For most IT managers, ERP upgrades fall under the heading of things to be put off as long as possible. In fact, IT managers at most midsized manufacturers would rather see their application run on fumes and chewing gum than face an upgrade.
But experts and upgrade veterans warn that if you wait until your vendor is about to remove support, your upgrade project will turn into an expensive fire drill that will leave users resentful or, worse, unclear how to use the system. Also, if you don't keep on – or close to – your vendor's upgrade path, you'll miss out on the latest features and functions, in which the software vendors invest millions. If you leave these goodies off to the side, your business won't be getting the most out of its ERP investment.
"Upgrades are the thing users love to hate," said Jim Shepherd, vice president at AMR Research Inc. in Boston. "They'd like new technology and updated functionality, but they don't want to do upgrades – they seem too expensive, disruptive and risky. [Customers] hold off until they have no choice in most cases."
Eventually, all ERP customers must face the music. The good news is that if an upgrade is in your future, there are things you can do to increase your chances of getting the project done with minimal fuss and maximum benefit.
Don't skimp on planning
A veteran of three major ERP upgrades in eight years, Lynette Ziegler has learned the pitfalls firsthand. Vice president of operations for Superfeet Worldwide Inc., a distributor and maker of orthotics, Ziegler said a lack of adequate planning is one of the classic errors. Having gotten through the big push of the initial implementation, the IT manager then makes the mistake of thinking the upgrade is no big deal.
You'll need to plan the upgrade just as you did the initial implementation, Ziegler said, including building a thorough project plan and team, doing testing, and allowing for training and support. The upgrade process will be shorter and – hopefully – less painful than the initial implementation, but if you skip a step, you'll regret it later.
Another mistake is failing to plan for the future. Back in 2005, Ziegler oversaw the migration from a Quantel ERP system to Exact Software's Progression in Superfeet's Canadian division. Two years later, company management decided to standardize all of its divisions on Exact Software's Macola ES, as it had better features to serve the company's new global markets.
"We were growing substantially, and we needed a system that would address the globalization issues we were starting to have," Ziegler said. "We have distributors located in quite a few countries … and we wanted to look into the future and have ERP that could handle different languages and currencies, even if we didn't need it now." Macola ES fills the bill.
Limit the scope
Though it is wise not to let too much time go by before you upgrade or migrate to a better-suited system, many manufacturers do not take that advice. Once you've outgrown your ERP system, your chances of a smooth transition are limited. Just ask Brian Alikhani, senior director and CIO for Corsair Memory, a privately held electronics manufacturer in Fremont, Calif.
By the time Alikhani came onboard nearly two years ago, Corsair Memory had already outgrown two homegrown back-end systems (one based on Exacta and the other on FileMaker). "The company had struggled for six years to do an ERP upgrade," Alikhani said. Things had become so bad that the business could no longer process transactions, and the booking of sales was affected. With so dire an emergency afoot, Alikhani's first order of business naturally was to implement a new system: Oracle 11.5.10.
Consolidating two archaic, highly customized systems onto one modern platform could have been overwhelming, but the project team (made up of Alikhani, the CFO, the president and the COO) had laser-like focus. "The decision was made by a very few people," Alikhani said. "We didn't have much time – just four months."
The only hope of getting through so major a project in that time frame was to start with very limited scope. "I define the scope and then I freeze it," Alikhani said. "I resist changes to the scope viciously. They make it a moving target." A moving target is just what you don't want your upgrade to be if you need to stay on track.
Prepare your end users
Mark Gray, vice president and CFO at Engis Corp., took a similar approach when his company recently moved from Lawson Software's Movex, a legacy RPG-based ERP application, to Lawson's M3 System, based on Java. This was a big change for the 150 ERP users at Engis, a manufacturer and distributor of diamond abrasive products, based in Wheeling, Illinois.
"We were changing from an old green-screen interface to a [graphical user interface]," Gray said. Worrying about the impact on the end users, the project team decided to keep the system functionality exactly as it had been in the old system and then gradually add in new features once the users had time to adjust. As it turned out, that went smoothly because the users were familiar with the Windows GUI from using it on their home PCs.
Get ready for constant change
For upgrade veteran Ziegler, the biggest mistake companies make is not to prepare the organization for continuous change -- including ERP upgrades. All Superfeet employees learn from the minute they join the company that change will be the only constant in life there. The recent management bestseller Who Moved My Cheese? is required reading.
"The cheese moves here all the time," she said. "The users need to understand that philosophy. It's never going to stay the same; it's always going to change; we'll work through it." Just call it the Zen of ERP upgrades.
Lauren Gibbons Paul is a freelance writer.