Migrating a corporation to OpenOffice

This case study describes the successes and pitfalls of migrating a large corporation from Microsoft Office to open source office suite OpenOffice. Find out what to avoid and discover the lessons they learned.

This is one case study, out of a three-part series, where OpenOffice expert and instructor Solveig Haugland examines the successes and failures of a school, city government and corporate migration from proprietary office suites like Microsoft Office to OpenOffice.

More from this migration series:
Migrating a city government to OpenOffice

Migrating a school district to OpenOffice

Steps to a successful migration

I recently talked to an executive from a large corporation, and -- for various reasons -- I'm not going to name either. The story is interesting enough, however, without those particulars. I'll call the executive Marie.

The corporation is working through its pilot program and, assuming success with the pilot program, will be rolling out OpenOffice.org to thousands of desktops. Marie gets a lot of face time with users, which often translates to that face doing a lot of yelling, when there isn't enough information or training given up front about the transition. However, that's what pilot programs are all about.

What triggered the migration: Money and the economy

Two years ago, the corporation got its usual yearly bill for what it would cost to keep all their Microsoft licenses current. The process is called the "true-up." The true-up also made the eyes of the CFO pop out of his head, roll across the floor and explode.

One reason Microsoft Office had such a high cost is that they were required to have licenses for every user that might conceivably use it. "As many as 30% of those who had licenses for Microsoft Office don't even use an office suite for their job," Marie stated.

The head of IT suggested saving money by not renewing the Microsoft Office licenses, and going with OpenOffice.org instead. He was a longtime open source fan, had used StarOffice in the early days and saw this as a good time to switch. The CFO thought it was an interesting idea. He used it at home, played with it and saw that it was good. He gave the switch the thumbs up. After all, a big bonus was that users didn't use Microsoft Office could have OpenOffice.org, just in case, and it wouldn't cost anything for them to have it.

The switch was announced it at the annual regional manager meeting six months after the decision was made. That was the first time those managers heard about it, and there wasn't a lot of information sent out about the transition, or the product. When Marie visited some sites to do the switch, perhaps half of the managers had never heard of the program.

The pilot project was for about 200 users, but up to 2,000 users in her own division alone would adopt OpenOffice.org if the pilot was a success.

One step Marie took was to bring in consultants from Novell, who gave her team excellent advice. Included in that advice were suggestions like performing due-diligence to fully understand what the impact of the switch would be on all users, converting documents, checking compatibility with existing software, etc. Another piece of advice was to ensure that all users are on exactly the same Windows Service Pack to guarantee that all environments behave the same way. However, Marie admits, they followed few, if any, of the recommendations in the initial stages. The perception from the top was that OpenOffice.org was a simple program that anyone should be able to pick up easily, so little preparation work would be necessary.

At the end of the consultation, Novell submitted a proposal to handle the transition for them and switching all users to Novell's SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop (SLED). The price was higher than the corporation wanted to pay, so they declined.

Conversion and training

The corporation had a few advantages:

  1. They only use Writer and Calc, so they didn't need to switch over from Publisher or Powerpoint.
  2. Their documents are also relatively simple, so when ten-year-old documents don't convert correctly, it's usually easy to re-create the document in OpenOffice.org.
  3. Conversion problems were primarily due to the documents being very old, being badly created in the first place or dependent on macros that didn't convert.

The training and help desk departments plan to convert and re-create essential documents for users who have problems doing it themselves. One problem they encountered, however, was that when they asked groups for the essential work documents that needed to be converted or re-created, they received quite a few fax cover sheets. Even if the formatting did not come over correctly in OpenOffice.org, those aren't essential work documents.

The training and help desk departments are being trained now. Individual users will be trained with computer-based training when they are transitioned, and an internal FAQ site will provide answers to questions submitted to the help desk.

The corporation is doing the pilot rollout now. If the pilot is successful, then OpenOffice.org will be rolled out to all sites. The corporation has 10,000 employees. Each site that is transitioned to OpenOffice.org has a transition period of 30-60 days between when they are notified and OpenOffice.org is installed, and when Microsoft Office is taken away.

Technical difficulties

As Poggione had found in his school district, vertical packages are often designed to integrate closely -- too closely -- with Microsoft Office. An industry-specific package that the corporation uses reads data from a spreadsheet, but also calls the actual Excel program. This is being worked on and is a solvable problem. Another program that only a few employees use integrates closely with Excel too, and this problem hasn't been solved. Those users will keep Excel.

It was far more difficult than expected to identify all the applications being used. Some of the programs were discovered during onsite troubleshooting after the implementation.

Remote deployment is also an issue on Windows. They are working through the process and have made quite a bit of progress; part of their solution is to purchase a separate remote deployment applications. When they have developed the full solution, they will be able to specify all the settings users should have, so that the settings are for optimal use and identical for all users. Then, remote installation will take place. These settings include an item under Tools > Options to set spreadsheets to print only the current spreadsheet.

Finally, it is tough not knowing who to call when you have problems with OpenOffice.org. There are online resources, but having a source of experts you can talk to is best.

Change management

There were also problems early on because of negative attitudes among trainers and the help desk workers. When they encountered problems that they would shrug off in Microsoft Office, they grew frustrated with OpenOffice.org. And since it's a relatively new product, at least compared to Microsoft Office, there isn't an expert down the hall or in the next office who's used OpenOffice.org for 20 years and knows it inside and out.

Many users called the help desk, asking for an exception so they could get Microsoft Office back. Some of the reasons were legitimate. They were using applications that connected directly to Excel. Other reasons were: "OpenOffice.org is too hard."; or "The person next to me has Microsoft Office."

Generally, there was a slow improvement in the transition over the first several months, in part because more people were using it at home prior to being switched over.

Lessons learned

The transition period was a very good idea, and that the length is important. Less than 30 days isn't enough for conversion and training, and more than 60 days lets people fall into their old habits of using Microsoft Office. In hindsight, consulting Novell was a good idea, and more of their advice probalby should hve been followed early on.

Laminated Clue Sheets have been very helpful for users. It's not really even about the content so much as the security that even a small reference sheet provides people. They bought a site license, so are able to produce them cheaply. The internal FAQ is also a good resource for users and is growing.

"Testing, and communication" are two key steps that would have made for a smoother transition. It's a good idea to do a through job of checking on what issues there might be with the transition prior to making the decision. This process would have uncovered many problems they discovered on the fly later, including the integration between the vertical applications and Excel. This would have given them a chance to figure out the solutions ahead of time rather than while onsite in the middle of a transition.

Being able to solve users' problem quickly and appear informed and prepared also helps enormously with the attitude of the users being converted to OpenOffice.org. Many problems, like making a spreadsheet print by default only the current sheet rather than all sheets, are very simple to solve, but are easier to solve without being under stress.

A few more tips: After the decision to migrate is made, make sure that everyone in the company knows the details, including when it would happening and what the new software is. Make sure the help desk team is supportive and does not make negative comments to users about the new product. Getting top-down executive can also prevent many of the calls asking for Microsoft Office back. Get outside help from a knowledgeable vendor or consultant.

"Perception is everything," Marie concludes. "Microsoft Office isn't perfect either, but people somehow accept that."

Here are the steps for a successful migration and more case studies.

This was first published in July 2007

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