This is my second article in response to pieces by Thomas Wailgum at CIO.com (you can read the first one here). In Thomas’ latest piece, entitled Why CFOs and CEOs Hate IT: ERP, he touches on an area of which I have lengthy experience, ERP.
I spent the first eight years of my career working for a a software house, whose central product was in what we now call the ERP space. The big boys at Oracle Financials (then without PeopleSoft and J.D. Edwards in-train) were one of our main rivals and I had the pleasure of being involved in several bids where the little guys prevailed against their more renowned competition.
Later in my career, I was a player in a global selection process involving Oracle, PeopleSoft (then a separate company) and SAP and in laying the foundations for a US/European PeopleSoft implementation. Many years later again, after I had recorded a number of successes in another of my core areas, business intelligence, I was asked to add Financial IT once more to my portfolio. In this capacity, I oversaw the implementation of (by this time) Oracle PeopleSoft Financials in Denmark, Italy and then Australia, Hong Kong, Labuan and Singapore.
So, in one way or another, ERP and I have been around the block a few times. Given this, I could identify with some of Thomas’ observations. Many of these can be summed up in the phrase “an ERP system is for life, not just for Christmas.” Here are a few of Thomas’ thoughts:
A typical company in the CFO survey will spend an average of $1.2 million each year (each year!) to maintain, modify and update its ERP system.
ERP systems have become a noose around companies’ necks which tighten as the business changes every year, each customization gets made to the system and costs continue to spiral upward.
In some ways, ERP implementation is just like any other IT project and is difficult to get right for exactly the same reasons. But, as Thomas points out, some things that make ERP stand out are the massive initial outlays, the continuing cost of modifying what you originally thought you needed and the sheer size and complexity of most modern ERP systems.
You can think of your average ERP system from one of the large vendors as analogous to Microsoft Word. Because Word has to appeal to a lot of different users, with different needs and specialisms, it is chock-full of every single feature that anyone could ever need. However, no single person ever uses more than a fraction of these. I think of myself as a reasonably advanced Word user, but I would bet that I utilise no more than 10% of its capabilities. All of the functionality can make it tough for an entry-level user to employ Word in a basic way to do basic things (or if we are talking about Word 2007, it makes it tough for even an expert user to figure out how to do stuff). The same criticism can be applied to ERP systems. Because they include so much functionality for different companies in different industries, it can sometimes be difficult to configure them to do something as simple as entering and paying an invoice. Difficult that is without an army of consultants.
The way to avoid complexities and to get ERP implemented on time and budget is to ignore its broader capabilities and deploy as plain vanilla a version as you can get away with. Flexibility and the ability to customise might be very seductive at sales time, but they are the worst enemy of implementation and are certain to chew up resource, time and money. Instead the secret is to focus on the ways in which Finance in your organisation is the same as it most other organisations. Once you have this sorted out and a basically successful system in place, you can then think about bells and whistles. Of course by this time, you will probably be focused on upgrading to the latest version of your ERP system, but let’s put this unpleasant thought to one side for the purposes of this discussion.
But this begs another question, which Thomas covers more eloquently that I could. Plain vanilla ERP implementations, where you essentially adapt what your organisation does to the system’s standard functionality, mean that:
[…] employees who actually have to use the ERP system day in, day out will not only dislike the fact that you’re changing their technology interface, but now you’re going to allow the technology system to dictate to them how they should perform their job, with the new business processes.
However, even if we can suppress this second inconvenient truth about ERP, a further one arises – the area is indeed hydra-like. If the best practice for ERP implementations is to customise them as little as possible – shortening projects, reducing costs and simplifying upgrades – then why is there such a large price tag for all of the bells and whistles that it is impractical to actually use?
As Mr Wailgum says in closing:
But, perhaps, [CEOs and CFOs] have been making these decisions without knowing all the facts about the long-term costs associated with ERP systems, that the upfront “sticker price” is almost meaningless.
Which brings us right back to why CFOs and CEOs hate IT.
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