Keeping current with technological advances is difficult and expensive. The city of Alcoa knows that better than most as it advances plans to complete a software overhaul in the upcoming year.
With the budget season over and FreedomFest wrapped up, city officials have geared up their software research process once again, this after City Manager Mark Johnson announced during a May budget workshop that technological changes were on the horizon.
“My Mouse Doesn’t Work,” he titled a portion of his presentation, deploying a little humor to discuss an otherwise serious issue, emphasizing the frustrations of antiquated or ineffective technology in the workplace.
Serious to the tune of $665,500 in costs and 35 years of waiting.
Budgeted in 2020 are a total of $450,000 for main software system updates and $215,500 for the replacement of 92 personal computers and upgrades on servers and storage system software.
Johnson and Finance Director Susan Gennoe confirmed an update like this hasn’t been implemented since 1985.
They also said Alcoa is two generations worth of updates behind surrounding governments like Maryville and Blount County. So it’s badly needed, and not just for competitive reasons, they said.
Alcoa recently has expressed a focus on employee-centered development as it seeks to curb turnover and attract new hires.
So, the city is putting its money where its mouth is, and Johnson said the update represents the largest expenditure in this category in the 20 years he’s served with the city.
But there’s a catch to waiting so long, he added.
“The blessing in disguise may be that we’ve waited and No. 1, it is cheaper and No. 2 it’s advanced. It’s got stuff in there we wouldn’t have ever thought of.”
What change looks like
So why not make the changes earlier?
“(The old system) worked,” Johnson said. “We had other priorities.”
He added the city also has been waiting on a quasi-governmental corporation created by the Tennessee legislature called Local Government Corporation. It is supposed to help cities in technological transitions like the one Alcoa is currently undergoing, but Johnson said the city has been waiting for years for the corporation to develop Windows-compatible software.
They have now, and the software is cheaper, but that doesn’t mean the price tag is the smallest the city has ever seen.
So what would a half-a-million-plus-dollar boost to Alcoa’s software systems look like in practice?
Anecdotally, Johnson recalled a time recently when he was sorting through capital projects to see how the city paid its engineers. “I knew how to get into our system and get that information out, but it literally took me about two and a half days.”
During a recent demonstration of more modernized software, Johnson said he saw virtually the same process completed in seconds.
Efficiency is a large focus in the city’s 2020 fiscal year and the new technology is slated to not only address data the city manager is responsible for, but a wide array of concerns.
The three main systems getting revamped include utilities, accounting and HR.
And to Director of Human Resources Melissa Thompson, the upgrades come as a welcome boon.
“A lot times we are just stuck behind a desk doing administrative tasks because of the system limitations,” Thomson said. “What I would like to see once we have more time freed up is for us to be more available to employees.”
She admitted this could be a “warm, fuzzy HR” perspective, but pointed out that the benefits of having more time to interact would be significant.
“I’m thinking of our electric administrative assistant. Once some of her time is freed up because she’s not spending 15 hours a week doing a manual payroll process, she’s going to be able to help the staff do more.”
Thomson said time won back from cumbersome software systems will have a “snowball effect” on the HR department, allowing projects to take priority over busy work.
But Johnson, Gennoe and Thomson agreed one of the most significant parts will be the ability to collect data and track trends in order to better serve customers and residents.
The new system will not replace employees — though the city is not rehiring a payroll position after losing an employee to retirement, Thomson said.
But hopes are high that it will be attractive to incoming personnel who may already have worked on more modernized systems.
Johnson quoted Gennoe in his May presentation as saying that today’s hires “are far too tech savvy to be satisfied with our current systems if we can attract them to begin with. They’ve come from the womb with better technology than we have.”
Thompson agreed. “I feel like when we get caught up to where the outside world is at right now, it will be helpful. We won’t have to to explain to them that things are a little more antiquated. It’s like going back to Atari.”
Screenshots of the current system Johnson showed seem to support this. Grey and black backgrounds, blue and red text, limited entry fields: These features dominate systems that are more than a decade old.
Screenshots of newer systems — like Kronos, employee tracking software already used by the Alcoa Police Department — show data-rich, easily navigable interfaces, app-based employee profiles and evidence of many other features.
Though officials said it may take nearly a year to get these installed and running, the wait will be worthwhile.
“Our plan is to reconvene our search and start narrowing down the top vendors for at least HR. We need to open it up further for general ledger software,” Johnson said.
The process for any one of the new systems could take anywhere from six to nine months, but Thompson said at least HR will begin its review process as early as August.
“We’d like to be in good shape by this time next year,” Johnson said. “Nothing like this is easy, but I think we’re going to have everyone on board.”