ERP project problems plague city payroll

The city government in Oakland, California, is learning some of the hard lessons enterprise resource planning (ERP) projects can teach end users -- and many of them have more to do with planning and training than with technology.

Oakland's $US21 million installation of Oracle's ERP applications has frustrated users in the finance department and resulted in missing or incorrect paychecks for many employees after payroll clerks ran out of time to enter needed data into the system.

There have also been technical difficulties. For example, a consulting firm didn't meet its schedule for converting data from the city's old IBM AS/400 finance system to the Unix-based ERP setup, resulting in cost overruns and a rollout delay of up to seven months. And the payroll department is still having trouble getting Oracle's software to run reports, said assistant city manager Dolores Blanchard.

But the user training issues affected the city in a big way. Workers "have complained that they don't feel prepared to use the system," said Jayne Becker, policy assistant to City Council member Dick Spees.

The training "could have been handled better," acknowledged Blanchard, who is overseeing the ERP project. "There was a lot of frustration [among users] when the system first came up."

That's a common lament after ERP installations in both private and public sectors, said Jim Shepherd, an analyst at AMR Research in Boston.

"Training is almost always inadequate," Shepherd said. That can have "a huge downside" if end users -- who usually are asked to change the way they work -- start thinking the software doesn't work, he said.

In Oakland's case, an internal survey of end users in October found that fewer than half considered themselves skilled in using key Oracle financial applications. Some of the 350 users were trained on the basics of the applications but were shut out of classes on specific tasks, such as processing purchase orders, after more workers tried to sign up than expected, Blanchard said.

And some finance applications still had bugs when they went live in July, so software didn't work the way the users had been told it would, she said.

The city has added refresher courses for struggling users and redesigned some classes to include real-world examples, such as how to process bill payments. Afollow-up survey last month showed that about two-thirds of the finance users now view themselves as skilled with the software.

But then 1,100 of the city's 5,000 paychecks didn't get printed or were incorrect on the first Oracle-based payroll run in November.

Some mistakes were due to incorrect settings of pay rates in the software, Blanchard said. But 630 checks were missing because payroll clerks didn't manage to enter time-card data into the new software on time. The clerks were trained but were then left on their own to enter the data, Blanchard said.

For the second payroll run, they were brought to a central office "to help them get through" the data-entry process, she said. That brought mistakes down to about 3 percent -- the level the old AS/400 system typically produced.

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