Centre for Alternative Technology
Centre for Alternative Technology and Sage 200
30th July 2021
The Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) is an educational charity dedicated to researching and communicating solutions for environmental change. Director of Finance, Paul Booth, has been committed to upgrading their Sage system for some time. Now finished, we caught up with him to learn how the changes are improving how they work.
What started almost 50 years ago as an alternative community of people who wanted to see if they could live in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way, is now a world-renowned organisation that’s continuously expanding into new markets. Most of us know CAT for its fundraising and mind-blowing visitor centre in the beautiful countryside of Dyfi Biosphere in Mid Wales, but there are also other areas to the business that are proving equally as successful. This includes a graduate school which boasts as many Masters students as some universities and an events venue which hosts refreshingly different corporate events, concerts and even the occasional wedding.
Having these different arms to the business has helped keep them afloat during the worst of the pandemic. As Paul explained; “The visitor centre has suffered of course, but the Graduate School has seen an increase in students, partly thanks to the fact that we were able to pivot very quickly to fully online teaching, having already offered courses via a blend of in-person and online learning. Many students have told us how much they have appreciated our approach during covid. Our charity is also very fortunate to have 6,500 members and dedicated supporters who have been even more generous over the past year, which is hugely appreciated. So we consider ourselves very lucky to be exiting the pandemic in the position we’re in, strong and raring to do more.”
Getting their systems in order
As is often the case for fast growing organisations, CAT’s internal IT and systems hadn’t managed to keep up with pace. When Paul joined three years ago and assessed the situation, he soon instigated a thorough modernisation of their systems and processes; “We had big plans, but it was obvious our systems were holding us back from achieving what we wanted. Sage 200 is our core finance system and should have been more than adequate for an operation of our size however the version we were using was eight years out of date and wasn’t running as efficiently as I knew it could. So getting that working better for us was my priority above everything else.”
The first thing Paul desperately wanted to address was making sure their system was compliant for the looming Making Tax Digital (MTD) deadline. This was when Paul had his first experience dealing with Datel, as he explained; “There was a very urgent need to do something very quickly just so that we could comply with MTD.” Paul approached Datel knowing most of our customers had already gone through the MTD process or were in process implementing it.
“I was worried that doing things in such a short timeframe would be challenging, but everyone at Datel was really flexible and willing to work with us to get everything sorted out. It is very obvious that the Datel team genuinely care for the wellbeing of their customers and will go out of their way to help.”
The move to cloud hosting
As if doing an emergency upgrade of Sage 200 wasn’t enough for Paul to cope with, he couldn’t resist the opportunity to make the system more resilient. So after discussing it with Datel, he decided to remove the pressures that come with managing on-site infrastructure and move their Sage system to cloud hosting with our sister company, Datel Advansys.
Paul explained that moving to the cloud was something very important to him. “Cloud hosting comes with so many benefits; the reassurance of our system being secure and looked after by professionals, automatic backups and fast remote access. I’m determined to move all our IT to the cloud eventually.”
Paul was wary of making this major change at the same time as the system upgrade, but was pleasantly surprised by the outcome. “It actually went really, really smoothly. Obviously there were a few things that needed a little bit of attention in the process, but it was way smoother and much quicker than any of us had envisaged. I’m so glad we didn’t wait.”
And it’s a good job Paul didn’t wait to make the move to the cloud. Unknowingly he had prepared the business for working remotely just before the lockdown measures were put in place. “Hosting in the cloud has not only taken away whole rafts of risk and inefficiencies, it gives us the benefit of remote access. Had we gone into lockdown still using our on-site servers, we would seriously have struggled to keep the accounting side of things ticking over.”
Data cleaning requirements
Because the new system upgrade and move to the cloud needed to happen so fast, Paul had to transfer his full set of data, including hundreds of redundant accounts. Cleaning the data was going to be a long and complex process so he waited until he could give it proper attention.
Working with only a very small team himself, Paul was very appreciative of Datel’s assistance;
“I knew what we needed to do, what I didn't know was how best to do it. And that’s where the support from Datel was brilliant. The team gave their advice, which we followed, and Hannah was incredibly patient with us. Again the process ended up being far smoother and far easier than we'd really anticipated at the outset.”
Now it’s up and running, Paul is elated about the difference; “Because we have cleaned up the data and upgraded the system, reports run almost instantly. Features such as bank and VAT reconciliation can now be used too - it’s a major improvement to where we were two and a half years ago.”
Support from Datel
Because of the one-off nature of the upgrade, Paul didn’t want to take on more resource to complete his plans, so instead he honed a great working relationship with Datel; “You provide a combination of really good advice, along with a bespoke service. We know there's issues at our side, but where a lot of other organisations would have just said, ‘this is the solution’, Datel listens to us, and provides flexible support, rather than just selling us something.”
So now that Paul has CAT’s systems exactly how he wants them, is his work complete? The answer is quite the opposite, as for Paul his role has only just begun. “Sage is finally set up how I want it, and at the same time we are moving out of lockdown. Visitors are starting to come back, our on-site teaching has started up again, and we have some exciting new projects on the horizon. It's looking optimistic.”