ERPs – Can’t live with them – Can’t live without them!

A CIO.com article and a blog, both by Thomas Wailgum, caught my attention this week. The first, Why ERP is Still So Hard, and the second, The United Nations ERP Project: Is SAP the Right Choice?. Both caused me to reflect on ERPs – in many organizations now themselves legacy applications.

The first article opens by saying that:”After nearly four decades, billions of dollars and some spectacular failures, big ERP has become the software that business can’t live without–and the software that still causes the most angst.” Interestingly, when we wrote The Information Paradox, the major IT investments at that time were ERPs, and that is where most of the problems where. It appears that not much has changed.  The article goes on to make a number of points:

  • ERP projects have only a 7 percent chance of coming in on time, most certainly will cost more than estimated, and very likely will deliver very unsatisfying results. In addition, today’s enterprise has  little better than a 50 percent chance that users will want to and actually use the application.
  • CEOs and CFOs are still trying to wrap their heads around the financial aspects of your standard ERP package, a most unusual piece of the corporate pie: the licensing, implementation, customization, annual maintenance and upgrade costs. A CFO Research Services study of 157 senior finance executives, found that a typical company will spend an average of $1.2 million each year to maintain, modify and update its ERP system.
  • Manjit Singh, CIO of Chiquita Brands International, makes a key point that the reality CIOs face when synching business processes with those in ERP applications leads to “internal arguments over how we are going to define something simple as a chart of accounts. So all of the sudden, what looked like a very simple concept has exploded in complexity, and now you’re into trying to get some very powerful people aligned behind one vision. In some cases, you can; in some, you can’t.”
  • In a  first implementation, Taser International customized its chosen ERP package to meet the business processes that it already followed. In a subsequent upgrade, they decided to “…get rid of these customizations and go back to the best practices and recommendations out of the box”. Taser International CIO,  Steve Berg, acknowledged that the upgrade took longer than expected: Testing and training issues, as well as certain customizations that were unavoidable, complicated progress along the way.

In summary, the track record of ERP implementations continues to be spotty at best, costs are not well understood – nor are benefits, change management is a huge issue – not to be underestimated, and there needs to be an appropriate balance between “out of the box” and rampant customization.

So, let’s now look at the UN situation. My first reaction was one of relief that I did not have to do this. Not that it isn’t most likely needed, and could contribute to improving the UN’s efficiency – which is certainly a noble goal – but that it appears to a close to impossible  challenge. What are the chances of the now $337 million project actually coming in on budget – it’s already 4 months behind schedule – and delivering the expected benefits? If this is being considered a “technology project” it will almost certainly fail. If it is really an “IT-enabled change programme”, it will likely cost much more and still be challenged. To extract just a few points from Thomas’s blog:

  • “History tells us that the greatest odds for success with SAP ERP are at organizations that run lean, disciplined shops where change doesn’t have to involve translators or global resolutions.” He then goes on to quote from the UN draft report (released in an article by Fox News – not my usual source of information!) on the progress and scope of the project: “A substantial number of its administrative processes are largely based on practices from the 1940s and 1950s and supported in many cases by technology from the 1980s and 1990s…. There are at least 1,400 [non-integrated] information systems currently in the United Nations Secretariat but in many cases they are used to support or track paper-based processes. Very often, documents are printed from these systems, signed, manually, routed, photocopied and filed with associated costs in time and money. Furthermore, paper documents are usually the source of trusted information, casting doubt on the reliability and acceptance of data existing in electronic systems. The result is that we often have several versions of ‘the truth.'”
  • He acknowledges that “The implementation team…is well aware of the challenges.” Again, from the report: “[The project] is not just about implementing a new system; it is about implementing new and better ways of working together. To meet this challenge, [the project] must improve staff attitudes and skills, align processes, policies, and organizational structures with known leading practices and standards, and deploy a new global information management platform.”

It is encouraging that the implementation team does recognize that this is indeed not a technology project, but an “IT-enabled change programme”. However, the report also say:”…based on the process analysis and requirements review done to date and assuming the organization’s ability to adapt, no customizations to the core SAP code have been identified.” Given the nature of the UN, this would seem to be the mother of all assumptions. The danger here is that while starting with this understanding, the challenges will be so daunting that the “programme” will be scaled back over time to a “technology project” with significant and expensive customization, and erosion of anticipated benefits.

As Thomas concludes: “…if there is one thing that will surely doom the project—because rest assured that the software will eventually run, whether it’s by 2013 or beyond—it will be the ill-equipped users tasked with actually changing the day-to-day of their jobs to fit the strict parameters of this foreign software.”

But, does it have to end this way? Here are my thoughts on what the UN should do to improve their chances of success:

  1. Maintain active executive sponsorship – cascade sponsorship across and down through the organization.
  2. Clearly define the desired outcomes – both end outcomes and intermediate outcomes. Use some form of benefits mapping approach to do this (for more about this look at  Get With the Programme!). Develop relevant metrics – both lead and lag metrics and consolidate them in a benefits register.
  3. Assign clear accountability for all the outcomes – with consequences – align the reward system.
  4. Develop a realistic plan – schedule enough time – break it down into “do-able chunks” with clear outcomes from each.
  5. Recognize the full depth and breadth of the change – specifically cultural and behavioural change. Manage the process of change. Have a two-way communication plan – cascade it across and down to all stakeholders. Listen to the people who have to do the work – be flexible where appropriate. For more on managing change, look at Managing Change – The Key to Delivering Value.
  6. Invest in training – cascade the training using a train the trainer approach.
  7. Measure performance against the metrics – both lead and lag. Understand and act quickly and decisively on deviations.
  8. Be prepared and willing to change course – both the outcomes and the journey.
  9. Stay the course – but know when to fold.
  10. Plan for more change.

I am sure they are doing some of this today, but certainly not all, and likely not enough – if they are to avoid a costly and avoid highly visible failure, and realize real value from this significant investment they would do well to do more!

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2 Trackbacks

  1. By Valor añadido de las TI « Miguel Marroyo's Blog on September 16, 2009 at 1:29 am

    […] ERP es interesante este artículo de Jhon Thorp ERPs – Can’t live with them – Can’t live without them! , del cual resalto este párrafo referido a un proyecto SAP en United Nations: It is encouraging […]

  2. By IT value? « Miguel Marroyo's Blog on September 22, 2009 at 10:12 am

    […] ERP is interesting this article by Jhon Thorp ERPs – Can’t live with them – Can’t live without them! , from it I would like to point out this paragraph regarding one SAP project for the United Nations: […]

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