Late last year our CEO returned from a business trip which included a conference which was well attended by our peers, partners and competitors in the world of energy efficiency. There was a lot to debrief, but on particular interaction stuck with me. At the conference our CEO recounted someone bragging about the technology he had access to and had employed. In my thoughts I vowed, “We won’t end the year behind in technology, this is our year to do something about this.”
Of course, this comment struck a nerve because it was true. We were not keeping up with the opportunities that technology provided our business. We were relying on technology partnerships developed long ago which were right in their time, but need to be re-thought. We seemed somewhat stuck in position. We had reasonable advice on the technologies we employed, but a combination of minimal technology funding (historically) and lack of revolutionary thinking meant we weren’t advancing. And as we know, in the world of technology, if you’re not advancing you’re falling behind.
Really committing to change is the first and most important step
The reasons we fell into this shallow hole is long and complicated; fit for another blog post. However, the point I want to make is that, at its core, we had a leadership issue. While our CEO had nudged and cajoled in various ways in the past, her leadership team had yet to take up the charge in a serious way. No one felt they had the responsibility, the knowledge or the vision to take on the herculean task of improving technology at our company. But in that meeting, with nothing more than a thought, a commitment was made. It was a commitment to do what we already knew need to be done. In that meeting, in that moment, change began. I didn’t know how it would happen, what it would look like, how much it would cost or exactly how long it would take (as if improving corporate technology has an end date!?!?), but the most important step had occurred. Later that day I sent the CEO an email with my intent. There was no turning back.
We’d already spent a few months looking for an ERP system that would work for our business. We were looking for a system that was established and supported; one that would allow us to integrate the operation of our warehousing and scheduling, program management and financial functions. We thought we’d found what we were looking for in Sage 100. It had similar functionality to the Peachtree accounting software were using so we purchased the finance and materials management modules and understood we could either customize the software we’d purchased or use Sage’s CRM software (at an additional cost) to implement the project management functionality we needed.
The first step was finding someone to help us. We were referred by Sage to a few value added resellers (VARs) in our area and chose one. They counseled us on getting the server we needed and making sure all the workstations were up to the task of running Sage. They made sure the software was appropriately loaded, both on our servers and workstations, then began the process of configuring the system to our need. (At this level, nothing works perfectly out of the box. There are always decisions to be made requiring configuration and staff training. Sage being rather new to us, we chose to implement the finance module first. With the expertise of the VAR and the willingness of our CFO, we were able to implement the finance module and operationalize it within 2 months of purchasing the software Sure, it could have gone faster, but I thought that was reasonable for conversion to a new platform.
I wish the other modules were as quick to convert. Implementation of the materials management module required us to completely rethink how we call out materials. This was no quick conversion. FCI sells and installs a host of lighting fixtures, lamps, controls and ancillary parts from a number of manufacturers. Some of our parts are ‘kitted’ where raw materials are grouped together into one measure for installation. We had to develop new part numbers for all the material we stock, both raw materials and kitted product. (I don’t mean to say that everyone has to do this, but used the software conversion as an opportunity to manage stock at a more granular level than we had done in the past. This required a reworking of our part numbers.) Thankfully our VAR stuck with us because, with everything else going on throughout the company, it took our program and warehouse teams months to decide how we’d proceed, then reconfigure our materials numbering to match our new convention. From the time we purchased the software until the time we were able to fully use the materials management software effectively was almost a year. Better late than never. With 2 of the 3 important ERP elements installed we set our sights on implementing new project management software.
As for the project management function, we were sorely disappointed. As it turned out, the direction we led by our Sage VAR was unwarranted. About 4 months after we’d purchased the modules we intended to use for program management and several meetings our VAR professed what we knew by that time: the modules we purchased won’t work in the way they were represented to us. We’d have to find another option. Unwilling to loose the goal of a fully integrated ERP we got a refund on those modules and set out to investigate Sage CRM as our program management savior. This meant interviewing a host of new VARs who specialized in CRM and other Sage modules. This took a few months off the calendar, but we finally chose a VAR and asked them to tell us what such a project would require. Because we manage programs for utilities who have very specific reporting requirements our program management system has to do specific things. 6 months and a few thousand dollars later we received a user requirement document without an implementation estimate and the distinct felling that the VAR didn’t really want to develop this software for us anyway. Back to the drawing board with our program management needs unfulfilled.
The Techno Hustle is a series of posts from FCI’s COO chronicling the joys and pains of implementing business technology tools. Stay tuned as we chronicled 2014 improvements in telephony, office computing, social media, web presence and mobile computing.