Defence department puts people first in ERP implementation

The department of national defence (DND) learned the hard way: in any large ERP implementation, it’s the people that have to come first.

So now, even if tight budgets are stretched farther than they can go, the department knows that they can’t cut money from their change communications program, said Commander Ron Johnson, a project manager at the Canadian department of national defence in Ottawa.

Large ERP implementations means changing the way people do their jobs, it means changing people’s roles within an organization and it may even mean the cutting of jobs. This can be scary, said Kadi Wills, a senior sales communications specialist at change management consulting firm DACG in Houston, Tex. People fear they will become obsolete and lose their jobs.

DACG’s change communications program is designed to allay those fears. “We start off with the key messages that people really need to hear right at the beginning – what they want to know is, what is the change, why does the company need to do this and what does it mean to me?” Wills said.

Without this information, employees’ fears might derail otherwise sound ERP implementations, Wills said.

After some unsuccessful implementation attempts that went awry because of the lack of employee buy-in, the department of defence created a new set of priorities.

“We studied the lessons learned and, to us, change management was a key reason for failure or poor performances of past projects,” Johnson said. “Some projects within DND have been outright rejected, even though the solution was a good solution. If the users were not a part of it, and did not accept it, it didn’t get implemented. It was rejected.”

So when DND decided to implement a number of new ERP systems, it decided right from the start that change management was its number one risk.

So before the department even chose a systems integrator, it hired DACG to help it get started with its change communications program. DND also made the decision that any systems integrator they hired would have to have a change communications strategy as a key part of their implementation plan. The department eventually hired IBM, which took over the communication program from DACG. But starting to explain to employees what was going to happen, and why, right from the start was key to the success of the first part the project, an implementation in an army workshop in Montreal.

Employees need to feel that they are a part of the process, Wills explained. They need to understand that the change being implemented in their company is critical to the company’s survival, she said.

“As human beings we want to feel that if we’re being asked to do something very, very uncomfortable and way out of our comfort level, we need to be somewhat persuaded that this has to be done for the company to survive.”

DACG encourages employees to speak out about their concerns and find ways of letting employees voice concerns anonymously. Both negative and positive constructive comments are made available for other employees to see.

“One of the other things we know is that people need to be able to vent, and anger is one of the things that’s a human response to change,” Wills said.

DACG has also learned that employees like to hear from their immediate supervisor as the key communicator.

The department of defence made sure that the senior management team was on board with the implementation plans before they began. “Being able to get senior management support is important,” Johnson said.

Steering clear of false expectations is another concern. DACG is sure not to oversell the ERP package because that will only lead to disappointments. “If everyone tells you there’s a great movie playing, and you go in with high expectations, you will most likely be let down,” said Janet Goforth, a senior marketing manager at DACG.

“That’s a syndrome we try to avoid. You try not to promise them it’s going to be easy and fun and wonderful, because then you just set them up for disappointment.”