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Cook County Bets Big on New ERP

Replacing a mission-critical IT system that is decades old is never easy. But Cook County has pulled off the endeavor with far-reaching success.

Cook County, Ill., the nation’s second-largest county by population, knew it had a monumental task when it decided to build a new enterprise resource planning (ERP) solution. But it didn't realize the impact of the project's success on the county's internal culture.

The county's existing ERP dated to the 1990s and had been subject to two attempted replacements. Making the situation more complex, the county has 10 elected officials, each of which had had an autonomy that extended to its technology, according to CIO Tom Lynch. He characterized the agency’s environment as “highly federated,” but said the county board is interested in IT consolidation.

As Cook County again focused on a replacement strategy, officials realized they’d have to identify a solution that could unify eight separate ERP systems. Taking a business approach to the situation,  officials set up an ERP office under the Bureau of Finance that would be driven by the user community until complete, then shift to the county Bureau of Technology (BoT) for management and stabilization, according to Lynch.

Cook County selected IBM to provide system integration and managed services for Oracle's E-Business Suite ERP software, according to a county news release. Called the Strategic & Tactical Enterprise Processes or STEP, the ERP system would create a single data source for vital information that multiple back office systems could share. The $75 million contract (with amendments) and system launch was announced in late September by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. Since then, the system has processed eight successful payrolls for more than 22,000 employees and began handling health-care enrollment on Oct 1. 

“This was very much a trial by fire for the county and has now laid groundwork for lots of other process improvement," said Lynch. "This was very, very important, a milestone in terms of getting all offices to work together collaboratively and agree on the final solution."

Lynch singled out the chief financial officer and Preckwinkle for their vision in making the project a success.

The county’s project management office, which helps lead on implementing enterprisewide or even department-level initiatives, assisted here as well; and like the agencies it serves, grew tremendously in terms of maturity, said Derrick Thomas, who was promoted on Oct. 19 to Cook County deputy CIO.

“We are growing as well as these agencies that maybe haven’t been on major projects, don’t necessarily understand the methodology, maybe have not been part of significant efforts to gather requirements, significant efforts to do testing, things like that,” said Thomas, who was most recently director of enterprise applications for Cook County.

 The new system provides centralized supply chain data for county hospitals as well as connecting contracts and procurement — linking and tracking inventory ranging from pharmaceuticals to maintenance supplies, while accounting regulatory restrictions and expiration dates, according to ERP Director Jill Ruzevick.

“This system ties the items together and I think that’s been really helpful to see where the money is going,” Ruzevick said, noting that bringing agencies together around change control during the ERP project resulted in a more defined change management system. The county clerk’s office and the county juvenile detention center have expressed interest in using the system, which can be accessed via ruggedized handhelds, according to Lynch.

The impact of the massive IT project has created a culture of success breeding success with other agencies, according to Lynch, and and he hopes to leverage these relationships in other initiatives including an integrated property tax system. 

“This really is what I’d say is sort of a seismic change. It’s a change in attitude, a change in credibility with our technologists — and I don’t mean just the Bureau of Technology, I mean all of our technologists across all of those agencies — that we have to share a common vision and work together collaboratively,” said Lynch. 

One area where staff have already identified a large-scale change is in Cook County’s procurement life cycle. The new ERP has enabled the agency to make the most of its “requisition-through-payment” process electronic, the CIO said. He expects the number of electronic transactions to grow as more vendors come online.

The new ERP is already believed to be generating a monetary savings, as officials are paying around $1.3 million per year for their hosting agreement with IBM — about the same as previously — but are getting a substantially increased functionality that includes disaster recovery.

Theo Douglas is news editor for Government Technology. He was previously assistant managing editor for Industry Insider — California. His reporting experience includes covering municipal, county and state governments, business and breaking news.