Portland ERP/Illustration by Design Department Portland ERP Illustration by Design Department

If there's one truism that can be attributed to enterprise resource planning (ERP) projects, it's this: They're hard. They're hard to plan, they're hard to predict, they're hard to manage. But with the right combination of committed leadership and skilled work force, plus a little good luck, the grueling work of ERP implementation can pay off.

Such was the case for Portland, Ore. When the time came to overhaul the city's decades-old back-end technology, everyone knew it wouldn't be easy. But no one anticipated how difficult it would become.

Portland aimed to completely replace its systems for financials and logistics, capital projects, HR and payroll. The city's experience offers an inside look at the complexities involved in major legacy replacement projects. Portland's story also provides lessons for jurisdictions contemplating ERP deployments, as delays and technology integrator changes cast doubt on whether the project would succeed. Yet the city persevered and built itself an IT foundation that will last well into the future.

'70s Tech

Ken Rust, Portland's chief administrative officer, was all too familiar with the inadequacies of the city's old systems.

"I always like to refer to it as late-'70s technology the city implemented in 1991 and ran for 18 years," said Rust. Portland used mainframe technology to manage its financial system. Human resources was a separate process. Reports were delivered in a batch format so massive the papers had to be wheeled around on carts. In fact, everything was paper-based. There was no online component to speak of. And over the years, hundreds of unauthorized "shadow" systems sprang up to compensate for the mainframe's shortcomings.

Perhaps the single biggest problem with Portland's mainframe system was that there was no single source of truth.

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Chad Vander Veen  | 

Chad Vander Veen previously served as the editor of FutureStructure, and the associate editor of Government Technology and Public CIO magazines.