions, whether it’s resourceful and creative, hits deadlines and budgets, and provides a solution rather than a bag of unassembled parts.

But keep in mind that it’s also their first project with you, and so you want to come across as organized, prepared, and focused – which helps ensure that the vendor gives you their best team because you are a client they believe can be successful.

4. Inform the candidates.

Send out (email) letters from your organization’s contact person to each candidate, announcing to each of the vendors on the pruned medium list that you plan to issue a Request for Proposal (RFP), the next stage of the selection process. In this email, outline the steps of the process and general expectations, establish the appropriate contacts and channels of communication – and ask whether the vendor wishes to participate in the process.

Each step of the process is designed to be proactive to get the most effective response possible from each candidate – or to quickly weed them out early in the process.

5. Write the RFP.

This does not take long, though it addresses both current and future requirements.

Your organization should have these requirements already – that is, if you clarified your Current State, defined your Future State, and planned the Roadmap that will take you from the current to future state. If you haven’t done this work, then do so before beginning the solution selection process.

6. Write two to four application scenarios that exercise all of the important capabilities of the solution being selected.

These scenarios should be based on actual usage scenarios within your organization, typically two to four scenarios to address the breadth of the required capabilities of the solution being selected. Depending on timing, these scenarios can either be provided with the RFP to all the candidates (to provide further context about your organization’s needs and planned implementation) or they can be provided later, to only those candidates invited to conduct vendor presentations (Stage 8).

7. Issue, receive, and evaluate the RFPs.

This stage of the evaluation culls the medium list (potentially as many as 6 to 12 candidates) down to a short list of 3 or 4 candidates. Three short-list vendors work fine for most situations. You should, if at all possible, avoid having just two.

8. Host vendor presentations.

You then invite the 3 or 4 finalists to your organization to provide onsite presentations and demonstrations of their proposed solutions. The onsite presentations allow the vendors to:

  • Present and clarify their proposed solutions
  • Demonstrate the capabilities of their proposed solutions in the context of your application scenarios (from Stage 6), ensuring the demonstrations are organized and help you compare the proverbial apples to apples

But the vendor presentations also help you to evaluate each candidate as a “solution provider,” by evaluating whether the vendor completed its first “project” on time, on budget, with honesty and little complaining. This stage makes it very clear whether a given candidate is willing and able to devote the appropriate resources to your organization’s initiative.

Following the presentations, you will typically need to ask the finalist vendors to tie up loose ends, which could range from simple clarifications to deal killers. In our experience, one of the usual loose ends is pricing, so if questions remain, ask your finalists to clarify their pricing one more time. The goal at this stage is to eliminate as much uncertainty as possible.

9. Select the winner.

Select the winner, and notify the losers. Final pricing negotiations and contracting take place at this point.

And there you have it: a staged process for solution and SI selection, one that gets you from long list to medium list to short list to finalist, with criteria at each stage of the process so that everyone on your team understands how you got there.


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