Upgrade Your Office Systems Without Losing Your Mind

By Adam Stone | Posted May 26, 2004
Paul Consani, the first half of Consani Seims Ltd. — a Vancouver, Washington-based, 12-person firm that brokers the sale of medical practices — hardly recognizes his company these days. "With the exception of some printers, there isn't a single piece of equipment in our office that was here a year ago," he says. In recent months the firm hasn't just scrapped all the hardware, it changed operating systems and simultaneously migrated its sophisticated phone system. Amazingly everyone, Consani included, got through it all in one piece.

There are any numbers of reasons why a small business may choose to replace one of its many technology systems. It may outgrow the capacity of its accounting software, for example, or find that its database applications have aged to the point where the manufacturer no longer supports them. A business owner may decide the flexibility of Linux outweighs Windows' ease of use, or a changing headcount might require a more robust phone system.

Whatever the reason for swapping out an old system in favor of something new, consultants, analysts and small-business owners alike say there are ways to survive such system migrations while keeping your checkbook and your sanity intact.

A leader in the world of systems migration, Altiris put out a white paper recently outlining some of the majors do's and don'ts for bringing Windows XP or Windows 2000 to the desktop environment. This kind of shift — replacing one operating system with another — is one of the most common and perhaps more daunting systems conversions for growing businesses. Thus, much of the consulting firm's advice holds true for diverse other systems migrations as well.

Step 1: Identify the problem. This was easy for Jason Fass, owner of and marketing director for Focused Individual Training, a 20-person physical therapy shop in Los Altos, CA. Fass relies heavily on e-mail, but his old mail system did not include spam protection or other needed tools. This was more than just a tech issue. "Once an employee experiences problems with something in technology, in their mind they think: 'The system is failing.' Now you suddenly have a much larger problem, if people aren't believing in the systems of the company," Fass says.

Step 2: Take the systems migration seriously. "Management must make the project a priority, provide leadership and adequate funding and manpower," said Rebecca A. Morgan, president of Cleveland-based Fulcrum ConsultingWorks, Inc. If for instance workers are going to be without e-mail for a week in between systems, "this may involve temporary assignments and delays in other projects. The statement 'this is important' must be backed by management action and decision-making."

Step 3:Take an inventory. Determine which of your existing machines will be compatible with the new system and which ones will have to go. Figure out what applications you already have running — in detail — and determine which pieces of that patchwork need upgrading or replacing. Consider this not just from perspective of your internal users but also from the point of view of outsiders — vendors and clients — who may need to interface with the new system.

Step 4: Back things up. Altiris talks about backing up "personalities," in reference to the various configuration settings and individual user data that can get lost in an OS overhaul. In a more general sense, backing up refers to the more basic act of keeping your data safe. In this regard, it's important that you don't just dump the stuff onto disc.

"We sometimes get requests from small businesses to retrieve data from tapes backed up many years before," explains Chris Muller of Muller Media Conversions. "Frequently they have no idea as to the file definitions or even the names of the files they need, or the type of backup software that created the tapes. To save everyone time and effort, it's as important to save related documentation as it is to save the data itself."

Step 5: Be patient. At Microsoft, Technology Specialist Stephen Cracknell says one of the most important things an entrepreneur can bring to the table is patience, whether one is replacing printers, upgrading accounting software or making any other significant transition.

"Don't try to rush the migration. Give yourself plenty of time," he says. This holds true not only in the planning stage, but also in the transitional period after the new system is up and running. Don't take the old system off line, he suggests, until everything is humming away smoothly in the new realm.

Consani agrees with this advice. With two formal offices and 12 home offices, he absolutely must have a phone system that rings everyone at once; one that reports on user activity from moment to moment and, most importantly, one that works without fail. When it came time for a system conversion, he took no chances. For two months, his employees worked with two phones on their desks just in case they had to revert to the old system. "Turns out it wasn't necessary," said Consani. But it helped him sleep better at night.

Likewise, Consani believes that thoughtful planning up front saves a small-business owner a lot of grief on the back end. He spent four months in the planning phases before even seeking a vendor for his systems migration.

"As hard it was to take time away from production in order to think through what it is we ultimately wanted, it was worth it," he says. Rather that sitting through vendor pitches, Consani and his team went to the heart of matter, laying out explicit functional needs that the new systems would have to fill. "We spent a lot of man hours dreaming up what ultimate system would be." That planning let Consani find the appropriate vendor and provide just the right instructions.

Still, that level of planning may not be possible for everyone. "Small companies don't always have extra people who can take on added assignments," Morgan says. Nor do those employees necessarily possess the appropriate expertise. "You can't get blood out of a turnip, and you can't get expertise and time out of employees who have neither."

Assuming finances permit, one can always bring in a consultant. Even then, however, the business owner is not off the hook entirely. In order to benefit from a consultant's specific know-how, "employees must dedicate some time to teaching the consultant the business and how to operate the system," says Morgan.

So there's the recipe. Define the need, backup your data, plan ahead, and maybe hire outside help. Together these steps can result in a successful systems migration — assuming a migration is even necessary. Perhaps the best advice the experts have to offer is this: Don't upgrade unless you have to. Don't swap systems just to get the latest bells and whistles. Any major systems migration should serve a clear and quantifiable business objective. Otherwise, what's the point?

Do you have a comment or question about this article or other small business topics in general? Speak out in the SmallBusinessComputing.com Forums. Join the discussion today!

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