By leveraging its existing knowledge base Coopers and Lybrand's Information Services department implemented a Lotus Notes-based IT purchasing system at minimal cost - in time, money and effortLike many organisations, Coopers and Lybrand's growth resulted in the accountancy and consulting firm opening offices in most major centres around Australia. Unlike many companies, which maintain a definite head office, Coopers developed a distinctly decentralised method of operation - as had its Information Services division. A National Group set standards and policies, but the IS division was fairly independent, centring around offices in each State.
While this method of operation proved effective for many years, in 1986, to better service its national and international clients, Coopers reorganised its operation nationally along lines of business. The firm remained essentially decentralised, but now had a clear linear management structure for each of the business units."It was only natural that IS be restructured along the same lines," says John Duckett, IS director for the Sydney region. "Everything else was being restructured nationally, so having the IS delivery primarily on a local basis wasn't logical."Naturally, a restructure of this magnitude wasn't without problems. One key change for "branch" office IS staff was that in many instances they no longer reported to someone working in the same office; because of the lines of business structure, the person on the next rung on the management ladder might even be in another State.
The area of IT purchasing was especially hard hit. Under the old structure, each office requisitioned its own IT supplies, from printers to telephones and even training courses. The new structure mandated that individual purchasing requests for each office needed to be approved by the appropriate business unit. The result? Purchasing paperwork would often now cross State lines rather than cross office corridors.
This wasn't the only problem. By developing in semi-isolation each office had developed "personalised" purchasing systems. According to Duckett, these were a combination of computer-based and paper-based systems. These systems may have worked well individually, but were a potential nightmare on a national basis. A new system was needed.
Thankfully, when it came to looking for the right system, Duckett and National Computing manager Jim McVey had between them a considerable amount of knowledge about available products. Duckett had conducted a search eight months previously for a product for Coopers' Sydney office, while McVey had experience in purchasing systems before joining Coopers. He knew the options were limited.
"We don't have mid-range systems, so we were faced with looking at something on the PC side. And there is not much out there that would satisfy a firm of our nature," says McVey.
What did satisfy Coopers was Streamlink, a purchasing application that uses the document sharing and workflow capabilities of Lotus Notes, from Sydney developer Sentor Communications. The Notes component was instrumental in selecting Streamlink according to Duckett, because Notes had been adopted as the strategic groupware platform for Coopers.
"That was one of the drivers that attracted to us to Streamlink in the first place. It was a Notes-based product, so we understood how it worked. We had the Notes infrastructure in place and it made sense to give that serious consideration."Another major reason for choosing Streamlink was its flexibility, says Duckett.
"We wanted something that would emulate the purchasing structure we had in place without making too many dramatic changes. We didn't want to offend people in other offices," he says, and adds that it has satisfied that aim.
The final (and critical) factor was the very tight timeframe that national IS director Tim Catley had to find and implement a new system. It ruled out internal development, or anything requiring extensive modifications. Following a number of meetings with Sentor, it was determined that Streamlink could satisfy all the demands.
One of the remarkable aspects of Coopers' Streamlink implementation was its low cost - in time, resources and cold hard cash. In fact, Duckett estimates it cost the firm less than $20,000. But it was through leveraging its knowledge of Notes that Coopers made its real savings.
The first saving was time. McVey says that while the decision to reorganise IS nationally was made long ago, the decision to recommend a purchasing system was made very close to the nationalisation deadline of 1 July last year. "We decided on Streamlink no more than three weeks before the national structure was due. With help from Sentor, we had it in and operating within two weeks of the decision being made."On 1 July, Coopers' major offices in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane had access to a brand-new purchasing system, which is now being slowly rolled out to all remaining offices.
The second saving was in effort, achieved by calling in Sentor for the software installation, says Duckett. Combined with what he and McVey already knew about Notes, it was enough to get the system working the way they wanted. "We were able to implement it very quickly, and quite successfully as it has turned out," Duckett says.
As an application, Streamlink can either act as a "shrink-wrapped" stand-alone package or integrate with existing purchasing systems. The Coopers' installation is stand-alone. McVey says the product's existence was fortuitous, both in its ease of installation and business fit.
"If we'd had to go and look at the market and find something else, that would have absorbed a fair bit of time. We knew the product, and it seemed to suit most of our requirements very easily."Still, some compromises were made.
"It was mostly because our structure didn't fit the system 100 per cent, but we managed to get around that fairly well. Streamlink is a centralised purchasing system, and we are using it in a decentralised fashion. We've made some minor changes to the way we purchase, but that's not a major issue," says McVey.
The new system allows Coopers to think decentralised but purchase nationally.
Purchasing officers in each State raise purchase requests off a distributed database of catalogues. A senior person in the office reviews the request, ensuring that the equipment requested is appropriate. The request then passes to a final level for the business unit involved - which may be at another office - where approval can be granted in full knowledge that the money is being well spent.
Requests for everything from training courses to file servers are catered for.
"We even buy our water bottles on Notes," say Duckett. "It would be quite feasible to roll this out further, and take on other purchasing. That is something that we've discussed, but I haven't pushed forward yet."As is the case with many workflow implementations, where success is often measured in units of time, the dollar savings are difficult to quantify. But while they may not appear on the balance sheet, Duckett and McVey are seeing the returns.
For example, take the approval time for processing a purchase request. "Before the national structure was in place most expenditure was approved locally by a senior person in the firm," says McVey. "Afterwards, we had approvals going across business lines, so someone in Adelaide trying to make a purchase may have had the approval done in Sydney or Melbourne. Paper going that far tended to be very slow."Not any more though. McVey estimates the new system has cut the start to finish time for processing a request from, in some cases, several days down to an hour.
What's more, says McVey, things don't get lost. "Somebody may overlook the approval for some reason, but you can give them a reminder - you know where it is. Before, a piece of paper could be lost in an internal envelope or buried in a desk. We don't have that problem any more."Duckett says another driver for the project was the desire for divisional staff to be able to fully track the purchase process, to instantly show them what stage their requests had reached. "Now they can view the progress of an order, which they couldn't do before without actually ringing up somebody."While this benefit is essentially unmeasurable, McVey says it has become a big advantage. "We can actually see what a business unit is doing against budget, and we can tell that business unit's management that. They can therefore control what they are doing far better than in the past.
"More to the point though, they can see where and how much a particular item is costing. We have the situation now where people from one state are buying from another state because it's cheaper. Now whether that's going to give the firm a better deal in terms of cost control and pricing is a moot point, but it does mean that they can better judge the price that they pay for a particular item.
It means that we can get more consistency in pricing for non-standard items across the country, and that's proven to be a bonus."And then there are other benefits that are even more difficult to measure. "The firm previously had different sign off structures for capital versus expenditure items," says McVey. "They've all come together with this system. We had a second set of forms that had to be signed off for capital that are no longer required as well."What's more, the users accepted it well. "We didn't meet much resistance, because all we've done is put a new system in place to replace what they had before," says Duckett. "So people didn't have their roles threatened and they could still purchase from their local suppliers and maintain these important relationships."While purchasing was always recognised as a cornerstone of nationalised IT, Duckett says the new purchasing system has also assisted in its acceptance internally. "Everyone is aware that there's a national structure, and everyone's aware that a certain person has responsibility over a particular business area. But something like this which is visible on a day-to-day basis brings it to the fore.
"It also make the ability to do further things in the future a little bit more possible. It means that with a system of this nature in place we can start looking beyond it and seeing what else we can do in similar lines. Having the ready acceptance of this purchasing system gives you the confidence that the people are going to accept other national based systems. And that in the firm's consciousness has been an assistance for the IS arm as a whole."
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