How to smoothy upgrade to Office 2007

Specialist firm offers advice on the latest version

Moving to a new office is never fun. The same goes for moving to a major new release of Microsoft Office — which Office 2007 happens to be.

There is new, heftier software to be installed, employees to be retrained for Office 2007's new 'Ribbon' interface, documents that need to be migrated to 2007's new XML-based file format, and more.

Office 2007 is the ninth version released by Microsoft in the past 15 years. Many companies have developed expertise on how to plan and perform this migration. And Microsoft offers tools — some of them free — to help.

Still, many companies find themselves beleaguered with the scope of the task and decide to seek outside help.

ConverterTechnology is one of the leading consultants in the "help space". The 10-year-old firm started off as a Y2K remediation consultancy; when that problem subsided, it applied the tools and expertise it had gained to the Office arena, starting with the migration of Office 97 to Office 2000.

It has migrated a million Office users from older versions, according to CEO Rob McWalter. ConverterTechnology is usually brought in by a larger consultant such as Accenture or Hewlett-Packard at the beginning of a wider corporate upgrade.

"Deployment plans are big and complicated — we are just one of the many moving parts," McWalter says.

One of the first things ConverterTechnology does is help determine what documents need to be converted to the new format. In Office 2007's case, that new format is Open XML. Surprisingly, that's usually not a high percentage. Up to 80% of documents are "out of service", as McWalter puts it, while only a small percentage of the remaining files are business-critical enough to justify a migration.

For example, ConverterTechnology recently worked with a "top five global bank" that had 75,000 desktops holding more than 43 million Office files in older formats, and of those, it ended up migrating only 2.5 million, or about 6%, McWalter said.

A good rule of thumb, he says, is that each PC has on average five documents critical enough to merit a conversion.

Word files, especially forms that rely on templates from human resources departments, lawyers or insurance firms, can be tricky to move. But the most important files are less likely to be Word documents or PowerPoint presentations and more likely to be spreadsheets and other files with financial data residing in Access and Excel files.

Those files often use extensive macros, Visual Basic code or Access programming code, and they could even be linked to other spreadsheets.

Microsoft's tools can convert the data files, but "they don't take you the whole way if there is any complexity [like macros, programming code or links] to the files," McWalter says.

Losing access to those files might not only be crippling to businesses, but could also violate data retention laws and other regulations, he says.

McWalter is loath to disclose exactly the ingredients in ConverterTechnology's secret sauce, which he claims can cut Office migration time by 80%. But it does involve, he says, the ability to "identify and remediate 200 compatibility threats" between Office 97 and 2003, and a similar amount between Office 2003 and Office 2007.

Microsoft is actually somewhat helpful to the process, McWalter says. It openly documents changes in the way 2007 handles files compared to 2003, though it doesn't publish many of its own fixes. For instance, in Access 2007, there is one new hidden command. "What we have to do is figure out when it will break, so we scan the customer's file, and reprogram that command," McWalter says.

Those projects can be huge, as in the case of one Midwestern insurance company with 40,000 PCs and 500,000 Access database files, all reliant on an older version of Visual Basic. In those cases, ConverterTechnology still has to do a lot of ad hoc, custom rewriting of macros and Visual Basic code, he says.

For non-critical files, "my recommendation to a CIO is to move them off the network into remote or cheap storage but not tell users you are doing that. That has rarely created any consequences," he says, and it should keep companies compliant with data retention rules.

This act of migrating files and segregating non-migrated ones is often the first step a company takes towards an information life-cycle management strategy — an approach ConverterTechnology supports.

"Our crusade is to get our customers to extend IT management to their files," he says.

McWalter is surprisingly complimentary about Office's main (albeit distant) rival, OpenOffice. The free software "has come a long way. It's viable in some of the enterprises we work with, and they are in fact deploying it," he says.

While IBM's Symphony is new enough that McWalter hasn't become aware of too much demand for it yet, "you can't believe the influence IBM has" with corporate customers, he says.

ConverterTechnology, despite its name, does not currently offer tools for converting Office files and users to OpenOffice or Symphony and their shared document format, Open Document Format for Office Applications, known as ODF. McWalter declined to comment on whether those capabilities lie in the firm's future.

The other productivity software to use ODF is Google Docs. Even though Google Docs recently gained the backing of Capgemini, McWalter said he rarely hears about interest in the new software from his corporate customers.

"It's like OpenOffice was a few years ago, when nobody would say, 'Hey, we've tried that,'" he says.

McWalter acknowledges that there are "still a lot" of customers that his company is helping to migrate to Office 2003. And corporate uptake of Office 2007, far from beating expectations, has been "about what we expected", McWalter says. "We are actively participating in about 40 Office 2007 deployment projects today." He expects demand to pick up by the middle of next year.

So why should an office migrate to Office 2007 today? "That's a legitimate question," he says. While McWalter believes that well-trained power users of Office 2007 are "30% more productive", but he concedes that Office 2007 "is not that exciting in and of itself. It's the enablement of information rights management via SharePoint, or the integration with Unified Communications" that make it interesting, he says.

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