Upgrade Your Business Along with Your Software

Software upgrades offer your enterprise an opportunity to enrich more than just application features.

by Dan Wilhelms

Has your enterprise ever faced a vendor-imposed deadline: upgrade our product or face discontinuing mainstream maintenance? Such deadlines often create a flurry of activity. Enterprises that don't want to move into the costly "extended maintenance" mode and pay an annual surcharge to continue receiving support may have to scramble, despite having fewer IT resources and even greater demands to solve current problems or meet existing user needs.

Once an upgrade is complete, no doubt you'll issue a collective sigh of relief at having dodged an expensive maintenance bullet. Yet in the end, if all you've done is change the version number of your software, you've really missed an opportunity because a software upgrade presents the perfect time to move your enterprise onto a better business platform.

Consider how much work goes into a software upgrade. You have all the planning that goes into it. You have the technical upgrade, which essentially resets any custom code you've developed back to the vendor's base code -- which means you'll have to reapply all the custom codeagain. There's all the testing to make sure everything still works. Finally, there's upgrading and testing all the functionality, which can take months.

Throughout this long, arduous procedure, you will be opening your business processes and back-office operations to make the changes. Rather than simply converting them to the new version, it makes sense to examine them closely to ensure that the things you already set up still make sense for the business today -- and where it's headed tomorrow.

Following are a few of the areas we recommend you examine as plan your upgrade.

Streamlining Business Processes

Business processes have a tendency to grow and evolve over time. Sometimes, for the better, sometimes not. Although there was, no doubt, a good reason at some point for every process you set up and the way it was built, the process may no longer serve the business well.

A version upgrade is the perfect time to look at your business processes and determine which should stay, which require modification, and which should be retired. After all, you will be exposing these processes as part of your project plans. Instead of accepting them as-is, why not take the extra time to make sure they make sense?

For example, you can look at how purchases are initiated and how the approval process for payment works. What are the steps? Are there any that are unnecessary or redundant? Are there any that violate compliance regulations? Could certain tasks be shifted elsewhere to provide a more balanced workload?

You will be looking at the business processes anyway to make sure the transition from one version to the next goes smoothly, so why not look at them with a critical eye to help you optimize the business?

Reducing Complexity

As with business processes, systems also have a tendency to grow in size and complexity over time. An unmet need here, a special project or requirement there, and suddenly your application landscape is so complex it takes more time and resources to operate than it should.

The planning phases of a software upgrade create an opportunity to take a step back from your current landscape and see where the complexity can be reduced. In some cases, it may be a matter of simplifying or even eliminating certain procedures. In others, it may be a matter of leveraging a new capability that is being added as part of the upgrade. You may have the opportunity to consolidate two or more operations into one more all-inclusive process.

Vendor application software is complex enough on its own. The more you can do up front to simplify its use, both for your business users and your internal team, the better value you will gain.

Reducing Ongoing Support and Maintenance

Estimates that the average IT department spends 70 percent to 90 percent of its time and budget on maintaining the hardware and software it already owns explains why very little time remains for innovation or for contributing ideas to advance your business.

A software upgrade creates an ideal environment in which to examine current support contracts and history to determine if the level of paid support matches your organization's needs. Is there redundant support? Do the current contracts align with the going rates at this time? Has the performance met expectations? Are you still paying to support systems that no longer require that level of support?

An upgrade is also an opportune time for IT leadership to look at which support functions absolutely must be handled internally and which can be outsourced to an outside firm. If even half the current support and maintenance load can be reduced, you'll free internal IT resources to focus on more profitable projects from which your enterprise can derive real business value.

There is a human tendency to allow low-visibility activities such as support and maintenance to just roll along over time. Place those activities under the microscope during an upgrade and make adjustments as-needed.

Increasing Productivity

Software upgrades, especially significant ones, generally introduce major improvements and capability additions. However, enterprises may fail to gain the full value if they don't leverage those improvements by re-examining their operations and making adjustments accordingly.

Instead of looking at how you can transition current processes into the new software, see if the software lends itself to new, better processes that increase productivity in your own environment. Even several small improvements can have a cumulative effect. If there's one "Aha!" change, it can help justify the cost of the software upgrade over the long term.

Instituting Better Practices

Although not intended to be, institutional best practices are often looked at as a project to be completed instead of living, breathing guidelines that need to be re-examined and updated constantly. As a result, what may have once been a "best" practice may no longer be.

Because a software upgrade is heavily process-oriented, it is a great opportunity to go through the organization's best practices to ensure they really define the best way for the enterprise to operate. A good place to start is change management (especially documentation) because it will have the most direct effect on the success of the upgrade itself. Tightening change management and documentation procedures will help minimize the risk during the change itself while positioning your enterprise for better operations.

Once your best practices have been established (or confirmed), IT can review and improve technical procedures followed by functional uses within your application. While upgrading your software, there should be ample opportunity to test the new practices to be sure they truly are optimal. Once the upgrade is completed, the organization will be well ahead of where it would have been if it merely undertook a technology/version upgrade.

Conclusion

Although an application upgrade may be driven by what are perceived as negative conditions, such projects offer an opportunity for your enterprise to gain a more positive outcome than merely continuing regular maintenance. Use the project to move your enterprise to a better business platform overall and you'll reap the rewards many times over.

Dan Wilhelms is president and CEO of Symmetry Corporation, an SAP hosting partner that provides technical managed services, security administration, and project consulting for SAP customers around the world. He can be reached at dwilhelms@sym-corp.com.
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