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Iowa’s Push for a Statewide ERP System Moves into High Gear

Iowa CIO Annette Dunn knew from her time at the Iowa Department of Transportation that a cloud-based ERP system was the clear choice for the state, no matter the technical or political hurdles the project might face.

a set of gears
Iowa IT is in the middle of a massive and necessary undertaking: the implementation of a new statewide enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. 

The state’s current budget, human resources and financial system was last updated in the 1980s and is based on the antiquated COBOL language. Iowa CIO Annette Dunn said the ERP project took off shortly after she assumed the role in August 2019. 

“You can’t innovate it … You can’t be nimble in making changes,” Dunn said, referring to the state’s current system. “One little thing can break it, and that’s assuming you can get someone to write COBOL.”

For Dunn, the decision to go forward with a statewide ERP system, in partnership with Workday, was obvious. For almost 10 years, Dunn served as CIO of the Iowa Department of Transportation (DOT). During her tenure at DOT, the agency replaced its own aging business infrastructure with a modern ERP system. 

Once Dunn understood the advantages of DOT moving in this direction, she believed the entire state should follow a similar path. While at DOT, she even expressed as much to then-state CIO Robert von Wolffradt. According to Dunn, Wolffradt told her that the statewide project wouldn’t work for political reasons. 

“He thought politically it would never fly,” Dunn said. “If it doesn’t help the public, it’s hard to explain the money expenditure.” 

However, when Dunn became CIO and explained the idea to Gov. Kim Reynolds, the governor loved the idea and told Dunn to run with it. 

“I refuse to have the right thing be shot down because of politics,” Dunn said. 

Political considerations aside, the ERP project is challenging from a technical angle. Dunn learned from her days at DOT that the task of cleaning the data shouldn’t be underestimated. The transportation agency's ERP project suffered a multi-month delay because enough time wasn't taken to clean the data. 

Matthew Rensch, who became Iowa’s first chief data officer late last year, said the data cleaning poses multiple hurdles. 

“You have to understand what data you are collecting in your legacy systems,” Rensch said. “You’d be surprised, people who have worked on these systems for years, in some cases decades … they have no idea what data they’re collecting in these systems.”

Once Iowa began to understand the data collection aspect, it had to agree on common data definitions. Even a simple concept like “employee” can have multiple potential definitions that people disagree about, Rensch said. 

The process takes the brain power of everyone who works with the current system and forces people to see things in a different light. 

“That’s why our change management effort is as important as the implementation of the tool itself,” Rensch said. “We have an entire change management team that is tasked with getting people to understand how the new world is going to look and how the new world is going to benefit them. Some folks don’t believe it’s a benefit if their job changes. Maybe they’ve done a manual process for the last 20 years, and they’re comfortable with that manual process … They have a hard time figuring out how they’re going to fit in this new world.”

Dunn described multiple limitations with the old way of doing things. With the current system, dynamic budgeting isn’t possible, which is unfortunate given that the pandemic has affected the economy so much.

“The nice thing about this [new] system is it has a budget component to it,” Dunn said. “Most state agencies were doing their budgets in Excel spreadsheets and emailing it down to the Department of Management or sending papers down.”

Doing timesheets is also a hassle under the existing system. The new cloud-based payroll system will eliminate the need for people to be connected to the network, which will be “huge,” Dunn remarked.

“[The current system] requires me to get on a computer and VPN and hope the VPN is working and literally do a separate login into a mainframe-based system,” she said. 

Rensch mentioned that employees will find it much easier to be reimbursed for travel expenses when the new system is complete. Reimbursement now can be a weeks- or months-long process.

“With Workday, it quite literally takes you a matter of minutes … to complete your expense reimbursement,” Rensch said.

Dunn said the budget component of the ERP system will be in place next week. The HR component will be completed in June 2021, while the financial system will go live during summer 2022. 

For those who may work on a statewide ERP system, Dunn advises to “really bring in” all the political players before any contract is signed. She said vendors are always trying to lobby politicians, so it’s important to educate leaders on “what’s real versus what they’re being told.” 

Rensch added that before this statewide project, many people didn’t grasp that data is an asset. Viewpoints have shifted on this front. 

“This ERP implementation has brought forward the realization that good, standardized, governed data is a benefit to everyone,” Rensch said. 

Jed Pressgrove has been a writer and editor for about 15 years. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University.