Do ERP projects ever end?
Just how much of an ongoing burden are they?
Workshop In some organisations, the ERP system represents the biggest single entity within the IT environment. This is particularly the case in industries such as manufacturing, distribution and others that are heavily manpower- or goods-centric. Even if ERP in itself doesn’t account for a lot of the infrastructure per se, it is one of those applications (or suites of applications) a lot of other stuff needs to be plugged into. It's therefore not something you can easily put to one side and forget about.
The truth is that while everyone focuses on the initial implementation project when considering the cost and resource requirements of ERP, it doesn't all come to a nice sweet end after the initial go-live. Whether it's looking after the beast itself from an operations, maintenance or enhancement perspective, or making sure it remains properly integrated with everything around it, the end result is typically a significant ongoing effort on the part of the IT department.
In terms of routine activity, there's the usual application of patches and fixes from the ERP vendor, which could be to do with minor functional enhancements, the implementation of regulatory changes, or more systems related things such as supporting the latest upgrade to the database management system upon which the application depends. There's then the more traditional systems ops side of the equation, ranging from patch management and maintenance of the underlying hardware and platform software, through storage and information management, to performance monitoring and management, including troubleshooting server, storage and network issues as they arise.
In addition to this core activity, an area that has become more of a consideration over the past few years in particular is security and access. As ERP systems have been opened up to broader and faster moving audiences, including casual or occasional users, field workers, customers, suppliers, partners and so on, more thought and effort has needed to be given to user provisioning and making sure access routes are properly secured. Gone are the days of only having to worry about sessions initiated through an IT-controlled client/server desktop or dedicated browser session. Now we have mobile devices, customisable portal/mashup front ends, desktop tool add-ins, as well as system-to-system communication up and down the supply and demand chain. And, of course, the ERP system needs to be kept in sync with everything else from a policy perspective.
Some of these developments have come about quite naturally as technology has evolved and opportunities have arisen to take advantage of new ways of doing things within the business. In other areas, technology advancements have also enabled efficiencies to be introduced into the underlying platform. Modern servers, for example, can reduce the cost of ownership of ERP considerably when you look at improvements to price performance, energy consumption, space requirements and - not least - manageability. And improvements at this level are not going to let up, so the occasional replatforming project is inevitable in most organisations, with all of the migration work that goes with it.
Beyond the systems side of things we have the day-to-day keeping up with what's going on in the business. This includes handling change requests for minor modifications and enhancements to the system, and here it is not just the technical work that needs doing, but managing the whole review and approval process, which can understandably be quite strict in some organisations where even a relatively minor mistake could easily have disastrous consequences from a business integrity, continuity and regulatory point of view. All of this adds to the overhead on IT, without even thinking about more substantial projects such as major package upgrades, implementation of new components/modules, extension and customisation work, and integration overhauls as other systems with which ERP is inter-dependant are changed or added, etc.
In some organisations, the level of ongoing activity is such that they maintain permanent development and test environments alongside the live system to control and manage the throughput.
But maybe we're over-egging all this. After all, you used to hear stories of ERP systems sometimes running for years without being touched – particularly when the old AS/400 was a popular platform for this kind of application. But is that really a realistic expectation nowadays?
We would appreciate your views on this, and your comments on the way you have seen the ongoing effort required to maintain, support and evolve ERP systems from an IT perspective change over time. We'd also be interested in hearing whether the latest incarnations of ERP solutions help alleviate some of the traditional burdens.
Please give us your feedback in the comment section below. ®