Computers In The Waste Industry: Do You Want To Get On-Line?

Who says that computers are just for the high-tech businesses of the 90s? Today's companies, whether they are considering restructuring or simply want to upgrade, are on the path to computerization.

There is no need to be daunted by the plethora of computer systems, software programs and networking options in the marketplace. The first step in choosing a computer system is to examine something you are already familiar with: your organization. The way you operate today and your strategic plan for the near future will drive your search for computerized technology.

Even before speaking to a vendor, consider:

* Do you perform manual tasks? For example, recording invoices on receipt and filing them in a cabinet is not always effective. Determining how much cash is required in a certain time period can be tedious and potentially inaccurate. With an integrated accounting system, the invoices can be entered into the system and the due dates will be automatically calculated, thus determining the amount of cash required to pay the bills. Duplicate manual work, on the other hand, is inefficient and has a greater risk of error.

* Do you hand-write checks to pay vendor invoices? If invoices were entered into a computer system, checks could be automatically generated based on certain criteria. For example, a system can generate a list of invoices that are all due on a certain date; then the operator can determine which invoices should be paid and request the system to print the checks. If the computer-generated payments are on time, you can take advantage of vendor discounts. In addition, early payments can be avoided to maximize accruing interest. A system also can "age" the received invoices and project how much cash will be necessary to pay them in 30 days.

* Is the weigh station manually calculating the weights of the incoming trucks and manually preparing customer invoices? A system-generated billing package speeds up customer collections and can bring in the money necessary to run your business. Automating accounts receivable is often a priority for organizations phasing in computerization. For example, when the Onondaga County Resource Recovery Agency (OCRRA), North Syracuse, N.Y., upgraded its operations, its first priority was to replace a manually ticketed tare weight system with an integrated scale and software system.

The system, which generates billing information automatically at two Onondaga County Resource Recovery Agency transfer stations, replaces a process where tickets were brought to the county data processing department for manual entry of billing. The new system permits the two remote transfer stations and the administrative office to track what each company has brought into the facilities. The system also can recognize new customers, makes it easier to track incoming payments and alarms users of problem accounts.

* Does an accountant prepare your monthly financial statements? With an integrated accounting system, information must only be entered one time and it will flow through each of the affected applications. For example, as a customer bill is entered into the system, the accounts are updated to produce monthly financial statements. An integrated accounting system also can eliminate all duplicate entries.

* Do your current procedures provide the management information you need, when you need it? For state tax purposes, can you easily calculate the total tons passing through your waste recovery facility? Is it easy to track past-due reports? Do you need to track vehicle maintenance and container location and status?

It is important to consider your organization's internal resources. For example, is your staff willing and able to be trained? Also, users need to be prepared for a file server crash. For these instances, a specific employee should be responsible for getting the system operable again. At OCCRA, an internal staff member was trained to handle networking problems for its 10 users and two remote sites.

Also consider how the daily troubleshooting questions will be solved. Once a system is running, will a vendor or consultant be on-call for routine systems troubleshooting? Consider this point when evaluating vendors and overall costs.

Also remember that costs will vary according to the specific needs of an operation. Before you solicit requests for proposals, have a consultant discuss the range of costs. Also, make sure that senior management has agreed to fund computerization.

Many organizations work with a consultant to define their organization's system requirements and to help identify which tools and vendors to consider. To find an experienced consultant, ask your accountant or other advisors that know your business for referrals.

Before beginning your search for the ideal computer vendor, define your organization's present and future systems requirements. This includes a strategic plan detailing which software and hardware features are necessary to automate the company's internal procedures for the next five years.

For example, requirements will change if a company acquires remote sites. Next, identify up to 10 vendors that have been in business for at least five years and, if possible, have waste industry experience. Also seek vendors that have installed at least 100 systems. It's important to consider technology that has been operating long enough to have its problems corrected. Also, check the financial background of all vendors.

Preparing The RFP Vendors will use your request for proposal (RFP) to determine if their software meets your requirements.

The RFP should include basic information about your organization such as what products and services the organization provides, a description of the facility and the features needed.

Tell the vendors why you are considering their systems and what the selection process will entail. Compile a list of required software features and rank them according to importance. Some organizations prepare an evaluation of vendor responses. Contact the vendors' current customers, and ask them what it's like to be their customer. Also verify what training the vendor provides. If the training is conducted at the vendor's facility, costs will be higher.

Once you have narrowed the field to the top three vendors, ask each company to provide a product demonstration. Next, contact their references and set up an onsite visit to talk to a user. Find out how responsive the vendor has been and what type of support they provide. For example, if a vendor claims a one-hour response time, does it deliver? How does the vendor resolve problems? Is support provided by phone, modem or in person?

Ask how the system implementation and conversion process was managed. Did the vendor meet the proposed schedule (see chart on page 46)? Was the final cost close to the original estimate? How effective was the vendor training?

Implementing A System Training should begin prior to implementing a system. Before training, however, you must make important decisions about the daily processes of your business. Essentially, all of the information you need to run your business should be reflected in the computer's programming.

Before the set-up begins, decide:

* When will information will be input into the system?

* How will existing customers be included on the system?

* How will you set up the chart of accounts? What detail is to be included in financial statements?

* Do you need to departmentalize information?

* What are the terms for your customers? For example, will discounts be offered for early payment?

The customer often does some of tasks such as establishing master files and entering balances. But the final step involves additional group training for the system users.

Computerization costs can range dramatically depending on the number of terminals, systems and networks needed. However, the payback can be measured several ways.

Long-term benefits include less paperwork; better coordination of remote locations; the ability to redistribute personnel resources and to perform services which were performed by outside professionals; and more efficient collection, payment and error detection systems.

Overall, if computerizing will give your organization a competitive advantage, go for it.