Making A Titanic Transition

Arkansas is in the midst of an ambitious project to move from isolated information silos to one integrated, statewide ERP system.

by / March 3, 2001
Like many states, Arkansas IT department has come to rely on mainframe-based systems to store, process and report data from different agencies and departments. The hodge-podge of separate structures that evolved, however, was never designed to share information.

Every year since 1995, Arkansas annual audit has called for an overhaul of IT infrastructure. Why? Most information exists in isolated silos, accessible only by a few IT professionals within individual sections or departments. The human resources system, for example, couldnt talk to payroll or property management applications. When reports were needed, requests had to be made to IT with a wait of 24 hours or more before the reports appeared. Since information wasnt integrated, however, if the requested report revealed a potential deficiency in a related area, yet another request had to go to IT, creating a further delay while the new document was generated.

"The data is so stovepiped that you cant find it," said Ron Hopper, assistant administrator of the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administrations Office of Accounting. "Worse, not everyone elected to use parts of the old systems, so they didnt even contain complete data. Our systems simply didnt produce the information that many departments needed to perform their duties," said Hopper.

As a result, the 82nd Legislature of Arkansas authorized $30 million to fund the Arkansas Administration Statewide Information System (AASIS), an ambitious enterprise resource planning (ERP) project. Designed to unify the states fragmented information systems, AASIS will make it easy for users to access databases throughout government. Executives will be able to drill down to the data they need, crossing departmental boundaries as necessary, from their desktops.

Overhauling Infrastructure

To accomplish its vision, Arkansas selected SAPs R/3 ERP system, a decision supported by Gartner Group consultants. Making the decision was the easy part. Successfully carrying it off proved to be a different matter entirely.

The state appointed Hopper as AASIS project manager. Next came the establishment of a team to carry out the task. Hopper first pulled 21 employees from the Department of Finance and Administration to work on AASIS. After that, a further 66 personnel were squeezed from the ranks of various state agencies, most of them on a full-time basis. To cope with the scope of the implementation, Arkansas established an organizational structure consisting of a steering committee, a coordinating council, a project management office and separate sections to deal with financials, human resources and payroll, change management, training and technical functions.

Due to a lack of experience with ERP, Arkansas supplemented its ranks with 44 consultants from SAP, Deloitte & Touche and BrightStar. They contributed expertise in implementation, software configuration, training, change management and troubleshooting.

The fast-paced staffing of the project created an immediate and unforeseen problem. Exactly where do you put so many people? "We had no place big enough to put all these people and we hadnt planned for it," said Hopper. "We also didnt plan for the need to back fill the empty positions you vacate by filling the project."

Subsequent personnel strain contributed to the decision to take a "big bang" approach to implementation rather than the gradual migration many experts recommend. The city of Watsonville, Calif., chose the latter path when it upgraded its financials and moved to Windows NT. "We opted for a cautious approach," said Jeff Merrill, IT manager for Watsonville. "We ran both systems in parallel for a while before finally abandoning the old system."

Hoppers view is that two huge systems running at the same time makes for double work. Therefore, instead of organizing a series of pilots and a gradual phase-in of ERP module by module, Arkansas plans to go directly from testing to implementation. "In April of 2001, we are going to start running various business processes, like payroll, in parallel," he said. "We will compare both systems and test each process before we go live with ERP across the boards on July 2."

But making such a sudden switch can prove hard on any organization. People grow accustomed to certain routines. Changing those patterns, especially suddenly, can stir up opposition and resentment. Those feelings may be running higher as a result of the decision to go for the big bang.

Arkansas is going for broke in July, but it has spent many months in planning and design to ensure there are no glitches on D-Day.

"The users are in a vacuum right now because we have not been able to demonstrate any positive benefits of ERP to them as yet," said Hopper.

How is the void being filled? Communication, and lots of it, said Hopper. AASIS representatives have met with dozens of state agencies to get their input and views on the system. This has resulted in more than 1,200 requirements that have been taken into account in project design. In Hoppers opinion, listening to government departments to this degree is creating major buy-in. "I believe we have succeeded in making it their system, not ours," he said.

To further ease the transition, a training and deployment team has already been mobilized to educate users, explain the changes and prepare books and checklists for training purposes. Further, a shared vision, engendered during the early days of the project, has the governors office, government departments and the Legislature cooperating on AASIS. Consequently, the implementation has, so far, avoided the interdepartmental bickering that can plague any large-scale IT initiative.


Now that AASIS is about to enter its later stages, Hopper can reflect on the lessons learned thus far. "There are certainly some things I would have done differently," he said. "Not enough front-end planning came back to haunt us in some areas." His advice: Talk to other states that have already implemented ERP in order to learn from their mistakes.

Hopefully, Hopper is following his own advice and is aware of a misjudgment made by the County of Sacramento in its post- implementation phase. Shortly after the launch, the county dissolved the project team due to the pressure mounted from agencies for the swift return of personnel. This left only 20 people in the post-implementation unit.

"We fought a losing battle trying to keep them for more than a month after go-live," said Sacramento County CIO Stephen Ferguson. "An overemphasis on going live, coupled with a lack of post-implementation planning, resulted in us being short-handed at such a critical period."

The months immediately following launch will be even more critical for Arkansas as "go-live" only represents some of the functionality of the SAP system. After July, Arkansas will still have plenty of work to do implementing the remainder of its materials management, human resources and finance applications.

"We are not introducing the full functionality in July," said Hopper. "There is just so much you can do with limited time and personnel."

With several areas itching for the return of key people, it remains to be seen whether Arkansas applies enough communication in order to not only launch AASIS, but also to follow through with sufficient post-implementation strategies to make this a truly successful ERP installation.
Drew Robb Contributing Writer