Strategic partnerships come in all shapes and sizes. They can run the range from partnering on service offerings to joint marketing programs, but sometimes they involve technology. And when they do, you want to make sure that your partner's technology is aligned with your market strategy and the technology needs of your clients today and in the future.

There are four key areas where you should develop a clear understanding of your potential technology partner's capabilities: architectural model, database, browser compatibility, and integration.

Architectural model

From a strategic partnership perspective, it doesn't matter what terminology software vendors use, they all refer to the preferred architectural model. In all of these models the software runs on hardware provided and supported by the vendor and is accessible simply through the use of an Internet browser. The primary benefits are no software to install and no up-front software licensing fees. This makes implementation and ongoing maintenance much easier and significantly reduces the burden on your IT staff.

Cost is usually in implementation fees and periodic subscription fees with the latter being based on number of users (like per employee/participant per month) or the number of transactions (e.g. number of I9 forms completed). While there are still valid reasons for installing software on a client's equipment, it is becoming less common. You should weigh all your options before partnering with a vendor that does not use a hosted, SaaS, or cloud computing model.

Security and data integrity are important considerations for hosted solutions, especially if you are dealing with a client's protected health information, PHI, and/or personally identifying information, PII. Most commercial software vendors that use a hosted model have dealt with these issues and should be able to address your client's specific concerns.

Databases

Most commercial or enterprise software vendors in the HR space use a SQL database like Microsoft SQL Server, Oracle, DB2, or MySQL. It is very important to know the database your potential technology partner utilizes. These databases provide robust reporting capabilities; facilitate the exchange of data with other software systems; include standard backup and restore applications; and have built-in security features.

A common database practice for hosted solutions is to "co-mingle" data from different clients in a single database. For some clients this may pose a security risk, which is why a commercial database is essential for a hosted solution. Commercial databases have built-in capabilities to control and limit access to different clients' data when housed in a common database. Furthermore, these databases have tools for encrypting both data in transit and data at rest - key features for those clients that have heightened security requirements.

Browser compatibility

Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, Safari and Google Chrome are the leading Internet browsers. As hosted solutions have become more prevalent, hosted solution providers are keen on supporting as many different browsers as is practical. While browsers themselves have become more interchangeable, incompatibilities still exist in the way each browser renders the user interface. And, of course there are both Windows PCs and Macs to contend with. And mobile devices, all of which have their own Internet browsers.

Lastly, hosted solutions have the promise of 24/7 access, which means that some users will access the software from their home computer using whatever browser they have chosen.

All of this means you have to have a good understanding of your client's computing environment. Mac or PC or both? And whatever browser they have selected as their corporate standard.

Understanding this should shape your discussions with potential partners and you should thoroughly understand their browser compatibility support policy. One key question to ask is which browsers (and browser versions, think IE7, IE8, IE9) are part of their standard software quality assurance testing process.

I mentioned above that hosted solutions don't require software installation. It is a fair statement, although not entirely true. This is because of browser plug-ins. Some software vendors use plug-ins to improve the performance of their system or to enhance the user experience.

Common plug-ins that you may have encountered while browsing are ActiveX controls, Adobe flash, QuickTime, and Microsoft Silverlight to name a few. A complete understanding of plug-ins required will help meet client expectations and is essential in mixed PC and Mac computing environments.

Integration

For all intents and purposes no software is an island. Data almost always has to flow between and among various software systems. First you might have to load data into a system, either as an initial upload or on an on-going basis. Second, you might have to get data out of a system and into another application, either periodically or in real-time. And, third, users may need to move seamlessly from one application to another.

In the first two scenarios we're talking about exchanging data between systems. For non real-time (e.g. batch) data transmission, automated and secure file transfers are commonly used by most vendors in the benefits industry. Make sure that there are no manual steps required (like having to manually import data into a system).

For the exchange of data in real time you will want your strategic software partner to support Web services. There are many technologies used for Web services, so you will want to be sure all of your partners exchange specifications and discuss integration. Having users move seamlessly from application to application is most often done using single sign on technology.

And remember that integration services are not free. You and your clients need to understand this. Know the cost of integration services including any ongoing maintenance fees up front - and how long it's going to take. In my experience timing always seems to be where most vendors fail to set appropriate expectations.

Strategic technology partnerships can add value for your clients. Due diligence in the four areas discussed above can help you maximize that value.

Reach Lamb of A.D.A.M. Inc. at jlamb@adamcorp.com.

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