ERP implementations after COVID-19
The methodology of ERP implementations is well established and, although not always successfully followed, it is at least understood and documented. But, after COVID-19, it may need to be revised or replaced totally. Previously, external consultants have played a major role in ERP implementations but, in the future, that is unlikely to be as prevalent. Bringing in large numbers of people from outside introduces a health risk that may no longer be acceptable.
Previously a Tier 1 implementation has required anything from ten to tens of hundreds of consultants on-site for the duration of the project and even a Tier 3 has required one or two on-site for one or two days a week for about six months. But, post COVID19, things, whether we like it or not, are going to change, at least in the short term. Companies will be wary of having other company's staff coming onto their site every day; let alone large numbers of them. So they will need new ways of doing things.
Traditionally these consultants have been on-site for many reasons, including:
- understanding the ethos of the client company,
- understanding their needs and wants,
- outline system design,
- proof of concept build and presentation,
- project team education,
- project team training,
- system build, including:
- static data load, and
- bespoke modifications.
- system testing,
- end-user training,
- go-live support.
That is a lot of things to consider and, in the future, the more of those things that can be achieved without using external consultants on-site, the better.
1. Understanding the company ethos
For external consultants to do the best job possible, they need to understand how their clients work and what is important to them; including their competitive advantages. Ideally, that means them spending time on site, talking to the people they will be working with, understanding how they work, and understanding their priorities and concerns. On-site time can be minimized by virtual meetings using Skype, MS Teams or similar systems and, where appropriate and possible, the client's team can prepare briefing documents containing the required information.
2. Understanding wants and needs
Even prior to COVID-19, having a good requirements specification document was essential to a successful project . Having a good requirements document not only minimizes consultant on-site time but reduces the risk of misunderstandings when designing and configuring systems.
3. Outline system design
This is one of the aspects of an implementation that is easiest to do off-site, because it is primarily a mental and paperwork exercise; with the paperwork element being flow-charting and outline procedure writing. This will be based on the previous stage, and any clarifications that are required can easily be resolved via virtual meetings although some companies might prefer to relocate some of the members of their internal project team to the supplier's or system integrator's offices temporarily to aid communication (remembering that having a small number of your staff on their site is cheaper than having a lot of their staff on your site).
4. Proof of concept build and presentation
Once the consultants have gathered sufficient information and have been given some sample data, there is no need for them to be on-site during the build phase. There will inevitably be queries and items that need clarification but these can generally be handled by email or by virtual meetings. With the build in place, not only can the presentation be done remotely, but is something that can actually be even better if done that way. That is because, when done on-site, most companies have to limit the number of attendees; either because of the cost of bringing them in from remote locations or simply by the size of conference room available. Going for some form of teleconferencing allows many more people to take part; potentially improving acceptance also.
5. Project team education
Before they get into system-specific training, the in-house project team has to have some form of ERP education. They need to fully understand ERP in order to be able to monitor, and, if necessary challenge, their external consultants' decisions and advice. How much training they will need depends on the size, length and complexity of the project but, as a minimum, they need to understand how ERP works, what it can do and what it can't do. An ERP boot camp, which is also necessary for senior management, can be the answer with the difference being that the project team needs this education right up front; even before a requirements specification has been written. In fact; the training should include advice on how to write that specification. Many organizations offer suitable courses, and increasingly they are offering them remotely. It is difficult, when working remotely, to get the same level of interaction between presenter and audience but as people gain experience, it can be expected to improve.
6. Project team training
Training is harder to provide remotely than education because it requires hands-on use of the chosen system. When a trainer is in the same room as the trainees, it is easy to monitor progress and to check how each individual student is doing but, when trainers are remote, they need to be able to see what is one their trainees' screens at any time. That is not as difficult as it was just a few years ago but, for acceptable results, the numbers of people being trained in any one session has to be restricted, even though the training can and should be supported by printed training notes.
7. System build
When the overall system design has been agreed upon, the process of configuring the system can begin and, of all the things that can be done remotely, this is probably the easiest. At the same time, any bespoke modifications and enhancements can be carried out, again remotely, and static data entry can commence. If some data can be copied from legacy systems then this can also be done remotely; leaving companies only to decide where best to re-key data that can't be copied. If companies have several operating locations, they may find it possible to share the workload across all of them so that users build up experience of entering customer, supplier, product and manufacturing data etc and, of course, this is an activity where people can work from home after basic training.
8. System testing
There are two phases of system testing. The first is carried out by the consultants who built the system to confirm that it does what was intended, and the second is carried out by the company's internal project team to confirm that it does what the company wants and needs; whilst simultaneously allowing them to write training notes and procedures. Depending on the size of the project, it may be possible to combine these two phases, but that can entail either having the ERP consultants on-site or sending the customer's team to their supplier's offices.
9. End-user training
When system testing has been completed, end user training can begin and the in-house project team can best carry this out. With printed copies of training notes and procedures to hand, this can, if necessary, be carried out remotely but needs to be carefully planned and managed to ensure that all of the people being trained successfully absorb that training. Depending on numbers, it may be preferable to train a number of departmental 'super users' and have them pass on that knowledge within their own, smaller, groups.
When all necessary data has been loaded and checked, and a 'conference room pilot' has confirmed, without reservation, that all is ready (i.e. people, data, procedures and system), the system can go-live. Regardless of how well the system has been tested, regardless of how well the people have been trained, things will go wrong, because these people will, through lack of experience, make mistakes. Of all the times when companies need as many consultants immediately available on-site to help, this is the most critical but, if that is not possible, those consultants need to be able to log-on remotely in order to help the company's in-house team and super users.
This last point highlights the biggest problem of using off-site consultants. For go-live support, customers are going to be paying for expensive consultants to wait by phones which, hopefully, will not ring. But this is only one occasion of many when consultants may or may not be actively working; so the customer must have sufficient trust in their consultants to feel comfortable signing-off invoices for consultancy time that they have not witnessed. To some extent they may be able to get around this by placing a project manager at the consultant's offices to monitor activity but, even when progress is mapped against a detailed project plan, that can never be a perfect answer.
So the biggest challenge for companies is to ensure that they have identified consultants who are experienced and who they can trust. That undoubtedly is the biggest challenge that they will face post COVID.
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