SAP is not an IT project!

Catherine Smithson
December 21, 2011

There seems to be a rule that the more complex the change, the less effort is spent on the people who will be adopting the change in their jobs. I call it The Complex Change Trap.

This year I’ve come across several organisations that have enthusiastically applied this rule to SAP projects. They have discovered that leaving out change management has resulted in inaccurate business requirements, unusable process maps, steering committees that don’t steer and a wall of resistance from managers and staff that slows the project down, costs more money and reduces the ROI of the project.

In a couple of cases, this has meant throwing out 1-2 years of project work and starting again, the second time with change management. In a number of organisations, the chief resistors were senior executives, who were supposed to be sponsoring the change. Go figure!

SAP is a perfect example of The Complex Change Trap because it involves not just designing and building a new IT system that spans every function in the organisation, which is hard enough, but also new business processes.

In a large diverse organisation, with far-flung manufacturing sites, sales and service offices, local ways performing functions have to be harmonised into one vanilla-flavoured way of working. That’s always going to be a struggle. When was the last time you heard an employee say: “Awesome! Head office has decreed we all need to do [insert function] their way!”

SAP also involves abandoning the Excel spreadsheets that teams use to do their jobs—all built with the best of intentions—and switching to the new system, where clean and accurate data is essential. It can be the first time employees have used an ERP system, or even a computer.

The Complex Change Trap also applies to improvement projects using the Lean Six Sigma methodology, mergers and acquisitions and new infrastructure such as automated warehousing.

What seems to happen is the technical complexity and risk of the project consumes all the time, effort and resources. Change management is often little more than ‘comms and training’.

The reality is that complex, risky technical changes are nearly always complex, risky people changes. They involve radical change to the way people do their jobs, work cross functionally, deliver service to customers and interact with suppliers. They often require new ways if thinking and behaving, that is, culture change. People don’t transition at the touch of the ‘go live’ button.

Here’s a quick exercise: Calculate the total project spend or capex, then calculate the percentage allocated to change management. Then calculate what percentage of the desired outcomes or ROI of the change is dependent on people changing the way they do their jobs. Comparing the two might persuade a sponsor to invest in change management.

Author avatar
Catherine Smithson
Catherine Smithson is a leading facilitator, educator and consultant in change and leadership. She has 20 years’ experience as a senior manager and a consultant and has an in-depth understanding of best practices worldwide. She is the managing director of Being Human.
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