When HBG Construction was formed, three bespoke IT set-ups had to be integrated. How did IT services director Martin Brunning ensure that all systems were go?
The night before HBG merged two of its London offices in December 1997, Martin Brunning admits he had a sleepless night. As Higgs & Hill's group information technology manager, he was responsible for ensuring computer systems ran without a hitch when staff from the old Higgs & Hill office in south London moved into the Kyle Stewart office in the north-west of the city. This was the first stage in the merger of three UK contractors – Kyle Stewart, Higgs & Hill and GA – to form HBG Construction, the UK arm of Dutch parent company HBG.

Brunning could tell managing directors who are keen to acquire new companies a thing or two about the practicalities of merger mania. "In the run-up to the move from New Malden to Colindale, I worked for three weeks solid, with only a Sunday afternoon off," he says.

"It was a bit like moving house. All the PCs had to be labelled with department and staff names and wrapped in bubble-wrap. We even arranged to store all our accounts data on a server elsewhere as a fall-back, in case the lorry carrying the computers crashed. You plan as well as you can, you make sure you have a fall-back, and then you have to go for it. But you're still thinking: 'I hope we've thought of everything'."

A job and a half

Managing the London office move was only a small part of Brunning's remit. He was also charged with the much bigger task of integrating IT systems throughout HBG Construction. Accounts, personnel information and drawings would have to move between all the firm's UK offices and be accessible at HBG headquarters in The Netherlands. One company-wide IT system would avoid problems exchanging documents between offices, and Brunning's purchasing power would go further when buying in bulk. In addition, maintenance would be easier if everyone was using the same equipment.

He broke down the task into three stages – strategy, planning and deployment. First, he had to investigate all the different systems in use across the group. Using the information he garnered, he worked out the best technologies to proceed with, and came up with what he calls an IT "architecture plan". He then had to implement the plan in HBG Construction's 11 main offices.

Brunning was helped by Ajoy Sarker, who joined as infrastructure manager at the beginning of 1998. Sarker had carried out similar IT merger work in his former position at NatWest, so he knew the task wouldn't be as simple as it sounded.

"IT people like challenges," he says. "At the time, a merger feels like chaos, but when you look back it's with relief and you feel as though you've really achieved something."

During the first stage, Brunning and Sarker identified the firm's 800 IT users. They quickly realised that staff and equipment in duplicate offices in Leeds, Manchester, Bristol, London and the West Midlands would need to move.

Across the group, people were using a mixture of PCs, including Tandem, AST, IBM, Dell, Compaq and Toshiba laptops. Most were already using AutoCAD for design work, but communication and e-mail systems varied from Microsoft Mail to GroupWise, Microsoft Exchange and Pegasus Mail.

You plan as well as you can, you have a fall-back, and then you go for it. But you’re still thinking: ’I hope we’ve thought of everything’

Kyle Stewart and GA were already using the same accounting software as their parent company, but Higgs & Hill's bespoke system had to be brought into line. As Brunning says, "Exchanging documents is a nightmare unless you've got the same system."

Having decided on Compaq desktop PCs, Toshiba laptops and Microsoft Exchange for e-mail within a Microsoft Office 97 environment, Brunning had to justify his choices to the company's management. Adopting standard systems would cost more than using the bespoke models in place in some offices, and he had to argue his case strongly. "We didn't have a blank cheque book," he points out.

International networking

The merger process was not just a matter of what software staff had on their desktops, however. Behind the scenes, Brunning and Sarker were busy installing a system of inter-office and intra-office compatible networks. Previously, Higgs & Hill offices had run their own extranet network, whereas GA and Kyle Stewart used one operated by HBG's Dutch headquarters. Brunning persuaded his Dutch bosses to let him take charge of the network for the whole of the UK – but this had to be compatible with the Dutch system.

"Because we were now dealing with a much bigger network than when we were three individual companies, we decided on a managed wide area network run by BT. They monitor connections to the network and between offices 365 days a year, so we can see where and when the majority of network traffic occurs and add more bandwidth to our ISDN lines if necessary," says Brunning.

Intranets were to be managed by Brunning's team. Older token ring systems in use in some offices were replaced by Ethernet hubs and cabling within each building.

Implementing the changes has taken more than a year, and the full roll-out is expected to be complete this spring. Staff will then have identical machines, right down to the wallpaper on their desktop, according to Brunning. Throughout the merger process he has kept staff informed about the programme for change. Otherwise, he says, he is likely to get complaints from offices that do not yet have the most up-to-date equipment. To avoid this, he carried out a series of staff "roadshows" around the country and put regular articles in staff newsletters.

Brunning's other trick has been to keep key people in each department or floor of a building informed of changes so they can pass on information to colleagues. This has also helped his planning. "If it's a big building, you can't know everyone very well or what their particular requirements are," says the IT services manager. "The staff can tell you about their discipline, what they need and where – it's local knowledge."

On the wire

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