Most cash-strapped SMEs know the pain of implementing new systems in a constantly changing environment. Last year a management buyout of Computer Brokers (now Lexel Systems) by the CEO and board of services provider Enterprise IT, was only the first step in the path from manual processes to web-based systems automation.
“As part of the split we had to come off Computer Brokers’ systems and find new ones for ourselves,” says HR and office manager Kristin Johnston, who project managed the integration. “We’re a services business and they were doing procurement, so we were trying to fit services information into a procurement-based system. Everything was horrendously manual.”
But this wasn’t only a systems upgrade; Enterprise IT had to find new premises, implement new systems – from CRM to financials and payroll – and take care of day-to-day workflow without losing step. The new additions – a sales director, SQL Server DBA and a Linux engineer – had to service existing customers in Enterprise IT’s core capabilities while also learning to use the company’s old, manual-based systems, knowing they’d be required to pick up new application skills in a matter of weeks.
The buyout happened in April 2008 and the physical move occurred the following October. “We needed all that time in order to ensure things continued to run smoothly and that we were looking at every available option,” says Johnston.
The benefits of planning
A substantial needs analysis was the starting point. The new system would have to incorporate automated time-sheets for staff working from customer sites. “Our business is very complex,” says Johnston. “You can have one person with different rates for different customers on different projects. So we needed flexibility.”
The old system had involved sending Excel spreadsheets into a shared inbox. These then had to be re-entered in an invoicing system that didn’t correlate to any of the other systems. “It started becoming something that was bigger than Ben Hur, and we ran into the problem of whether we should use one of our guys, who was also a developer, to build our own system,” says Johnston.
That might have resulted in the long-term compromises in services and support often caused by maintaining self-built systems. It was apparent a third party web-based system would have many advantages. “We wanted full visibility of each project or job in the system. We knew what we wanted; we just didn’t know which different products were out there to help us.”
These upfront requirements enabled a shortlist of products to be compiled.
“We did lots of web research. We knew it had to be web-based, that they needed to be local companies to fit in with our sustainability focus, and for support reasons.”
Coping with complexity
Even though Enterprise IT researched web-based timesheet management and time reporting systems online, most were from overseas companies; very few had New Zealand representation. “The ones that were here at the time were in their infancy, and one only had one developer on it,” says Johnston. “That was risky. So once we’d found a product it was quite a process to ensure the data was secure, the company had been around for a while and was committed to its software.”
Stuart Speers, Enterprise IT’s CEO, says this level of upfront research was essential because most commercial, enterprise products are designed for much bigger firms. “There was no way we could afford those as a medium business.” The key was to find a committed, local supplier that could cater to the needs of SMEs. “You usually get a good result with a local provider who’s keen and hungry,” he says.
The web-based way
The chosen timesheet application was Workflow Max (www.workflowmax.com). Written in asp.net, it is partially open source and the backend is MySQL, says Johnston. “It goes from CRM through to invoicing, and they’ve built in a full purchase order management system into it, as well. And that integrates through into our accounting package Xero. We get fantastic financial reporting out of Xero, because it takes everything through from invoicing to general ledger.”
Enterprise IT made the introductions between Workflow Max and Xero and asked the providers to integrate the two applications, creating a common interface, which they did.
For payroll, Enterprise IT chose web-based application iPayroll (www.ipayroll.co.nz), which it was able to have integrated with Xero. “We’ve now got everything from customers to backend financials and payroll, all feeding into the one financials system,” says Johnston. “It’s cut down on a heck of a lot of time on double-entry.”
Johnston says it costs the company less than $250 a month to run all of its software. “Workflow Max costs us $112 a month to run. You only pay extra for administrators. I think an extra admin costs $20 or something. You can have as many users as you want, so the costs don’t creep up. iPayroll take a dollar figure per person that you pay through the system. Xero is only $55 a month and we’re able to run all our financials.”
The company also runs Zimbra, an open source email client. “The licensing for that cost a bit, but still saves us a lot compared with Microsoft. And we get a whole collaboration suite with email, calendar and instant messenger.”
Ensuring staff expectations were modest so they could be exceeded was important to the success of the project, says Johnston. “We were very open and honest: ‘If you think it’s chaotic now, it’s probably only going to get more so.’ When things do go well they’re happy and surprised.”
Enterprise IT is a refreshingly employee-friendly company, in that it pays for all of its staff’s broadband connections, encourages flexible hours and working away from the office. “We love people to be in the office and creating the buzz, but if you’ve got a sick child or don’t want to fight the traffic, there’s no point sitting at your desk if you really don’t have to be there,” says Johnston. “The people we employ are self-managing, very professional and we trust them implicitly.”
Johnston knew the staff would appreciate any decision to minimise commuting. “Our people are the most important consideration,” she says. “A lot of people took the job at Enterprise IT because we were based on Auckland’s North Shore and they live there. They have to work at different sites around the city, but we didn’t want to risk losing anyone just because it was too much of a mission to get to work.”
The chosen new building in Albany had been fitted out for a web design company that was also changing premises, and so had TelstraClear fibre-optics. “They were looking for somebody to take over their existing lease,” Speers explains. “It ended up being just perfect for us and we didn’t have to do anything more to the place.”
Ensuring his users stayed happy was the first step towards satisfying customers, the CEO realised. “My driving philosophy – because we just do services – has been that everything around the staff is the most important thing for the business,” says Speers.
Smile, and ask curly questions
Maintaining a sense of humour is the only way to survive such a complex project, says Johnston. “Find someone in the company who’s a good communicator and good at finding the lighter side. Get them to be the spokesperson for the communication around the move.”
Speers says the biggest lesson is the need to understand your upfront requirements before embarking on such a project. “If we hadn’t understood our own business requirements, we wouldn’t have got such time savings and reductions in errors.”
The secret to success, Speers says, is to ask your suppliers “curly questions” about what you want from your new systems. Answering curly questions seems to be working for Enterprise IT; it recently renewed a 12-month contract with Revera, supporting North Shore City’s SQL Server databases.