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Communication And Change Management Is The Key To Large Scale Successful ERP Implementations

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Satish Kumar, CEO, Suparna Systems

In Karnataka India, Hubli Electricity Supply Company Limited (HESCOM) - A Government of Karnataka Undertaking- serving five million customers and geographically spread over seven districts of Northern Karnataka has successfully implemented Financial Management, Material Management and Projects Management modules. The implementation has been hugely successful and often seen by other public sector companies as benchmark in implementation and change management. The solution was implemented by Suparna Systems and led by Satish Kumar. Suparna Systems is a bootstrapped IT services company founded by Satish Kumar. In a rendezvous, Satish Kumar highlights the key factors leading to the success of large scale CRP software implementations.

How did you manage successful rollout? Where was your personal involvement?
Suparna Systems has no external funding and we manage our expenses through revenue. There were no profit margins to support a large organization. Our software was first developed and then we started selling it. If you ask me there are two reasons- first, initially when we started writing software modules of Financial Management, Material Management and Project management, it was me with few very junior programmers. As you know the employee turnover in our industry is very high, so to maintain continuity and keep the cost low I needed to get involved. Second, while working in San Jose, California, one of my colleagues was former founder of a company and very hands on.

One day during discussions, he gave me a case study to read, in which the head of project managing Honda Odyssey, drove throughout US himself to understand the need. That inspired me, HESCOM was our first customization and I wanted it to be a success. This required that the existing pa¬per based work should be understood in letter and spirit and then mapped correctly to our software. There was also a Stanford study on Emerging Companies and their founders’ role and I wanted to create a blueprint for further success where I can manage bottom line and administrative overhead. I think every organization must read that study which is availableas HBR Case study. I see this as the single most reason for successful implementation.

You had explained the most important key factor, what is the second most important key factor?
I would say, the second most important key factor is communication to stakeholders. I mean to say communication not only in the formal sense, but a lot of informal communications, during tea/coffee breaks, before and after meetings. There are two sides of it; first- communication to customers and their stakeholders, and second- the communication

to the IT team. In software implementations particularly, if you see modules of Financial Management, Project Management and Material Management - has a lot of component of change management. If we see in detail, the method of working gets changed. The work which was earlier used to be done through paper based systems and through file movement, does not get done in that way. Where there are physical ink signatures to approve the transactions, now there are passwords and in few cases SMS based OTPs. The way the people used to search for information in paper files and in word documents and excel sheet stored in computers, now needs to be searched in reports available in the software.

In successful implementations, we need to systematically handle communications and change management

In successful implementations, we need to systematically handle communications and change management. A lot of methodologies and tons of materials has been written over time. My inspiration was the famed article by John Kotter Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail (Published in Harvard Business Review May - June 1995). There is always less communication than we think, and a lot less when transformation projects are involved. Implementing such large scale software requires that we should have a communication plan. We did a lot of communications, internally, as well as externally. A lot of informal communications kept everyone involved.

The Initial Project Management Plan should have communications plan. We were not having communications plan in our project management plan. As we realized that the new screens are not understood well and different users at different offices have different interpretations of the software, we started regular communications - which new screens have come up in software, and who needs to update them. We were writing letters, emails, SMS and making lot phone calls explaining multiple ways the application can be operated. It became one of the priorities for us to let users know how to communicate if there are problems and issues in the application. To whom should they approach and how they know the issues are resolved. This was more important to us since ours was a multi-lingual environment having English and Kannada language.

I’d say there must be communications strategy in the project plan and if the project plan gets revised, communication also needs to get revised.

We hear Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning a lot. Did you use them?
During peak of roll out from our side there were 30 user training staffs deployed across offices. There were many questions from over thousands users coming daily. The training staffs and supervisors are not having process depth to answer the questions. The development staff was resolving in fixing issues, adding new reports and among them most have has very limited view of how all the processes fits in. to answer these we could have required a huge number of staff. Practically, this was not possible to recruit so many people in such a short time and there were also funds constraints.

Although not part of ERP, we were having a functional Natural Language Processing (A sub-area of AI and ML) Questions & Answering Systems. We modified the existing Q&A system and trained that with previous questions and answers. It greatly helped.

What steps one should take if the project experiences financial distress? Did your project go through troubled waters and how did you steer through it?
This is inevitable that large scale implementations will go into trouble. We came across challenges multiple times. While running boostrapped Software Company, getting into financial issues is very easy and it happened to us quite a bit. One of the methods we used was to slow down, and intensely focus on one project at the time. We brought all available resources to get over the situation. We were always fair and honest regarding the problems, so there was a trust environment which helped us to recover. Having a risk management plan helps to some extent and one becomes better in handling this with time. I can say one thing, do not ignore the early signs. There will always be early signs.

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