Congratulations! In your role as middle market CEO, COO, CFO, or CIO you fought the good fight and sponsored your company's ERP project. First you survived the ERP software selection process. Then you lived through the boot-camp tough implementation phase.
So your ERP system is up and running-now what?
You might borrow the 24-hour rule from professional sports: spend one day celebrating your victory. Then start preparing for the next challenge.
That challenge is to manage your ERP system-effectively enough to realize those quantifiable benefits that justified your company's investment. The bad news is that many companies peak on Day One where effective system use is concerned (see Application Erosion: Eating Away at Your Hard Earned Value).
The good news is that you can manage your system to reach the Promised Land. What's required is concentration and focus: plan your post-implementation work, and work your post-implementation plan. Your odds for success will improve if your plan includes the following actions:
- Manage your consultants
- Empower your power users
- Support your end users
- Maintain your infrastructure
- Cultivate your system
Manage Your Consultants
Continue the business relationship with your ERP consultants after the implementation. Consultants who know your people and your business can support you efficiently. This is better than making new consultants ask a lot of basic questions before they address your critical issues.
Consulting time is a valuable and expensive resource. You can economically use consultants to augment and extend the knowledge of your in-house team-but you must actively manage this relationship.
Define the objectives, budget, and schedule for each consulting assignment. Obtain a written commitment regarding the billing practices and rates-these may differ from the arrangements that applied during the implementation. Establish clear guidelines for your in-house staff: determine who can assign work to consultants, and ensure that your consultants understand these guidelines.
Plan effectively to maximize the value of the consulting time you use. As an example, don't make consultants wait-with meters running-while you complete daily work or take routine phone calls.
Empower Your Power Users
Your power users are the critical in-house resource that will make or break your ERP system. Your power users came forward during the implementation-some were nominated as power users, some just naturally emerged. These users benefited from your "train the trainers" approach during the implementation.
Now the power users will train and support your end-users. Your power users know more about your industry and the nuances of your company than your consultants do. With that in mind, give your power users significant authority in adapting your ERP system to meet your company's specific and ever-changing needs.
Assign power users to develop company-specific written procedures and checklists that define your use of the ERP system. Your consultants can guide this process, and can provide standard templates to serve as the starting point.
Assign each power user to train a backup power user. This will reinforce the power user's knowledge of the system, and will provide continuity when the power user is reassigned or leaves the company.
Continue to formally retrain and extend the training of your power users after the implementation. Then have the power users continue to broaden the training of your end users.
Support Your End Users
Your end users are a key component of your ERP system, and of your company's business. There's a tendency to underemphasize end users because they're at the bottom of the knowledge transfer chain. But their knowledge and acceptance of the system is crucial. For one thing, your end users outnumber your power users-so don't lose them in the corporate shuffle.
Monitor the training your power users provide to end users. Develop a process to identify and meet each user's training needs. Establish an in-house troubleshooting and support process, and an authorization procedure for referring issues to outside resources. And be on the lookout for end users with the interest and aptitude to develop as power users over the long haul.
Train or cross-train a backup for every end user. This will provide continuity when vacations or unscheduled absences erupt. You'll also find that end users' knowledge of multiple functions makes daily workflow more efficient.
Maintain Your Infrastructure
You brought your hardware and your network up to spec to support your ERP system at the go-live date. After that, there's a tendency in middle market companies to take infrastructure for granted. To keep your system operating efficiently, you must actively manage your hardware and network in perpetuity.
Keep your network and workstation operating systems current; this includes firewall and anti-virus components. Downloadable updates and software patches can prevent or cure a host of ills. Memory upgrades can go a long way-on the server or at the workstation. And your company could dodge the tri-annual workstation replacement cycle with a thin-client solution like Microsoft Terminal Services.
Stay abreast of your ERP vendor's hardware requirements and supported platform definitions. Administrators in many middle market companies are stretched so thin that they're unaware of changes in these areas. When requirements change and your company doesn't upgrade, your ERP software may perform badly-or not at all.
Heed your daily system backup procedures. Offsite storage and archiving are fundamental practices, and most middle market companies follow them. But it's advisable to take one more step: run a "fire drill" at least monthly to ensure that you really can restore whenever you need to.
Have more than one person trained and available to restore your system from the backup medium. It's axiomatic that the only time you actually need to restore is when your system administrator goes to Aruba, Barbados, and/or Curacao.
Elementary, you say? All of this is just good network management, and it's needed with or without an ERP system. True enough. But your end users may not understand why your backup failed. They just know that they had to spend three straight weekends re-entering lost transaction data into that #*&?%@!! ERP system.
Cultivate Your System
Your ERP system is capable of performing many functions-and the greatest of these is all of them.
At the go-live date, your users are adequately trained in a narrowly defined transaction set. You own meticulously written procedures for the transactions you knew about when you scoped the project-before your business continued evolving with your ERP system under construction. And you have the defined reports that your management and users knew enough to request in advance.
But even the best ERP implementations are like Forrest Gump's chocolates-you never know what the steady-state user experience will be until after the go-live date. It takes somewhere between nine and twenty-four months for most ERP systems to mature. If you manage the knowledge transfer effectively, you will realize the anticipated benefits of the ERP system.
The actions listed in the preceding sections will facilitate the knowledge transfer process. Your consultants will learn more about your business, and your power users will learn more about your ERP system and its cross-functional integration points. Over time, you can move past the reactive stage and begin to gain competitive advantages from your ERP system. This is known in some circles as "harvesting" the system.
To reach the harvest, you must first cultivate. In addition to time and management attention, successful cultivation requires commitment and focus. To note a frequently cited example, you must prevent users from circumventing the system for short-term convenience. And you must apply all of your persuasive power to prevent change resistance from undermining your company's use of the system.
Summary - You Can't Just Set It and Forget It
There's a tendency for owners and managers of middle market companies to evaluate the economics of an ERP system by asking, "How much will it cost?"
We don't need to address the finer points of Total Cost of Ownership here. The key point is that new management challenges emerge after your ERP system goes live. Your company will continue to incur system-related costs and management time demands. When it comes to your ERP system, you can't just set it and forget it.
The good news is that most of these challenges can be met with common sense and proven procedures. The bad news is that day-to-day time pressures prevent these procedures from being followed in many companies.
Now that you have survived the ERP implementation process, your mission-and you can't afford not to accept it-is to manage wisely, and realize the value of your company's investment. Good luck!
About the Author
Randall A. Napier is a principal in SRH Consulting, an ERP consulting practice located in Grapevine, Texas. He has over 20 years experience in management and consulting, with the last 10 years dedicated to implementing and supporting ERP systems. Randy speaks frequently on topics related to the selection, implementation, and management of enterprise software systems.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.