Here is a brief "blueprint" for organizing your search process, as well as some important tips on what to consider when choosing an EH&S system. By answering the following 19 questions, you'll likely come up with a plan that will work for you.
What and where1) What do you need the software to do?Compile a list of software capabilities and features, and then prioritize those as immediate needs, future needs and future wants. If you can't prioritize the desired capabilities, you may be distracted during the search process by features that don't provide the most value to your data management tasks in the long term.
2) What programs are available? There are many sources from which to compile a list of EH&S software programs, such as software buyer's guide issues of environmental compliance magazines, software industry compilations and Internet sites like Donley Technology (www.Donleytech.com), an independent clearinghouse for environmental software information.
Certain government and non-government Web sites provide lists of EH&S software vendors, such as:
- Databases and Software (www.epa.gov/swercepp/ds-noep.htm); and
- Vermont Safety Information Resources, Inc. (www.hazard.com/msds2/ soft.html).
Various EH&S Internet portals provide a wide range of product information (including software) for the EH&S professional:
- The Environmental Yellow Pages (www.enviroyellowpages.com);
- Environmental Expert Business Center (www.environmental-center.com);
- MSDS-SEARCH (www.MSDSsearch.com); and
- American Institute of Civil Engineers (www.aiche.org).
Time to evaluateAfter you have compiled a list of software packages to review, there are many factors to consider in your evaluation:
3) What are the hardware requirements? You'll need to know whether you will need to buy additional hardware to use with this software package and how much that will cost.
4) How long has the software package been in existence? Software products go through a life-cycle. A very "young" package likely still has bugs or awkward spots to work through. Make sure your selected package will be able to survive the rigors of annual updates. Inquire about any recent changes in ownership of the software package. When one vendor sells a software package to another, there are potential pitfalls for the buyer if the new vendor plans to re-write the software or absorb the package into its own product offerings.
5) Specifically, what does each program do? When weighing the value of single or multiple purpose packages against your organization's needs, consider that there are long-term advantages to a system that is both integrated and modular. Integrated means chemical data is shared between modules, so you can access the data whether doing a SARA report or defining a manifest. You will likely want to integrate your compliance activities with your other business functions. Having the option to expand by adding modules and using the data already entered will be advantageous.
6) Is the program easy to use?
7) Will you have to hire additional staff to operate this program? Be sure that you factor additional personnel costs into the overall software purchase price.
8) Can data from other systems be easily integrated into the program? The ability to integrate or import data from existing company systems, such as a purchasing or accounting system, can save laborious data entry.
9) What is the standard response time for technical support issues? You want to make sure technical support is knowledgeable.
10) What is the installation and setup process? Know the costs and the timeframe for installation and setup.
11) What help is provided on-screen? In the program?
12) Is training required to use the system? If so, how much is provided and what are the costs?
13) When was the program last updated? How frequent are the updates? What is the upgrade policy? Factor the cost of updates into your total cost of ownership. When gathering information about the provider's upgrade policy, be aware that some software providers require that the user repurchase the entire program if the license has lapsed.
14) What is the vendor's experience in the EH&S software industry?
15) Can a list of users be provided?
16) Is the vendor aware of competitors in their field? How do they compare their product to the competitors?
17) Is the company continually developing its software to offer new features and technologies?
18) What programs will it interface with? These include email, Internet browsers, enterprise resource planning systems, and so on.
19) Should you rent an ASP or buy the program? Compelling attributes of Application Service Provider (ASP) programs include promised low initial costs, quick updates and the ability to access the program from any workstation. Your decision to rent an ASP or buy installed software requires research and evaluation of a number of issues, including:
- Your company and department's level of comfort with new technology. Because ASP is a relatively new concept, all ASP vendors are "new to the game."
- The reliability and stability of the ASP's servers. Determine how the ASP will function over your facility's network. Examine data security.
- The total cost of ownership, not just the initial costs. Are vital components like technical support or training extra-cost items?
- The question of ownership: who owns the data, such as MSDSs? What happens to the data if you discontinue the service?
- Potential non-compliance violations - they need to be resolved. The precise interpretation of the requirement for maintaining onsite documentation may differ from one agency to another, or even one regulator to another.
Price and valueOne of the most important components of your software selection process is likely to be price. However, evaluating price may not be as straightforward as it seems. Price is a complex market entity. To your company, the value of the time you spend using the package and value of the data entered into the system over the years will greatly exceed the initial software investment. Timesaving features will, therefore, return a handsome dividend. The package's long-term value to you is a far superior yardstick than initial purchase price alone.
SIDEBAR: In-house or commercial?For many companies, the first decision in the software buying process is whether to purchase an existing package or to develop software in-house. Developing an in-house system is an alternative that initially can sound attractive. After all, the software can be customized to your operations, and no capital outlay takes place.
A custom system effort could potentially cost the company five to ten times the purchase price of an equivalent off-the-shelf system. The end product's quality depends on the facility's experience with both complex environmental regulations and software development. Significant resources are required to continually research, track and incorporate the ever-changing compliance reporting requirements.
Before going the in-house route, consider how the system (both regulatory and information technology) would be maintained and updated in the event of company downsizing.