One of the interesting contradictions about the IT business is that, despite all its emphasis on the latest must-have features and functions, a lot of the technology in use in business every day is actually often a bit behind what's in the shops or on the salesman's laptop.
That's actually perfectly logical for the businessman, as there is no point in flashing the cash to replace assets that haven't yet been totally 'sweated'. But it's relatively rare to see an organisation that has been trundling on apparently perfectly content with slightly aged applications to opt for a more or less overnight revolution.
Such a massive technology spring clean has nonetheless been going on at one of the UK’s best-known high street brands - Woolies. The retailer, one of the most familiar brands in UK shopping, has recently seen its old Office 97 and Windows NT purged in favour of the latest and most up-to-date versions of the Microsoft desktop application system and OS.
'In many ways we have gone from being well behind the curve to being ahead of it,' acknowledges Gordon Rennie, commercial development manager at the 32,000 strong UK corporation. And he's not joking - any IT training manager planning to introduce Office 2007 will be aware that the product is so new that not only are most big companies holding off until service pack 2 is released and hopefully most of the bugs squashed, there is hardly any training material on the market yet.
Not that there was that much available on what Woolworths had been using: most training companies have retired their Office 97 material some time ago. Basically this is a 10 or some might say 13-year jump, technology wise, in terms of hardware, software and even connection speeds.
So to some extent Woolworths was taking a risk: it was making a big leap forward in one go and couldn't be 100 per cent sure the market would have the content to help make the transition. As Russell Harper, account director at e-learning software content supplier SkillSoft, says: 'We know of no other company with Office 97 material ready on the market yet.' Could it be done?
When talking to Rennie it was clear that this is one IT executive who has been planning the changeover so thoroughly for so long that the chance of many slips would be slim. Harper of SkillSoft, which has helped bridge the gap in support material for the training project, said: 'Gordon and his team have been waiting for the green light on this for a while and were eager to get it right.'
The context of this big upgrade is partly historical and partly unexpected. The majority of UK retailers tend to have under-invested in their IT infrastructure, and Woolworths was no exception. The company did have a network and was hardly a computer free zone but there was no learning management system (LMS) for instance - content was held on an intranet. Woolworths has also had a tough couple of years in the market, which put IT investment on hold for a while too.
'Woolworths has been a customer of ours in one form or another since 1999,' says Harper. 'It has been using our content to develop the skills of key employees in Word, Excel and other Office applications.'
The company had a pretty informal sense that employees valued e-learning but no clear way to measure who was using it or how successfully. There was also some face-to-face training support in a classroom in London’s Marylebone, where the organisation offered staff things like the European Computer Driving Licence (ECDL) coaching and training in other business applications like SAP.
At long last authorisation for a technology revamp was finally given last year after the pause button had been held for 18 months, with IBM being brought in as delivery partners: Big Blue has also helped out on delivery of the training. The company has swapped its ageing NT platform for a new fleet of 1,300 Windows XP and Office 2007 desktop machines spread across a number of sites, starting with the firm’s HQ in London.
This is part of an enterprise-wide 'significant' IT infrastructure investment, which also encompasses new supply chain software and other key enhancements to the retailer’s system,’ explains Rennie.
That wasn’t the only major step forward technology-wise. 'We knew many people in the organisation had need of skills in the latest desktop technology,' says Rennie. 'We also knew that we needed to upgrade our management of training: it is very useful to track usage and access by staff of the material, so we decided to upgrade from the simpler intranet system to a full LMS along with the software upgrade itself.'
The project was about two-thirds of the way through at the time IT Training went to press, with the London site nearly completed in terms of technology and training rollout. At the firms' big distribution centres in Manchester and Swindon around three quarters of staff are now trained. The target was to cross the finishing line at the end of May.
That date is important as, like most retailers, Christmas is the peak season for the company in terms of resources and it is really only in the first six months of the year that anything like new systems can be introduced.
Rennie - who is responsible for all IT elements at Woolworths that impact on the company's commercial development activities, and who also counts the management of training as one of his roles - singles out both IBM and SkillSoft as having been key partners in making the transition work as well as it has.
SkillSoft, for example, decided to bridge the courseware gap on Office 2007 by employing an e-books, or to use its jargon 'referenceware,' based approach. Using its Books24x7.com technology it collated the relevant material so far published on Office 2007 by publishers such as Microsoft Press and McGraw-Hill to quickly create a resource Woolworths could offer trainees.
The training itself, as mentioned, was delivered primarily by IBM employees, with some 60 days of trainer time being booked in all. The format was a number of half-day (3.5 hour) training workshops, which gave people the basics with the referenceware being put in place as the immediate logical next step in getting to grips with the package, which has a number of features new to the Microsoft look and feel. This was complemented by a floor walking exercise by both the implementation partners and some of Rennie’s team.
Why this approach? 'We didn’t want a kind of 'Wembley Stadium' mass meeting, which was unrealistic given the nature of our business - you can't take that many people off line at one time as a retailer,' Rennie points out.
The next step has been the LMS rollout, one of the first networked applications on Woolworths' upgraded broadband internal network. The network also hosts a number of Woolworths' branded frequently asked questions documents from SkillSoft to help users as they continue their training journey, along with help desk support and other resources.
Where will the company go next, now this great leap forward has been made? In terms of training and development, says Rennie, ‘doors have definitely been opened’.
'We can see scope for asynchronous learning and more dynamic desktop based context-sensitive e-learning being offered. We have shown we can make being early adopters work and our strategic assumptions were proven right. We have energized our whole IT training approach - and that can only be good.'
Since opening its first store in Liverpool in 1909, Woolworths has become a familiar feature on the UK's high streets; over four million people shop in its 820 stores each week. Woolworths turnover in the financial year ending this January was £2.7bn, with pre-tax profits of £16m. The company's retail operations have been under pressure - it lost £13m in the period - and as a result the organisation is emphasising what its current chairman Gerald Corbett characterises as tight cost control measure, stepping up the performance of its multichannel (web etc) operations and other moves.
Microsoft finally launched the latest version of its Office desktop productivity suite in January this year in order to coincide with a delayed release of its new Vista operating system for PCs. The software giant claims to have spent $10bn developing the two new products. This version of Office has a number of new features, such as a new ribbon at the top of the screen that dynamically changes depending on what the user is trying to accomplish.