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Legacy ERP Systems Get Upgrades Amid the COVID Pandemic

Enterprise resource planning systems are foundational to efficiently run government organizations. Here’s how three jurisdictions navigated their modernization plans through COVID-19.

Illustration of people creaing and moving cogs
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It’s no small feat to overhaul a major government system. And an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system is at the heart of an organization’s operations, fundamental to smooth day-to-day functioning. An ERP upgrade can take six months to a year, Oracle reports. It requires significant time and resources to modernize systems that bring together financial and human resources information from across disparate sources.

COVID-19 makes it all the more difficult. Just at a time when it is essential to get functions such as finance and budgeting onto cloud-based platforms, government IT hasn’t been able to collaborate shoulder to shoulder. Tech leaders have had to balance the urgent need for change against the constraints of remote work.

Despite the hurdles, some jurisdictions have succeeded in pushing through large-scale modernization programs, even in the midst of the pandemic. They’ve implemented creative new training programs; increased the quality and frequency of cross-team communications; and found ways to reallocate budgets to maintain momentum.

Here, we’ll take a look at how IT leaders in three jurisdictions were able to push through on major systems upgrades despite the impacts of COVID-19.

A logical fit

Rolling into 2020, Maricopa County, Ariz., CIO Ed Winfield had a major initiative on the way: a project with tech vendor CGI to upgrade the county’s financial systems. “As part of the upgrade, they were also refreshing all the hardware and databases on our behalf, along with the actual core software,” he said.

The program was slated to take nine months. “Any time you touch the finance system it is a fairly big endeavor. You have to make sure all the functionality is correct and you have tested it thoroughly,” Winfield said.

When COVID-19 hit, project leadership immediately regrouped to assess the potential impact.

“The project team, the executive steering committee and the vendor representatives, we all had a number of conversations about how to keep the project moving,” he said. “Are we feeling comfortable? Are we able to move the project to a telework scenario and still continue forward, or should we stop?”

The team concluded that because the effort was already at a relatively advanced point, they would be able to continue moving ahead even in the absence of physical team meetings.

“We were at a stage in the project where we were focused on testing and final configuration, so we could convert to telework,” he said. “We switched over to a telework scenario and used the various platforms, [Microsoft] Teams and the document-sharing platforms, to support that work.”

While the pandemic could have potentially slowed the work, Winfield noted that the nature of modernized systems actually made telework a logical fit.

In the past, a major systems upgrade would have required a lot of in-person time. “These days, you are already doing a lot of the work online or remote, even without the COVID considerations,” he said. “With cloud-based systems it is easy to set up your test environments, your sandboxes. There are also good tools that allow us to collaborate online fairly easily.”

Shifting to remote communications demanded a more willful engagement effort, however.

The project team — including the project manager, the technical team and the subject matter experts — would tele-meet routinely throughout the week. And a monthly executive steering committee meeting helped keep things aligned.

“With COVID, we had to be sure that everyone knew how to present their documents, how to collaborate in that virtual space,” Winfield said. “There was a higher level of preparedness needed to make those online meetings go seamlessly, so it could be less about using the collaboration technology and more about just having the meeting.”

With the project already relatively far along at the start of the pandemic, the IT team was able to leverage remote testing capabilities and frequent tele-meetings to bring it across the finish line on time. Even with many conventional government functions disrupted, the new system went live in July.

Aerial+view+of+Phoenix%2C+the+seat+of+Maricopa+County%2C+Arizona


Maricopa County, Ariz.'s ERP modernization was well underway when COVID-19 hit, so they pushed a head using remote co-working tools. / Shutterstock.com


Communication is key

In Tamarac, Fla., technology leadership has been working for almost four years to upgrade key systems, including a vintage 1997 ERP running in the AS400 environment.

Four years ago, a business process review examined every core function within city government. “We thought about the feature sets we would expect in a new ERP solution. We set the baselines, the road map and the specifications for our next ERP solution,” said Director of Information Technology Levent Sucuoglu.

Initially planned on a two-year timeline, that project hit some roadblocks early on when the city’s long-term technology partner — now called CentralSquare Technologies — replaced its original software offering with something more robust. “It’s good for us, because they acquired some best-of-breed products around certain city operations. But it meant we had to wait for some level of integration of these new products into the product line,” he said.

The lessons learned over the course of that process proved valuable when it came time to address the challenges of COVID-19.

Specifically, the IT team has learned to put a heavy emphasis on communication. When the vendor announced its software changes, “we made sure that our implementation team was completely aware of the challenges, the timelines, the expectations,” Sucuoglu said.

“We put the facts on the table … so that each person who was impacted by this would be part of the bigger picture, would know exactly where things stood. We made them part of the project calls and project updates, so everything was clear to everybody,” he said.

When COVID-19 came on the scene, these habits proved helpful, especially as the IT team sought to rethink the need around end-user adoption of a system that by definition touches nearly all aspects of government operations.

“Our traditional method of implementation includes a lot of training, and our workforce is used to doing that in person, in class,” Sucuoglu said. With COVID-19, the team has shifted to virtual training, leveraging its experience with multidisciplinary communication to ensure that all users are getting the information they need.

“We’ve had to work to make people feel comfortable with virtual training,” he said. “To do that we’ve increased our training sessions tremendously. For our enterprise asset management tools, for example, we went from three training sessions to 10 sessions, working in smaller groups, trying to replicate as much of the traditional in-class training as possible.”

This strong communications strategy has helped keep the project on target. In the coming months, Sucuoglu plans to bring online a “community applications” module, a huge application that manages building permitting, code enforcement, business licenses, and planning and zoning. After that he expects to go live with the finance enterprise applications including general ledger and accounts payable.

A stable budgeting process, meanwhile, has likewise helped to ensure the ERP upgrade crosses the finish line on time, despite the financial impacts of the pandemic.

“We knew this wasn’t going to happen in a single fiscal year, so we budgeted these funds in capital accounts, so they were not tied to the fiscal year timeline,” he said. “Our finance team did a great job of providing us with that flexibility. They put the funding in the right place so we didn’t have to worry about that at all.” 

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Halfway through a yearlong ERP upgrade, COVID-19 had delayed Suffolk County, N.Y.'s timeline by just two weeks. / Shutterstock.com


Staying on target

COVID-19 has likewise not impacted the pace of modernization in Suffolk County, N.Y.

“We have a number of major projects in the hopper,” said IT Commissioner Scott Mastellon. “We’ve recently upgraded our budget planning toolset using [the cloud platform] OpenGov to support that. We are also in the process of implementing a human capital management [HCM] system from Workday — a new payroll, time and attendance, HR system.”

With 9,000 employees — including some 4,500 law enforcement personnel whose HR needs include lots of overtime and leave — the old HCM just wasn’t cutting it. “There was a significant amount of paper involved, not even spreadsheets but paper timesheets. The overtime and leave time scheduling and approval processes were also paper-based,” he said.

Top-level support has helped the IT team to swap out that clunky apparatus even in the midst of the pandemic.

“Executive leadership and sponsorship at the county executive level has been key,” Matellon said. “Steve Bellone, our county executive, has been a huge sponsor and proponent of modernization and of moving these things forward.”

It helped, too, that the IT shop had made some significant pre-pandemic personnel moves. “Before COVID we had created a number of positions in the IT department at a senior level to support our modernization initiatives,” Matellon said. “So we already had a number of key people in place.”

When it came time to put the new systems in place, IT didn’t have to go it alone. Because modernized systems are designed to empower the end user, the technologists were able to share the burden of standing up new tools. This helped to keep the process moving forward through COVID-19.

“I have a few users in our budget department, for example, who could take away significant portions of the activity because the software was so ‘point-and-click’ in its nature,” he said. “Having non-IT people within the budget department who could help out with that transition meant the lift to implement wasn’t nearly as heavy as we have seen in the past.”

The county signed a contract for its new HCM system in early March 2020, just as business-as-usual was shutting down, and as a result the team did lose some time. “It cost us about two months,” Matellon said. “We needed time to get ourselves settled in the COVID setting, to get our bearings in terms of the processes we needed to support the shift to remote work.”

The Workday implementation began in May and by late fall, six months into a projected 12-month implementation, the effort was a mere two weeks off schedule, a relatively minor slip under the circumstances.

In Suffolk County, as elsewhere, the tools of remote work have been key to keeping the upgrades moving along in a timely way.

“We are embracing Zoom and Teams as our communication platforms, and we have communicated effectively in that way,” he said. “We have 25 departments in the county and I have monthly briefings with all the department heads to keep them up to date on the HCM project, because it impacts all of them.”

If anything, the pandemic has made those outreach efforts even more effective. “In the past, I couldn’t have brought all those people together in a room,” he said. With remote connectivity, “there’s actually been more input and more involvement in the process.”

Another COVID-enabled bonus: The county freed up half a million dollars in travel costs by not having the contractor onsite.

That being said, the absence of in-person encounters can present new challenges. With remote interactions, “people put you on mute, you don’t always know if they are there. You are not always getting the appropriate feedback from everyone,” Matellon said. “But the fact is, if that person was sitting in the room, you might not be getting any more or better feedback.”

The bottom line: “We are making the right decisions, we are on time and moving forward, so I have to assume it’s working well,” he said.

In terms of budgets, the county did reapportion some funding to support critical needs, especially in the early months of COVID-19, but the major modernization efforts were unscathed. “There were other things that fell by the wayside as money got redirected to support COVID-related things, but we didn’t take money away from these critical projects,” he said. 

A common theme

In Matellon’s experience — and it holds true across all the jurisdictions cited here — the sheer urgency of the need was perhaps the greatest factor helping to keep large-scale modernization efforts on track in the midst of the pandemic.

While COVID-19 may present some logistical challenges to a major transformation effort, these IT leaders agree, those concerns are far outweighed by the urgent need for greater government efficiency through modernized tools.

“We have a lot of frustrated people who want something better,” Matellon said. “They are sick and tired of doing things the old way, and they are very much on board with doing something new.”

Adam Stone is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine.
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