On the receiving end of ERP grief

When I was asked to speak at the annual convention of a well-known professional association of management accountants, I accepted with some trepidation. I don't hold being an accountant against anyone, but with the advent of ERP systems, it seems that we IT folks have been on the receiving end of a lot of accountant-caused grief.

In many cases, I felt, it was accountants who decided to buy those infernal ERP systems, and IT got stuck with the thankless task of installing them.

Accountants insisted on making endless software modifications, and we got blamed for the cost overruns. Once the systems were installed, the accountants used those systems to spin the numbers and park obscure charges on our IT budgets. While we were busy struggling with baulky computer systems, they were busy devising devilish new cost-allocation schemes.

I resolved to keep these dark thoughts about the accounting profession to myself and at least try to give dialogue and diplomacy a chance. My presentation was surprisingly well received, and members of the audience asked interesting and thoughtful questions. That evening, my hosts arranged a dinner. Along with some fine seafood, they served several bottles of excellent wine. I hadn't realized that people of the accounting persuasion had such good taste. I began to relax ever so slightly. People began to speak a bit more frankly.

Imagine my surprise when I heard that accountants are feeling equally threatened by IT people. How could this be? Well, it turns out that with the advent of ERP systems, many of the time-honoured activities of the accounting profession have been automated. Gone are the days when accountants could spend the better part of a month doing a month-end close. Gone are the days when only accountants could see the numbers and everyone else had to go hat in hand to the accounting department to get a profit-and-loss statement.

Many accountants are having a real crisis of confidence. "If people can get their own financial reports without accountants, what do they need us for?" they asked. "IT people and their infernal ERP systems are putting us out of business."

This was astounding. "What do you mean 'IT people and our infernal ERP systems'?" I asked. "I thought it was you guys who had us put them in."

"No," they told me, "it wasn't us." That night, I heard stories about smooth-talking consultants in league with glad-handing software vendors calling on gullible executives. I heard stories of orders issued from plush corner offices and corporate cheque books opened to legions of strangers.

I began to feel embarrassed. I thought about some of the ungenerous and downright unkind things I have said about accountants in moments of stress and fear. We began to have a meeting of the minds. We agreed that these infernal ERP systems are threatening all of us. These systems make it easy for companies to outsource IT operations, and they make it way too easy for non accountants to see the numbers.

As we shook hands at the end of the evening, I realized that heretical thoughts were causing me to question some dearly held beliefs. Is it time to bury the hatchet and look at accountants as fellow travellers on this journey of discovery at the dawn of a new century? Do we need to help each other redefine our professions?

Michael Hugos is CIO at Network Services Co, a distribution cooperative, that sells food-service and cleaning supplies and the author of Building the Real-Time Enterprise: An Executive Briefing

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