No-one implements a company-wide ERP system over a weekend — it's a big project that can mean major changes to any organisation taking on such a task.
The scale of these projects — and their often critical impact on the business — means best practice and tips on successful implementations are eagerly sought out by customers and suppliers alike.
Last week in Prague the ERP giant SAP brought together some of the customers — including three from the UK — that have mastered the implementation of its software in their own projects to award prizes to the best.
There are some obvious similarities in the advice they give and very little of it was about the technology itself — much of it was around the softer business skills that need to accompany the tech know-how.
Express delivery giant TNT Express ICS had to put up with typhoons and power cuts during its worldwide roll out of SAP. Dennis Beard, the IT director responsible for the project, explained that the company has put SAP finance and purchasing modules in 57 countries around the world in just over two years.
"You've got different languages and cultures and small and large units. The challenge was to drive through the standardisation, which took a lot of communication and relationship management with the users," he said. The company took the global award for its project at the SAP Quality Awards.
"This was an IT-led project but we had to act as business people — we think of ourselves as business people that happen to work in IT," he said.
Electricity supplier to Irish businesses Esbie installed SAP's IS-U Utilities industry package as its customer and billing system in a 10-month project which also involved building in support for dual currencies, euro and sterling, and picked up an award from the software company in the SME category.
Susan Kinane, Esbie project manager, said there are three main factors to bringing in the project on time and to budget.
Firstly, agreeing the scope: "There was no ambiguity when we started the project. We knew what we were doing," she said.
Secondly, sponsorship: "In the company there was total sponsorship; it was on everybody's agenda," she said. For example, supporting the project was included in the targets — and in the bonuses — of managers. "Once you get it into the targets, everybody has ownership," she said.
And her third secret of success: "The quantity and quality of the business resources. We never saw this as an IT project. It was always for the business, by the business."
Esbie also decided to keep the implementation simple: "We would only modify it where necessary, where there was a business critical reason," she said.
The project went live in April and Kinane said the benefits are already apparent: "From a cash-flow point of view our bills are going out so much faster and our revenue coming in that much sooner."
National Air Traffic Services (Nats) is using SAP to run its back-office functions, including HR and project management. It went live with the first phase — business planning — in October and went live with the second phase in April.
Like other customers picking up gongs from SAP, Nats senior programme manager Alistair Godbold said one of the key things was sponsorship from the top: "We had our finance director, programmes director and HR director on the project board. We engaged all of our top leadership team with presentations and briefings."
"It's not just about implementing a technical system; it's about getting the business to understand and be able to use it," he said.
The next key milestone is in October to allow Nats to gain visibility of maintenance and support of its assets, and Godbold said: "Going live was not an end in itself; there is still a lot to do to help people use the new processes."
Bob Drake, business development manager at Sheffield Hallam University and one of the judges of the SAP Quality Awards, explained that much of the best practice — such as planning early, getting end-user approval, getting top-level buy-in and using recognised methodologies — might be well recognised but remained hard to do.
"What is obvious in theory is not as easy to achieve in practice, especially the user buy-in. Change management is always a big issue. It's not about the technology; it's about how people's work changes and how business processes change," Drake said.