All Systems Go at Western National Group

Western National Group’s vice president of IT shares the keys to the company successfully converting its financial systems to the cloud

Whether it was playing Asteroids on his Atari at the age of eleven or tinkering with his first IBM computer, Kenneth Hodges has always had a passion for technology systems.

That passion for taking things apart and then putting them together again serves him well as he prepares to embark on what he calls the biggest project of his career. Hodges is vice president, IT, for property management company Western National Group. He will help oversee the company’s transition from its current financial system to a cloud-based one.

The project should take anywhere from twelve to eighteen months. It will also involve departments outside of IT and outside consultant groups. But Hodges is looking forward to taking it on.

“I absolutely welcome the challenge,” Hodges says. “When you look at this particular project, I’m lucky that not only are the team leads of various groups engaged fully in the project. But really the entire implementation team as a whole.”

Hodges is prepared to modify his management style for this project. Generally, he’s used to being involved with different groups when an implementation occurs. But this time he’s decided to focus on his responsibilities as they relate to technology and the overall progress of the project.

“On other projects I’ve been the quarterback of the team, but now I’m looking at this as being the coach, where I understand what everybody’s roles are and I know where the resources need to be,” he says.

Upgrading and Updating

Western National is changing its financial platform because its current one, which has been in place for close to twenty years, was not getting a lot of added functionality. Instead, all the company was getting was software compatibility. This meant that a new operating system would come out and the vendor would put out a compatible upgrade, but the work flow and added functionality weren’t there. This led Western National to consider consolidating its financial operations onto one platform. However, they ultimately decided on a cloud-based solution.

The move to the cloud will necessitate big changes in terms of technology. The IT department will have fewer systems to maintain going forward, as the software will no longer be in-house. Vendors will now handle the day-to-day maintenance of the software as well as any necessary upgrades.

“We’re going to leverage the latest and greatest software that the vendor has to offer,” Hodges says. Western National Group will use past experiences to ensure this transition goes smoothly. On previous projects, teams took a do-it-yourself approach. They’d get together and put their heads down. Teams would work until the project was completed. Projects ended up being successful for the most part. However, there was often second-guessing about the strategies that had been used after the project’s completion.

To avoid that feeling of uncertainty, the company will engage a consulting firm experienced with this type of implementation. The firm will also help guide Western National to avoid common problems and find workable solutions.

“We also see it as an opportunity to gain efficiencies in our work flow and process,” Hodges says. “They’re helping us with those changes that we can take advantage of with the new software.”

Keeping Ahead of Challenges

Even with an experienced consulting firm as backup and a talented in-house team working on the transition, Hodges anticipates challenges. A major potential challenge is burnout at the team or individual level. Everyone has other responsibilities they have to manage on top of this project.

“The key is you have to recognize it early and be willing to let the teams or individuals know that it’s OK to take a day or two off,” he explains. “You need to be able to recharge your batteries and walk away for a little while. When you’re ready to come back, you’re reinvigorated. You’re able to finish what you’re trying to do in the first place.”

The second challenge revolves around conflict. Hodges sees the implementations like a marriage between the numerous functional groups involved with the project. Currently, everyone’s in the honeymoon phase. They’re all trying to get along and be agreeable. But at some point, employees will inevitably disagree with various aspects of the implementation process.

“It’s important to be able to listen to the needs and concerns of the users of the system. We need to make changes to accommodate them where necessary,” Hodges says. “Everybody’s going to have to compromise. I think that’s one of the things that’s key when it comes to these types of conflicts.”

Teams will also need to balance company resources to ensure that every task is completed in a timely manner. There are multiple deadlines to meet on a project like this. There isn’t always going to be enough time or resources to meet them. Hodges doesn’t want to see a single task stream hold up the entire project. For that reason, communication will be crucial from beginning to end.

Clarity and Communication

All of the functional teams get together every week to discuss the project, check in with each other, and try to identify and solve any problems. “The key to that is you need to be able to have early and frequent communication on the project,” he says. “We need to be able to rally more resources or make a change to the schedule to make sure it doesn’t impact the overall project as a whole.”

Perhaps what makes this project so important is its potential legacy. The conversion to the cloud isn’t a temporary fix. This is where the company’s financial system will live for years to come. At the beginning of the project, Hodges spoke to more than fifty employees to remind them that the decisions they make and the effort they put into the project will matter ten years down the road.

“In five or ten years, if folks come in and look at the implementation and how the software works, I want them to be proud and go, ‘Oh my gosh, the people who did this really did a great job,’” Hodges explains. “And I can tell you the progress that we’ve achieved so far, I can see that the people that are involved in the project want to be proud of the end product. It makes me confident that this project is going to be a big success.”

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