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CASE STUDY

Services Firm Switches to Microsoft Collaboration,
Cuts Costs and Improves Productivity

“We can serve more clients and provide more services with the same resources. By recovering tens of thousands of labor hours, we will save millions of dollars annually.”


— Mike Cleary, Director of Strategic Technology, RSM McGladrey

 

A wholly owned subsidiary of H&R Block, RSM McGladrey is a major consulting firm that offers financial and business services to mid-sized companies. After years of growth, the company’s aging IT infrastructure was ill-suited to its mobile in-the-field work force. Communication and collaboration products, based primarily on IBM Lotus Notes/Domino, were cumbersome, and employee productivity suffered.

In late 2005, RSM McGladrey switched to a collaboration solution based on integrated Microsoft® products. The company also began migrating its Notes applications to Microsoft technologies, including the Microsoft .NET Framework. Now, the more centralized IT infrastructure is simpler to manage and supports flexible application development. Employees collaborate effectively through applications that are easier to use, resulting in higher productivity and saving the company millions of dollars. 

The Situation

Situation RSM McGladrey provides midsized companies with financially focused business services. Offerings include tax consulting, wealth management, retirement resources, accounting, risk management, payroll services, and strategic planning.

Headquartered in Bloomington, Minnesota, RSM McGladrey serves global customers through its membership in RSM International, an affiliation of separate and independent legal entities. Audit and attest services are provided through an alternative practice structure with McGladrey & Pullen LLP, a partner-owned CPA firm. Considered together, these companies are a major provider of business consulting, with more than 600 offices in 70 countries. RSM McGladrey has more than 7,000 employees and is a wholly owned subsidiary of H&R Block.

In late 2004, after years of success and expansion, RSM McGladrey became concerned about its aging, heterogeneous IT infrastructure. In particular, the communication and collaboration solutions, based primarily on IBM Lotus Notes/Domino and Notes applications, could not be adapted to the company’s larger and increasingly mobile work force. “Lotus Notes/Domino served our company well for many years,” says Joe Topinka, Chief Information Officer at RSM McGladrey. “But Notes had reached a point in its product life cycle where we needed to revisit the role it should play in our systems.”

RSM McGladrey used Notes applications for a variety of tasks, most critically for complex engagement management (auditing, including audit work papers; trial balance; and supporting documentation). But even simple everyday tasks had become cumbersome in the Notes environment. For example, employee contact information was stored on multiple, incompatible systems.

“There was no unified up-to-date corporate phonebook online, anywhere,” says Mike Cleary, Director of Strategic Technology at RSM McGladrey. “If people were not in your local office, or if you didn’t have their numbers written on your own phone list, finding them could be a challenge. It was especially hard for new employees.”

Collaboration in the field was also a problem. Nearly 85 percent of RSM McGladrey employees are mobile most of the time—out providing customers with tax, consulting, and audit services. “Traveling professional-services representatives had only about a 50/50 chance of connecting to our office,” says Cleary. “It was a serious problem. These employees need to collaborate with each other and to access data back in the office.”

In-the-field difficulties included customers who did not have compatible networks, who did not have or authorize Internet connections, and whose firewalls blocked connections. As a workaround, many RSM McGladrey representatives set up their own networks either at customer sites or in hotel rooms. “Considering that our field reps are not IT administrators, it worked surprisingly well,” adds Cleary. “But making them carry the extra equipment, including notebooks loaded with Notes/Domino, was a lot of trouble. And since Notes setup is very complicated, it often consumed a lot of time that they could have used much more productively.”

In January 2005, the IT department of RSM McGladrey began conducting field studies, observing the company’s professional-services staff and how the staff used technology, particularly Notes and Notes applications, in day-to-day work. “It became clear to us that we needed to create more of a sense of community among employees,” says Topinka. “And it was just as clear that our existing technology would not accomplish that goal.”

The research revealed that usability was a particular problem. “RSM McGladrey believes very strongly in the usability of the products and internal applications that employees work with,” says Cleary. “Making sure that the applications present consistent, easy-to-understand, and efficient interfaces is very important. Our attitude is, ‘If you can do it in one click, don’t make the user click three times.’ Notes/Domino wasn’t giving us the usability we wanted.”

For internal applications that connect to or enhance its communication and collaboration solutions, RSM McGladrey wanted to move toward flexible and friendly Web-based interfaces and software delivery. However, the company’s existing Notes/Domino implementation didn’t readily support extensive Web-based deployment. “Notes helped make us the successful company we are today,” adds Cleary. “However, its development features were not scalable or flexible enough for what we wanted to do.”

Concurrent with the field studies, RSM McGladrey spent several months examining alternative products. The company considered and rejected the newest release of Notes/Domino. “We determined that an environment based on Notes/Domino would become increasingly complex over time,” says Cleary. “That’s not the direction we wanted to go. We wanted to simplify our infrastructure, not make it even more difficult and expensive to maintain.”

The Solution

By June 2005, RSM McGladrey had completed its research and had defined a next-generation IT architecture based on Microsoft® products. In July, it invited Microsoft Services consultants to examine the company’s current IT systems and the proposed improvements. Working together, the two companies identified the specific components that would be needed to make the improvements work. They also developed a deployment schedule that was aggressive enough to accommodate an upcoming corporate merger.

RSM McGladrey selected the following tightly integrated Microsoft products and technologies as part of a new collaboration solution:

Infrastructure Components

  • The Microsoft Windows Server™ 2003 operating system, the foundation of Microsoft Windows Server System™ integrated server software
  • Active Directory® service, a component of Windows Server 2003 that provides a central location for managing and securing user accounts, computers, and applications
  • Microsoft SQL Server™ 2005, a highly scalable relational database with extensive management and development tools, easy-to-use business intelligence, and analysis and reporting services
  • Microsoft Identity Integration Server (MIIS) 2003, a centralized service that stores and integrates identity information for organizations with multiple directories
  • Microsoft Internet Security and Acceleration (ISA) Server 2004, an application-layer firewall, a virtual private network (VPN), and Web cache solution

 

“The cost of deploying applications is now about 25 percent lower compared with our Notes/Domino environment.”


— Mike Cleary, Director of Strategic Technology, RSM McGladrey

 Communication and Collaboration Components 

  • Microsoft Windows® SharePoint® Services, technology in Windows Server 2003 that provides Web hosting and document storage functions and can function as a development platform for creating collaboration applications
  • Microsoft Office SharePoint Portal Server 2003, an enterprise collaboration solution that: aggregates SharePoint sites, documents, and applications into a single, easy-to-use portal; and complements Windows SharePoint Services by adding functions for navigation, searching, integration, and personalization 
  • Microsoft Exchange Server 2003, a communication server that enables companies to send and receive electronic mail and other communications
  • Microsoft Office Live Meeting, a hosted Web conferencing service that enables real-time collaboration

The Benefits

Because the new solution is standardized on tightly integrated Microsoft products and technologies, RSM McGladrey employees now communicate and collaborate more effectively. The company’s IT department also has the flexibility to develop applications that are easier to use. As a result, all workers— especially the 85 percent of employees who are mobile—spend less time making technology work and more time using it to get real work done. These productivity gains improve morale and reduce operational costs by millions of dollars annually.

A More Centralized and Flexible IT Infrastructure
With the new collaboration solution in place, the IT infrastructure of RSM McGladrey is more centralized and easier to manage because it’s based on standardized and integrated components. “We are both more streamlined and more secure,” says Cleary. “Having a centralized structure has made us rethink how we administer tasks.” For example, Active Directory supports delegating functions, responsibilities, and permissions according to precise rules that administrators can define. Office-level administration can be distributed among hundreds of offices, which frees the IT department’s resources for more pressing duties. However, the IT department still maintains its high-level control and security policies.

Another example of more efficient IT management is the automated account provisioning and de-provisioning system. “There is a very high turnover in the business-consulting industry,” says Cleary. “As RSM McGladrey grows from 7,000 employees to 10,000 or 20,000 someday, we want a solution that’s scalable. Obviously, asking IT administrators to spend their time managing hundreds of user-account changes isn’t scalable.”

Plus, because the solution includes robust application-development components, IT administrators can adapt applications to the company’s changing needs, and they can develop new applications tailored directly to what employees do. “The Notes/Domino environment was restrictive,” says Cleary. “But the Microsoft collaboration solution is more usable and offers a more flexible development environment where we can create user-friendly applications, especially for our mobile work force. That was the main reason that drove our decision to switch.”

The collaboration solution not only supports application development but also efficient deployment. “When we administrators step back and look at how we do development and how we roll out applications to employees now, versus how we did it before, it’s really encouraging,” says Cleary. “New functionality is so well-integrated that employees often don’t notice what we’ve changed; they just know their applications work better.”

Better Employee Collaboration from More Usable Applications
Collaboration tasks—from sending e-mail to sharing documents—are now easier, so employees engage in them more often and with better results. “We are absolutely seeing more effective collaboration as a result of the Microsoft technologies,” says Cleary. “For our employees, the Notes client seemed counterintuitive in many ways. In terms of user interface, now that we’ve switched, we are seeing improved employee morale and less frustration.”

The new solution’s ease of use is evident in the lack of training it requires. RSM McGladrey set up a SharePoint training site, purchased training materials from Microsoft, and scheduled training webcasts in Live Meeting, but many of these resources have gone unused. “We were prepared with extensive materials,” says Topinka. “But we didn’t need them. The Microsoft collaboration solution has been really easy for our people to learn. A less technical colleague of mine, who did not grow up with computers and had never used the new Microsoft products, said to me, ‘I’ve been a Notes user for years, and I didn’t need any training on this Microsoft system. I picked it up in nothing flat!’”

“We canceled most of the webcasts,” adds Cleary. “With nothing more than a simple cheat sheet, most employees carried on their day-to-day business after the migration without any interruption.”

Usability is also evident in the applications that RSM McGladrey can now develop. “Windows SharePoint Services is proving to be a very powerful and useful technology,” says Cleary. “There are numerous business needs that we were never able to address using Notes because we didn’t feel it was an appropriate environment to develop workflow applications in. A lot of our reluctance had to do with being unable to access information in other client applications. Now, we can expose that client information and display it using Web parts, for example.”

More Productive Workers
RSM McGladrey believes that usability leads directly to productivity. “Not only will the Microsoft collaboration solution accomplish the same tasks as Notes, but we believe it adds value by providing easier, friendlier employee experiences that lead to increased productivity,” explains Cleary.

For example, the unified directory of contacts and accounts, supported by Active Directory and MIIS, makes contacting and collaborating with colleagues much easier. “Now, when you get an e-mail in Outlook, you can right-click on the person’s name and look up the phone number,” says Topinka. “I’ve heard so many comments about that simple benefit. People love it.”
“It’s a little thing, but that example with Outlook demonstrates the tight integration between Office 2003 and the rest of the collaboration solution,” adds Cleary.

“Similarly, I can edit a document in Word and then share it through Windows SharePoint Services or e-mail it through Outlook immediately. It’s hard to quantify benefits like these—how much time employees save or how much money the company no longer wastes—but they certainly have put a lot of smiles on people’s faces. The new solution fosters better morale by making it easier for employees to find information they need and find it more quickly.”

These productivity benefits extend across corporate boundaries. “I have a lot of meetings with peers at H&R Block and at other companies in the family of our parent company,” says Topinka. “Now, when they send appointments to me, I can directly accept them, and they show up on my calendar. It’s a whole lot more efficient than playing phone tag.”
Also, because the centralized platform is easier to manage, IT administrators are using their time more efficiently, doing more things than they could do before. “They’re able to distribute their time across other projects that would have otherwise required hiring more workers,” says Cleary.

Support for a Happier Mobile Work Force
The majority of RSM McGladrey employees are mobile, and the new collaboration solution has been designed with them in mind. “The mobility features in the Microsoft products are considerably beyond those found in Notes, which makes the products much more usable for our mobile work force,” says Cleary. For example, by accessing Exchange Server and particularly SharePoint Portal Server, customer engagement representatives in the field can share documents with each other without having to set up mobile peer-to-peer networks. “Now, they’re not going to have to carry around all that extra networking and server equipment,” adds Cleary. “They won’t have to understand the nuances of setting up a network environment just to do their jobs.”
Other mobility benefits are closely related to the usability of everyday applications. “The Outlook Web Access client looks remarkably similar to the full Outlook client, so it’s easy for our employees to switch between the two,” says Topinka. “The ability to send e-mail, schedule meetings, consult calendars, and edit shared documents at any time, anywhere, on any computer, has been a huge benefit to the company.”

“We are concerned about our employees’ well-being,” adds Cleary. “We anticipate a very big payback in terms of the increased amount of work our representative can accomplish while out in the field, onsite, with customers. And with the new collaboration solution, we want to give them back some of the work-life balance time they previously had to give up, time they spent becoming technology experts instead of doing their day-to-day jobs.”

Millions of Dollars in Reduced Costs The new collaboration solution offers huge savings to RSM McGladrey in four key areas. First, it requires less-expensive development resources. “It’s a supply and demand issue,” says Topinka. “Notes developers are increasingly hard to find and therefore increasingly expensive.”

Overall development costs are also significantly reduced. Cleary adds, “We are finding that most applications created using the new solution, and particularly those based on the .NET Framework, are taking less time to build; we are able to include many more usability features, and they require less training and support. As a result, the cost of deploying applications is now about 25 percent lower compared with our Notes/Domino environment.”

Second, RSM McGladrey conservatively estimates that the new easier-to-use solution offers a savings of 10 minutes a day for each employee who performs audit services. “We can serve more clients and provide more services with the same resources,” says Cleary. “By recovering tens of thousands of labor hours, we will save millions of dollars annually.”

Third, expanding on the benefit of a more centralized and flexible IT infrastructure, RSM McGladrey expects its new systems will be not only simpler but also less expensive to manage. “By eliminating the Domino field [which are key Notes/Domino infrastructure components] in favor of the new infrastructure, we anticipate cost saving in the tens of thousands of dollars annually,” says Cleary. “This is due to reduced management resources and a reduced need for technology support.”

Fourth, the new solution also uses storage and server computer hardware more efficiently, which further reduces maintenance costs. For example, because Notes provided no method to directly encourage individual users to clean out their mailboxes, storage requirements could fluctuate dramatically from month to month. “Managing user storage space was a pretty labor-intensive process in Notes,” explains Cleary. “Now, storage management is easier.” Specifically, the solution’s robust support for enterprise storage area networks makes it easy for IT administrators to define storage limits for each user. Because this storage method is so scalable, RSM McGladrey can avoid future hardware expenses. “Our new environment currently supports 7,000 users,” adds Cleary. “We believe that number can easily double without our having to buy additional storage hardware.”

Opportunities for Future Improvements
With key solution components now in place, RSM McGladrey looks forward to building on them and expanding the solution’s scope in the future. For example, the company is standardizing on Microsoft Windows Mobile® 5.0 for its mobile devices, and it will produce a Windows Mobile 5.0–based version of its time-and-expense application, providing mobile employees with quick access to those basic functions. In anticipation of these improvements, RSM McGladrey is already preparing to deploy Exchange Server 2003 with Service Pack 2, given its improved support for mobile devices. 

Additionally, having successfully deployed several .NET-connected applications, RSM McGladrey will develop dozens more in the coming months. Also over the next few months, the company plans to explore the instant messaging capabilities of Microsoft Office Live Communications Server 2003.

“Everything is so well-integrated now. Employees can communicate in so many different ways,” concludes Cleary. “We were a Notes shop for 10 years, and practically overnight we switched people to a completely new system. People generally don’t like to change things that they’re used to, so I wondered if I would be able to walk the halls without fearing for my life. Instead, people stop me to express their gratitude. For an IT person like me, that’s the best measure of the new solution’s success.” 

 

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