Written by David Tebbutt, Director 03/93 - scanned

NETWORKING OR NOT WORKING (case studies)

Personal computers have not been all good news. Some claim that they threaten team spirit by their emphasis on individual working freedom. Enter networking, the process by which employers are reclaiming control over employees. Computing journalist David Tebbutt discusses this and other developments in the world of management computing.

The personal computer (PC) revolution of the eighties was supposed to transform business productivity. According to most analysts, white-collar productivity didn't rise one jot despite the huge numbers of PCs purchased. Individuals were empowered to do things they had never done before, but the suspicion lingers that the cost of learning to do these things, coupled with the time wasted while doing them, led to this unfortunate conclusion.

Another effect of the PC revolution was that companies quickly filled up with islands of computing - individuals working on their information in isolation from their colleagues. In the old days of large centralised computers with dumb terminals on users' desks, the computer system had worked as a unifying influence. The arrival of PCs had precisely the opposite effect. Little wonder that, no sooner had users got used to their splendid isolation, they were being dragged back into contact with their colleagues by having their computers networked together.

Originally, networks were introduced to enable users to share expensive resources such as laser printers. It made economic sense for several users, who only printed documents for a small part of their computing time, to be linked to the same printer. From there, it was a short step to allowing users to share the same information. Then electronic mail was introduced to enable users to send messages to each other. Before you knew it, networks were being linked to each other, so that mail and other information could be spread further afield.

While the personal productivity revolution failed in business terms, it did pave the way for today's networks which appear to bring benefits straight to the bottom line. A company's staff are able to work as a team, perhaps for the first time ever. Access to individuals, regardless of their place in the organisation, has been so facilitated that companies have become flatter, decision-making has become faster, and service to customers has improved significantly.

Two companies which have taken computer networking to their hearts are Elborne Mitchell and SMI. The first is a firm of solicitors which specialises in the insurance industry. It has a large network of some 80 users which is also connected to the company's minicomputer-based accounting system. It sticks to tried and tested, character-based, applications. The second company, SMI, has gone for graphics and colour on its 30-user network and it has also persuaded some of its customers to join in too. SMI, an advertising and PR company which represents many high-tech clients, has decided to go for a leading-edge application, Lotus Notes, to weld its operation together.

Neither of these two approaches is "right". Each company has done what is right for its own organisational style. Both, however, did choose the same networking system, Novell NetWare.

ELBORNE MITCHELL

A move to a brand new office gave Elborne Mitchell a wonderful opportunity to incorporate a computer network into the very fabric of its building. Rather than the haphazard trailing of wires or ugly bunking which characterises most networks, Elborne Mitchell's is hidden from view, emerging, rather like power sockets, at regular intervals round the floors.

In complete contrast to the sophistication of the wiring, almost every computer screen is monochromatic. Looking more like minicomputer terminals, the fact is that these PCs are inexpensive, unobtrusive, and they do the job. Don Starr, director of finance and administration, is well aware that he could spend a fortune upgrading to colour machines running the Windows graphical user interface but get no corresponding increase in productivity.

The computer network was originally installed for the secretaries but one or two fee earners had soon been added. The principal applications at this time were supposed to be word-processing and electronic mail. The truth is that with only half the firm connected, the electronic mail was hardly used. Two years before the move to the new office, everyone was put on the network.

A side effect of the move to e-mail is that the firm no longer issues desk diaries to its staff. Everyone maintains an electronic diary as part of the OfficeWorks e-mail system. Because they use WordPerfect 5.1 for word-processing, they are seriously considering a switch from OfficeWorks to WordPerfect Office. Other applications used include the Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet, the DataEase database and a Braid system which allows transmission and receipt of telexes and faxes at the desk top.

The accounts system, bought in 1989, was written especially for the legal profession by Norwel Computer Services and runs on a Data General MV2500 minicomputer. A link has been made between the network and the accounting system, so that every fee earner and secretary can access the accounts by using a Data General terminal emulation program on their PCs. Eventually, Starr would like to see the Norwel system running on the network.

So far, Elborne Mitchell has not felt the need to employ any computer experts. Julie Murray, the network supervisor, was previously a telex operator. She is now using DataEase to develop a database marketing application. Starr regards this as a minimal-risk approach to database development. He's looked at products developed by specialists and considers his to be "not that far adrift." The heavy work of setting up the network and installing the cabling was done by Digitus and Misys respectively.

To date, the firm has bought very few lap-top computers but, since the managing partner took one to Kuwait, this is likely to change. According to Starr, "he was ecstatic." He was able to take evidence on the machine, print it out immediately and hook up to the office network in London. The firm has a PC on the network dedicated to incoming calls from portable users. A product called PC Anywhere gives the notebook user the illusion of working directly at the networked machine.

Elborne Mitchell's system is paradoxical. It has a highly sophisticated network running some very straightforward applications. Its focus is completely on getting the job done rather than trying to keep up with the leading edge of computing. This is a profoundly sensible strategy for such a firm.

When asked for advice for others embarking on buying a computer network, Starr offers the following suggestions: "Spend some money on independent expert advice, probably from a management consultant"; "don't penny pinch. Buy reputable hardware and software"; "appoint a dealer you feel comfortable with. Talk to the people behind the scenes, not just the sales staff"; "allow plenty of time, and put the system in stages"; "senior people should only make software purchasing decisions after line people have tried the packages out. If software companies won't give evaluation copies, forget them"; "the firm, especially at senior level, has to be 100 per cent committed to the computer system and to proper staff training on an ongoing basis."

SMI

By comparison with Elborne Mitchell, SMI is a hothouse of computer technology. If Elborne Mitchell is on friendly terms with its computers, SMI is conducting a love affair. It uses computers for graphic design, desk-top publishing, electronic mail, work-group collaboration, preparation of presentations, access to outside information services, a massive database of all company contacts, faxing from the desk top, route planning, accounts, advertising space booking, project management, and more besides.

Every person in the company has a computer on the desk and several have notebook computers or second machines at home. Regardless of which other individual applications are used, every person uses the Lotus Notes work-group program. This enables them to share documents, to confer publicly and to exchange private electronic mail. "I am obsessed with information, and sharing it," says SMI group managing director, Dirk Spiers. So enthusiastic is SMI about its information-sharing product, Lotus Notes, that it has even persuaded a number of its clients to connect to the system on a regular basis.

One of these clients is Nelsons, the oldest and largest UK manufacturer of homoeopathic medicines. It had to work with SMI to create a new marketing strategy in six weeks. Three days before the project started, SMI installed Notes on one of Nelsons' computers. Up to this point, Nelsons couldn't see what was wrong with using the fax machine and messengers. After the project was complete, Nelsons' marketing director Tom Russell had undergone a complete change of heart. He believes that the project would have taken at least twice as long without Notes. He now considers the fax to be obsolete.

Instead of taking documents round to individuals, they can be sent to everyone's screen, where comments and suggestions can be added for consideration by the document's "owner." Some feedback even comes from people who are not directly involved in the account. Everything happens quickly in Notes. There is no delay while waiting for typists or photocopying. A change in a document can be made, reformatting is automatic and copies can be distributed more or less instantly. Russell says that "Notes is extremely easy to use. It is easy to pick up by trial and error." Having seen what a powerful tool it is, he is planning to introduce it into his own company.

Nelsons benefited from the research and development done by SMI in creating its own working Notes system. It actually took SMI something like two months to set up the system to its satisfaction. This period included initial investigations and a pilot application involving six people. It was then spread through the office. Like Elborne Mitchell, SMI realised that everyone had to be on the system. Spiers believes that "it is dangerous not to let everyone on. You run the risk of disaffection."

Notes works by storing all its information in a central, powerful computer which is attached to the network. All changes made by users are used to update this machine which, in turn, makes sure that all users are given the very latest information the next time they switch on their machines or connect to the network from outside the company. Spiers quite often leaves the SMI office to travel abroad for three weeks at a time, yet he knows exactly what is going on courtesy of Notes. He's even got his girlfriend using the system because it's often the only way they can keep in touch.

He expects most staff to move to notebook computers because it allows them to spend more time in the field. It also means they will save time by putting information directly into the computer, rather than making notes and keying them in when back at the office. The portable machines will be quite powerful, so that they can double up as desk-top computers. Simple adaptors enable them to connect to the office network and to colour screens.

According to SMI PR director, Michael Chapman Pincher: "As a management tool, the benefit of Notes is almost beyond value. But it won't suit every sort of business. Some companies simply don't like sharing information."

In an information-led society, it's probably their loss.

ADVICE ON BUYING A NETWORK

Choose a supplier that is well-established and has reference sites which you can, and should, visit.

Visit the supplier to see what the people are like. Be sure you feel comfortable with them.

If possible, buy from a "one stop shop" which will take responsibility for the whole installation, even if it has to use sub-contractors.

Assess present and future IT requirements, then divide them into easy stages, digesting each one before moving to the next.

Appoint a co-ordinator who has the power to make decisions without repeatedly calling management meetings. If the network has more than ten users, then this person should be trained in system administration before the system is installed.

Consult your users when preparing your requirements. This will avoid resentment and will result in valuable suggestions.

Plan a realistic time-scale for implementation.

Look for a balance between new and proven technologies. Don't get caught up in the latest computing fashions. If anything, play safe by choosing industry-standard hardware and software products.

The file storage system at the heart of a system, usually called the "server", is a vital ingredient. Be prepared to pay extra for a good name.

Cabling can be a significant part of the cost of a network. Take the same precautions with a cabling supplier that you would with your computer supplier.

Be prepared for some disruption when the cabling is installed. This can be minimised by the majority of work being completed out of normal office hours.

By careful choice of contractor and good project management, disruption to normal office working can be limited, with the system running smoothly after a very short time.

Allow time for users to be trained in new applications.

Suggestions prepared by system supplier Digitus (Tel: 071-251 1010).