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With new releases of Windows, office suites and other programs all being touted as the latest and greatest, how do you decide when to take the plunge and upgrade your software? Most software vendors release new versions every six to 18 months, often with multiple patches released every few months. Not only are your technological needs changing, but so are those of your clients. Once you accept this fact of unending rapid change, the next question becomes how do you best plan for and manage it. Here is a guide for the perplexed. � When You Lose Technical Support Many software vendors only support the current version and perhaps one or two preceding it. If you are two or more versions behind and lack support for a key program, it may be quite prudent to upgrade. A lack of technical support may not justify upgrading, but it is still not an enviable situation. Even if your programs are running fine now, it is usually only a matter of time until you install a new program which breaks your old one. � New Features This is one of the sharpest double-edged swords. Some people like to have that new-car smell and rush to get the latest and greatest version. My advice is to avoid this temptation unless there is a compelling reason. Is it a long-awaited feature that performs a critical function, significantly increases productivity, or solves a particularly thorny problem? In these cases, upgrading may make sense. But if the new features simply provide a new look and feel, take a pass. Likewise, do not assume all of the prior version’s features will be included in the new program. Vendors may choose to phase out or modify features. Above all else, avoid all versions ending in “.0″ — let others cut their teeth on these unpolished, often rushed-out-the-door versions. � Cost You should weigh the cost of continual upgrading against skipping every other version, which many firms do to save money. While the vendor may support an older program, you may be required to be a current licensee to receive technical support. Other vendors may let you purchase technical support, but it may not be cheaper depending on your overall support needs. � Data Conversion & Migration Just getting new programs to behave themselves is challenging enough. But what about the mountains of digital data you have amassed? Will they be useable in the latest version or a competitor’s program as is, or will they need to undergo some type of conversion and possibly even manual clean-up? If you are leapfrogging program versions, you may nevertheless need to pass your data through several conversions — perhaps one for each version skipped. If so, then the strategy of skipping versions is not nearly as effective. � Integration If you have done all the right things so far, chances are you have successfully integrated a number of applications and their data. For instance, your word processor may be integrated with a document manager, contact manager and a document-assembly program. In turn, some of those programs may be integrated with a case manager. Upgrading any of these programs can introduce new challenges to the seamless functionality you have worked so hard to achieve. � Training No upgrade analysis or decision is complete without considering the necessary training requirements and cost. Will that little upgrade have a profound impact on your staff? There are direct costs to consider, but also the softer costs of lower productivity while everyone is learning and working the kinks out of the new system. It is all too easy to underestimate the return on investment that proper training provides. � Workforce Issues Retaining older software can present considerable difficulties and additional costs when trying to hire qualified experienced employees. If a firm is still using an older DOS or Windows program, how easy and cost-effective will it be to recruit a person already proficient in it, or to hire another that will need substantial training to get up to speed? � Pilot Testing Before committing all of your PCs to the latest upgrade, test it with a few willing volunteers. It will help you work out the kinks and plan the larger rollout within your organization. Technological change can seem daunting and murky. Many changes, however, can be anticipated with a little extra effort. First, plan to review your systems at least once or twice a year. Identify the sore spots as well as new-feature requests from your staff and clients. Stay current in the legal technology market. With so much information freely or affordably available via the Internet, legal-technology publications, CLE courses and legal technology-related e-mail discussion forums, it is easier than ever to find useful and current information on what products are available and what other firms are doing. Jeffrey Beard is a legal technologist with Quarles & Brady in Milwaukee, Wis. His e-mail address is [email protected].

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