United Van Lines Canada gets moving on IT health check

If you had strolled into United Van Lines (Canada) Ltd.’s headquarters a few months ago, you would have seen a row of executive offices near one end of the building.

At the extreme other end, through two sets of doors and up a flight of stairs, sat the vice-president of IT’s office. Today that office is practically next door to that of the company president, and the move was no coincidence.

United Van Lines recently went through an exploratory process with a third-party consultant to get a better understanding of how well it was using IT. The result, lead by the board of directors and CEO Anne Martin, has been a series of changes to the way the firm not only works with IT staff but how it measures their performance.

“This is a very old-fashioned business, and it probably always will be. There’s no way to get someone’s furniture out of their homes without going to their location, picking up a box and putting it on a truck,” Martin says. “But this project has really exerted an idea of discipline IT that maybe wasn’t there before.”

United Van Lines decided to take a closer look at its IT processes at the behest of its board, Martin said. The company evaluated six different proposals, and considered large well-known players as well as firms they found online. In the end, the company opted for the IT Health Check service provided by Toronto-based NegenIT Corp, which examines decision-making, skills, standards and reporting from a technology perspective for small to medium-sized businesses.

Martin Hockham, NegenIT’s assessment practice partner, said many SMEs don’t have a very clear view of how IT relates to business requirements.

“I’ll usually get a tour around the building, see what are they doing, what are their priorities. Then I’ll go back to the IT shop – and I’ll usually see generic Word and Excel applications. That when you might start to say, ‘Hey, there are some apps in this area that you can really help the business with.’”

Martin said the IT Health Check involved being interviewed by NegenIT, along with her vice-presidents of operations and finance as well as all nine members of the IT staff. NegenIT then provided a report of 16 recommendations around April, all but one of which have been implemented, she said.

“I think my knowledge of IT is pitiful, quite frankly,” Martin said. “IT is a mystery to most of us. Because it’s a board, they weren’t really interested in an audit. They were interested in a high-level assessment that would be something they would actually understand.”

While some of the changes have been highly visible – like moving the VP of IT’s office – others have been more process-oriented.

“Now I feel like we’re functioning like a mini-IT company with timecards, all the jobs are queued,” she said. “We’ve set in timelines that we will respond to a request for an improvement in an hour. Everybody was already doing their best, but to actually put timelines and guidelines shows we’ve actually got this program that measures how well they do. The optics on that was very positive.”

While bringing in consultants could make some IT staff wary, Hockham said NegenIT tried to demonstrate that the end result could make it easier to increase the IT budget or get other resources they needed.

“I came in in a non-threatening way,” he said. “The issue here was a lack of expectation-setting,” he said. “They wouldn’t still be in business and successfully making profit if they didn’t know what they were doing. All (the IT staff) very well motivated. I didn’t suspect they were at risk. This was about giving them proper communication tools and how to deal with users properly.”

Martin said the exercise made United Van Lines think creativity about how it will respond to the pressures brought on by the worldwide recession.

“It really gave us an opp to talk about succession planning. That is so important for an area like IT,” she said. “You can actually drive people out of a department and deploy them somewhere where they can work on quality, rather than simply letting people go. We can get away of being silly or doing things manually, in a redundant manner, or where it has to be done two or three times because something isn’t synchronized.”

Hockham said NegenIT’s IT Health Check Service could take anywhere from five days to six weeks, depending on the size of the organization.

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