• United States
Contributing Writer

Detective agency scores big with makeover

Dec 07, 20054 mins

* Chicago firm gets IT overhaul from CDW, Intel, Lenovo and Linksys

A few months ago, I told you about a makeover contest that CDW, a technology retailer, was running along with its partners Intel, Lenovo and Linksys. The gist was that CDW would choose five small companies for a technology overhaul and then report the results. Let’s just say the wow factor on one lucky winner was just as great as on those extreme makeover shows on television.

E.L. Johnson Investigations is a 20-person detective agency based in Chicago. The firm serves court documents for attorneys and performs skip tracing to locate people. As many as 2,000 people can be served in a week.

However, Executive Vice President Stacey Johnson says technology limitations were holding the company back and draining precious resources – both monetary and personnel. “Every week, I had someone coming in to tweak things – I was spending $1,100 a month on IT support just to keep things working,” she says.

Those “things” included a hodgepodge of desktops and servers running a mix of Windows 98, 2000 and XP. “There was no consistent operating system across the office, and we had a lot of problems with crashes, virus infections and supporting different brand computers. The IT money we were spending was just putting out immediate fires. We weren’t moving forward.”

In addition, the customer database – the crown jewels of the company – was a mix of hard and soft files. Each Monday employees, who were otherwise in the field, would have to come to the office to manually input case packets. Courier costs were also high from having to send physical files back and forth among agents and clients. Database crashes were frequent and frustrating.

Johnson said she had considered doing a makeover herself, but “it’s so overwhelming. You don’t know what you need. You don’t want to spend thousands of dollars on stuff that might not be right for your business.”

She poured this frustration into her essay for the CDW contest, and it struck a chord with the company. In March, she received a call saying that E.L. Johnson had won the contest.

A short time later, four representatives from Intel and one from Lenovo came on-site to create a detailed list of what technology would be needed to cure Johnson’s woes.

“They looked at what we do on a daily basis and the equipment we were using. They also took pictures of the site,” she says.

When they returned to re-architect the network, it was like Christmas, she says.

The first challenge was to stabilize the database and make it accessible in-house and remotely via the Web. To do this, the team used an IBM eServer Series 226 Server with Intel Xeon processors as the domain server, Web engine and database. It also acts as the primary file share. Agents and employees can now create client files and scan all supporting documents into the database from any location.

“Cases are kept up to date and investigators can access files from the road or at home rather than coming back to the office,” Johnson says. “It allows for better record keeping. We don’t have paperwork out on the street away from the office.”

She says that investigators who work a hundred miles away and used to have to courier data back and forth can now go online and get what they need in real time: “We’ve cut days off of our turnaround time.”

Agents received Lenovo ThinkPad T42 notebooks with Intel Centrino wireless technology. The home office was also outfitted with Linksys switches and wireless access points. With this combination, agents and employees can work anywhere in the office or on the road. Johnson no longer has to have specific terminals available when agents return from the field – a time waster in the past.

To beef up in-house employee productivity and speed cases processing, the office was also outfitted with Lenovo ThinkCentre A50 desktops with Pentium 4 processors and HT Technology.

All equipment runs Windows XP and features Microsoft Office 2003. Johnson says having a standard environment has been key in reducing IT costs.

Finally, underlying software such as ThinkVantage Rescue and Recovery, Active Protection System, Access Connections and System Migration Assistant allow users to automatically diagnose problems and recover from them. The tools also help in deploying new technology with pre-installed user settings, such as bookmarks and favorites, printers and network access. The software protects hard drives and the data on those hard drives in case of laptop damage.

All of these improvements are designed to speed the case cycle. “We charge a flat-fee for services, so the faster we have information in-house and can close a case, the sooner we can close on billingm” Johnson says.

Read more about the contest (PDF)