Sculpting technology to fit business
by Jerald Savin and David Silberg
WESTERN TUBE AND CONDUIT CORP., the largest manufacturer of conduit, mechanical tube and fence posts on the West Coast of the United States, decided about two years ago to make some changes in their technology. Roger Post, the company controller, explained that the software they had developed over the years had worked well but that systems were not integrated. For example, orders for each of three different product lines were processed differently. After unsuccessfully trying to integrate the systems themselves, they hired IT professionals to handle the process. Corporations around the globe share similar experiences every day.
Businesses cannot operate without technology. Without computers and the necessary software, commerce cannot function. Technology has become so sophisticated and so specialized that selecting and implementing software is now both a science and an art form. In fact, a new industry has grown up around helping businesses select and integrate technology into their operations.
Selecting and converting to new software is a demanding and involved process, a full-time job. The burden of applying the application of this technology can be overwhelming and beyond the expertise of corporate personnel, and in-house staff may not have the time or expertise to dedicate to this process.
Jerald Savin, managing director of SITKA Systems Inc., a management consulting firm in Santa Monica, Calif., specializes in information technology assessment and business information systems. David Silberg, a director for SITKA, specializes in project management and financial control systems. Both Savin and Silberg teach “Automated Accounting Systems” and “Selecting and Implementing Packaged Information Systems” at UCLA.
In addition, personnel may be resistant to a new system. Western Tube and Conduit found that their new system resulted in a cultural change for people in all areas of the company: finance, production, sales, logistics, and human resources. “People have to be involved,” Post said. “You've got to make people believe in what you are doing. They become the experts in the software and in the process. Everybody has to understand that overall for the total company, because of the integration, there is going to be an improvement.”
Early involvement of personnel into the selection and implementation process helps establish ownership of the new technology and cements its successful integration. But who has the technological expertise and relationship with all levels of the company to lead such an undertaking? Engaging an outside professional who specializes in this process may be the answer.
Selecting and Implementing Automated Technology
IT professionals who specialize in understanding the technology, analyzing corporate requirements and integrating the technology into the daily functioning of the business are an integral part in the structure of business today. In the technology arena the IT professional serves as the project manager who will lead the company through the multistep process of selecting and implementing software and its ultimate use to improve the function of the business. On a more intimate level, the IT professional/project manager comes without preconceived notions, prior loyalties, connections, agendas, obligations, and other baggage.
Forming the Project Management Team. The project management IT professional oversees two groups: a small team of employees charged with selecting the software package (the selection team), and a larger employee group (the implementation team) that performs with the implementation. Ideally, there is also an executive group that works closely with project management to ensure that the implementation is effective.
Any technological system that involves all parts of the company needs to have the involvement of key personnel from each affected area from the beginning of the selection process. The employees’ performance determines the success or failure of the implementation. Involvement of personnel in the selection and implementation process also motivates them toward greater understanding of the product and toward making its integration and application efficient and successful. Without this support and understanding of the people using it, even the best-automated system will fail; conversely, properly motivated and informed staff can successfully implement poor systems.
Understanding the Company. After forming company teams, the IT professional/project manager initiates the technology selection process by identifying the scope of the new system. He or she observes the operations of the company to get a feel for its culture and general behavior.
Additionally, the team conducts formal interviews with key people to determine their job responsibilities, how they are performed, and what the system needs to do and know to help them do their jobs better, faster, and smarter.
The key is in understanding the entire business process. The team manager looks at the life cycle of the business process to find a set of activities that complement each other as goods and services are developed and delivered and information moves from department to department. Frequently, a selection traces a typical transaction. For instance, the team might track a sales order from the time the order is placed, through when it is filled, including how billing and returns are handled. Although business processes occur in separate departments, when an entire process is traced, the interrelationships of the departments’ activities are identified. Lack of understanding of these relationships has resulted in counterproductive behavior— optimizing each department may suboptimize this process from a corporate perspective. For example, if the Shipping department develops an automated process for its functions, its separate, nonintegrated and specialized system may make it difficult for the Accounts Receivable department to do its job.
An estimate is made of the size of the company in transactional terms to determine the gross volume of files and transactions, considering current levels as well as anticipated growth. Not only do companies need to forecast their potential quantitative growth, they must also take into account specific strategic goals such as expansion.
Choosing Systems. Once a company determines the requirements for a new system, it has a baseline with which to compare products under consideration. There is no one-size-fits-all system for businesses; each company must search out the system best suited for its particular needs.
The ever-changing nature of computer equipment and software development makes this a volatile industry. Accordingly, the project manager/IT professional, whose specialty is matching businesses to systems, needs an awareness of what is available in the marketplace and its overall status and standing.
Once a list of prospective providers is compiled (which may include 10-30 companies), the selection team initiates contact. For a business whose needs can be filled by a simple package, it is probably sufficient to call vendors, outline the company's needs, and asking if their vendor package can fill these needs.
Businesses with more complex requirements require a more elaborate approach to system evaluation. Companies can send prospective vendors a Request for a Quotation, which asks vendors for written prices or a written Request for Information to obtain information about prospective systems. For large corporations, a formal Request for Proposal becomes the appropriate solicitation. The RFP provides prospective vendors with detailed information about system requirements and asks for a proposal.
Responses from the vendors are evaluated by the project team and narrowed down to three to six semifinalists. Product demonstrations are arranged with each of the semifinalists. The company may provide the vendor with data representative of its business so that the demonstration can include a more personalized and specific look at how the system operates. This demonstration shows how well requirements are being satisfied and highlights any situations that could require significant modification of the software from the vendor.
There are many considerations when making the final selection, including:
Does the system fulfill the majority of the company's requirements or at least certain critical requirements?
How flexible is it? A system's ability to be modified to handle a company's specific needs or “goodness of fit” is crucial.
What is the cost?
What is the reputation of the system and the vendor?
What is the potential for future system/ software updates?
What is the timing? When will the system be available and how long will it take to implement?
How will the new system interact with an existing system; how compatible will it be with the existing hardware and software?
The job of the project manager/IT professional is to lead the selection team through the analysis of each of these points and help them make an effective choice.
Installing the System. Because of the complexity of many of today's software systems, the implementation process can be more costly than that of the raw system. Frame-N-Lens, a major retailer of eyeglasses, developed some strategic objectives a few years ago. Richard Shields, the company's chief financial officer at the time, notes, “We felt that using technology appropriately could be a competitive strength, especially in an industry that is deeply fragmented without significant market share.” Frame-N-Lens installed an upgrade of their financial systems, but was having difficulty with the implementation. “After attempting to do the conversion and manage the project in-house for several months, we identified the need to bring in some outside professionals to take on several key aspects of the project.” According to Shields, those outside professionals—a project management team—brought “creative leadership in terms of looking at some of the opportunities for us to build a system that differentiated our operations from our competitors.” In other words, the consulting team helped to configure the installed system and educated the personnel on how to use it, and motivated them to want to use it.
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Vendor personnel generally install the equipment and software. Technicians set up whatever specific environmental conditions are required, such as special air conditioning or electrical hookups.
The new system may be interfaced or connected with existing technology or to other products that are not normally a part of the vendor's software package. Interfaces may be commercially available or may have to be custom-designed and can be a major expense.
The project manager, working with the implementation team, evaluates and determines existing desktop procedures and determines if or how they need to change to coordinate with the new software. Procedures must be revised to take the new environment into account for optimal functioning of the system.
Making the System Uniquely Your Own. Once the physical installation is completed, there are numerous choices that the system's users must make. The implementation team, representing the users, must decide how the system is to behave. The initial step is the personalization process in the review. Even though most modern systems have a number of options built in, companies may choose to further increase their choices by having a programmer make customized modifications. Selecting options or making modifications can be a tedious, time-consuming process.
One tool to help make these selections is the Conference Room Pilot (CRP). CRP allows the users to sculpt the system like a piece of marble. CRP is run to compare the way the new system works to the way the company wants to do business. Running the pilot also provides a detailed look at the relationship between the features and functions of the system and the needs and requirements of the company to see where things fit together and where they do not. CRP can be run again and again until all of the switches are thrown properly and the system accomplishes all the goals and objectives of the company. This process is also called successive approximation.
“Going Live” is placing the system in operation. There are elements that can help this process go more smoothly.
Training on the operation of a new system and all related business procedures is critical to the success of an implementation. This, however, is an area where companies tend to skimp. Training is actually the area where spending earns its most valuable dividends. A professional trainer, proficient in the operation of the system, should conduct the training, rather than a company employee. The main reason for this is to get a comprehensive overview that ensures the effectiveness of the entire system. Since this kind of training is infrequently provided by the vendor, the program manager can be helpful in finding an experienced IT professional or trainer who can perform this critical function.
A new system is not functional until all of the necessary data is entered. Generally there is legacy data on older software that needs to be converted. Moving the data to the new system is an opportunity to clean house, to review for duplicates, errors and superfluous files.
FROM THE BEGINNING of the process of system selection to the complete implementation of the sculpted system, the goal of the project manager/IT professional is to inform, organize, and inspire company employees. Involving the selection team and the implementation team in all phases of the process ensures that by the time the system goes live, the users feel a connection and pride of ownership in it.
PM Network November 1999