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COMPUTER MANAGEMENT SYSTEMS -- Pain-free Installations

November 2001
BY CAROLINE MILLER


Implementing a new computer management system can sometimes feel like a reoccurring nightmare that leaves you feeling dazed, confused and just plain exhausted. But whether you are buying your first system, going through an upgrade or looking at a completely new system, there are several steps you can take to avoid waking up in a cold sweat.

"The ideal implementation includes smart people using smart technology that is supported by smart people," remarks Paul Grieco, president of Printers Software.

So what makes an implementation successful? Several computer management vendors recently discussed the "do's" and "don'ts" of software implementation with Printing Impressions.

At the very top of everyone's to "do" list is the need to assemble the right people within your company to lead the process of buying a system and overseeing its implementation.

Individuals at all levels of your printing operation need to be included in this decision-making process. Implementing a new system goes to the very core of how a graphic arts establishment works—every single department is going to be affected at some point by a new computer management system. It will require changing how work is processed through a plant, how employees do their jobs and how they interact with each other.

"If the users and department managers do not feel like they were part of that decision, it is very easy for them to consider the system 'your system' instead of 'our system,' " explains John Knowlton, executive director of marketing at PRIMAC Systems. "Someone has to make the ultimate decision, but involving the folks on the front line in defining what would help them do their jobs better, faster and easier goes a long way toward getting a system that serves the real needs of all departments."

Assign a Project Leader
While the input of many voices is important, a common mistake printers make is not assigning a project leader to the implementation team, adds Carol Andersen, CEO of Prism USA. "Without this person, implementations will often drift, training is forgotten and what should take three months to get up and running can often take six to nine months. The customer must be willing to assign a project manager who will 'own' the implementation," she says. "Often, the senior managers will leave all aspects of implementation decision-making up to team members. Without recognizable leadership, projects will not implement well."

And the words and actions used by upper management go a long way to setting the overall tone of the implementation. "There has to be a management commitment that 'yes, we are going to make this happen; everybody is going to get on-board with this project.' If you don't have that kind of a commitment plan, an install can drag on forever," remarks Denise Lunden, executive vice president of Software Marketing Associates.

But most important is the understanding by upper management that they need to be willing to make the installation their main focus, says Grieco, of Printers Software.

"People think that they can leave it to the supplier to install the system, and they can go about their regular business."

Once you've assembled your team, the next challenge is to take a good, hard look at what you want out of the new system. "Users have to be able to articulate to the supplier what specifically they need the system to do," adds Grieco.

Initial planning meetings should focus on what each department needs the system to do, as well as a wish list of desired features, notes Ken Meinhart, president of Tailored Solutions. "It's hard to find a system that will be the ultimate for everyone. So everyone needs to prioritize what features are important," he claims.

To ensure that everyone is on the same page, planning meetings cannot occur in a vacuum, according to PRIMAC's Knowlton. Departments need to interact with each other when developing needs and wants in a system. Departments should not be left to make their lists without the interaction of others. This process helps lay the initial groundwork for developing the all important "our system" approach to the installation.

This planning phase is also a good time for executive management to focus on the bigger picture, suggests Knowlton. "One of the biggest mistakes I see companies make is that they buy a software package that meets their needs today without looking at future needs. But, in five years, they've changed their business and they have to start over again."

Look to the Future
A new install requires that the implementation team whip out a crystal ball in order to anticipate where their company is going in the next 10 years, so that the system they are about to purchase will be able to meet those future requirements. This planning period is also an opportunity to evaluate how work flows through the plant.

A new computer management system invariably requires some change in workflow processes, so it's best to begin dealing with those upcoming changes before the system is actually installed.

Once a printer has a detailed game plan in place, it's time to go shopping for the best supplier partner. Finding the right vendor involves doing a lot of homework, says Glen Forbes, vice president of sales, Western region, for CRC Information Systems. This phase of planning is so important to the overall success of an operation that CRC spent more than a month developing a 16-page brochure titled, "The Right Questions to Ask Before Investing in Graphic Arts Business Management Software." The goal of the free brochure, he states, is to provide printers with any easy-to-use guide to evaluating computer management systems.

Printers can begin to evaluate vendors by asking some of the questions found in the brochure, such as: What is their reputation within the industry? Are they members of various trade associations? Do they advertise regularly in trade publications? Do they have active users' groups? How long have they been in the industry? Forbes also strongly recommends getting references from a supplier's current clients and even visiting their plants to see the systems up and running.

But not all references are created equal. "Talk to a printer who is using the system—and I don't mean someone who has been working with it for just six months. You want someone who has been working intimately with a supplier for eight to 10 years," stresses Grieco.

There are two major issues printers need to keep in mind when shopping for a system: technology and support. Printers need to look carefully at what a vendor is offering, recommends Andersen. "Is the vendor ahead of the pack with regard to technical innovations in its software? Does the software encompass functionality that will help the customer's business grow?"

Do Background Checks
Ron Dremel, sales manager for ProGraphic, also recommends making sure that programmers, technical support and sales personnel all have printing backgrounds.

Ideally, a printer should see demos from at least three companies in order to get a feel for the vast array of tools and features that are available in the market, advises Jay Farr, president of Pace Systems Group.

But, don't be fooled by a flashy demo, adds Grieco. "You need to get beneath that demo and evaluate the company to see if it is able to provide you with the on-going support once the check is in the mail," he notes.

In fact, Bruce Mason, president of PowerQuote, says to closely scrutinize a vendor's support capabilities. It is a supplier's on-going support that will make or break a system. "Should the system fail, or if new estimators and managers are hired, will support be available? And is support available for issues that include the operating system and software?"

Knowlton agrees that all of these questions are important because the printer is entering into a long-term relationship with the vendor. "I tell people that it's like we are getting married. You aren't just buying the software package, you are really buying the company and people who will support it."

The most important issue is to be sure that you're dealing with a system manufacturer who is not going to "change its spots" without notice, notes Steve Hallberg, president of Parsec Corp. "Printers need to seek out a vendor who will continue to provide good systems and service well into the future, without blindsiding a printer with new offerings or services that are not wanted or needed." Other key issues to consider: Is the software package able to grow with your company? Does the vendor offer open databases so that information can be passed to other platforms? And can the software be customized?

Still, ease-of-use issues should not be taken lightly, states Randy Sparrow, general manager of Franklin Estimating Systems. "The overwhelming reason that systems fail is due to employee frustration. A good 60 percent of failures are caused by employees rebelling against a cumbersome system."

Training Is Key
One strategy that Paul Evenson, printCafe Hagen OA operations implementation services manager, suggests is providing an overview of the new system to employees before the implementation even begins. "It gives users an opportunity to see what the system is going to be like when it's up and running. They can walk through the system, ask questions and get comfortable with it. It also helps create a common understanding as to what their company is trying to get out of the software."

Once a vendor has been selected, it's time to establish some implementation goals and a realistic timeline for the installation. "We always suggest setting some small, easy-to-achieve goals to help make employees feel good about implementing the system," Evenson adds.

One area that printers often fail to take into account is the amount of time and effort that is involved in an implementation, reports Meinhart, of Tailored Solutions. "The biggest thing that management underestimates is the time and manpower that it takes to implement a system. Many think that they just install a system and it magically solves all of their problems."

Ron Purdes, director of client services, printCafe Hagen, agrees, adding that when management releases key personnel from their daily duties to focus on the system implementation, it goes a long way in ensuring that their company is able to meet those goals and timelines.

Also, with any new system comes change, says Parsec's Hallberg. "You may need to re-think file structures, numbering schemes and such things. Remember that most system manufacturers employ the most common and most successful schemes in designing their software. Be willing to bend a little, learn a lot and gain confidence as the system becomes a vital part of your business," he advises.

A big part of gaining that confidence in a new computer management system is training. Training generally needs to happen at both the vendor's site, as well as at a printer's plant, reports CRC's Forbes. "The advantage of training at our office is that there are no distractions. There are no interruptions, no phone calls—it's nothing but the software. When we train on-site it enables us to reach more people and to communicate about their specific issues, but we often have to deal with work-related interruptions."

Training also needs to be executed in a timely fashion, according to printCafe's Evenson. "We've had situations where training has occurred two months before they are using the software and, in that time, they've lost that knowledge," he says.

Build a Relationship
Just as important as training is the vendor/customer communication that needs to occur during the installation process, and continue throughout the length of the relationship. Knowlton recommends weekly staff meetings throughout the implementation, as well as monthly conference calls with the vendor. These meetings need to continue once the install and initial training programs are complete.

"There also needs to be an annual meeting where customers are discussing and reviewing with us how the system is working, as well as what needs might have arisen over the year and how we can address them," concludes Knowlton. "Really, it's a continuing partnership."
 

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