The Multiplex-Mott MacDonald debacle over Wembley stadium, estimated to be costing Mott over £30m in legal fees, is the latest in a long line of construction project management disasters. Poor communication leads to bad decision-making, lengthy disputes and unnecessary costs. With this firmly in mind Colin Smith, CEO, BIW Technologies, provides some good advice when negotiating the tricky SaaS market.

There are many solutions on the market aimed at helping control project outcomes, and helping contractors, design teams and asset owners to deliver large-scale and smaller projects that are fit-for-purpose, on time and to budget. Software as a service (SaaS) -based technologies are often used to improve project delivery certainty, as they improve visibility and bring greater accountability across the team.

Choosing the right one, and then implementing it correctly, can make or break an entire project. It’s not unusual for customers to come to us having been stung by a bad experience: their software provider will have promised the world, then taken off with their money and not been around when the system has failed - this has often meant construction projects have slowed down or stopped altogether. But it shouldn’t be this way.

Taking the leap and trusting in technology

Once a decision has been made to take the SaaS approach, it’s key that the organisation is prepared: if it has previously relied on paper or email based information exchange, the move to a cloud-based system is a significant one, which has potential to bring about a feeling of loss of control, especially if it involves the first-time use of unknown systems.

Working with a supplier that can offer practical experience and bring advice from a plethora of past projects, in addition to the software, should help to alleviate the fears of first-time SaaS users.

Too often the move to SaaS is made with low-cost suppliers who fail to include sufficient support for the solution that they provide. People rarely look further than the functionality of the product and its visual appeal to assess the company behind it and the reliability that it can guarantee. But how do you tell the good from the bad?

The good, the bad and the ugly

A number of new ‘cloud’ suppliers (mostly newcomers to the infrastructure space like Amazon, who sell off their spare computing capacity with little or no performance warranties) now offer very cheap computing infrastructure. All this means it can be easy for small, poorly financed, poorly resourced vendors to create attractive, low-priced SaaS products.

With a decent website that is incredibly cheap and easy to run, suppliers can present an impressive façade to clients, consultants and contractors. Customer testimonials and a projected image of trust, reputation and size can be easy to fake, unless you ask the right questions. Internet-based companies are also notoriously difficult to comprehensively vet, particularly if they are based outside of the UK.

Once you've bought in to the façade, they can sign you up against exacting SLA terms (which they can neither influence nor control), then disappear when things go awry.

Is a DIY approach the best option for your project?

Today, it is relatively easy to construct impressive looking software applications by bolting-together major software components, or by working within ‘outsourced’ development environments. Typically, a low-priced option will provide you with a tool kit with which you can build your own solution.

These tend to come with basic capabilities like document management and form builders that allow you plenty of flexibility, but this approach will also leave the responsibility for the success of the solution squarely in your hands. If it doesn't quite meet your requirements when it is put to use, suffers from poor performance or proves to be inflexible when changes need to be made, the problem is entirely yours.

This option may well work for those that have significant in-house IT expertise, however most are unlikely to have the experience to build a truly tailored solution that meets the specific objectives.

The alternative all-in-one solutions include warranties and should support all processes from the outset, saving you and your team the time and effort that is often your most costly asset. The responsibility for researching requirements, building and delivering the solution and supporting it once it is up and running is completely taken off your shoulders.

Apart from checking that the software and supplier can handle the required business functions, what could go wrong and what should you check?

1. Take full responsibility - don’t just choose the sexiest software and rely upon the contract to regulate supplier performance as this won’t get your data back after it’s gone.

2. SaaS vendors must be subjected to the same checks and balances as all other strategic suppliers and partners. Perform a full and proper assessment of financial status (a Dunn & Bradstreet rating will highlight potential problems), capabilities (including staff numbers, support resources, SLAs, historical downtime, R&D resources) and risks (such as debt burden, resource inadequacies, dependence upon third parties and likelihood of business failure).

3. Perform detailed checks on service delivery, availability and data security: Where will your data be stored; how will it be secured (a particular problem with cloud environments); how resilient is the infrastructure; how does the supplier guarantee system performance; how much does the supplier spend on infrastructure?

4. Take up user references. Check software functionality, usability, performance (is it slow?), availability, support resources, user satisfaction, actual costs incurred. Ask about the problems experienced.

It is imperative to look closely at the software application to ensure that it does what is needed. Most compare the features and functions available from multiple competitive suppliers, to make sure that nothing better is available.

Sometimes they look at the underlying software technology to make sure that it is sufficiently flexible to handle future needs or that it can integrate with other systems. At this point, most prospective buyers negotiate a contract and place an order with the most attractive option. Sometimes they start using the system even before this has been done.

By basing their decision on the software application alone they have made one massive, dangerously wrong assumption; that behind the software, everything else is the same. It isn’t, so it’s vital to check it out thoroughly BEFORE you buy.