Special Reports

Five mistakes on the installation

No large computer installation goes perfectly, experts say. But there are things companies and governments can do to ease the pain of a major transition.

Tacoma’s rocky beginning might serve as a cautionary tale for others considering such a large-scale project and a whole new way of doing business, says a group of computer industry watchers, analysts and a human resources specialists in change management.

Here are five steps experts and Tacoma officials say would have made the city’s implementation better.

 • Beware of “scope creep.”

Computer users in other cities and utilities warned Tacoma leaders to avoid the temptation of buying more than they needed once they saw all the features and upgrades available. Despite those warnings the project grew from an $11 million plan to replace ailing computers at Tacoma Public Utilities to a $50 million project covering several aspects of city government. Still more departments were added midstream. Many companies “fail to understand that they don’t need everything they think they want,” said Susan Heathfield, a management consultant who specializes in human resources and edits About.com.

 • Do it in stages.

Tacoma opted for the “big bang” approach that turned on both city government and utility systems within a month of each other. That’s a huge stress on an organization, many experts say. New Brunswick Power Corp., for example, installed SAP in phases over a few years, building in breathing room, business director Jacquie Cleveland said. Turning on a new system during a public utility’s busy season also is a no-no, said Linda Young of the San Antonio Water System. In Tacoma, officials believed the “big bang” approach was necessary because so many systems were failing and it would be less expensive.

It’s all about change.

Though Tacoma officials said they talked about “change management,” many employees said they’d never heard the term and didn’t understand that the city wasn’t just installing a computer system, it was changing the way it did business.

“When you are going to have a whole bunch of users move into a change of this depth, they need to sit down and understand the ramifications of ‘What does this mean for me?’ Not just how it affects their job,” Heathfield said.

Training, training, more training

Project director Karen Larkin, City Manager Jim Walton and TPU Director Mark Crisson all cite lack of training as a weakness. Classes – conducted during the summer while many employees were on vacation – were poorly attended. Many who did attend said they’d forgotten what they learned by the time the system was turned on. And since the software was so heavily customized, there were no written manuals for employees to refer to at their desks.

Get an independent quality assessment.

It not only makes good sense, it’s good business practice to have a third-party watchdog making sure you’re getting what you pay for, said Ian Campbell, CEO of Nucleus Research, a Wellesley, Mass., information technology company that scrutinizes software installations. Tacoma didn’t have such a watchdog. Project leaders relied instead on a quality assurance report from TUI Consulting and city employees.

Kris Sherman, The News Tribune