Article

Making a pitch for OpenOffice

Solveig Haugland

Talk about fear factors! How do you think your top brass and users would respond if you suggested replacing Microsoft Office with OpenOffice.org? Some users may think they'd rather eat cockroaches. If an IT team hopes to succeed with this pitch, it needs to anticipate what its users' and decision makers' fears will be and prepare ways to soothe worried brows.

As an OpenOffice.org and StarOffice instructor and consultant, I've heard all the objections that fearful Office users can muster. Here are five objections that you're bound to hear when you suggest switching and some ways to explain why those objections are spineless.

Objection No. 1: They'll be afraid of the unknown, fearful that going to open-source will leave them with software that's potentially flaky or unsupported.

Your IT team, users and executive decision makers need to go to the users@openoffice.org list on the OpenOffice.org site and correspond with other IT departments that have switched. These include Cassens Transport in Illinois, Ernie Ball Guitar in Washington, and the Jefferson County government in Colorado. Once they've talked to other IT folks who've done it, survived and liked it, they'll have less general fear of the unknown. They'll also find out that major European Union governments are looking at heading toward Linux and OpenOffice.org. It's not just for Linux freaks anymore.

Regarding the fear of not having professional support and training, my opinion is

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that this is not an issue. I've had absolutely terrible support experiences with under-informed, ignorant support representatives for perfectly respectable companies. The users@openoffice.org list, on the other hand, is not only a font of information, but the people who use the list are prompt and courteous. They're the most courteous, patient members of any list I have ever been on, by a long shot.

Objection No. 2: They'll think that converting existing documents to the OpenOffice.org format will be a nightmare.

This can be a big task, depending on what the existing documents are like. However, it can be trivial, as well. You and your OpenOffice.org-promoting cohorts can find out what the conversion will be like by taking representative documents from throughout your company and converting them to OpenOffice.org using the document converter (File > AutoPilot > Document Converter). Then, just open the documents, compare them with the originals and print out a sampling to show the IT folks. If they see that conversion is manageable, then that's a big step.

OpenOffice.org is very interoperable with Microsoft Office, but any two programs will have their differences, of course. Do a little testing to find out what types of bullets can cause problems, and avoid them. Another good approach is to follow good formatting practices in both programs by using styles rather than just applying bold, font size and specific fonts to the default style. In OpenOffice.org, choose Format > Stylist, and use the two icons at the far right to create styles and update them when they need to be changed. Also, avoid combining text boxes with graphics in either program. These are things that commonly need tweaking after transferring between programs.

Overall, however, the best way to approach the issue is to take representative documents, transfer them between programs, see what if anything causes problems, and find a different way to format the content.

Objection No. 3. Executives will worry about training costs and users about learning a new office suite.

This isn't trivial, but it's certainly manageable. I've found that, when I do my core, half-day training classes, people are usually very surprised and pleased to see how similar many of the features are.

Do the training early and often and in manageable chunks. Motivate people to learn. Then, when the time comes, take away Word and the other Office applications so that people will have to use OpenOffice.org. Just like an immersion program in a new language, people learn a lot faster when they have to.

I also absolutely recommend that everyone in the company have access to an OpenOffice.org book. Many functions are obvious and easy to learn, but it's true that some things in OpenOffice.org are hard to figure out. Not hard to do, just hard to find the right commands or the right options in the right windows.

Objection No. 4: All those people who always hate and resist change will complain.

This is a standard change management issue. (That cheese-moving book might or might not be a help.) Here are two good tactics to turn the tide in your favor: Get the "popular kids" in the company to buy into the change; also, have brown bag lunches showing how easy a lot of the OpenOffice.org functions are. For example, the text formatting object bar in Writer is really similar to Word.

Objection No. 5: They'll say that changing to OpenOffice.org will take too much time, energy and money.

These obstacles will seem less intimidating if your IT team can present the results of its own conversion testing and testimonials gathered from other company's IT departments.

Regarding the effort of installation, I strongly recommend that users have standalone, not networked, installations of OpenOffice.org on their machines. This makes conversion go faster, and there's not much benefit from a networked installation. If your users don't have the ability through a server to run the installations, then walk them through running the standard installation, or have your IT team do a few every night before leaving. The only caveat is to tell them to unmark all check boxes when the window asks them whether they want OpenOffice.org to open Microsoft documents. If they don't, it's not a big deal in reality and totally reversible; but not unmarking will confuse people and make them think that their Word documents have been converted to OpenOffice.org.

Summing up, here's my advice for an IT department that wants to save time, effort and money on its OpenOffice.org implementation:

  • Give everyone good OpenOffice.org documentation, including a book or your own collection of information and links.
  • Tell users to run the install and not accept the default of having OpenOffice.org opening Microsoft Office files, or run the installs bit by bit over a period of weeks.
  • Find and bring in an OpenOffice.org trainer to train people on core features. (Usually, with 10 people in a class and one to two days of training, you'll pay about $500 to $800 a day.)
  • Get someone in-house or a consultant to ensure that documents get converted.
  • Remove Microsoft Office after about three months of using OpenOffice.org. (Microsoft Office and OpenOffice.org can be installed on the same machine with no problem.)
  • Create an in-house Web page or database where people can post frequently asked questions or tricks they've discovered that are particularly useful.
  • After training users well and providing them with documentation, explain that the IT department is not the OpenOffice.org support center. Instead, users should rely on documentation or the users@openoffice.org mailing list. Users will get great support from these sources. In fact, if you can't get an answer from those sources, then you're trying to do the impossible with the program.

This isn't a huge amount of work, and the expenditure isn't large. Overall, OpenOffice.org will save your company a large amount of money in the short and long term. Ask your decision makers if they can think of something they could do with the Microsoft Office license and support money they're spending now. Surely some other investments would be more useful than throwing more money at Microsoft? They probably can come up with something they'd rather be doing with the money.

Another word on cost savings: OpenOffice.org file sizes are tiny, so your company will be able to spend less money on storage. If they're concerned about disk space that files take up on servers or going through e-mail, OpenOffice.org will be a wonderful change.

Finally, your company could dump other expensive licenses after implementing OpenOffice.org. Instead of buying licenses for Deneba Canvas, Adobe Illustrator or Microsoft Visio, you might be able to just use OpenOffice.org Draw, an open-source product. Draw has exceptional capabilities and can export to GIF and JPEG, plus SVG, EPS and a lot more formats. It has the connector lines of Visio, the advanced object and text manipulation capabilities of Illustrator, and the features and ease of use of Canvas.

About the author: Solveig Haugland is the author of OpenOffice.org Resource Kit and StarOffice 6.0 Companion. She has developed a training curriculum for both programs based on a set of workbooks and instructor slides. Her client list for training and workbooks includes companies in Colorado, Illinois, Australia, England and Norway. She is SearchEnterpriseLinux.com's Ask the Expert advisor on office suites.

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