Anyone who has managed a successful software automation project recognizes that their success depends on a well-defined and carefully followed project plan. Despite the call from many companies for management and staff to do their business better, cheaper, and at the same time faster, this mandate should never result in careless or substandard project planning. Quickly planned projects may save staff time and money up front, but in the end, the project will be poorer, more expensive (due to corrections to the initial plan), and more time consuming because of the adjustments that have to be made later to make things work properly.
Although the content varies greatly from project to project, every plan should include clearly defined goals, thorough analysis and preparation for change, detailed project planning, proper training, thorough testing of the solution, and both frequent and honest two-way communication. No matter how unique a project may be, it is always in the interest of both technology vendors and the users of their software solutions to have projects remain on time, on task, and on budget. If these fundamental goals are met, there is a good chance that the customer will be satisfied. If not, the vendor may risk losing a valuable client and damaging the prospects for future projects.
It sounds so simple, and yet too many imaging and other IT projects fail unnecessarily due to poor project planning and communication. Why do some projects fail? How can you ensure that your project is successful? This paper lays the stepping stones that will help you pave a smooth path from conception through realization, and ensure that you reach your goals.
Step 1: defining clear goals
The first and most important step is having – and communicating – a clear understanding of what your company and/or department is trying to achieve through software automation. Make sure you have outlined the results you expect to see as a result of automation. For example, if you already have a partially automated system and are looking to enhance it by adding automated workflow or digital signatures, make sure that your staff and end users understand the enhancement project’s goals. It is equally important to have a project champion or project manager within the organisation or department that is implementing the project. This person will oversee the entire project and will work with both the site’s staff and the vendor to ensure that the project plan is complete and is followed.
In order to ensure that the established goals in your software automation project are met, you will need to choose a project manager with the right skill set, and equip that person with the necessary tools to perform well. This is critical to the smooth implementation of a major business software solution. It takes on greater importance if the solution is highly customised, involves integrations, or is implemented across multiple departments or throughout the entire organisation. A project manager needs to be highly dedicated, possess some technical knowledge, and have a firm grasp of the project goals. The chosen person needs to be given the authority to make decisions, be aggressive enough to go after whatever is needed to make the project successful, and exemplify leadership skills and the ability to generate enthusiasm for the project. Too often, management asks, “Who has the most time to manage this project?” and the person who gets the project has the misfortune of being ill-equipped to make the project successful.
In order for the vendor to deliver exactly what you are looking for, your objectives need to be clearly stated – not just what you are buying and what you expect the software to do, but why it is important in your business and what it will help you to achieve. Purchasing the right products may not solve all of your problems if the chosen vendor does not have a clear understanding of what you expect to see as a result of the implementation.
Even if you have a favorite vendor whose products you know and trust, it is important to put all of the details and expectations of each project in writing to ensure that everyone involved knows what to do in the event that unforeseen changes or problems occur. A turnover in personnel, points of failure in the configuration or technology, improper training, faulty communication, natural disasters, system shut-downs, or other problems don’t have to be overwhelming if contingency plans are already in place to keep the project on track and the installation running smoothly.
Step two: thorough analysis and preparation for change
After selecting a vendor whose products and services meet your needs, you should work with the vendor to conduct a thorough analysis of all of the business processes that will be automated. Plans need to be established to enable the product specialist to understand the business scope of the project and the organisational processes that are currently in place. Eventual end-users of the technology need to be prepared for change through an effective change management program. Similar to an employment agreement or a contract with a realtor for the sale of a new home, project and training expectations need to be realistic, and should be laid out step by step in writing.
In order to assess the scope of the project, the vendor project consultant will need to know the types of documents or images that will be stored, the volume of documents that will be added or processed daily, and other software with which the system needs to integrate (both customised applications that have been created in-house and purchased software). Variable paper sizes, the condition of old files, and file formats will play a role in the manner and speed with which data can be converted. The vendor can help you to evaluate needed storage capacity, server and hardware needs, and pieces that may be missing in the infrastructure that are required to make your solution run smoothly. In order to make the information easily and securely accessible, the vendor may ask:
- How should information be indexed for easy retrieval?
- What levels of security need to be in place for different groups and individuals, and why?
- How should software be configured to meet the needs of the indexing and storage structure, as well as user requirements?
The answers will lay a foundation for a software automation solution that best suits the users’ needs.
If the software automation project involves workflow, a workflow process analysis is critical long before a software development lifecycle begins. What happens to the paper today, and why are things done a certain way? Should the automated workflows replicate the existing processes, or can the current processes be streamlined or improved before they are automated? The responsibility of the project consultant should be to help the site’s project manager and team to ask the right questions so that they get exactly what they need.
Step three: detailed project planning
A successful software automation project plan includes a series of detailed documents that help to communicate the strategies that will enable both the vendor and client to evaluate their progress every step of the way. These documents establish detailed expectations, accountability, and action items when issues arise so that they do not become problems. Another purpose of these documents is to provide recourse in the event of an unforeseen disaster. An effective project plan is comprised of the following documents:
- statement of work – this outlines what is expected of both the client site and the vendor, and what needs to be in place before the project begins;
- functional project plan – this describes how the project will be accomplished, as well as specific timelines and project milestones;
- site installation document – this shows what software, hardware, and other infrastructure components will be needed for the project;
- detailed design documents – these documents explain specific project requirements, necessary actions, time frames and training. Included within these design documents are: a human resources plan (outlining what resources and skills are necessary for the project to be implemented successfully);
- data dictionary – this describes the categories by which the customer has selected to index information, as well as relevant fields in the database that can be used for reporting purposes;
- a communication plan (detailing how frequently information exchanges about the project will occur and what information should be communicated, both internally and between the vendor and client; and identifying which individuals will need to be present for critical planning meetings, calls and reviews during the project);
- a risk management plan (showing how potential points of failure will be handled, should they occur);
- a project timeline (indicating when specific objectives are expected to be met, and when major milestones should be reached; examples might include the dates by which scanners will be delivered, scanning will begin, scanning of past documents will be complete, or the first workflow will be ready to test);
- a change management plan (a plan to train end users and management to prepare them for automation);
- and a disaster recovery document – a plan that outlines what to do in the event of an unexpected shut-down, regardless of the cause.
While the need to generate a disaster recovery document may sound severe, it is critical with a software automation project, because it shows what to do in the event that the system is shut down for any reason. It also ensures that the business processes upon which you depend can continue without interruption as you service customers. Although this may sound like a lot of details to pull together, especially for staff that already are feeling stretched, it is precisely this preparation that will minimise the stress, errors, and potential slow-downs of even the most complicated projects.
Step four: proper training
Proper training is an important part of effective change management. One of the greatest challenges is preparing the end users of the technology for upcoming changes and getting them excited. Wise managers will work with their employees extensively in an effort to understand the details of their daily business processes, and the barriers – perceived or real – that they face in converting to automation of those same processes.
They will communicate openly about developments related to the project, generate excitement about what the changes will mean for the company or department, and give their end users the tools and confidence they need to be successful. Furthermore, the successful manager will give the vendor access to staff so that the system can effectively replicate their procedures and be configured to address their needs.
Step five: thorough testing of the solution
Before any software automation project goes “live”, it is important to test it in isolation while maintaining the current system. Just as a wise homeowner requests a series of tests on a home that is about to be purchased, a business unit with critical information should make sure that the system is running flawlessly before abandoning the manual (or previous system’s digital) operations.
This “beta” testing of the system is a critical milestone for both the vendor and the client. A clear issue resolution plan helps to ensure that any problems are resolved quickly. It is at this point in the project that an outsider could assess the strength of the vendor-client partnership; both should be working together with 100% commitment to ensure that the customer gets exactly what was outlined in the project plan before the project consultant leaves the site.
Step six: frequent and honest two-way communication
As in any relationship, frequent and open communication is essential at all times. Changes in hardware, integrations with other software, upgrades, re-configuration of a single piece of software, power outages, and other variables can mean potential adjustments to the software automation system. Even if the solution runs like a dream, it is important to communicate with the vendor at the first sign of a potential challenge, so that issues can be addressed before they become compound problems.
Communicate, communicate, communicate…..every step of the way. No matter how much emphasis is placed on communication, breakdowns in communication can and will happen. Establish forms for regular information exchanges both internally (at the vendor site and your site) and also between the vendor site and your site. Include an issue resolution plan, too. If you outline who is responsible for resolving issues on both the customer and vendor sides, and indicate from the start what kinds of issues will be covered through support as well as what issues may require additional services billing, both sides will know what to expect. Frequent problems with a software automation project would be avoidable if questions were raised through customer support and dialogue with the project manager or installer early on, before problems become compounded and more complex, and require additional services.
The idiomatic expression “know thyself” could be easily adapted for successful software automation project planning. Know your company, know your goals, know your vendor, and know your staff. You don’t have to know everything to have a successful project, but you have to know the processes and people, and communicate with them clearly and systematically. By putting the right people, detailed documentation, and clear communications in place, your project should be on time, on task, and on budget. Your adventure into automation should be a resounding success.