The Benefits of Sharing

Three cities unite through a regional government association to establish a budget-friendly ERP solution.

by / April 11, 2007
Benefits of Sharing
Government agencies often face a conundrum of big plans and small budgets, and as a result, spend years using outdated business software that potentially limits their efficiency and growth.

There is a way around this.

Collaboration is a growing trend in government's use of technology. By working together, government entities are finding ways to get what they want and stay within their budgets.

The Texas cities of Arlington, Carrollton and Grand Prairie partnered with the North Central Texas Council of Governments (NCTCOG) to implement a Web-based enterprise resource planning (ERP) suite from Lawson, saving the cities time and money.

The participating municipalities are now attempting to make the software suite available to other government entities.

Joining Together
Prior to the Lawson ERP suite, the three cities shared a common platform vendor that notified them that their aging, 20-year-old software would no longer be supported.

When former Arlington CIO Tim Barbee got a quote from the vendor to update the software, the estimate included an entire implementation, and Barbee said he was put off by the high price.

Needing a solution, but not wanting to break the budget, Barbee approached Grand Prairie and Carrollton, which agreed to seek software options with Arlington. The trio went to NCTCOG for an intermediary to manage the process.

"We didn't want any one city running [the project] because that would create the possibility of conflicts of interest," Barbee said. "Our idea was that if we do a shared project, other cities might want to join in after we got it implemented, so we wanted to have an unbiased third party managing the project."

Together, the cities came up with functional requirements and released an RFP. In November 2004, the partnership signed a contract with Lawson, which provided the cities ERP software solutions in three major areas: finance, purchasing and human capital management.

The project was considered a single implementation, and the three cities benefited from the shared cost. The total cost for the project was $8 million, which included hardware, software and services. Through collaboration, Barbee estimated each city paid between 30 percent and 50 percent less than it would have on its own.

"The reality is that none of the cities could have afforded tier-one ERP software had they attempted to purchase and implement independently," he said.

Shared Benefits
There are many mutual benefits involved in collaboration.

Together the cities not only saved money on implementation, but also on back-office support, such as servers, operating systems, databases and costs associated with networking. Now money previously thrown at back-office and administrative functions can be used to build libraries, and better fund police and fire, Barbee said.

"By consolidating the back-end services, they were able to provide support in a much more economical and efficient fashion," said Alex Kaplan, practice director of Government and Education for Lawson.

The ERP suite involves different functional areas, so experts in each of those areas were necessary.

"They were able to share knowledge and information about the best way to configure their system as well as take into account information we provided to them from the outside about best practices," Kaplan said.

Even though some areas strayed from best practices, which caused issues, the project stayed on target for the most part, Barbee said, and the partnership pulled through.

"Since implementation, we've set up monthly meetings between the different functional areas where they can help each other out," he said.

Creating Opportunity
The Lawson ERP suite went live in stages from January 2006 to March 2006. One of the project's goals was to eventually add new users through the Shared Services Center at NCTCOG, whose overall purpose is to assist local governments in planning for common needs.

The only hitch to the plan was that NCTCOG was hosting and supporting the software with limited data capacity so adding more users was difficult or impossible, Barbee explained.

"[NCT]COG is really set up to help people find solutions, not necessarily provide operational support for them," said Barbee, who is now the director of Research and Information Services at NCTCOG.

In addition, NCTCOG originally planned to provide the technical support, while the cities' experts provided the functional support for each content area, but that was later scratched because it didn't work, Barbee explained. "There was so much overlap between functional and technical support that cities kept coming to [NCT]COG for functional support," he said. "We didn't have the staff or the training for that, so there was a hole in our model."

That is changing.

The cities, along with the NCTCOG, decided to outsource the hosting and support to Velocity, a Lawson partner. Velocity will provide data center services, help desk services and technical support including network, database and application administration, and application support. This includes supporting the Windows Server 2003 operating system and the database platforms of Microsoft SQL and Oracle.

With Velocity on board, more entities can benefit from the shared services center environment. "Once we get everybody migrated to the Velocity data center, we'll be in a much better position to really start talking to other people and seeing where this opportunity fits for other entities," Barbee said.

"When we bring on a new customer, our concept is that they'll take the configuration and copy it so they don't have to go through the process," he continued. "Instead of spending all of their time working through the design and configuration phases, they can spend that time on training, which always gets shortened during a project like this."

Leading the Way
A project like this usually takes anywhere from 18 months to two years, Kaplan said. But this ERP implementation was completed in 14 months, a success he attributes to good leadership.

"Leadership is critical," Kaplan said. "We work with a lot of government agencies, and at the end of the day, leadership is what it's all about." He added that the staff involved with the project must be knowledgeable about how the city conducts its business.

"Because we were working with a consortium model, there were conflicting requirements among its members -- that was just a given," Kaplan said. "The leadership provided by [NCT]COG and the three cities allowed us to work through those potentially challenging points."

The project was not without its difficulties, Barbee said.

"All three cities have pretty lean staff so it was really tough," he said. "We worked people to death."

The cities are still adjusting to the new software. "We've delegated more things to the end-users and the end managers that used to be centralized," said Lon Fairless, Carrollton's IT manager.

All three cities previously operated from a mainframe system, so the new software is taking some time to get used to. "Anytime you migrate to a new application, folks have to learn to use things the new way."

Training is very important, Barbee said, who cautioned against short-changing training methods, especially when so many people are involved with the new system. "Payroll affects everybody," he said, "and the financial system affects everybody who has to manage the budget."

Some modules required more training than others, said Sherry Wright, city controller of Arlington, who led the design input for the finance modules including the general ledger, accounts payable and accounts receivable.

"The amount and type of training really depended on how many end-users you were going to have for any given process," she said.

Training for accounts payable went quickly, she explained. "I only had to train three accounts payable clerks, and that was easier because it was almost like training one-to-one -- instead of training hundreds, I trained three."

The purchasing module needed more intensive training and classes are still ongoing, Wright explained. "We went to self-service requisition, so instead of filling out paper purchase orders, we do it all online. That took a lot of training for a lot of people."

One of the biggest challenges has been teaching people how to pull reports they need, Wright said. Training for that involved distributing handouts, conducting one-on-one training sessions and providing group training at staff meetings.

There were mixed reactions to the new technology, admitted Wright. "There are those who are terribly unhappy with change. We had our legacy system for 20-plus years. Everybody was used to it and knew exactly how to get what they wanted out of it."

Now it's a matter of everybody getting used to the new system, Wright said. "There are some end-users who only touch it once a month, so they're still not as used to it as others who touch it every day."

Despite the major changes, Wright said she feels it won't be long before even casual users get much more comfortable with the new ERP suite.

Users have already shared positive feedback regarding finding information like when a vendor was paid, or what invoice number made up a certain expenditure, Wright said. "They really like having that kind of information at their fingertips," she added.

Training should run more smoothly for other cities wanting to join the shared services at NCTCOG, Wright said. "I've already shared some material I developed because there's no need to reinvent the wheel," she explained. "I think a city coming on board with our model is going to get a huge head start over where we were because we will share a lot of our processes and structures."

Now that the project is nearly complete, those involved can look back and assess what they've accomplished.

"We had a lot of bumps in the road and we had to work out a few things, but if you compare it to an ERP implementation with a single group, we did it pretty well on time and on budget," Fairless said. "We had a lot of trouble, but we were basically proud of being able to do it the way we did and get it through."
Sherry Watkins Contributing Writer