When the Transport and General Workers' Union and Amicus merged to form Unite, the UK's largest union, Paul Mease, head of IT for Unite the Union, described the situation as a challenge for the organisation, which represents 1.4 million members.
"With a merger of two trade unions, one centralised and one decentralised, bringing those two cultures together into one working IT department has been a significant challenge," he told Computing.
However, it also gave his 20-strong IT team an opportunity to set out a long-term strategy, something which allowed the member-funded union to plan well in advance of Microsoft dropping support for XP.
"In the past 16 months, we've replaced Windows XP with Windows 7, people have had better machines and they're starting to see the fruition of a long-term strategy. Nothing's being wasted and they're seeing progress all the time, and that has been a very positive thing," Mease explained, referring to the importance of getting a positive message out to Unite members, one which enables them to contribute ideas to IT.
"We can't be a department which dictates ‘this is what you're going to be doing,' we've got to get feedback from people. If they come to us with plans or questions, then we look at them," he said, describing it as making life easier for members by giving them a voice.
However, that doesn't mean employees have an absolute say on what technology they want to use, with the ultimate decisions on devices still falling to Mease.
"Like any organisation I do have to say no occasionally, but if they can produce a business case for needing a laptop, then we'll provide them with a laptop," he said.
Now the IT estate is running on Windows 7, something which was achieved with the aid of Snow Software's asset management solution, which sped up migration and enabled Unite to avoid £1m in licensing costs from Microsoft. Mease told Computing he trialled the software after hearing positive things from other IT leaders and was quickly impressed.
"Immediately it became very clear to us that this was the software we needed, because we had results back almost immediately about what assets we had on our network, which hardware and software was there, how much it was being used – it just became a much easier picture for us to co-ordinate the migration to Windows 7," he said and was keen to point out the difference Snow made.
"I can't stress enough how quickly we got these results back and it allows us to then co-ordinate what we needed to purchase in regards to licensing. Not only did it save us money on the software and the licensing, but also on the upgrading of hardware."
Snow contributed to Unite's smooth switch to Windows 7 in advance of the end of support and Mease also ensured proper training on the new OS was given to staff, enabling them to move to Windows 7 without issues.
"The key thing we decided to do with the replacement of Windows XP was to train all our staff at the exact same time as we were doing the hardware and software replacement," he explained.
"Every employee in the organisation was put through exercises as part of a half-day of training while we replaced their PCs with the updated operating system and Microsoft Office. When they came back to their desks, they were using what they'd just been trained [to use]."
Mease explained that the strength of this system is that staff can use their newly acquired skills right away.
"Because previously you could have a training course, but the software doesn't get changed for a month and then by the time that happens, users have forgotten everything," he said, adding that the training method was received positively by staff.
"By putting them close together – if not the same day – the feedback from users was immense; the transition and level of support required to go to Windows 7 was almost non-existent because we'd been through the training."
Unite did consider moving straight from Windows XP to Windows 8, but Mease said it represented too big a jump, given Microsoft's latest OS has a touchscreen focus.
"We looked at at it, but the level of support required to move from Windows XP to Windows 8 was deemed to be too high. It wouldn't have been an easy transition – Windows 8's operating system is touchscreen, it's a big transition for a productive organisation such as we are to make, and it was too much of a leap," he said.
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