Leading a Successful ERP Implementation in an Era of Disruptive Change: Insights from a Seasoned Project Manager
Never has it been more challenging for higher education institutions to implement an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. Between staffing shortages, budget constraints, the advent of cloud computing, and the age-old resistance to change, navigating the intricate landscape of ERP implementations has become a daunting task. However, amidst these obstacles lies the potential for transformative advancements in operational efficiency, data management, and student services.
According to EDUCAUSE’s new study “More than ‘Going Live’: Achieving Institutional Transformation through ERP Implementation,” effective project management is a critical factor in implementing efficiently, on time, and within budget while also laying the groundwork for institutional transformation.
In this interview, we spoke with Lynne Lipper, a seasoned project manager at CampusWorks who has led numerous successful ERP implementations in higher education. We delve into some of the challenges she’s faced, the strategies she’s employed, and the valuable lessons she’s learned throughout the implementation process.
CampusWorks: Describe your role as a project manager in the implementation of a new ERP system. How do you contribute to the project’s overall success?
Lynne Lipper: I consider myself a coach and a trusted advisor. I monitor schedules, keep things organized, and hold people accountable to complete their tasks. I’m also responsible for holding the ERP vendor accountable to their statement of work (SOW). When misunderstandings arise, I go to bat for our clients and fight to ensure they receive the services they contracted.
What strategies do you employ to effectively manage and coordinate the various stakeholders involved in an ERP implementation? How do you manage those different groups and ensure their buy-in and cooperation?
Sometimes, at the beginning of the project, I’ll work with the client to identify who the key stakeholders are. Other times, they’ve already identified their teams and sponsors by the time I arrive. Then, I work with those groups to organize check-in meetings, board presentations, and stakeholder communications. Each institution works a little differently, so it’s important to work with the sponsor to understand their preferences and build the communication plan based on their needs.
How do you identify and manage risks during an ERP implementation?
The biggest risks to an ERP implementation are timeline, budget, and scope. My goal is to make sure that my users work within the SOW. Often, people don’t have much knowledge of or experience with ERP implementation, which can lead to unrealistic expectations. People often think the system must be perfect before you can go live, but I remind them that go-live isn’t about perfection; it’s a baseline for you to continue building upon.
Given this, managing scope creep is critically important because that’s where institutions can lose control of their budgets. There’s a tendency to add functionality you may not necessarily need at go live. Resistance to change can also drive up implementation costs. Some institutions try to implement a new system to support their current processes rather than optimizing their processes in preparation for the new system.
To manage this, I use a formula called “burn rate,” which measures how many hours are being used against the length of the project. This prevents unpleasant surprises, like discovering that you’ve exhausted your consulting hours halfway through the project.
What impact has the Great Resignation and the resulting staffing shortage had on ERP implementations in higher education?
High turnover among leadership and staff can be highly disruptive to ERP implementations. Adding new team members can lead to process and decision changes that impede progress and incur extra costs. Losing team members requires the remaining staff to absorb that person’s job responsibilities as well as their implementation tasks. An implementation can become incredibly labor-intensive when you only have a skeleton staff. Thankfully, I’ve got a deep pool of functional and technical talent among my colleagues at CampusWorks who can step in and lend extra hands and expertise to bridge those gaps.
How do you ensure everybody is informed, aligned, and moving in the same direction when the key players keep changing?
Communication is key. I’ve made it a practice to take and distribute meeting notes, which helps keep everyone informed and creates documentation that new team members can reference to help them get up to speed. I also produce a quarterly summary for the Board that provides an overview of how things are going. I make it a point to attend all-college meetings because questions about the implementation typically come up and it can be a great forum for updating the community. I also try to attend the college’s testing sessions because the whole staff is usually present and it’s an opportune time for people to ask me questions.
How do you monitor and track the progress of an implementation against the established timelines and milestones?
The relationship between the college’s project manager and the vendor’s project manager is extremely important to the success of the overall initiative. I aim to meet with the vendor’s project manager weekly to review the schedule and track our progress against the milestones and timelines we established.
How do you make sure that the project stays within the allocated budget?
I make sure I’m aware of the contract terms so I can ensure that we are staying within the scope and that the vendor is living up to their side of the agreement.
I always make sure that I get invoices detailing the time and materials the ERP vendor has billed for so I can keep track and calculate the burn rate to understand where we’re at in the project and alert the client if we’re burning through consulting hours too quickly.
What should a higher ed leader look for in a project leader?
Experience is the most important qualification. I would recommend hiring someone with five to seven years of experience managing ERP implementations. You want someone who has managed at least one major implementation, so they know what to expect.
I’d also encourage leaders to ensure that the project manager they chose is dedicated to that role full-time. Often, somebody in the IT department is asked to serve as project manager in addition to their full-time job. I do not recommend this approach. For a project of this size and complexity, a full-time project manager is needed.
What one skill has made you a successful project manager?
I think the fact that I am a people person has helped me succeed in this role. I’m able to read people and sense things they may not be saying, especially when they are feeling frustrated or afraid of change. I am naturally compassionate, which makes it easy for people to open up to me. I try to be open-minded, fair, and trustworthy, and I’ve found that those traits garner respect from all different project stakeholders and personality types — even difficult people.
How do you encourage people to embrace change that might be resistant?
I try to show them the benefits of the change and why doing things differently is going to benefit them and their students. I’ve found that people are most likely to care and act when they are bought into the “why.”
What do you do when you encounter a challenge you haven’t seen before?
One of the things that’s great about CampusWorks is that, at any given time, I can reach out to anybody. We have seasoned project managers who have experience implementing all the major ERP platforms and a deep bench of technical and functional experts. Whenever I don’t know the answer, I know how to find someone who does. Having this network is an invaluable resource for me and our clients.
Our thanks to CampusWorks Project Manager Lynne Lipper for sharing her perspective and highlighting the pivotal role of project management in driving the successful adoption of new enterprise systems and delivering a transformative impact on institutions.