[ Editor’s note: Carl Grant, President of CARE Affiliates, was one of the volunteers who took me up on my offer to review several chapters of Christopher Cox’s book about federated search. Following is his review of one of the chapters: “Developing the Right RFP for Selecting Your Federated Search Product: Lessons Learned and Tips from Recent Experience” by Jerry Caswell and John Wynstra.
I appreciate that this review comes from a seasoned federated search vendor; Carl Grant has been in the library automation industry for a long time and raises an important concern about the RFP process, how his experience is that the current RFP model doesn’t really serve the customer or vendor, and he touches on what he sees as a better approach.
You can read more from Carl Grant at his blog, Thoughts from Carl Grant.
You can purchase a copy of Mr. Cox’s book from the publisher, Taylor & Francis, who donated the review copies, by calling their Customer Service department, Monday-Friday 9 A.M. – 5 P.M. EDT, at (800) 634-7064.
You can find other reviews of essays from Mr. Cox’s book in the “Cox essay review” category.]
Anyone who has spent time in either a library or vendor setting answering or reading RFPs, will, when given the opportunity, expound long and loud about these procurement instruments and usually in a tone tinged with frustration and exasperation.
So for me, as a long-time vendor, it was interesting to read a well-described procurement process from the library point of view. The process was focused on the development of the RFP and follows the product selection that resulted from it. This is all described in a chapter in the book “Federated Search; Solution or Setback for Online Library Services”. The RFP was approached by the writers with a great deal of forethought and planning, so as to try and produce an RFP with the final intent being to buy a federated search product.
One must applaud the desire of the writers to produce an RFP document “that was succinct, not bogged down in minutiae, and not vendor unfriendly.” What they did produce may have achieved some of their goals but their may have been a lack of understanding of what happens in the vendor shop. Despite their goal “to avoid requesting so much detail as to cause some companies to determine that the time to respond was not worth the likelihood of a successful outcome”, they in fact probably produced a document that did exactly that. Even so, much of what they did serves as an excellent foundation for others and as such, makes this a very worthwhile read.
First, the authors did an extensive search of the wealth of library literature about federated searching. They found excellent background pieces including checklists, other RFP’s and NISO and Library of Congress publications. Then the authors review the pathway to the decision to acquire a Federated Search product. The decision shows a well articulated and executed strategy of focusing on discovery of resources for end users and the other automation tools that had been put into place to support that plan. These included the use of carefully structured websites, electronic resource databases, data crosswalks and OpenURL link resolvers. As noted, this provided “improved integration of resources and enhanced users’ access”. Still after all these pieces were in place, the authors found that selecting and searching the resources was problematic and the research showed that federated searching would provide substantial answers to these problems.
The decision to write an RFP to procure a system was made and, like many library decisions, a committee of people was charged with the task. This achieved, according to the authors, bringing a wide range of expertise to the table, buy-in from the various departments and finally ensured that those responsible for the implementation could influence the specifications. They also took a very rational approach in deciding mandatory specifications and desirable specifications so as not to exclude from consideration a system that might otherwise prove quite acceptable. In the opinion of this writer, more than one library would do well to read this section.
The group’s next steps, while well intentioned, are steps that should be very carefully examined from another perspective. In particular the step to “ask the respondents to describe how they met the requirements rather than simply stating that they did.” Their desire in doing this was to extract more information out of the vendor respondents, which in the end, likely was accomplished for most of the proposals. They followed this step with one where they asked each vendor to provide access to a fully functioning demonstration site so they could thoroughly evaluate the claims made in the proposals received.
This writer, as a person who has sat on the other side of the table from these RFPs, wants to share at this point that these steps, while understandable from their perspective, should not be taken without first talking with a number of vendors whose systems are under consideration. Had they done so, they would have understood the real consequences of those steps, which is that it substantially raised the cost for a vendor to respond to their RFP and that cost shows up in what all customers pay for the vendors’ products. As a consequence, it is hard to advocate that these steps should be used by others.
Other decisions made as they progressed through the selection process were quite good. Decisions such as asking for quotes for both locally installed and hosted versions of the product allowed them to have the necessary information to do a full cost comparison over a number of years. They also looked closely at the personalization features of the products and authentication issues. These are all features which can greatly improve the ease-of-use for the end users while ensuring compliance with content vendor contracts.
In the final analysis, there is much to be learned from the RFP process used by the writers of this chapter. They approached the task with great intelligence, due diligence, clearly outlining goals to be achieved, they brought together a number of key people, planned carefully and tried hard to construct a fair process to evaluate and select the product that they finally installed. There are lessons they felt could be learned by others who might follow their process and these are well documented. They are indeed worth considering. As I noted earlier, I’d strongly suggest that in trying to use this process, one should also spend more time talking with those who will be responding in order to gather their input and to help ensure that the maximum value for the money invested is derived for all concerned. RFP’s as a method of procurement are, in this writer’s opinion, tools with major flaws. Many of these flaws could be overcome by a more collaborative approach on the part of both the customers and vendors. What is outlined in this chapter is very worthwhile reading while we wait for the RFP process to be substantially overhauled.