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The Frightening High Cost of ERP Customization


March 28, 2013

Doug Hadden, VP Products

A study sponsored by ERP vendor Unit 4 by Cindy Jutras is a sobering read.

I winced a few times.

Agility is part of the Unit 4 positioning. The fact that the sponsor is company positioned as agile found that ERP customization is costly doesn’t make the study incorrect. Or, the conclusions any less frightening.

High Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) and restricted business agility are the open secrets of the Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) world. Why? The technology used by leading ERP vendors is, frankly, obsolete. Not all of it: just the core. The foundation.

So, it’s no wonder that methods developed in the 90s to solve pre-Y2K problems have started to show their age. Especially in cloud computing. And, the opportunities and threats that come from globalization.

The value of this report is that it goes beyond the impact of ERP customization as a high implementation cost that generates delays. This study looks at the impact of making changes to ERP customization to support compliance, reorganization, improved processes etc.

What is this “customization”?

Jutras doesn’t define customization. Many observers see customization as all adaptations to software from configuration through to software code development. My sense, based on the results of the study, that customization is defined as changes that require some element of coding. This includes Business Process Management (BPM) tools that requires elements of coding, scripting, call-outs from the ERP software to other code, and software code customization.

ERP vendors developed customization methods to enter new markets: different verticals, countries, customer sizes. And, customers needed to implement competitive differentiated practices. So, high cost and long implementation cycles. Which is why there is so much guff about implementing so-called “best practices” to reduce the customization hangover experienced by so many organizations.

No customization in FreeBalance?

FreeBalance provides Government Resource Planning (GRP) software. One of the characteristics of this software is that there is no customization as I have defined it with the exception of integration with sub-systems and some elements of business intelligence. (And, rather than make integrators or customers build functionality that we don’t have, we commit and put this functionality into the main line of the code.)

FreeBalance supports this no customization model because we can and we should. We can because we’re focused in one “vertical market”. We should because it is ethical. In my opinion, it is not ethical to force high costs to public organizations. As you can see from our government customer list , long-term financial sustainability is a critical factor. Our GRP software has to affordable in the long run to enable developing nations like Afghanistan, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Suriname and Timor-Leste to grow and improve governance.

Government is the ERP customization canary in the coal mine

Jutras found that more than 1/3 of the organizations surveyed have implemented extensive ERP customization and almost 2/3 have experienced moderate customization. Only 4% of respondents reported little or no customization.

Which makes the “good practice” guff from ERP vendors a “buy case” and not a “use case”!

You may be surprised to learn that governments require more agile business systems than the private sector. Yes, governments are not known for agility. What they need are systems that enable change – more change than is experienced by the private sector including:

  • Legal reform that changes GRP configurations because governments cannot adopt new processes without a legislative approval. So, governments change configurations often.
  • Organizational structures change more frequently based on government objectives that includes merging ministries, eliminating ministries, splitting out ministries, and privatization.
  • Moves to transparency and accountability that are orders of magnitude more complex than compliance changes in the private sector.

ERP systems used in government tend to be more customized that in the private sector. One analyst commented on an ERP implementation in a G8 country as being so highly customized that it bore no resemblance to the original code. It’s frightening how much public money is wasted needlessly because of ERP adoption in government.

To be fair, there is only one publicly reported incident of Unit 4 failure in government and that could be explained through a number of factors. (And, from 2004) But, the leading 2 ERP vendors have a lot of explaining to do.

The other ERP open secret is that governments that have departmental level ERP systems have completely different customizations. So, the move to “shared services” to share a single ERP in these governments to save money is, frankly, a pipe dream . CIOs looking to implement ERP shared services using one or both of the 2 leading vendors need to read this report so that they are not complicit in wasting public money.

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Doug Hadden

Doug Hadden

Executive Vice President, Innovation at FreeBalance
Doug is responsible for identifying new global markets, new technologies and trends, and new and enhanced internal processes. Doug leads a cross-functional international team that is responsible for developing product prototypes and innovative go-to-market strategies.

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