Collaboration and Other Proposal Automation Tools
Businesses use automation tools to enhance their proposal development workflows. To get the most out of these tools, you must choose the right ones for your organization.
Because new tools enter the market every day, it’s most important for proposal professionals to understand the types of tools and process management systems that support business acquisition activities during the opportunity/capture planning, proposal planning, and proposal management phases.
Key features and things to consider when choosing automation tools are detailed in Tools to Support Lifecycle.
1. Gain management support of software, systems, and tool procurement and use.
Management support for software, systems, and tool procurement and use is essential for developing and maintaining effective business acquisition procedures. Without access to effective tools that support and reinforce the business development lifecycle (see Figure 1), companies can’t maintain a managed, repeatable business acquisition process—thereby reducing their overall chances of winning business.
Enlist the support of company executives to provide the time, funding, training, and other resources needed to develop and maintain the systems and software your organization needs. In addition, encourage management to integrate the use of many of these tools into their own daily business practices to help drive adoption across the company.
2. Choose whether to build or buy collaborative software.
When it comes to investing in software, organizations have several choices:
- Purchase commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) collaborative software
- Develop systems and applications in-house
- Outsource the development of the software you need
Consider the following questions as you begin examining your needs and determining whether to build or buy any software or system to support your business acquisition process:
- How much control do you have over how the software works?
- Will the software or system integrate seamlessly with existing software and systems?
- Do you need to migrate existing data to the new software or system?
- Can the new software or system support data migration from existing systems?
- How will that be accomplished?
- What are the purchasing options—outright, licenses, per seat, or Software as a Service (SaaS)?
- Is 24×7 support available? If so, in what format and at what cost? If not, how is support handled, especially with proposal deadlines and emergencies?
- Is your proposed software solution scalable as your needs and users grow?
- How will you train users?
- Does the COTS solution have comprehensive training materials and documentation available?
- Do you have staff available to develop documentation and training materials for an in-house developed system? Does the outsourced solution include training materials development?
- Can you integrate the tool into daily activities?
- Does the tool lend itself to daily, easy-to-use support of business acquisition activities, or does the tool create an additional layer of work or obstruction for users trying to accomplish their objectives?
- Can users effectively use the tool in co-located/physical working environments?
- Can users effectively use the tool in virtual working environments?
- Is the tool scalable to support the company’s desired functionality today and into the future, or will the company need to source, install, migrate data and processes, and train users to use a different product more suited for a larger organization?
- Can the tool be tailored easily by IT staff or users to more closely meet their individual needs (e.g., customizable dashboards, macros, templates)?
- Is the tool web-based for ease of access 24×7, or is it installed behind a firewall or on a VPN that severely limits or obstructs its use?
- How does the tool manage revisions and version control? Does it log changes with timestamps and copies of previous versions of content to enable pulling content from older versions or reverting to older versions?
- Is the collaborative environment structured based on the size of the organization and the sophistication of its users? Is the system needlessly complex? Does it support the company’s business acquisition workflow?
- What are your goals (short term and long term) for the software or system?
- What is your budget?
- What is your timetable for deploying and using the software? Do you need it right away (perhaps leading toward a COTS solution), or can you wait for software that addresses every need and has every possible functionality necessary (perhaps leading toward an in-house developed or outsourced solution)?
- Is your business need so unique that no COTS solution exists?
- Is there a COTS solution that could be customized easily to meet your needs?
- Are programmers available and solely dedicated to your software development project?
- How will you determine what the software does and how it works? Do you have domain experts available to support the development project?
- Who will maintain and update the software? On what schedule? At what cost? As operating systems evolve (e.g., Windows XP to Windows 7/8), how will you address incompatibilities? Do you have the IT resources in-house to support the software?
- Can you use the software from multiple platforms (e.g., PC or Mac)? It is mobile? Is it web-based? Is it available by VPN?
- How will the company handle requests for enhancements or changes?
3. Develop timely training and support documentation.
Business acquisition professionals should understand the purpose and use of the systems that support their individual functions. Develop a comprehensive training plan and support documentation for all business acquisition-related hardware and software systems. Training and documentation can include:
- Online (videos, webinars, chat, IM, helpdesk)
- Just-in-time (in person and virtual)
- User guides (online, embedded)
- Checklists and templates
Making this training available to all users and providing comprehensive, in-depth training for new and complex systems and software will greatly enhance users’ productivity.
Training users either too early (far before they will need to use the system) or too late can significantly hinder user adoption and success. Without adequate training, users may become frustrated with a system, develop workarounds or bad habits, or simply refuse to use it. Conduct training when a new system is installed or as part of system rollout planning.
4. Manage and measure performance.
To gauge the effectiveness of systems and software supporting the business acquisition lifecycle, companies should institute a performance measurement process.
Measuring performance may reveal gaps between users’ targeted and actual performance. This can help organizations identify areas for improvement or areas where additional training may be needed.
Performance management and measurement must be an iterative process, focusing on continual improvement in all areas. That said, companies can’t measure what they haven’t defined. Therefore, establishing a comprehensive business acquisition process with documented inputs, outputs, and supporting systems must occur before measurements (and strategic corrective actions) take place.
For example, a company could measure:
- End user satisfaction with the system
- End user success with the system (effectiveness and efficiency of performance of key tasks)
- End user engagement with the system (frequency, intensity, and depth of interaction over some time period)
- Number of new users in a time period
- Parallel comparison usage of similar features (to determine best user adoption)
- Number of account profiles complete in the CRM system
- Availability and response time of application
- Adoption by users
- Top 10 users for the week
- Number of unique users compared to target number
5. Use web and online repositories to access information on the go.
Enabling business acquisition teams to perform their jobs efficiently and effectively includes using web-based tools and systems as well as online information repositories. In a digital world, business acquisition teams need access to information and software systems wherever they work—in offices, remote sites, homes, hotels, cars, and so on.
With more proposals to develop and with dispersed and virtual proposal teams increasingly more common, team members must have fast, reliable, and secure access to the information needed to pursue opportunities, develop proposal sections, and produce proposals. This requires companies to set up secure access to information that is available from wherever users work.
6. Use templates to create consistency and save time.
Templates are the lifeblood of any business acquisition organization. They enable consistent, repeatable implementation of best practices from one bid to the next. They allow business acquisition organizations to store and manage information in their knowledge management systems in a standardized format. This enables consistent use and reuse of information, as well as easier and faster information search and retrieval.
Templates promote faster incorporation of required information into proposal documents when they are set up to use styles. Styles are defined sets of formatting parameters for document elements (e.g., fonts, colors, size, placement, and headings) that mesh with other company-standard templates.
Consider making a knowledge management professional, such as the Knowledge Manager, responsible for maintaining and standardizing templates. The Knowledge Manager should also be responsible for managing shredding and incorporation of developed proposal content into the knowledge management repositories.
7. Harvest and store customer, competitive, and proposal content for reuse in later proposals.
In industry-standard proposal nomenclature, the term harvest literally means to review, extract, and organize valuable information from business development engagements and insert that information in a knowledge management repository. You can then use the content to develop other opportunities and proposals, building on captured knowledge and experience.
Application in Diverse Environments
Little variation across business environments
Small or large, experienced or start-up, brick-and-mortar or virtual, commercially or governmentally focused, companies need a basic suite of tools scaled to support their business acquisition efforts.
Companies should include software and systems in their business acquisition tool kit, ensuring that they scale the tools for their environment. They should also include the key features and considerations detailed in Tools to Support Lifecycle.
Rise of virtual proposal teams
Over the past decade, the use of virtual proposal teams has become a regular feature of business acquisition efforts. Collaborative working environments are now the standard, allowing access to business acquisition tools and information resources by mobile, web-based, VPN, and other methods. Business acquisition teams are able to support the opportunity/capture planning, proposal planning, and proposal management phases equally effectively whether working from a corporate or field office, local coffee shop, home office, airport, or car.
To remain competitive and address the work/life balance employees desire, companies must focus on ensuring that collaboration tools provide the needed features and functionality to their teams, regardless of where they work, always bearing in mind any security considerations.
Common Pitfalls and Misconceptions
Unsuccessful software/hardware rollouts
Software and hardware implementations, especially business acquisition support systems, often fail due to insufficient needs analysis, lack of just-in-time user training and follow-up training, lack of user buy-in, insufficient hardware/software infrastructure, insufficient technical support, and lack of management support.
When considering implementing any software or hardware to support your business acquisition process, be sure to:
- Obtain management commitment for implementing new or updating existing business acquisition software and hardware, including staff training
- Conduct comprehensive needs analysis with input from all key stakeholders
- Ensure the company has the hardware infrastructure to support and make the best use of new software
- Ensure comprehensive hardware and software technical support
- Dedicate significant effort toward developing and conducting just-in-time and follow-up training. This includes user guides, videos, frequently asked question (FAQ) documentation, and helpdesk access.
- Consider rolling out the new software/hardware in stages. Select champions for the new software/hardware within user groups to begin using the software/hardware first. Give them extensive training and support, and then have them serve as informal helpdesk resources for the next groups of users to adopt the software/hardware.
- Regardless of size, experience, or market focus, to acquire new business efficiently and effectively, companies need a suite of tools that support their business acquisition efforts
- Use a service asset and structured CM system to control and provide visibility into hardware and software systems and the relationships between them
- Set comprehensive information security policies and procedures, encompassing both physical and electronic security measures, to safeguard company resources
- Develop a comprehensive training plan and support documentation for all business acquisition-related hardware and software systems
- To gauge the effectiveness of systems and software, institute a performance management and measurement process, focusing on continual improvement in all areas
- Use web-based tools and systems and online information databases to enable business acquisition teams to perform their jobs efficiently and effectively
- Develop a knowledge management function responsible for maintaining and standardizing templates, managing proposal content shredding, and incorporating content into knowledge management repositories
- Provide all-inclusive management support for tool procurement and use, which will be essential for developing and maintaining effective business acquisition procedures