ERP deployments hinge on master data management, says reseller panel

Users at Panorama Consulting Group ERP Boot Camp also seek answers on stemming customizations and choosing implementation partners.

VAIL, Colo. -- Handling the master data management challenges of ERP deployments, choosing an ERP implementation partner and knowing when to customize were issues on the minds of users who peppered a panel of value-added resellers with questions at the ERP Boot Camp held this week at a local ski resort.

Panorama Consulting Solutions, an ERP consulting firm based in Centennial, Colo., puts on the boot camp several times a year for current and prospective ERP purchasers.

One user's question about the most common SAP customization requests led to a discussion about ERP customization best practices in general.

"With almost any ERP system, it's about selecting the right system in the first place, and hopefully there's going to be a certain degree of fit," said Shane Watson, director of solution architecture at the Englewood, Colo.-based office of Illumiti, an SAP reseller. The further afield an ERP buyer goes, the greater the danger, he said. Better to have a firm grasp of the strategic initiatives where customization can have the most benefit.

"If it's not part of that 20% of transactions you're running that are the most important part of your business, try not to touch it -- and try to use the standard transactions wherever you can. If it's not really core to your business, don't do it," Watson said. That approach is easier to follow if senior managers make it clear they won't entertain changes that aren't approved at the highest levels or that are core to the business. It's important to set the tone early, Watson added.

Other resellers suggested being open to tweaks that aren't strictly customizations. Stuart Blumenthal, ERP sales manager in the Phoenix-area office of RKL eSolutions, which offers Sage software, said it is important to understand the difference between personalization -- which is easier to do with today's more flexible user interfaces -- and customization. One way to get control over the number of customizations, he said, is to let people vote on requests put forth by others.

The same user asked how flexible SAP is about tweaking or configuring its ERP products without customizing them. Peter Orton, an Illumiti vice president, said SAP provides an extensive implementation guide that can help with the process. Such requests vary widely by department, according to Orton. Sales and distribution tend to strive for establishing an identity and personality through their sales materials, while procurement and inventory more often follow standards. Change management can also help minimize customizations by helping people get used to the processes employed by the new ERP system, he said.

Watson sees the improvements in ease of use led by companies such as Amazon and Google as having an impact on the amount of personalization ERP vendors are now willing to provide. SAP, for example, has more tools for personalizing look and feel while maintaining the integrity of the underlying business logic, he said. "People don't have the patience for big, complex screens anymore."

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An IT manager from a food maker wondered how best to manage master data migration during the switch to a new ERP system, including how much old data to bring over, who should do the work and whether to establish a cutoff point.

Watson said master data management is usually the most important part of an ERP project, despite most users' focus on developing the best configuration.

"If you are going to put in a lot of your own data, make sure it's really well-scripted, so that every time you put it in, the same set of sequential steps are gone through," Watson said. This will eliminate variations and improve the dependability of the data.

Another key step is testing with real, converted data as early as possible. "Don't test with made-up data," he said.

Richard Garraputa, vice president of sales and marketing at brij, a Greensboro, N.C.-based reseller of Oracles JD Edwards software, emphasized the importance of having repeatable data processes in place before testing begins. But it is important also to bring some historical data forward; without it, forecasting isn't possible.

"Making sure your data is clean and thorough as it comes across is critical to success," he said.

Choosing an ERP implementation partner

Another user, who is currently sorting through 18 ERP vendors, said he has faced a barrage of sales calls from some vendors' implementation partners and wonders how to go about choosing one.

Orton advised looking for cultural fit and alignment with the purchaser's priorities, such as cost or upgrade frequency. The choice often determines success, he said, citing a Deloitte study in which people ranked partner selection far down the list of ERP priorities but moved it to the top after a couple of years of experience with an ERP project.

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The product-demo stage is usually when buyers get to know their prospective partners, said Allan Bloom, director of client services at Panorama.

"You get the feel for them and you see how serious they take your company," Bloom said. "That's where you start to be comfortable or not comfortable with those partners."

References from the same industry are important here, according to Blumenthal.

"If [they're] not familiar with an industry, the partner's going to be wrong. You're going to be teaching them the industry, and in the end, it's not going to be win-win," he said.

Bloom agreed, saying prospective partners that don't have the right industry track record can probably be ruled out right away.

One way to ensure a close fit is to ask for the names and resumes of the people who might be on the implementation partner's team, Garraputa said, though most vendors and resellers can't make promises.

"If you give me a timeline, I can give you an idea of who might be available," he said.

Another ERP user who said he is in the middle of a business intelligence (BI) project at his manufacturing company asked for secrets to BI success. The consensus was to avoid trying to use it for everything. Garraputa advised keeping the BI project small and focused on obtaining answers to specific questions -- not for regular operational reporting.

"The biggest lesson I ever learned with BI was don't boil the ocean," Watson added. "I've seen too many very grand BI projects where they basically had this grand vision of an enterprise data warehouse, and they said, 'This is going to solve every problem we have.'" But the Illumiti clients who succeeded did so with small, measurable projects that had a definable return on investment, and were sold that way to executives, he said.

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