Planning Is Critical When Buying Computers For The Agency

While most agencies look hard for ways to get the most out of equipment purchases, the sad fact is that the useful life of a computer you buy new today is likely to be no more than four years.

There are many reasons for this untimely obsolescence, not the least of which is the incredibly rapid advance of technology development related to computing.

As an example, I purchased a new PC in 1999 that had everything I needed for work and play, and then some. At that time, it seemed the 400MHz (megahertz) clock speed, “new” Windows 98 operating system and 8GB (gigabyte) hard drive were more than adequate for what I had in mind.

Last year, however, I replaced that lumbering beast with a faster 2GHz (gigahertz), Windows XP machine with 80GB of hard disk space. The operating system alone had advanced three versions in the three plus years since I bought my 1999 machine.

Needless to say, if youre buying new workstations or freestanding PCs for your agency, youll want to make sure the new machines are as useful as possible for at least those four years, or possibly longer. Buying too little in the way of computing power could leave you searching for new PCs two years down the road, while overbuying could have you paying for features youll never use.

Thats why careful planning of such purchases is critical to your return-on-investment.

Buying a computer has never been easier, and that is both a good thing and a bad thing. If youve done your homework and you know what you need, the purchase itself is a piece of cake. If you havent done some planning, however, its easy to make mistakes or to be taken advantage of.

Before you even consider brand, type, speed and data storage capacity of a new computer, take a very hard look at your agencys business practices. What kind of use are you and your staff getting out of your current computers? Often, those who do this kind of self-appraisal are surprised to find that employees are either not using computing resources fully or arent doing so in an efficient way.

Its possible that when you review the agency workflow, you may realize that simply changing workflow policies will serve just as well as replacing your computers, at least for the time being.

Another good way to approach this is to ask yourself and everyone else who works in your agency how your computing experience could be improved to speed carrier interactions, customer service, information storage and other critical aspects of your business.

Are your computer systems maximized for the latest version of your agency management software? Consult with your agency management vendor and find out about things like systems requirements, in both hardware and software.

Again, if youre using an older version of your management software, you may not need to upgrade your hardware (or operating system), especially if you believe you can stick with that older version for a while longer.

According to W. Russ Taylor, a partner in People Computer of Brick, N.J., agencies need to “take a look at your organization. How many people will have to use your technology systems? Will they be doing all their work in the office, or will they be working in the field or out of their homes? Are these people strictly independent, or do you want them to be networked with each other?”

The answers to these questions will guide agencies in integrating new hardware into their networks or other systems, says Taylor.

When it comes to formulating a technology strategy for an agency or brokerage, “there is no definitive heres what youve gotta do,” Taylor explains. Simpler, less expensive technologies may be fine for smaller operations, while more extensive networks and additional technologies may be needed for larger firms.

Taylor warns, however, against “undersizing your [technology] to get cheap.” Buying equipment that is the minimum needed to do the job is risky, because chances are that equipment could become inadequate as needs and technologies change.

The result, says Taylor, is that “they have to get a whole new system. The old system is a throwaway.” This, he notes, illustrates an important technology strategy: Be prepared for growth.

Of course, it may be difficult to project if and how much your agency will grow in the years to come, but its usually best to err on the optimistic side. No one I know of has ever complained about buying too fast a processor or too much memory or disk storage capacity.

And speaking of storage, now is the time to project just how much information youll need to store on your agencys systems–either on hard disks and/or on backup systems. Common IT wisdom has storage needs doubling from year to year, so take a look at how much storage space you utilize now, and if it is sufficient for the present, do the math for increases over a three- to four-year span. That should give you a rough idea of what youll need if things go well for the agency.

Another factor to be considered when purchasing new hardware is whether or not a training period will be required, especially if youre switching from an older platform like DOS or Windows 3.x to Windows XP. The farther away your current operating system is from the current version, the more likely it is that you and your staff will need some training and familiarization time. Build this into your planning in terms of cost and implementation time.

Its also important to consider what critical software (other than your agency management system) you plan on using in your agency over the next several years. For example, if you plan to rely heavily on a contact management software application, make sure any new equipment you purchase can run that application without problems.

Be aware that an older software program may not run on a newer system. Some Windows 98 software, for instance, does not run on the Windows XP platform.

As a general rule, if your hardware is more than five years old, you can probably benefit by replacing it. Even at that age, however, you may find the functionality is still adequate for your business needs. Dont be seduced into buying new technology simply because it is newer or faster or has better screen graphics.

Asking and answering these key questions should put you in a position to know whether or not you need to purchase new computers, as well as what you need out of your new hardware from a functional perspective.

Assuming your homework has told you that its time to go computer shopping, you can start checking out whats available.

In our next article on this topic, well deal with what to look for in new computers, and what to avoid.


Reproduced from National Underwriter Life & Health/Financial Services Edition, August 11, 2003. Copyright 2003 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.