Communicating During an ERP Implementation
Would it be surprising to say that change management is important in an ERP system implementation? The problem is that we think about change and communication as normal, everyday occurrences. Catch phrases like “Change is constant” and “You can’t over communicate” don’t have much meaning, and we take ideas like these for granted. An ERP implementation requires a very different mindset for effective change management.
What do we really mean by change in an ERP implementation? First, it is helpful to briefly contextualize the regular change we are accustomed to. Heraclitus and Einstein both had a reasoned view: We all occupy a unique place and time, so stepping in the same river twice is never the same. This is an important insight in philosophy and physics: change is a universal constant. This type of change has become a highly relatable shared experience thanks to technology. The type of change that occurs during an implementation, however, is quite uncommon. It involves much higher levels of urgency, a spectrum of risks, and a range of emotional responses and possible outcomes. If this type of change were constant in an organization, there would be serious problems. When this type of systemic change is forced out of necessity or offers the potential realization of a greater good, it requires a similarly uncommon approach to communication.
We know that changing an ERP system is a complex journey. This requires spending time, asking, “Why are we doing this?” Typical answers to this question tend to be based on project activities or system features. A more thorough approach is necessary. Asking “why” requires exploring the likely side effects of an implementation. When and for how long will negative impacts exist, who will they affect, and how will they limit the organization? How will the organization adapt to realize the positive effects, and what are the outcomes of those adaptations? In other words, we may have a plan to follow, but do we understand both the intended and unintended results? Systemic change requires systemic thinking about impact. The answers to these questions are the foundation for all communication of strategic importance about an implementation. In the language of project management, these are called project objectives.
NASA has an informative way of articulating project objectives, and the comparison is useful because, while NASA projects are complex, their objectives are straightforward. For example, one of the required objectives for the New Horizons probe was to characterize the geology of Pluto. Consider all the work needed to get the probe funded, built, rocketed into space, and set to a speed and trajectory to fly close enough to Pluto. Each is a great achievement, but they aren’t good enough for an objective. It is all well and good to fly within 8000 miles of Pluto, but if the mission doesn’t result in an understanding of its geology, the objective is not met. An ERP implementation is one of the most complex organizational endeavors staff will experience. Just going live will feel like a huge accomplishment, but it is only perfunctorily related to the actual purpose of the implementation.
Identifying these objectives for an implementation is difficult. Project sponsors may have strategic objectives of the transformation. These are necessary but not sufficient. Functional subject matter experts who understand the internal organization need to collaborate with experts who understand the new system. Early decision-making about key design elements and deliberative trade-offs will help define the starting point for change impact. With a basic foundation set, internal experts need to cross existing silos to understand recursive change possibilities. How will a major decision in payroll affect how benefits are handled? What larger purpose is ultimately being served? While planning exercises are time-consuming and will fail to anticipate all impacts of the coming change, they can help create a framework for strategic communication both throughout the project and during stabilization.
Communication of systemic change requires an understanding of all the disparate audiences. If we accept that systemic change is complex and highly impactful, it follows that diverse constituencies must be served. Often in these initiatives, with project teams working so intensely in their areas of expertise, communication may be disproportionately focused on what is needed to get the project done and to work for their areas. This is undoubtedly important, but communication of this type does not speak to the project objectives. Neither the project nor the system is meant to serve the experts. It is intended to be a tool for the experts to serve their constituencies better. As Lao Tzu said, “If you want to lead the people, you must learn how to follow them.”
If a leadership team can successfully and thoroughly answer “Why?” then the team will be able to answer the most important question of those being served: “How will this affect my job?” That is the pathway and the mindset necessary to the fulfillment of strategic objectives.