Even though you may be convinced that computerization is a good idea, other stakeholders may not be. Take time to find out what other stakeholders and potential users - elected leaders, employees, regular members and clients - think about it: What type of information do they want? Are they satisfied or dissatisfied with the existing manual information system? What improvements would they like to see? And most importantly, are they willing to pay for those improvements?
Elected leader, employee, regular member and client needs for information may differ considerably and ideally, the proposed computerized system should try to address as many of them as it can. Without broad stakeholder agreement on what are the priority information problems of the cooperative that need to be addressed and whether some form of computerization will solve them, the project idea will probably fail.
This information can be collected through a series of informal talks or meetings with a representative sample of staff, elected leaders, regular members and cooperative business clients or through a series of workshops or larger group meetings. Below is a listing of the key areas that your questions should address:
Type of information provided: What type of information do they currently receive from the cooperative?
Accuracy: Is the information provided accurate and useful? If not, why not?
Timeliness: Is the information provided in a timely and frequent manner? If not, why not?
Additional information: What other information needs do they think the cooperative should fulfill?
Priority stakeholder needs: Which of the above current and additional information needs do they think are the most important to them?
Once the information needs of each stakeholder group are defined, you will have to reach consensus on the overall priority information needs of the cooperative, and decide how those needs are going to be satisfied: through improving the existing manual system or through some kind of computerization. This can usually best be done by calling a general meeting of representatives from all stakeholder groups and management.
Make sure information needs are collectively addressed and equal weight given to the concerns of each major stakeholder group (not always an easy task!).Then get stakeholders to organize those needs into short term, medium term and long-term objectives. There are several techniques that you can use to identify and prioritize these needs. One of the more effective means is called "structured brainstorming," which is described in Chapter 4. The results of this exercise should give you a much clearer idea of what the priority information objectives are that the proposed project will tackle.
Stakeholders should not only be consulted in the design stage of the project but also throughout its implementation:
· Managers and elected leaders: keep them informed of the projects evolution at regular intervals. It is advisable to provide them written reports on the status of the project and following steps.
· Staff: employee support of the project is critical to success, so consult them frequently and keep them well informed of developments during the design and testing stage. These are the persons who will use the system on a day-to-day basis, and who usually know how things are done in the cooperative.
· Members: make sure that at least a small group of respected members and leaders are involved at the start of the project, and also use them as testers of the first functional versions of the software. Since regular members often consult with and acquire information from these "opinion leaders", keeping the latter involved will ensure that all members stay better informed on project progress. The more informed members are, the less apt they are to be suspicious and critical.
The first step taken by the management of Tulaga Dairy Farmers Cooperative in Kanangop, Kenya in June 2004 was to hold a series of sub-regional stakeholder workshops to identify and prioritize member and management information processing needs.
The project life cycle
All projects have a life cycle, which means they are organized into a series of logical implementation steps that begin with the formulation of the original idea and development of a business plan, proceed to the identification and verification of stakeholder capacities and needs, and then to address the project design, execution and evaluation stages.
Since the implementation of a computerization project may involve considerable cooperative staff time and expense, your next task will be to convince the elected leaders, directors or Management Committee that it is a good idea. You will need their strong OK before proceeding. That will require the preparation of a brief 1-2 page "project proposal" for their consideration which summarizes the aims, objectives and expected benefits, costs and potential risks of the project. This may seem like a waste of time, but actually it is not, since it will help you answer many of the questions that they are likely to raise.
So let us take a look at all of the factors that might affect your projects outcome. Some of them are not controllable by the cooperative, but need to be considered right from the start but others are. Some of the elements to consider are:
Now that you have a good idea of what the priority information needs are of each stakeholder group and of the cooperative, there is a need to look at several other issues, like:
The existing business information system. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the existing system? What needs to be changed?
Alternative solutions. Why computerize? There may be several other ways to solve the problem. Examine each option, its costs and benefits. How will computerization address those weaknesses and how will stakeholders benefit?
Management, elected leaders and member support. Do all stakeholders think that computerization will help solve the cooperatives priority information needs? Who are the supporters and who are the doubters? Are members willing to invest some of the cooperatives net earnings to finance the costs of computerization?
Resources available. What are the financial, people, software, and hardware resources that can be invested in the project? Will that be enough?
Another important area to examine is the external environment within which the cooperative operates. There are a number of factors largely beyond your control but which may influence the successor failure of the project; therefore, you should know about them.
Policy and legal conditions:
Economic conditions of the country and region. Are economic and market conditions favourable? How will they affect project costs and returns?
Relevant laws and regulations governing information sharing and processing, patent protection, contracting and tax reporting should also be assessed.
Electrical power: If the electrical supply is not reliable, you might have to buy a generator (to provide electricity), a stabilizer or voltage regulator and/or a UPS (uninterruptible power supply) with battery and stabilizer that might provide up to 2 hours of electricity in case of power breakdown. A good ground connection is also advisable. An electrician might provide advice on your specific needs.
Telecommunications: If you want to connect to the Internet you will need a phone line or other means of connecting (wireless, broadband, microwaves, radio, ADSL) according to your area. See your local ISP(Internet Service providers) in your region and get a quotation for the type of connection that you want. Note: connecting to a regional ISP might require long distance calls.
Technical support: Consider the availability of suppliers and IT professionals in your area, and the cost of their services. How expensive it is to acquire and maintain computing equipment? Are there other cooperatives or businesses in your region that have already computerized? If so, they can be a very useful source of information.
Now that you have gathered the necessary information about stakeholder information needs, consolidated and prioritized them and checked to see if the external environment is favourable, it is time to develop a well thought-out proposal to obtain elected leadership approval to proceed.
Since the costs of this project will have to be covered by the cooperative, you may receive many questions from members and elected leaders about the desirability of the project. That is normal, but it does mean that you will have to develop a convincing argument supporting the project.
After having examined the expected costs, the potential risks and expected benefits of the project, it is worthwhile developing a "Business Plan" justifying the project, which could be presented to the elected leadership of the cooperative to obtain their approval and support. An example of the structure of a typical business plan is provided in the figure below.
Should the Board decide to go ahead with the project idea, and provide the necessary financing to start work, then the next step would be to prepare a detailed implementation plan.
Structure of the proposal
Business goal: (1 or 2 sentences, e.g. Increased business competitiveness and improved member services)
Objectives: (improve response time and efficiency of business information processing for management, improve member access to information on their participation in the cooperative business, etc.)
Outputs: (operational computer system, trained staff, etc.)
Potential risks: (give some examples, i.e. management employee fears regarding complexity or loss of their job, electrical or communications problems, inadequate local IT support, etc.)
Expected benefits: (cost savings due to better information on various aspects of the business, more frequent and accurate reporting on the business, more frequent reporting to members on their transactions with the cooperative, improved access to market information via the Internet, capability of introducing more effective systems of member capitalization of the business, etc.)
Expected costs: (initial purchase of hardware and software, installation of equipment, customization of software to meet requirements of the cooperative, training, updating of hardware and software, etc.)
Funds required: (give rough estimate in terms of personnel, equipment, software and where the money will come from: additional member contributions, the cooperative and/or external lender or donor)
Expected start and finish dates (self-explanatory)