If ever there was a salutary tale on the perils of office relocation, then a recent report by the British House of Commons' Public Accounts Committee is it. The MPs' report into the transfer of the government spy centre GCHQ to a new purpose-built site found the costs of the move had increased seven-fold, from £41 million to more than £300 million over a two-year period, as IT costs spiralled out of control. The GCHQ board had failed to realise moving from more than 50 different buildings to a single site on the outskirts of Cheltenham would require a major overhaul of its IT infrastructure.
"GCHQ experts failed to spot the development of IT networking during the 1990s would hugely complicate the technical transition, which evolved into a major systems upgrade," said the MPs in their damning report.
The report makes sobering reading for any chief information officer about to embark on a major relocation. IT is now so embedded in the workings of every business there is little room for error when shifting the physical hardware and vital data from one location to another.
"The execution of the transition can be high risk and you can expect a few sleepless nights and busy weekends," says Nigel Underwood, chief information officer of logistics giant Exel which rationalised its IT infrastructure in the wake of the Ocean/Exel merger in 2000. "You need a good plan and a good fallback plan."
Paul Harrison, general manger of Crown Relocations, which this summer will move 750 people employed by the Scottish Executive from six different buildings across Edinburgh into the new parliament building in Holyrood, says businesses have little patience for post-move glitches. "People want as little down time as possible," says Harrison.
"They want to switch the phones and computers off on Friday evening in the old office and have them working Monday morning in the new office." And for many organisations, particularly in the finance sector, the window of down time for the cutover can be nail-bitingly narrow.
Getting it right against this backdrop of expectation means planning must start as early as possible, with the unit of measurement being years rather than months.
Plan of action
Michael Lord, director of systems at UK market research firm BMRB, started planning for a move to new premises two years ahead of the April 2005 move date. But even before then, the move was figuring in management decisions. "Some of the decisions we took in the last three to five years were influenced by the fact that our lease was running out," says Lord. "We either decided to delay deploying certain technologies or if we did introduce a new technology then we made sure it was flexible enough to fit with our future plans."
If the relocation involves a greenfield site, it is essential to open dialogue with the developers as soon as possible: Changes become harder and more expensive, as the builders progress.
"We worked closely with developers from fairly early on," says Lord. "Although the physical shell was already designed, we had input on other things, such as having generators on the roof." A move can be the ideal opportunity to upgrade equipment and systems but try to keep any solutions as flexible as possible: Organisations need to be able to accommodate organic growth, mergers, acquisitions and divestments, not to mention keeping pace with the latest technological advances.
It is a lesson practised and preached by the electronics conglomerate Siemens, which has 146 locations and 18,500 people in the UK alone and adds a new company to its family every month.
"Moving office is bread and butter to us," says chief information officer Gordon Lovell-Read, "so agility and flexibility are inbuilt in the system. We never stop the company when moving office because of something within the CIO office."
A key component of this flexibility is extensive wireless and mobile capability. "My advice would be if you find yourself in a situation where you are moving company or a portion of operations to a greenfield site, then think very carefully whether to put in cables," says Lovell-Read. "Why not go for wireless and mobile from day one?"
Managing a major move or post M&A consolidation involves the same careful thought, planning and disciplines as any other project. "An office move is basically about project management," says Sharm Manwani, former chief information officer of Electrolux Home Products, Europe, and now senior faculty member of information management at Henley Management College. "You need to have strong project management, ideally led by someone with both hard technical skills and softer people management skills."
Lord advises keeping the management team small. "Keep the number of key decision-makers to a minimum because it can become a real mess to do this by committee," says the BMRB director, who has a team of three directors making the decisions backed by a larger advisory group. "It's one of those things that everybody has an opinion on, from the colour of the bins to the position of washbasins and if you're not careful deadlines will get missed."
The project planning must be thorough and take account of external variables - such as manufacturers' lead times on new equipment - and then match those timetables with windows of access to the new site. "You need to make sure you can have the volume [of equipment] you need delivered when you need it," says Lord.<p/>When it comes to the actual move, the physical relocation of desktop machinery can be simply solved through good logistics and communications.
Relocation contractors - pick a firm with a good pedigree and security-vetted staff - are skilled at making sure the right PC arrives on the right desk on the right floor.
The stress comes with the back office migration of data and applications. The main issues during a data migration are the down time associated with a swapover, making sure that the data is 100 per cent consistent before you swapover, and the ability to run in both locations at the same time and conclude testing before you cut off.
That cut-off point is where the high stress comes into play. Underwood recommends executing the switchover swiftly. "If you leave it too long you will see a gradual degradation. It's much better cutting over a number of things in parallel rather than unpicking them one at a time."
It is essential to have proper back up and resilience in place. "When it comes to the switch off, nine times out of 10 you can anticipate what can go wrong and mitigate those risks by having a mirrored piece of equipment on standby or a team of specialists on call," says Underwood.
It is a fact of human nature that where there is change, there is resistance. The relocation project management team must be prepared to understand and address people's concerns, be it job security, commuting problems or quibbles over parking spaces.
Staff involvement, from open days, newsletter and suggestion boxes, can be key to overcoming this resistance. "The main issues to do with relocation are seldom to do with IT or networks but usually to do with people," says Lovell-Read. "With any kind of business transformation, whether it's buying a company or moving office, if you forget about the people engagement, you do so at your peril."
Underwood agrees: "With a physical relocation you can predict what might go wrong and you can legislate for that, but you can't do the same with people. The people cut-over can be even more important than the data cut-over."
How to manage a move successfully with minimum disruption.
Why you need to plan to accomodate change.
What are ways to overcome staff resistance.
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