How to Manage an Acquisition

Ask these integration questions -- right away.

An unannounced all-hands meeting is hastily convened first thing on a Thursday morning. The vice president of your division announces the great news: Your company has just acquired another business, and the integration will occur over the next 120 days. As the IT project manager, you realize that this will inevitably restructure your priorities. Unless you or your company has done this before, you may have no idea where to start. And by the way, the clock is ticking.

Ive been in this situation before, and whenever it happens, there are a few key things I need to know right away: Where are we now? Where do we want to be? And what is the gap between them?

Start With What You Can Touch

First, there is the tangible: people and hardware. They are the real-world things that we have to deal with. I will usually get a senior architect and my lead network engineer to join me in a visit to the new site. I want to get an inventory of what types of technology the new group has and what we have to work with. I also need to understand the context of what this new business does. I always start at the top and work my way down any inventory list or employee roster I may be examining. For example:

Hardware: What equipment do they have? I check out everything from the basic infrastructure (servers, switches, firewalls) to PCs and all of the support contracts on the equipment.

People: Who are the IT people, and what are their responsibilities? You could start by checking with Human Resources, but they probably cant tell you what IT people really do. I find it more useful to get involved and interview each of the IT staff members myself. It gives me an idea of what they do and are capable of. It also gives me a chance to get to know them as people.

What Do They Do and How Do They Do It?

Both of these tangible assets people and hardware need to follow instructions to perform their work. People follow procedures, and hardware follows software instructions. I need to quickly compile lists for both.

Software: What services or business functions does IT perform for the customer? Does it run financial, payroll, scheduling, sales and e-mail applications? And what software does it use?

Procedures: What procedures does IT perform to run the operation and support the business? Does it maintain the infrastructure, run the help desk, handle disaster recovery planning or distribute support guides?

The answers to these questions will give me a good idea of how mature the IT environment is as well as an inventory of the applications that I am dealing with. They are a good starting point because I need to move employees e-mail accounts, track down software maintenance costs and start reviewing contracts to see what modifications need to be made.

Where Do They Do It?

This is the one that usually ends up causing the most problems down the road if it isnt dealt with upfront. As network links are broken between our new acquisition and the other entities it used to conduct business with, other things begin to break as well. So to keep operations running, its crucial to first document all of the data touch points, interfaces, firewalls, routes and security. For example:

Network: What locations does the acquisitions IT service have to communicate with? How does it communicate with them? From what locations does it send and receive data? An experienced network engineer is invaluable to deciphering how all of the systems communicate.

As I mentioned, this is a particularly good time to start documenting or reviewing security. Your server administrator and your network engineer can look at firewalls during business hours to see how things are being accessed.

If the acquired company has not deliberately implemented a formal security approach, then its security policies have probably been haphazardly patched together over the years without rhyme or reason (or documentation). Start sorting things out by looking at groups of users and what levels of security they require to perform their jobs. Dont be surprised if nearly everyone is listed as an administrator.

Putting It All Together

People and machines are very different, and like countries in different parts of the world, they need a common currency with which they can interact. The currency in the IT world is data. So you need to understand how they use that currency.

Data: Find and document where all of the data resides. Who (and what) uses it? How often is it backed up? How is it restored in the event of a disaster? Who has access to it?

These six core elements provide a road map that helps me to quickly navigate what I need to know when I look at a new business acquisition for the first time. They give me the line of questioning I need in order to quickly determine what Im dealing with.

By using this map to drive my analysis and investigation, I get a quick feel for the new acquisition and have a better chance of not missing anything important. I can bridge the gaps my team identifies and define the work we need to do. I am left in a much better position to estimate the resources needed to accomplish the goal because I am dealing with a few more facts than guesses. I can manage risk and increase the chances of success. The new business partners are brought on board quickly and with minimal disruption. All is right with the world until the next surprise all-hands meeting.

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Barnett is a program director at a large IT services company where he focuses on IT program management for clients. Contact him at tom. barnett@earthlink.net.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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