Six Steps to Overcoming Resistance to ERP in Government

Organizational change management and benefits realization can help to reduce risk in ERP implementations. These steps can help your ERP project succeed.

By Rosemary Wycherley, Benefits Realization Consultant

Software-driven change in a complex environment can wreak havoc in all but the most nimble of organizations. Add in the unique demands of government and the subsequent resistance to change can generate significant risk.

As government agencies seek to modernize their operations and improve efficiencies, their software requirements extend well beyond the core modules of financial management, HR, and payroll. There is the need for fund accounting, managing citizen interactions, and tax billing. Code enforcement, licensing, and permitting also have to be tracked. All these (and more) come under the umbrella of enterprise resource planning (ERP).

Implementing an ERP on time and on budget is still a huge challenge for many organizations. Oxford University's analysis of over 1,400 IT projects bears this out. The study found that one in six projects overran their budget by a massive 200 percent and missed their implementation ("go live") date by 70 percent. The liquidation of AutoWindscreens, a UK company, following a botched ERP project was just one of the failures cited, but the challenge for CIOs and project managers in government is even greater.

By its very nature, the government of a democracy is designed to be stable, solid, and unbending. Otherwise chaos and anarchy would prevail every time a new party is elected. Although agility and flexibility are not words generally associated with government, the prime purpose of ERP is to bring about precisely these capabilities. When transformational IT meets unshakeable permanence, conflict ensues and change resistance permeates the user ranks.

This resistance may arise at any stage of the ERP life cycle, but targeting effort on some key areas improves the chance of success and reduces risk. In its 2011 study of 1,600 ERP implementations, Denver-based Panorama Consulting identified an increasing focus on organizational change management as "arguably the single best way to mitigate and manage implementation risk."

With best-practice organizational change management and strong leadership from executive sponsors, cries of "We've always done it this way" will soon be shouted down with: "Wow, we should have rolled-out ERP years ago!"

Six key steps will help to make the ERP initiative not only a success but also a satisfying ride for senior management and end users alike.

Step 1: Validate the business case.

An acceptable return on investment (ROI) in these projects remains a holy grail for many organizations, but that pursuit of realized value has to begin with the business case.

Over-optimistic claims, double dipping and phantom productivity efficiencies combine to invalidate a perfectly reasonable justification to invest in an ERP system. Decision-makers must be comfortable with the business case before they approve a project. The program director has a responsibility to ensure that the return estimated in the cost/benefit analysis is reasonable by establishing a rigorous and structured validation. Unrealistic claims can soon be eliminated by asking some searching questions such as: Is valuation consistent? What is the realization timeframe? Are some benefits so tenuous as to be unrealizable?

A validated, do-able business case gives confidence to senior management and users. Promising things that cannot be delivered sounds a death knell for ERP projects. After all, nothing hastens IT failure faster than unrealistic expectations.

Step 2: Clearly communicate the benefits.

Investment in ERP is driven by a range of strategic goals. These include standardization of operations to meet compliance law, increased efficiency, and improved visibility of assets. Behind each of these goals lie quantifiable benefits to support the business case. One of the key benefits of ERP is getting more out of the workforce without increasing the labor overhead. Call-center automation, easier access to information, and improved knowledge management are just some examples of where efficiencies can eliminate the need for raising the number of staff.

Although widespread process automation will generate angst amongst all but the most agile staff, labor efficiency does not necessarily translate into downsizing and retrenchment. More often it is about transferring staff onto higher-value work once their manual activities have been automated. Clearly articulating the benefits will help to calm an overanxious workforce.

Step 3: Give employees a vision to hold on to.

Communicating the benefits is only part of the challenge. Effective benefits realization is all about tenaciously chasing down the benefits for the life of the ERP and that extends beyond project execution. By painting a picture of the post-ERP landscape in terms of new ways of working, a vision of the future is fixed in the minds of end-users. This helps to eliminate their fear of the unknown and encourage support. However, that vision has to be realistic and accepted by end users as achievable.

Step 4: Regularly communicate to reduce resistance.

Unlike their counterparts in the corporate world, government employees are not used to the shifting demands of volatile market forces. The large scale changes of an ERP implementation can be confrontational for them. Selling the new ERP to staff and promoting how it will positively impact the organization are vital to reducing user resistance.

The messages must be consistent and regular. Workshops, information sessions, online bulletins, and frequent checks on morale combine to bring users together on the ERP journey.

Step 5: Manage motivation from the top down.

The diverse range of government services often breeds a silo mentality, where appetite for change fluctuates between departments, agencies, and the units within them. Individual teams take on a power of their own, which works well if they are change champions, not so well if they are detractors with influence. Unless the senior management team is speaking with one voice, those service silos will never come together. Strong cohesive leadership at the top is required to drive acceptance down through the hierarchy.

Furthermore, that leadership should be visible. Senior management attendance at workshops and seminars lends an extra level of support and encouragement to reticent staff.

Step 6: Build commitment from the bottom up.

Early engagement and positive involvement of users in process reviews prior to selection provides plenty of time to prepare ahead of implementation. Users are the hands-on experts when it comes to existing work practices and process issues. It is process improvement which generates the most benefit.

User belief in the achievement of predicted benefits from new ways of working and an awareness of their own change effort are both crucial to their support for the initiative.

Change management plans need to recognize the relationship between the anticipated benefits and the impact of the relative change on users. For example, in areas where the change effort far outweighs the benefits, the impacted users warrant greater support than those who will receive significant benefit from minimal effort.

Inspirational leadership, motivational messages, and interactive communication all serve to encourage government employees on the ERP journey, but the secret to real success is maintaining focus on the post ERP transformation. Providing users with a realizable vision of the future doesn't guarantee ERP success but it does prompt everyone to look forward without fear and tackle change as champions rather than resisters.

Rosemary Wycherley is a benefits realization consultant and author of Bigger Bang for your IT Buck: A Practitioner's Guide to Managing Investment in IT. With over 30 years of experience in IT, she has spearheaded benefits management initiatives in government and has led highly commended IT projects in the UK and in Australia. Her Campaign for the eradication of IT and ERP project failures through Courageous Governance, mandatory Benefits Realization and targeted Portfolio Solutions is growing in popularity among social media. Rosemary can be contacted at

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