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Chris Capistran

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Last month I wrote about how to choose new association management software, and though the decision is often the most important and difficult one an association will have to make, it’s only the beginning of a much longer journey to actual implementation. It’d be nice if there were a simple out-of-the-box installation option, one where you flip a few switches and end up with a fully-customized platform with all your existing data ported over, but, depending on how much customization you’re looking for, you’re facing up to six months of configuration, development, testing, and data migration before you see final rollout.

A lot can happen in those six months that will determine whether your implementation runs smoothly and actually reflects the goals you set out to accomplish. And its success depends almost entirely on whether you have the right team and process in place to get the project across the finish line.

To find out what it takes to complete the implementation process, we turned to Mary Davis, a project manager at Cobalt who’s often tasked with guiding clients through the thousands of tasks and decisions necessary before launch day. She’s witnessed firsthand the pitfalls that can derail the operation and has developed steadfast rules and strategies for avoiding them. Here’s what you should expect when you embark on this journey:

The Kick-off Call

The kick-off call, though brief, establishes the baseline for the entire project. “We don’t get too in the weeds during the kickoff call,” said Davis. Instead, both sides introduce each other and confirm their roles. It’s during the call that Davis will highlight the project management tools the teams will use to communicate with each other, as well as discuss the milestones and deliverables along the way.

Setting Expectations

One of the most important deliverables during the initial weeks is a project charter, one that outlines the objectives, success criteria, and daily client tasks that staff should be able to complete at the end of the project. “The project charter is where we lay out the expectations for communication and responsiveness,” said Davis. “The key here is that the client needs to be engaged for us to get things done – this isn’t just a Cobalt project, it needs to be a team effort.”

In fact, according to Davis, client responsiveness is the single greatest factor in determining whether a project is completed in time. “A non-responsive client will result in the timeline dragging out much longer than it needs to, which results in more overhead and spending more money.”

Staffing

Making sure you have adequate staffing is crucial to a successful project. In addition to a project manager, there will also be a technical lead who collaborates with the project manager and the client to architect solutions. Underneath the technical lead sits an entire development team that’s responsible for customizations to the software. This also includes a developer who focuses on data migration from the client’s old system.

Once solutions are developed, consultants test with some involvement from the support team as well; this way support is familiar with the system, which translates to a smoother transition at go-live.

 The client must also be properly staffed as well, and this includes appointing an executive sponsor who advocates for the team and provides direction. “Leadership can make or break a project,” said Davis. “Clients I work with who see the most success are the ones with an advocate who provides solid direction.”

Configuration, Development and Testing

Once the expectations and roles are established, the actual configuration begins. The Cobalt team breaks the project down into several phases and then begins delivering iterations to the client for it to test. 

Client testing is one of the most important aspects of ensuring a successful end product. “If [the client’s] staff hasn’t been involved and they haven’t been testing and doing due diligence, they’re going to have problems when they go live,” said Davis. “We want them to get as many who will be actually using it as possible to test it so we can get complete feedback from the people it’s most important to.”

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For more detailed information on Cobalt’s agile approach to configuration and
development, check out our project methodology section.

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Data Migration

In parallel to the configuration and development iterations, the project’s SQL developer imports data, reviews with the customer and makes updates. He or she will do several rounds of review with the customer over the course of the implementation. Ben Tycz, Cobalt’s lead SQL developer, has writing a more detailed post on this topic if you’re interested in the nitty gritty of data migration.

Staff Training

Davis tries to schedule the AMS training so that it occurs as close to final deployment as humanly possible. “That’s so it’s still fresh in the memory for the people expected to use it,” she explained. Both the lead consultant and a member of the support staff will usually travel to the client to meet with the team in person.

“A lot of times what we’ll want to go through are their top 10 daily tasks,” she said. “Part of the project charter involved identifying how they’ll use the AMS, so assuming they filled that out correctly then those are the tasks we’ll focus on during the training.”  

The Final Stretch and Handoff

During the final weeks Cobalt will test the software and send it back to the client for a last round of feedback. Cobalt will also engage in regression testing, which helps unearth any bugs that may have been introduced with all the new iterations.

Once the final version is implemented and made available to all users, the SQL developer does a data refresh so that the system has the latest data from the client’s legacy system. From there, Davis typically performs a few final tests. “I’ll do a little bit of verification,” she said. “As part of the go-live, I’ll make sure we can run credit cards, that daily emails are set up.” But other than these few final tasks, Davis’s job is pretty much done, and so she hands off the client to the support team. From then forward, any questions or modification requests are handled as support tickets (we’ll dive into the support process in a future article).

It’s only after you consider the months of work — along with the thousands of decisions, both big and small — that you can truly appreciate the magnitude of what it takes to implement a new AMS. But given how important this software is to your association’s membership offerings, it’s well worth the journey, and you can rest assured your staff has the tools it needs to deliver maximum value to your association’s members.

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