Nov 2004


By Bill Allen

This is the 17th article in the Tech Talk series.

Sooner or later, every residential construction company faces a computer conversion project. To increase efficiency and accuracy, you may need to automate functions like payroll, estimating, job costing, etc., that you currently do on paper or partly on paper. Or, perhaps you're considering purchasing an integrated software system to dovetail several stand-alone, automated functions that need to talk to each other and share data. Or perhaps the time has come to convert from one integrated software system to another.

Depending on the planning and communication that goes on behind the scenes, your employees may regard a computer conversion project positively and look forward to gaining new paradigms, controls, and opportunities. On the flip side, they may view the project with the trepidation of getting a nice, slow root canal.

You see, while it's in process, a conversion is "dead time." It does nothing to close more homes, get more land, reduce costs, or shorten cycle time. Because they can't see immediate benefits, employees may wonder why the company is undertaking a computer conversion project. Unless you explain the rationale upfront, they'll be dismayed if their workloads increase or shift to facilitate the conversion.

What Do You Want?

The crucial term here is "expectations." Everyone reacts differently to a computer conversion project and plays a different role in it. As a business owner and the one behind the conversion, its important to understand how each of your employees sees the project unfold. Lets break this down a little:

What does everyone want from the implementation? You can start with an owner's expectation of increased profits or market share. Department managers may be looking for better control or proactive decision-making capability from each part of the system. Staff members often want solutions to reduce hassles and task duplication, and make life easier.

Now let's look at some difficulties arising from those differing expectations:

Managers and others who don't get their hands dirty working on the actual nuts and bolts of the conversion typically view the conversion tasks at a high level. They believe the results are attainable in a best-case scenario-and that may be the only scenario they consider. Vendors and staff may fuel this viewpoint by telling managers that a conversion can be completed in a certain (and unbeknownst to them, inadequate) amount of time. However, when normal circumstances throw off the projects timing, everyone becomes frustrated and disappointed.

Psychologically, upper-management personnel tend to be big-picture. These folks generally aren't detail-oriented. Unfortunately, the mechanics of a computer conversion don't allow for high-level anything. A project of this nature demands 100% uncompromising accuracy in data conversion, file setup, and everything else. If you end up building a database that nobody trusts because it's riddled with flaws and errors, you're back at square one.

Pave the Way

More software implementations fail because of an organization's negative personal dynamics than the softwares inability to perform.

Some residential construction business owners assume that they can hire or retain miracle workers (i.e., a new manager or consultant) to perform computer conversion projects for their companies.

I have nothing against consultants; in fact, I am one. I help with many software implementations, and hopefully facilitate a smooth and productive transition. But what I can't do is fix a toxic communication process in an organization thats forced to share information for the first time.

So what are you to do? The simple answer is careful planning and communication. Use these steps to lay the groundwork for an effective, successful computer conversion project:

* Explain to employees why you are undertaking the project. Tell them what's in it for them, and what they are likely to expect throughout the computer conversion process and after it is complete.

* Ask them what they hope to gain from the conversion project.

* Ask them what difficulties they foresee during the project's implementation. Be sure to address and act on their concerns.

* Allow plenty time for the conversion. If your company is operating at redline capacity, it's unrealistic to think you and your employees will magically find the time to convert the data, learn the system, and apply new management tools. Change takes time-lots of it.

* Don't expect some outside party to wave a magic wand and do the project for you. It's okay to ask for a consultant's or vendor's help, but remember: It's your business and your reward for working to apply the benefits. The sooner your employees become invested in the project, the more productive the experience will be.

* Break the project down into tasks and milestones.

* Work with your employees to come up with a reasonable timeline for those tasks and milestones.

* Consult your employees about who should do what tasks-and make the appropriate people responsible for their completion. Empowerment helps facilitate employee ownership of the project.

* Write down your project plan. Fine-tune it with your employees help. * Celebrate project milestones when they are achieved. For example, when all customer records are entered in the new system, send around a congratulatory e-mail to the person who did the data entry and CC everyone in the company.

* Think through the next steps and contingencies of your project plan before you get to them. * Meet with your employees regularly to review progress.

* Don't expect everything to go according to the project plan. There will be some variances and frustrations along the way. Plan for those, too, when you develop your project timeline.

*Provide support and help to those employees in the trenches who are doing the conversion tasks. Don't drag managers into thick details they can't constructively deal with.

* Discuss and review the plan, again and again. There's no such thing as too much preparation or communication.

Bill Allen is a longtime contributor to NAHB's Business Management & Information Technology Committee and is president of W.A. Allen Consulting ( The Redmond, Wash., company provides information technology consulting services and process management assistance to the home building industry. Contact Bill at 425-885-4489 or via e-mail at

For more information about this item, please contact Natalie Holmes at 800-368-5242 x8461 or via e-mail at

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