Software special: The right option

8th October 2013


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Make sure your organisation finds the right carbon accounting solution with our guide to procurement

Analysts Verdantix predicted in 2011 that expenditure by large UK firms on carbon and energy software would more than double to $110 million in 2013, and that the global market for such software would top $558 million by 2014.

However, Groom Energy’s 2013 buyer’s guide to sustainability software reports a slowdown in the growth of the market since 2011. Nonetheless, Groom identifies 75 vendors offering enterprise carbon accounting software, describing the market for such solutions as “early and fluid”, and reports that customer needs and vendor offerings continue to evolve.

Groom found three types of software vendors in the carbon management field:

  • suppliers of traditional environment, health and safety, and resource planning software, such as CA Technologies, Microsoft and SAP;
  • energy management software firms like Johnson Controls and Schneider Electric; and
  • sustainability specialists, including the five vendors listed in the review section.

Given the variety of products available, how do companies choose the right software and vendor?

Know what you want

The first step is to draw up a comprehensive list of requirements, separated into those that are “must have” (needs) and those it would be “nice to include” (wants).

The list of needs should include only the features that the software has to deliver to support the firm’s carbon management strategy. Priorities can range from the software integrating with existing systems to the ability to generate reports in line with the requirements of the Bilan Carbone in France or the CDP.

The wants list, by contrast, can be broader and ranked in order of importance. It might be useful, for example, if the software enables data sources, such as invoices, to be uploaded and stored. Likewise, the ability to customise the tools to define your own performance indicators might be desirable.

In its 2012 best practice guide on implementing carbon software, the CDP notes that multiple stakeholders means multiple requirements, and advises companies to involve all those affected in defining the needs of the carbon management solution.

Jamie Devlin, head of client services at Greenstone, says those tasked with selecting the software should start by identifying the main aim. “Ask why you need software? What is its purpose?” he says. “Too often clients will get bogged down in the detail of the system, when they should first concentrate on why they’re looking for software.

“The danger is that organisations which are not reasonably clear at the beginning of the procurement process on why they need software will experience a ‘beauty parade’ of vendors, each offering completely different solutions. That will only spread confusion.”

Gary Davis, operations director at Ecometrica, agrees: “Sometimes you are given a huge list of requirements – it’s like the company has included everything it could think of – but, in reality, most of what they ask for they it will not need. It’s about identifying what is important.”

Ferne Shaw, business development manager at CRedit360, advises companies to also think about their future requirements. “Will the solution that meets your requirements now also be the best one in three or five years?” she asks. “Most organisations will have a vision of the future and will need to consider if the software is scalable over time and will be effective further down the line as they expand.

“Consider what other environment metrics you might want to report on in the future, and see what the different vendors offer in other, related areas.”

Money and IT

Good carbon management software is not cheap, but costs vary enormously. Any organisation looking to purchase such software needs to calculate how much it can afford. Typically, what’s on offer is “software as a service” (SaaS), which means the system is hosted on the supplier’s servers and is accessed online by users, who pay an annual or monthly licence fee. There might be additional costs, for initial set-up and training, for example, so be sure to look out for them. Maintenance and upgrades to the software – such as the inclusion of new emission conversion factors – tend to be included in the regular fee.

Most vendors are flexible on price and the common view among those in the industry is that if a vendor cannot do what an organisation wants for the available budget, then it probably does not need carbon accounting software. Davis recommends that sustainability professionals looking to buy software speak to their IT departments. “They tend to have much deeper pockets,” he comments. “The cost of a carbon accounting SaaS will be a drop in the ocean for most IT departments compared with the cost of renewing licences for Microsoft Office, for example.”

Devlin, however, cautions against allowing the IT department to control the procurement process. “Stay involved. Make sure IT understands that you require more than a few dashboards and a spreadsheet.”

Aside from budgetary issues, Alistair Blackmore, sustainability consultant at CRedit360, urges procurers to involve the IT department early on in the process for practical reasons. “They will ensure the solution is deployed properly,” he says. “If you don’t involve them at the start, you risk them raising security ‘red flags’ later on, potentially derailing the implementation process and sending you back to square one.”

Not just software

Selecting the right software is also about choosing the right supplier. By and large, companies in heavy polluting industries, such as oil and gas firms and utility companies, use modules from vendors in the traditional environment and health and safety sector to manage their carbon.

Meanwhile, light emitters, such as retailers and office-based businesses, often prefer software from specialists in sustainability or energy management. Selecting a vendor that is established in your sector might be the best approach.

A “request for information” asks for details of the capabilities of a vendor, while a “request for proposal” asks the supplier to outline how its software would help to deliver your objectives. Both can be used to quickly assess the suitability of a product and a vendor before drawing up a shortlist.

Getting references from vendors’ existing clients, particularly ones in your sector, will provide an unbiased view of the software. Questions to ask include:

  • How long have you been been using the software?
  • Is the vendor knowledgeable about the sector?
  • Are they experts in carbon management?
  • How responsive is the customer service team?

Davis says inviting four or five vendors to demonstrate their software using test data you provide is a critical part of the selection process. “Demonstrations are one of the best ways to evaluate different solutions,” he says.

Blackmore agrees. “Test scenarios might seem an obvious thing to do, but not everyone does it. If you do, you’re more likely to end up with the software that’s right for your organisation.”

Demonstrations allow prospective clients to familiarise themselves with the interface and the how the main functions of the system work, and are a good way to narrow down potential products. Vendors will often let a prospective client trial the demo for a short time, giving those leading the procurement project the opportunity to gather feedback from staff who will regularly be using the tool.

“Send the vendors test data and ask them to go through the scenarios you can envisage going through in a reporting cycle,” advises Davis. “They will have to demonstrate how the solution will work using your data.

“You’ll also get a feel for the people presenting, so ask whether you can see yourself working with them.”

Ecometrica’s Davis also believes that preparing for the demonstration can help teams to refine their requirements. “It makes you sit down and focus on what you want.” Devlin at Greenstone agrees that demonstrations are ideal to hone requirements. “Vendors are generally good at helping you to prioritise what you need. They’ve been through the process numerous times, so know the right questions to ask.”

The 2012 best practice guide from the CDP offers the following advice: “Good providers will listen, and commit time to understanding a company’s particular sustainability priorities.”

Shaw urges organisations to examine a vendor’s background: “Look at the firm’s history. How long has it been going? Is it growing or downsizing? What are its plans to develop the software? What are the vendor’s credentials? Does the CDP accredit it?”

According to Blackmore, it is rare for a system to be configured and the data inputted, and yet fail to meet the client’s needs. Nevertheless, purchasers of software will need to be confident they have access to adequate support. Will technical assistance be available – online, by email or by phone – when you need it? What is the average response and resolution time?”

Once a system is installed and users have been working with it for some time, there is unlikely to be much enthusiasm for a new system. “Organisations will resist changing even if the system is not working quite as they would like it to. They will not want to start again,” says Davis.

However, if the software is no longer appropriate, and the vendor cannot provide a solution that meets any revised requirements, you need to know who owns the data. So, who gets custody of the data in the case of divorce must be established before contracts are signed.

Top tips: selecting carbon accounting software

  • Identify your key requirements.
  • Determine your budget.
  • Use requests for information and requests for proposals to draw up a shortlist of solutions and providers.
  • Due diligence – check credentials and certificates and ask previous clients for references.
  • Ask for a demonstration – take a test drive; involve all users.
  • Can it scale? What are vendors’ plans for development?
  • Establish the true cost – check for additional fees.
  • Check post-implementation support.
  • Set key performance indicators.
  • Agree ownership of data.

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