IT Project Failure: Reading Avon’s Tea Leaves

Failed enterprise resource planning (ERP) implementation projects are hardly news at all. During my 15-year-long analyst tenure (plus several more years as an ERP user and consultant), there have been many high-profile IT failures reported in the media, not sparing almost any enterprise software provider. Coincidentally or not, these stories tend to come in waves, such as the recent ones involving troubled projects of SAP and its major global system integration partners.
Think of California’s state lawsuit over a payroll software implementation, the issues regarding an asset management system for the government of Australia's Northern Territory, or the recent data-entry problems and incorrect pay for many National Grid workers. To be fair, given SAP’s leading market share and the fact that most of its customers are huge global companies with the most complex requirements, it is not too surprising that SAP is often at the center of such controversies. But, as in the National Grid case, there are often issues for which SAP alone cannot be blamed.
I can’t say that there are more IT failure reports than, say, a decade ago, but I believe that more companies and their CIOs are going public with these stories. In the past, executives lived with their mistake or risked losing their job. Maybe that is no longer the case; in this day and age of social networks, news, leaks, and rumors run fast, and we will likely see more of these reports.
It’s a vicious circle of sorts—to continue to grow, vendors need to push for more and more deals, and the more they push, the more likely issues will arise during implementations.
But the most recent report of ERP implementation failure at Avon cites new reasons for the failure. The beauty products giant expects to write off the $125 million costs related to the failed rollout of an SAP-based order management software system. The WSJ article states that the system was so burdensome and disruptive to the daily routine of Avon representatives that those reps left in meaningful numbers.
It appears that Avon’s painful decision was triggered by the backlash from end-users (Avon’s sales force). It’s more evidence of an emerging trend that corporate workers are increasingly demanding the business apps they use be as intuitive and user-friendly as the consumer apps they rely upon in their personal life. This trend, which ties into the “consumerization of IT,” challenges traditional enterprise software giants such as SAP, Oracle, Infor, and Epicor, and often works to the benefit of their cloud software peers, whose offerings emphasize ease-of-use and flexibility over the richest possible feature set.
This is not to imply that anyone can be complacent when it comes to user experience. Microsoft Dynamics has for years been investing in own usability labs, while SAP has been working feverishly on delivering its new Fiori and Lumira users interfaces (UI), just not in time for Avon. Workday has been preparing a delivery of a fully overhauled UI based on HTML5 (abandoning Adobe Flex), while the “mobile first” approach and user experience have been at the epicenter of’s recently announced Salesforce1 platform. Perhaps the best example of a vendor realizing the importance of user experience and a beautiful look and feel for enterprise software would be Infor, which has even created its own in-house creative design agency Hook & Loop, with the Infor Ming.le social UI as a result.
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