Some people compare a distributor's software system to the entire enterprise's central nervous system, says Contributing Writer Doug Chandler in his article, “Making the Upgrade” (page 28). That analogy isn't a stretch. Computers are so interwoven into the fabric of the average distributor that when a system goes down, the entire business writhes in pain.

Twenty-five years ago, computers were used for basic tasks such as accounting, bookkeeping and word processing. They now handle online ordering, real-time inventory management and newer tasks such as customer-relationship management (CRM) and data mining.

Computers took a while to catch on in this business. As late as the mid-1980s, Electrical Wholesaling magazine was still visiting with electrical distributors who hadn't touched a computer. Back then, in my early days as a cub reporter for this magazine, I wrote an article about one Ohio electrical distributor's inventory management system that stored all inventory-movement records on index cards.

I probably used a typewriter to compose that article. At that time, the only computer editors of Electrical Wholesaling magazine had was an ancient Apple computer they shared by wheeling it on a cart into each others' offices. We didn't realize that computer on wheels was an early version of today's more mobile laptop computers.

The adoption rate of computers in the electrical wholesaling business (and in at least some cases, the publishing industry) has been painfully slow in the eyes of the industry's more technically inclined. The electrical business stands somewhere in the middle of the pack in its technical prowess compared to other distribution businesses. Because they have been dominated by very large companies willing to build and invest in their MIS departments, the pharmaceutical, auto parts and electronics components industries have always been further along with computers than the electrical business. However, the electrical industry is leading-edge compared to the many distribution industries still largely populated by smaller mom-and-pop companies.

Distributors of all sizes can ease the pain of a software installation by reading “Making the Upgrade.” If you learn nothing else, remember these three things:

  • Representatives of every department in your company should be on an implementation team so the interests of every facet of your business are protected and served.

  • Don't underestimate the importance of investing in employee training for any upgrade or new computer system — or of timing the training so employees don't forget what they learned.

  • Before upgrading your computer system, talk with and, if possible, visit other distributors who have already gone through the upgrade process. Their experiences will prove invaluable.

Not even the most overly enthusiastic software vendor will tell you upgrading your computer system will be a totally enjoyable experience. But armed with the tips in this article, you will be able to prevent some of the heartburn and a few of the migraine headaches that come with the experience.