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Critical Success Factors for Technology Implementation in Public Organizations

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Carl Gabrini
May 17, 2016

gabriniSearch the Internet for stories about enterprise resource planning (ERP) implementations and you will find many of them testifying about organizations that have experienced unsuccessful projects along with articles explaining why these types of projects fail. However, not all ERP projects end in failure. The most rewarding moment of my public service career had to be the day the first transaction was processed live through a new accounting information system resulting from a successful ERP acquisition and implementation. Reflecting on that project and how we got to that day, I identified three factors I believe significantly contributed to its success.

Upon embarking on my first experience serving as controller, I learned quickly that the accounting system the organization relied upon to manage more than $30 million of assets, process all of our payables and receivables transactions, handle cash management and track inventory and fixed assets was obsolete. The organization previously purchased a small single user license application intended for use by small churches, developed by a vendor operating out of his home.

The primary attraction of this application for the organization was the low cost. Soon after my arrival, I learned senior management was hesitant to initiate a new effort to replace this aging and failing application because the previous financial management team had unsuccessfully attempted to replace it at significant cost to the organization. How did we move from this situation to a new ERP system?

The first critical success factor involved securing senior management support. This required preparing an effective business case demonstrating the need for change. Senior management had to be convinced that the status quo was not a viable option. A small team of middle managers worked together to prepare a presentation that demonstrated how the current legacy system of unconnected applications and manual processes was preventing the organization from achieving its strategic goals and putting the organization and its management at risk.

An example of the seriousness of the situation involved accounts payable. I prepared a report, based on a sample of vouchers processed during the previous year, which showed we were averaging more than 270 days to pay our vendors. I also provided examples of unpaid invoices from high profile businesses pressuring the Governor’s Office to secure payment. Senior management recognized the warning signs and signed off on the project.

The second critical success factor involved securing employee support for the project. Senior management required everyone to read Jim Blanchard’s Who Moved My Cheese as a preparation for change. However, the decision that most affected securing employee support was building a cross-functional team that focused on selecting employees who would actually be working daily with the new system. The project leadership team, using the recently acquired senior management support, secured the commitment of department managers to reassign the right employees to participate in the project.

This required a commitment to reallocating work assignments, thereby ensuring each employee’s ability to meaningfully participate in the acquisition and implementation. Everyone on the team was treated as an equal. No one’s opinion or input was discounted or ignored. Managerial support for each member’s participation and their willingness to accept responsibility for serving on the team was considered as important as securing senior management’s support.

The third critical success factor was gaining acceptance that the project would not be completed all at once. ERP system projects are large scale efforts, even in smaller organizations. Effective planning required that we break down the project into phases that were achievable. The ERP vendor we engaged assisted us with this effort early on.

We targeted the general ledger and reporting capabilities as the first important phase to implement. In order to maintain the support of other departments, it was important the decision on the order of implementation be communicated and accepted by them. This effort was undertaken by senior management, the project sponsor and the vendor. It would have been difficult for me as controller to make the case for the general ledger system considering my own self-interest involved. Adopting a realistic schedule that demonstrated management’s commitment to completing all the phases in the project helped ensure the continued support of all those involved.

The first phase of the ERP implementation project took almost a year to complete. Everyone involved was included in the celebration of our first significant accomplishment. However, the celebration was short-lived as the work of taking on the second phase of the project became everyone’s primary focus. I ended up returning to my previous position in government auditing, but I give much credit to management and the project team for filling my position quickly and moving on successfully with the remaining stages of the implementation.

The three keys in my mind that secured success involved senior management’s support, staff’s involvement and support and effective planning of the project in phases. Without these three critical factors, our project would have been just another of the many failed ERP implementations. Instead, it turned out to be a proud accomplishment for many professionals in the organization.

Author: Dr. Gabrini currently teaches accounting at Columbus State University. He holds a Ph.D. in Public Administration from Florida State University, a master’s degree in taxation from the University of Central Florida, and an active CPA license issued by the State of Florida. He held various professional positions over 25 years before entering academia. Contact: [email protected].

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