Headstart: IT skills – Is the system really the weakest link?

Why do so many of today’s systems replacement projects end in disappointment?

On the face of it, the prospects should be favourable. By definition, these companies are experienced users of at least one other system, so they should have a shrewd idea of what they want and be aware of pitfalls.

But typically, the amount SMEs feel able to spend on a new system is barely enough to replicate the functionality of the old one. A limited implementation budget is quickly eaten up by mundane, unavoidable stuff: the monthly and statutory reporting, the basic management information.

New possibilities, such as web-based access, integrated management reporting, online customer information, in practice seldom get off the ground.

The irony is the system probably didn’t need replacing in the first place.

The vast majority of companies already have a package that can do most of what they want, but they don’t fully understand its abilities. Assuming the system was bought from a reputable source within the last ten years, it probably has the financial information somewhere inside it.

The company can usually get the extra functionality by adjusting the way it uses the system, or by adding new tools such as business intelligence or knowledge management software.

Very often the use of a system has degenerated over time. Initial users may have only understood 80% of its capabilities, and by the time they’ve trained their successors the knowledge that survives is likely to be only 80% of that 80%. And so on …

When someone new takes control of the finance department, there’s a strong urge to start afresh. And unfortunately, software suppliers are sometimes guilty of encouraging companies to yield to those irrational urges.

Companies are often amazed when they discover what’s really possible with their systems. A modest investment in consultancy can reveal forgotten capabilities, or simple enhancements.

Of course, there are times when an old system genuinely needs replacement.

If it’s older than 10 years it’s likely to be costing you more in maintenance than it makes sense to pay. If a system doesn’t use standard open technology such as relational databases, there will be a limit to its ability to work with other software.

In all probability, for less than the cost of implementing that flashy new package, you can increase the usefulness of your current system beyond recognition.

You can pretty much guarantee that you’ll end up getting what you wanted with far less disruption. So before you hold up the card that shows your choice for the weakest link, think long and hard if it’s the software that’s got to go or your supplier.

Gary Waylett is managing director of Eclipse Computing. ?:

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