How Long Should Your ERP Implementation Take

By Chris Lever

I've been advising agencies on their system selection for many years now, and have led a number of full cycle implementations - that is the design, development, testing and training, go-live and support.

By default, an Enterprise Resource Planning ("ERP") system is for managing agencies, or any people-based enterprise, quintessentially to capture and track time against quoted fees to ensure against over-delivery, hold brought-in third party costs against specific job (or project) records for visibility over what cash has come in from clients, to what's going out to suppliers, and be the secure store of all accounting transactions associated with this and the other activities of the business.  

For many agencies the prospect of upgrading or changing from an existing set-up is fraught with challenges from the cultural resistance to change, to the unknown quantity of what will the vendor actually deliver, in what time frame and at what eventual cost.

It's probably accurate to say a majority of agencies are happy to live with compromise (and spreadsheets) until some driving factor such as the arrival of an enlightened FD with a mandate for change, a vendor contract expiring, or the system version in place is no longer supported, that the difficult questions of a new ERP implementation or upgrade have to be answered. 

So how long should it take?

Well, that does depend on many factors, but here are a couple of examples I can attest to:

UK creative agency, 25 people, new company, so minimal data migration.Duration: 6 hours (4 on-site); System: AccountAbility, a cloud ERP; 1 external consultant.

UK digital agency, 90 people, full data migration, including 1,000 live-jobs.Duration: 3 weeks; System: AccountAbility; 1 external consultant.

UK independent group, 120 people, partial data migration. Duration: 3 months; System: Deltek/Maconomy, a server based system; 2 external consultants.

UK independent group, 650 people (14 offices globally), full development & data migration. Duration: 2 years (and ongoing); System: Deltek/Maconomy; 3-4 external consultants.

UK mid-cap plc, 700 people (20 offices globally), full development & data migration.Duration: 15 months; System: AccountAbility; 1 external consultant.

Of course every agency is governed by their specific sets of circumstances which contribute to making each implementation unique, but at the end of the day the"processes" agencies follow are fundamentally the same.

The dependencies too are all pretty generic, and there's plenty of better documentation than I can provide on the core principles of good ERP project management, but here's a couple of practical tips:

1 System-owner engagement. A strong internal driving force who remains involved and interested is a big factor in helping meet objectives on implementation timing. Someone who understands the system's inner workings, can lead, communicate, gain buy-in and mentor the business all come within this mandate.

2 Experienced project team & competent vendor (or partner) consultants. It helps greatly if the people who work together on the detail and the day-to-day driving forward of the project, know what they're doing and are able to operate within clear guidelines set by the system-owner. 

3 Keeping it simple. Agencies may try and ensure every instance they can think of is covered by the new system, and vendors and consultants will not deter them for complex projects turn into long running projects, with associated fees generated. With few caveats though, I've always endorsed a view of not embarking on substantial customisation, to go simple and "vanilla" first, as any good system will lend itself to modification when it's identified as needed through use.

4 Data in good shape. ERP systems are structured depositories for your business data, and so migrating from a spreadsheet heavy environment will require collating and reformatting of data to fit in these new structures. Agreeing what these structures are can be fraught, and is one of the biggest areas where vendors must be prepared to guide project teams adequately. Most vendors will provide templates for easy upload of data into their system, although likely a bigger challenge may actually be extracting data from your existing system. Tip: Validate the import/export capabilities of your new system. 

Of course if all these remain equal, straight run comparisons on implementation time will inevitably come down to the system itself. 

Server-based systems, like Maconomy, will always take longer. If I can offer an analogy - it's like a large kit (house, car, etc) that comes in a box for which it then has to be put together, piece by piece, each time from scratch. These also need the involvement of IT to agree the hardware & networking specification on which Maconomy will be housed (excuse the pun) and accessed. 

Cloud ERP systems, like AccountAbility, however come pre-defined with best-practice structures, workflows and reporting as determined from experience, which immediately lends itself to rapid implementation. A couple of focused workshops quickly realises a workspace build that meets the agencies need. With browser access, the only involvement of IT is for them to satisfy themselves on the security aspect, then make sure a good broadband connection is available. 

Managing a systems implementation consultancy may suggest we'd prefer long running and complex projects. Well, we're very good at doing them, and like them, sure - to a point.

Our real motivation however comes from getting agencies onto better platforms for growth in much faster time frames, to get their data joined up and them benefiting from the visibility on how their business is performing, and able to make the adjustments they need to be more profitable. This for us means happy clients, and stronger, longer term relationships. 

Final point then, balls on the line - how long should an ERP implementation take?

My rule of thumb. A 100-person agency, going AccountAbility, will be live within one month. If you're going Maconomy, I'd have to have a look and give you a quote.