Who Said ERP Systems Need To Be Sexy?

A former higher education colleague once shared with big emotion and bigger disdain, “I did not become a CIO to oversee an ERP project.” Inarguably not the strongest leader, it was still surprising to hear those words. From a high-level perspective, it is unfathomable to imagine any IT executive today surviving, let alone thriving, without having driven at least one heavy-vetting process or full-scale implementation of an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. And the pressure to lift and shift to modern cloud solutions starts early and loudly.

An ERP system is an essential software foundation for any large business. Especially within higher education, the systems serve as the underpinning for most business transactions.

There are also often additional layers of fully-integrated, bolt-on accessory technologies. Therefore, if an ERP system isn’t scalable at its core, it stands to reason all business processes spidering out lose effectiveness. Short story long, these systems need to be maintained for peak performance. Often they are not, making it feel almost mandatory to scrap it all and start over.

Is the grass really greener?

Many ERP implementations have been in place for a decade or more. While routinely patched and upgraded, plenty of them have not been comprehensively reassessed since their original implementation.

With the changing face of higher education, system modernization is a top priority. Our ERP system, while a workhorse, continued to impede progress on all fronts. Our staff was mired in transactional tasks, our limitations were self-imposed via historical customizations and our preferred future state appeared entirely untenable given our system’s current reality. Could we ever untangle the mess we’d made?

We assessed, we were courted by the most exciting, new solutions on the market and we calculated. As peers deliberate similar decisions, it has been interesting to note that the path we chose is an uncommon one.

We chose to re-invest in and refresh our current system. Only time will tell if we’re fools or futurists, but so far, it feels right for us.

Refreshing the legacy system

Each of my past higher education institutions chose to lift and shift. Here we made a different choice for numerous reasons:

  1. The technology was not the actual problem. After looking at how our system could function today versus how we had designed it to function over the past three decades, we realized the actual technology solution was fine.
  2. It’s a back-office system, not a panacea. Let’s not romanticize an ERP solution; it just needs to work smoothly. Too much marketing and spin leads many to conflate a system’s appearance with clean, efficient process.
  3. Value-driven decision. The high price tag on today’s newer solutions is attributed to the integration partner, not the product itself. Why? Because the integration partner is guiding your own team through the replacement of legacy processes and procedures. Spoiler: Your staff still does the work.
  4. We created this monster. The mom in me says to the system, “We brought you into this world, we can certainly take you out.” Truly, if a dramatic change is needed, the business needs to own it. When you outsource driving the change, you risk reinforcing a we’re not in this together culture if it’s too hands off.
  5. Simply put, we’d rather invest in our people. We spent years ignoring our system’s needs. We also underinvested in keeping our staff current and competitive. We are all in on this refresh together and softly-saved funds will be reallocated to training, development and more differentiating resources.

It’s not a one-size-fits-all decision. When you embark on your own what comes next ERP journey, take a breath. While all are screaming for a new ERP, ask them to take a breath. Engage your current provider. Request an assessment of your system. Here’s where we are, here’s where I need us to be, how can we get there? We have options and our partners know this. Worst case? Your current solution can’t get you there. Best case? It can. And you just might save millions in the long run.

A final word

Don’t blindly follow the herd. As CIO’s, our best work is not always going to be those exhilarating transformations. Innovation is a solid buzzword, but our impact as technology leaders comes from our ability to remain intentional and enthusiastic even while tackling and, most importantly, completing painfully unsexy, yet highly business-critical needs. Whether you refresh, update or completely overhaul, there are many options when it comes to modernizing your ERP solution. Sometimes the seemingly easiest, most popular choice isn’t the right one for your business.

[Originally posted on Forbes.com, June 2, 2020 https://www.forbes.com/sites/paigefrancis/2020/06/02/who-said-erp-systems-need-to-be-sexy/?sh=322ecd926d38]