Beating the Clock on ERP Upgrades

With end-of-support deadlines looming, IT managers and CIOs are planning to upgrade -- or pay the price for staying where they are. Our Datamation columnist helps you travel the road to painless upgrades.
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With end-of-support deadlines looming, many companies are forced to scramble to upgrade their enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems or face paying exorbitant maintenance fees -- or worse, lose support for the entire system.

The situation poses a serious dilemma for IT departments that are still struggling to make due with limited staff and financial resources. They are faced with the real possibility of having to divert precious resources away from projects with strong returns on investment (ROI) and dedicate them to an ERP project that offers little or no ROI.

Who is at fault?

Some companies have been quick to accuse the ERP vendors of attempting to replace revenues lost to a drop-off in software sales by pressuring them to upgrade. A recent survey by AMR Research Inc. found that a sizeable number of respondents were angered by ERP maintenance costs and upgrade policies, to the point where 12 percent planned to stop paying maintenance fees altogether, while 38 percent plan to train internal IT staffs to handle the technical support.

To a certain extent, their anger is justified. Some respondents said they've seen their annual maintenance costs increase by 15 percent to 25 percent over the past five years with no increase in service or features, while nearly 25 percent said they were dissatisfied with the upgrades they did undertake because the new features didn't justify the expense.

Unfortunately, bringing support in-house or taking a stand against maintenance fees isn't a viable option. Most companies can't afford the risk of an unsupported ERP system, and few, if any, have the capability to fully support the vendor's software.

On the other hand, ERP vendors aren't necessarily out of line in playing hardball with customers who have failed to upgrade. Most existing ERP systems were installed between 1998 and 2000. Multiple versions of core products have been released since then, although few companies have taken advantage of them.

In fact, more than a year after the first critical deadlines were issued, as much as 40 percent of the current installed base continues to operate on older versions of ERP software.

For the vendors, supporting those older versions is costly. For customers with ERP systems as old as five years, it's simply time to upgrade.

As clear cut as the upgrade decision may seem, however, it's just not that easy. The challenges range from limited financial resources to limited human resources.

For example, another AMR survey found that end users spent an average of $1.5 million on their ERP upgrades, or about 18 percent of the cost of the initial implementation. After several years of budget and personnel cuts, many IT departments are struggling simply to keep up with core responsibilities and projects that offer immediate ROI. They simply cannot dedicate the necessary resources to an ERP upgrade that is not only costly, but can take more than a year to complete.

An Outside Solution

For those companies, the solution to the upgrade dilemma often can be found in the form of outsourcing or staff augmentation. Both allow the internal IT staff to remain focused on core responsibilities, while still meeting upgrade deadlines put in place by vendors.

However, when it comes to which option is best for an individual company, the final choice depends largely on their comfort level and available resources.

The following questions can help determine if outside help is appropriate and, if so, which direction to go:

  • What other projects are currently on the back burner and do they offer a higher ROI than the ERP upgrade? Pulling resources for an upgrade at the expense of ROI should be avoided, even if it means bringing in outside consultants.

    The decision to use outside resources should not be viewed as purely a cost issue, however. It should be viewed as a way to realize ROI from other projects in a timely manner. If that justification doesn't hold up, you'll probably be doing the upgrade with all internal resources.

  • Does the company have a history of using outside IT resources and, if so, how are they used? While some companies prefer to completely outsource projects, others are more comfortable with augmenting staff but retaining project management responsibilities internally. This is a great way to lower the cost, yet still maintain control.

    And while you'll still need to commit some internal resources that could be used elsewhere, it's a good compromise.

  • When the company does outsource, is it typically to the software vendor or another resource such as a staffing company?

    Vendors have the most expertise and familiarity with their applications, but they can cost up to three times more than an IT staffing company. And many of the consultants who were laid off by vendors in the lean years are now with staffing companies and/or contract with the vendors to handle upgrade projects. That means consultants with recent upgrade experience are readily available without having to pay vendor prices.

    Continue on to find out how to pick the right partner...


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