Enterprising executives


Feature Story

Business owners need to assert their authority when upgrading computer software

By Stan Hargus


Twenty-odd years ago, when computers were new in small and mid-sized businesses, the most common computer system-related mistake that business owners made was to select their computer first and then look for software that would run on that computer. That situation was truly ‘the cart before the horse.”

Today, with many businesses passing into the hands of younger people, that old mistake rarely happens. However, other mistakes related to choosing the best enterprise software do happen. And, in a nutshell, most of these mistakes occur because business owners delegate too much of their authority.

‘Enterprise” is a word used often in the computer business. In this context, it means ‘an entire business.” So, ‘enterprise software” means the primary accounting and logistics software application that a business runs on. Once an organization decides to change its primary software, and if it goes about this process in the right way, it begins a journey that will take it through three distinct phases:

Evaluation Phase
Implementation Phase
Ownership PhaseIf you select the wrong software, good implementation and good ownership will not overcome a bad purchase. If you pick the right software, but have poor input from staff and a lack of buy-in by staff, then that software will never meet your expectations.

Avoid these things during the Evaluation Phase:

Don’t use unqualified evaluators. Pretty simple. Make sure that the people evaluating software know your business processes ‘ all of them ‘ and that they know your business goals. Evaluators who don’t know your business’ goals and processes can ask the wrong questions and can focus on irrelevant things. Without experience and background with your company and your industry, they fail to ask the critical, distinguishing questions of software vendors. Friends or relatives with a degree in “computers” are often unqualified evaluators because they do not know the minutiae of your business.
Don’t fail to have an overall vision. How many people in your company see the Big Picture? Who understands the whole flow of transactions? Your evaluators must be people like these who can see how all the parts of the new software connect to all parts of your business.
Don’t rely excessively on outsiders. Consultants and software vendors can lend expertise to software evaluation and implementation, but you must take ownership of the project. Further, if you don’t use qualified “internal” evaluators, this limits your ability to manage the implementation of the new software. Consultants don’t have to use the software you buy, but you do.
Don’t be anything less than candid. The establishment of realistic expectations always requires honest, direct, bi-directional conversations. Withholding pertinent information from your chosen software vendor is as damaging as having the vendor misrepresent his products and services.
Don’t let a prospective software vendor fail to provide a live demonstration of all of the key processes that you will need. Don’t assume that just because you see two or three sexy features in a product that the product will do everything else that you need. This error is really quite common.
Don’t have mismatched hardware. Unexpected hardware problems can be a serious issue during a software implementation. Provide your prospective software vendor with as much information as you can about your present inventory of computer equipment. Be prepared to acquire computer hardware that your chosen software vendor will require.Buy-in to a major software implementation project is enormously important. Everyone from top management/ownership to at least mid-level management must get on board with the change to a new system, once a final decision is made. Employees should be made aware that cooperation is expected and that a successful implementation will benefit everyone.

Do these things during the Implementation Phase:

The president/CEO takes ownership of the project. This person must get the entire staff on board with the change. This person makes the final assignments to his or her staff, and this person selects a project leader. The business’ leader must communicate with his or her staff and the implementation personnel from the software vendor. Learn the overall capabilities of your new software. This helps you hold everyone accountable because you know what you should be getting.
Have a project leader. The project leader, usually the CFO or controller, must also buy in to the project. The project leader must be responsible for the accuracy of the data from your old system that is going into the new system. This person will be responsible for ensuring that deadlines are met. And, this person must be fully available for pre-installation planning, which is usually quite time-consuming.
Make sure your entire staff gets engaged in the process of changing software. Everybody should buy in. Nobody likes change but that can’t be an excuse to derail an expensive and critical project like a major software change. Your software vendor’s implementation personnel don’t ultimately have the power to make your staff cooperate, but you do.
Make sure that your local hardware/networking vendor gets involved properly. Hold them accountable for meeting deadlines. Things such as completion of hardware surveys and installation of new equipment and infrastructure typically fall into the task list of a local hardware company, but if they don’t adhere to timelines, the whole implementation process suffers. Your software vendor does not “sign the check” that pays your local vendor, so your software vendor must rely on you to keep your local hardware vendor in synch with the whole project.What to do during the Ownership Phase:

For the business owner, and for the CFO/controller satisfactory ownership of the new software rests on two concepts: Know what you bought and recognize that your enterprise software will require continuing investment in the way of training services and upkeep.

Let’s say that you have a delivery driver who tells you he cannot make a delivery to a customer on top of a hill because, he says, your delivery truck cannot handle a grade of greater than 4 percent. If you don’t know the characteristics of that piece of property of yours, the truck, you might just take the driver’s word for it, not realizing that maybe the real reason the driver says he can’t deliver to the hilltop customer is that he just doesn’t want to do it! If you don’t know better, one excuse that he gives will be as good as any other.

Even more so with software, knowing what the product is capable of protects you from having the value of your investment lessened. In my opinion, most business owners have delegated too much responsibility to others to ‘know the system,” and they rely on what others tell them about their system’s capabilities. You will find that reputable software vendors produce ‘executive summary” materials that will orient you, and keep you oriented, about your system’s capacities. Additionally, when your software vendor delivers upgrades and enhancements, consult the documentation that should accompany new software features. Software companies produce such documentation for your benefit.

It’s all about ownership. Don’t be intimidated by software. You are paying your vendor for intellectual property that enhances your business, so get your money’s worth and ask questions!

When a key employee departs, that person’s replacement will probably need training from your software vendor. If this does not happen and you rely on ‘internal training,” what is likely to happen is that the new staff member will get a distorted and incomplete idea of your software’s capabilities. This will lessen the value of your investment. If you’ve ever played the party game where one person tells another person a story, then that person retells the story to another, etc., then you grasp the concept of why second- or third-hand training is not desirable.

Today, training services can be delivered over the Internet, so the cost of training new staff members is a lot less than what it used to be. Don’t skimp on training, because training directly affects productivity. It is just plain costly to lose key people; there is no way around it. Don’t compound a negative situation by failing to give new staffers the resources they need to recover from a loss like this.

In summary, if you want to be happy with your purchase and use of enterprise-level software, know what you need, make your vendor prove his product can fill your needs, stay familiar with your new software’s capabilities and be ready to spend money to maintain your investment. But above all, take ownership!

Stan Hargus is vice president of AIMS, Inc. AIMS, based in Monroe, La., is a leading developer of software for the petroleum products marketing industry. He may be reached at shargus@aims1.com or at (318) -807-9304.

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