System conversions

This past week has been about system conversions. In any design project they are fraught with difficulty. They've been brought to my attention in four different circumstances this week, two business and two personal:

a) The merger of United and Continental airlines
b) The trusted traveler program
c) The collapse of my personal laptop
d) My leaving one job to start another in a different organization.

First the merger of United and Continental: I fly United a lot and was interested to see how they would handle the merger with Continental when it was announced a couple of years ago. The main way I've experienced it is through their frequent flier program. So late last year I got a mailing saying my card that was due to expire in January, would be valid until the end of March. This mailing was sent to a prior address but it finally got to me. I checked to confirm that I had, in fact, changed the address in my passenger profile, which I had, so I don't know how that happened but put it down to merger glitches.

I liked the way that with this announcement came a little gold sticker, saying "valid until the end of March" that came with the instruction to stick it on the frequent flier card. I imagined a bunch of people trying to work out what the best method was of getting to this solution and wondered how much the gold stickers cost. What was the rationale for them? Couldn't they have instructed everyone that all cards expiring January 2012 would be valid till end March and saved on the stickers?

Next came an email saying all the frequent flier numbers were changing, this came with a set of instructions for logging on, resetting passwords, updating profile, etc. so I did all that. (Why wasn't it automatically imported?)

Then on Friday 3/30 I got an email "We want to keep you up to date following our recent conversion to a single passenger service system, a single website and a single loyalty program. We know that our customers have experienced various issues since our system conversion. We are working aggressively to resolve the remaining issues promptly. Here is a progress update on key subjects about which we've heard from our customers". There were four 'key subjects'. I imagined myself in the meetings led by the Senior Vice President, Customer Experience, United, the behind the scenes fury, the rows with the IT department, and the internally politicking going on to resource something that (I'm guessing) turns out to be much more complex, time consuming, and expensive, than it seemed during the due diligence phase of the merger negotiations.

Yesterday I tried to log on to check-in to my flight. The system did not recognize my new frequent flier number and/or password, neither could I get out of the loop of it asking me to answer a security question that I would never in a million years have chosen. ("What is your favorite sports team?"). First I asked 'Alex' the online FAQ 'person', and then rang customer service. No wait, and a very pleasant agent who asked what my password was and confirmed I was entering the correct one. She didn't know why the system wouldn't accept it. Resolution? She sent a link via email for me to reset it , this time with no questions about sports teams. I checked in with no further problem. So some things are working.

Also in the week, Tuesday, I went for my 'trusted traveler' interview. I'd applied for this status in order to avoid some of the waiting in the immigration line coming back into the US. (In my new job I'll be traveling a lot). I'd applied on line for it. The form was exceptionally detailed requiring a ton of information I'd previously given on both my green card, and nationality applications, as well as government job applications. I am not clear why there is no hook up between the government systems. There is a lot of talk (and work plus action) on levels of interoperability but in the day to day of my life I haven't seen it paying off. Anyway, I got to the interview, which came with some wonderful instructions to walk past the red phone on the right to the third door on the right. There's no reception area. The instruction is to knock on the door. I did this twice with no answer. Finally someone opened the door a crack and told me to come back in five minutes. Once I was admitted I gave my fingerprints. Again something I've done many, many times, even the agent interviewing me commented on the fact that there's no compatibility between systems. He told me my card would be with me within two weeks. Imagine my surprise when it arrived two days later, on Thursday.

Then there were the two personal things. First my laptop: the screen got a white 2" wide vertical bar down it with pulsating black horizontal lines within the bar, making it very hard to work on. I had to switch to a different laptop while mine goes for repair. This means a whole mass of system changes like:

a) buying 'Roboform everywhere', a password manager, I just had the desktop one – converting to the 'everywhere' involved several emails to the help desk regarding the compatibility of the different versions. All these were answered within minutes which I thought was impressive. It's now installed and seems to work
b) installing i-tunes with all the attendant frustration of authorizing and deauthorizing computers. They have a very difficult system of allowing up to five computers to be authorized but when you want to authorize a sixth you can't deauthorize one but have to deauthorize all five, essentially starting over. (Can that be right? I couldn't find otherwise)
c) then I tried to open an old Powerpoint – another impossibility and I spent at least an hour trying to find an answer. The best one seems to be installing a powerpoint viewer which I haven't got around to doing yet. Why doesn't Microsoft deal with the issues of opening older versions of their programs?

Second my job: I'm writing this on a flight to Seattle as I'm changing jobs. I'm going to work for NBBJ – an architect's company that was recently written up in the NY Times. For me this means a mass of system changes. I'm anticipating it will include the way I fill time sheets, new communication systems to learn, mastering the transport system of Seattle, the various systems of custom and practice in an organization culture new to me, and so on.

Reflecting on these experiences I conclude that there's no simple answer to system conversions. It's a question of one step at a time. So I was amused to find that today's quote for the day is: 'There is no large and difficult task that can't be divided into little easy tasks.' Yes, and for organization designers and developers the trick is to ensure the little easy tasks collectively and speedily end up addressing the original large difficult task i.e. smooth system conversion and not remain a fragmented set of achieved easy tasks along the way.