Surviving Software Upgrades

Divide the changes into manageable chunks, enlist users as allies, and deliver more than you promised.

Today's weak economy makes upgrading major business systems harder than ever. Management has little patience for IT projects that go over budget or don't deliver the promised savings. Users doing their own jobs plus the work of two or three laid-off colleagues have little interest in cooperating with an upgrade effort, especially if the new system might eliminate their jobs next.

But the economic crunch that is making software upgrades so painful right now is also increasing the pressure to do those upgrades quickly and well. Companies desperate to squeeze out costs and improve profits are upgrading to newer, Web-based versions of ERP systems that allow them to fine-tune pricing and reduce costly inventory . Other companies are looking to migrate from proprietary systems to less-expensive, open-source software such as Linux.

If you manage an upgrade well in these trying times, you can earn points with your employer, improve your marketable skills and at least make life easier for yourself and those around you. The keys, say veterans of the process, are to dump the arrogance regarding users, divide the painful changes into manageable chunks, and underpromise and overdeliver.

Surviving Software Upgrades
Credit: Josef Gast

"I promise absolutely as little as I can get away with," says Damien Bean, vice president of corporate systems at Hilton Hotels Corp. in Beverly Hills, Calif., and one of Computerworld's Premier 100 IT Leaders for 2003. "Don't overpromise—that's the death of every big upgrade."

Smaller, incremental upgrades are more likely to meet everyone's expectations than "big-bang projects," says Bean. And because they involve less change at any given time, incremental upgrades generate less resistance from skeptical users or managers.

No More Arrogance

One of the biggest obstacles to successful upgrades is users' negative experiences with previous upgrades, says Catherine Walters, an independent project management consultant in Worcester, Mass., who has managed many upgrades for an East Coast financial services firm. She says users remember upgrades when key systems were unavailable for days, causing them extra work. When they hear of a new upgrade, she says, their response is, "[IT is] going to do it to us again."

Walters advises that you acknowledge past failures but stress how much the upgrade team has learned since then and point out that users can play a positive role in creating a successful outcome this time.

"They have a contribution to make if they can get their hands dirty and be involved in testing and helping to write the user manuals," she says. Talking down to users or keeping technical details from them is counterproductive, she adds, because many users are far more technologically savvy than they used to be. If some users need hand-holding, give it to them, if you can afford it.

"Just sitting and talking with somebody and helping them" with common chores, such as setting up a new application so it's linked to a familiar printer, is all that some users need to feel more comfortable, says Connie Eaton, a senior business analyst at GM Nameplate, a 1,000-person manufacturing firm in Seattle.

It's vital to have users who know the business on the upgrade team, says David Richards, CIO at Pacific Steel and Recycling in Great Falls, Mont. "They're your most knowledgeable people. You need to get their knowledge and to get their buy-in" so they can generate support for the upgrade among other users, he says.

Rich Bursek, senior vice president of online strategy at VirtualBank Mortgage, a subsidiary of Lydian Trust Co. in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., is finishing the installation of a new mortgage-processing system, perhaps the single most critical application for the online mortgage lender. Many of the business staffers who process mortgages were included in the selection process. "We really wanted to make it their choice ... instead of them thinking they were getting pressured by the IT department," Bursek explains.

Eaton says that when she asks a user to help evaluate potential software purchases, she typically goes with the user's choice unless there is a good reason not to do so.

Winning over users also requires scheduling the planning, development, rollout and training to avoid crunch work times for users and managers. Bursek scheduled any upgrade-related meetings, such as progress reports or appointments with vendors that might involve users, within the first two weeks of the month, avoiding the end-of-the-month period when most mortgages close. That's important, because the users don't earn their commissions until the mortgages close.

At Hilton, "we have to be cognizant of the fact that [users are] continuing to operate their business in a very, very tough time for the travel industry," says Bean. "They don't have a lot of extra hands available at the moment." Realizing that system training will always take a back seat to day-to-day operations, Richards advises budgeting for some after-hours and weekend training.

No Forced Marches

One major reason upgrades fail is that IT project managers try to change both software and business processes at the same time, says Bean. He reduces the risk of failure and culture shock by upgrading applications first and then phasing in new features that force changes in how users do their jobs.

At Lydian, Bursek has even customized some portions of the new processing application so it "mocks" some of the existing workflows to which users are accustomed, and he has delayed implementation of a feature that would suggest to mortgage processors which loan program is best for a customer. "If the system were to make a mistake, or we made a mistake in the setup, and it was noticed right away, it would have given bad marks to the rollout," he says.

One of Bursek's best moves in winning the hearts and minds of users, he says, was hiring a help desk specialist whose job it is to understand the new system "inside and out." When the application is rolled out, the entire eight-person upgrade team will stay with the mortgage processors for 30 days to answer any questions and prevent business interruptions. Bursek's goal: to avoid the perception "that the IT team walked away from the implementation."

After the 30 days, the team will focus on rolling out the application to another business unit. Although team members will still be available to make enhancements to the application, most of the day-to-day support will be handled by the dedicated help desk specialist.

For IT managers, losing the arrogant attitude doesn't mean you can't and shouldn't be forceful when needed. At Pacific Steel, Richards interrupted a training session to remind complaining users why the upgrade was vital. The new system, he told them, would speed the delivery of information such as the profitability of various products.

"In order to get that new information, sometimes you have to do things a little different," he told them. "After that," he says, "they seemed to accept it a little better." Walters recommends developing "advocates among senior management, hopefully ahead of time, who can run interference if necessary" and overcome users' resistance.

Even in tough times, teamwork and humility go a long way. "You always surround yourself with very smart people," says Bursek. "You never assume you've got the right answer, and you work off your worst-case scenario. Constantly ask yourself, 'Do I have it all covered? Do I have it all covered? Do I have it all covered?' "

And when talking to users or others whose cooperation is needed, "even when you're almost certain you know the answer, don't assume—just ask the question anyway," says Bean. "Just the sheer action of asking engenders cooperation."

Scheier is a freelance writer in Boylston, Mass. He can be reached at


Successful Upgrades

Draw pictures of workflows to encourage users to share their knowledge of how new systems should work, and to show why their involvement in the upgrade is important.

Have users—not developers—schedule training times to avoid peak work periods. Write training manuals that include the information they need.

Have a stick handy in the form of executive support to press reluctant users to go along with the upgrade.

Have a carrot handy in the form of examples of how the upgrade will eliminate drudgery or give users new skills.

Prove that the new system will deliver the promised response and throughput by using automated testing tools.

Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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