McCarthy & Stone may be in the business of building retirement homes, but its attitude to IT is far from fuddy-duddy.
Take a large housebuilder specialising in the ultra-conservative arena of retirement homes. Add some froth from an IT company specialising in construction industry systems. Sprinkle on the challenge of changing established working practices. Throw in a million pounds and stir thoroughly. Cook for three years, turn out and pray that you have something palatable.

McCarthy & Stone is still at the cooking stage, having decided to renew its in-house IT system two years ago. The package will be fully integrated so that information is entered only once, unlike the current system.

Estimating, accounting and database information will be transferred freely across the system and any changes made to the information will be immediately visible to everyone else.

For chief executive Keith Lovelock, this system is important for the success of the company. "It will improve efficiency, improve integration and help identify problems much earlier," he says. This in turn will boost profitability and help Lovelock maintain the company's sales growth of 10% a year. The improvements in integration are particularly important as the company has 700 staff spread over nine offices in the UK.

This will be the third IT system that McCarthy & Stone has installed since the 1980s. Originally the company ran a mainframe computer, but the enormous costs prompted a change to desktop PCs in the early 1990s. The software now in use was installed at that time – its ancient operating system is showing its age.

"The realisation sank in that something had to be done about the system in 1998," explains business development director Steve Secker. He is keen to stress, however, that this was a big project and time was needed to get it right. "We had a clear vision of where we wanted to go – a whole process from estimating to accounts, where information is input once and is always up-to-date." The first step was the evaluation of Axim, an accounts and estimating package, in 1999. But problems with the operating system led McCarthy & Stone to pull the plug on it.

The next stage was to engage a consultant from the National Computing Centre to analyse McCarthy & Stone's business needs. This started a formal procurement process and a tender document was issued to 40 companies. Twenty responded; these were whittled down to a shortlist of seven. A full response to the invitation to tender was requested, resulting in six presentations.

A final shortlist of three companies was drawn up, including Causeway Technologies and Computer Systems for Business. The successful contender was Ramesys, a company McCarthy & Stone was familiar with as it supplies Micabuild, an accounts software package that the builder had been using before its decision to renew the system.

"We felt more comfortable with Ramesys; we got to know the company and it was the right scale of organisation for us," says Secker. The decision to go ahead with Ramesys was taken last September. Meanwhile, the company had been upgrading its computer hardware with computers equipped with Windows 2000.

It took until December to negotiate the contract. This was not because of hard bargaining over the cost, but in order to get the IT package right. As Secker emphasises: "The key to the success of the project is what you do before you start rather than after you get going." The time was spent getting down to the nuts and bolts of what the system needed to do, taking the base software and adding functionality to meet the specific needs of McCarthy & Stone.

The final contract depended on a thorough, mutual understanding of what was required. An initial five-year contract was signed between the two companies. It involved the use of Ramesys products: Esteem, an estimating package; Dema, for accounting; and Pims, a communications program.

Ultimately, the success or failure of any system depends on the attitude of those using it. At McCarthy & Stone, a culture change was required, as much paper-based work will be computerised. The project team is touring regional offices to show off the system and to persuade staff to buy into the new way of working.

Secker was surprised by the degree of staff enthusiasm. Indeed, some people expressed impatience that it was not all happening more quickly.

But Secker again emphasises the importance of spending time getting the project right from the start and taking into account minor variations in working practices between regions. These problems need to be ironed out before the system can be used across the company.

The project is now at the pilot stage. It will go live in one region, North-west England, in September. Dema and Esteem will then be progressively rolled out across the company with all regions using it by May next year. The next phase will see the introduction of Pims, so in two years' time the system will be fully installed. Ramesys will undertake initial training, and McCarthy & Stone staff will then spread the word across the whole company.

The next step in the evolutionary cycle is the possible adoption of Ramesys Xchange, a hub that allows transaction details to be exchanged directly between McCarthy & Stone and subcontractors and suppliers.

In effect an e-commerce product, it could be used for the electronic exchange of tendering and procurement information. Secker sees this as an extension of the in-house communication tool Pims.

Xchange uses the new internet language XML, which enables data in different programs to be exchanged online, allowing direct electronic communication between all sectors of the construction industry.

In theory XML could render some online procurement and project collaboration packages redundant.

Secker can see the potential difficulties, though. One is getting people to adopt it while another is differences in "dialect" within XML.

In the mean time, he sees the new solution as being good for the next 10 years. And after that, who knows?

What the new system does

At the moment, basic information has to be keyed in three times at McCarthy & Stone: once for the Wessex estimating program, once for purchasing, and again for accounting, when the Micabuild program is used. Construction budget reports prepared by quantity surveyors are keyed into Microsoft Excel. But triple keying will become a thing of the past when the new system goes live. Esteem, the replacement estimating package, can communicate with Dema, the accounts package. An approved tender can be fired electronically from Esteem to Dema, where an actual order can be raised. Once delivery has been acknowledged, payment can also be raised. In the next phase Pims, the Portal Information Management System, will provide intranet access to all the information in the business. The regional offices are connected by a wide area network – a dedicated network with allotted space for all McCarthy & Stone’s communication needs. Staff are issued with passwords that give them access to the parts of the system that are relevant to their role. Any changes they make are immediately visible to other authorised users. Ultimately, the system will extend to McCarthy & Stone’s construction sites. A site manager will have a PC that can link directly through Pims into the system. Any goods received notes will be entered into Dema, where they will be matched to an invoice for payment, rather than written down on the back of an envelope, which can easily get lost or be entered too late for a goods inventory to be accurate.