Can you Find it – Business © 2017 THE FULL STORY…PUTTING IT ALTOGETHERPublished in Can you find it Business Edition on Friday, April 1st 2015
IN the last two issues Joel Teague has covered the process of identifying the parts of your business that will benefit from computer systems, and the task of finding the right systems and suppliers to do the job. If you would like copies of these articles you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or go to the Gazette’s website: www.canyoufindit.co.uk.
So – now you’re now ready to implement your new system:
Ideal part of business chosen for computer support… check.
Best system to do the job… check.
Best supplier to install and support the system… check.
Grey/missing hair from getting the above without professional help … check.
This article may sound a little cynical about IT projects, but it’s not meant to be. Many go very smoothly – but the truth is that most don’t. My task on this page is to try to help you to maximise your project’s chances of fitting into the first category by pointing out some of the common pitfalls, and some ways to avoid them.
Getting your ducks in a row before anyone lifts a finger on your systems is worth the effort and can save a lot of hassle later on:
Before signing a contract, make sure that it rewards timely, reliable work and penalises the opposite. If you have an open arrangement to pay by the hour, don’t be surprised when the hours add up. 500% overruns are not unknown in this industry.
Go for fixed costs where possible. This isn’t as easy as you might think, because suppliers know how likely overruns are, and that you are less likely to give them the job if they give you a realistic figure. In the suppliers’ defence, many aspects of technology are simply too unpredictable to be able to commit to a fixed amount of charged time. Sometimes you just have to give in, do what you can to be sure they’re being realistic, and keep on their backs.
If your project involves the creation of any unique material (e.g. website text, program code, documentation, etc.) make sure the contract gives ownership of it to you. Under UK law, all of these things are classed as written material and ownership remains with the party that created it unless specified otherwise, regardless of who pays the bill.
Be realistic about the implementation. Things will go wrong, costs and timescales will tend to overrun, and there will always be little challenges that neither you nor your suppliers can predict.
Make sure that the supplier has a good project plan in place that does the following:
1) Takes into account available resources in a realistic way – especially your time.
2) Plots the ’critical path’ of dependencies. For example: if they can’t start implementing until your new broadband link is put in, make sure they’ve planned around a realistic date for that happening.
3) Allows a decent ’fudge factor’ on timing. Things will go wrong, people will get ill, software and hardware will do inexplicable things that it’s never done before. (And sticking pins in Bill Gates dolls, while therapeutic, doesn’t help much.)
4) Sets out to minimise disruption. The plan should include allowance for factors like public holidays and periods of intense company activity (such as your financial year-end).
Work out the strengths and weaknesses of your suppliers, and bear them in mind during the project. Some will be technically brilliant but may tend to show less understanding of your business. Bigger companies may have good processes and standards, but be less flexible. Small ones may be attentive but disorganised.
If more than one supplier is involved, look for potential clashes of interest or possibilities of them buck-passing when things go wrong. Tackle these things in advance and get safeguards in writing.
Plan the changes needed within your company to accommodate the new system. Have training, documentation and other change management work dovetailed in with the implementation plan. Pay particular attention to the political issues that new computer systems often throw up – your new system will need all the goodwill it can get.
Nominate a single person in your company who will be in charge of the new system. Even a non-technical member of staff that deals with the day-to-day maintenance and interaction with the suppliers will simplify everything and lead to lower costs in the long run. The suppliers should be more than happy to develop a documented set of policies, procedures and responsibilities – and it’s well worth the effort.
Even with all this groundwork done, your input to the project is always going to be vital. The following should help to minimise your stress, costs and late nights at the office:
Be aware that the single biggest cause of problems could be you. Being a good client is as important as getting a good supplier, so be prepared to act as ’one of the team’. You can lower your risks considerably by endeavouring to do the following:
1) Make yourself available. Set aside time and agree regular opportunities for the suppliers to ask questions and discuss issues.
2) Make your mind up based on proper business analyses. Keep going back to the objectives you set out before choosing the system.
3) Stick to your decisions. Don’t be tempted to jump around unless a new, imperative reason for change arises.
4) Don’t get tempted to increase the scope of the project. If you want to add things on, discuss them with the supplier on the basis of adding them once your current project is completed.
5) Try to see the bigger picture and watch for false economies. With every decision, make sure you’ve done a cost/benefit analysis that includes business benefits over time.
6) Do your homework. If you’re not sure whether to believe information from a supplier, have it checked out by an independent expert. There are reasons for doing things in IT that can appear utterly daft from the outside …and some that stay that way whichever way you look at them.
If at all possible, have someone working between you and the supplier who can ‘translate’ documents and meetings into executive summaries so that you can make key decisions based on just the relevant information, in business terms. If you don’t have anyone available, hire someone – even if only for a few hours a week.
Regularly check project progress against the original plan, and raise concerns early. Ask awkward questions, but bear in mind that what may look like supplier error may be a genuine problem caused by the software or hardware they’re using – and therefore beyond their direct control.
Once your system is up and running, there is the ongoing task of keeping it that way. There is also the trick of keeping your suppliers working for your best interests once the profitable installation part is over.
It’s important to be realistic in your expectations of suppliers. Even the best suppliers may occasionally:
1) Use their usual familiar products, processes and techniques rather than stop to think about what’s best for your particular need
2) Get tetchy when you question or scrutinise anything they do
3) Come up with proposals that seem expensive.
It is in your interest to let suppliers work with that they know where possible, while making sure they don’t try to standardise when it’s in their interests but not yours. The best advice I can give is to ask the supplier to take you through exactly how any proposed solution will work in your particular case. If they don’t quote things specific to your business during their explanation, the chances are they’ve not thought it through.
On the second point: suppliers generally do not liking being scrutinised, but it’s essential to let them know that you will do just that. With my clients, I’ve found that even the best suppliers occasionally miss opportunities and risks, or suggest inappropriate solutions. Knowing their suggestions will be analysed by someone ‘in the know’ tends to make them double-check everything that goes out of the door.
As for seemingly expensive proposals: you will almost certainly get them, but try not to see the cost alone. One of the most common clashes I come across is when a supplier suggests the ‘proper’ solution to a problem, but the client needs a sedative when they see the quotation. All too often, an ‘elastoplast’ fix is put in place instead to minimise short term spend – but a year later when the whole thing breaks again, nobody remembers the ‘temporary’ bit, and tempers fray. A classic example is the five-year-old server that’s had five or six upgrades and many hours of tweaking to get it working each time it’s failed. A new server would have been cheaper, and saved all that down-time.
This article and the previous two have only scratched the surface of the issues involved. I cannot stress enough the advantages of having an ‘expert in your corner’ – but then I would say that: it’s what I do for a living. Hopefully these articles will help those determined to take it all on themselves. You’ll need lots of one more thing, and I wish it for you in spades: good luck!
If you have IT questions for Joel, please email them to the editor at email@example.com.