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APLICOR CRM & ERP SYSTEM IMPLEMENTATION EXERIENCE

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I completed my first Aplicor on-demand CRM software implementation for a financial services firm and wanted to share some of the experience and lessons learned. I've previously completed on-demand CRM software implementations for Salesforce.com projects, however, I've not before managed an on-demand accounting software and ERP system so this was a little bit of an eye opener for me.

The project hit an early delay as the data conversion revealed more dirty data than expected. However, when most of the dirty data was either removed or cleansed, the import of just over 1 million records (about 230,000 account and contact records and just over 900,000 activity records) was done and reconciled in less than two days (very cool).

The back office accounting configuration was pretty straight-forward and quick as our CFO seemed to know exactly what he wanted and there wasn't a lot of group debate. We customized a few forms, but not much. We did more customization to the financial dashboards and reports as the management team insisted that the month end reporting package be replicated almost exactly to the current format.

The front office CRM system implementation was much more of a group exercise - with strong input from our VP of Sales, Marketing Director, COO, Customer Support Manager and a few key users and influential sales people. We piloted a high number of configuration alternatives and business process maps before finally selecting the methods used for the go-live (since the go-live a few of the processes have been modified, but not much). The role-based Menus, Views, Queries and Screens in Aplicor expanded the implementation time frame, however, now each user-role sees only what is important or relevant for their needs and we expect to get a nice productivity payback from this. We trialed several workflow designs and ultimately implemented most of them, however, held back on a few until a later time (didn't want to introduce too much change all at once). I personally believe that the business process automation will be the number one payback or highest ROI event from the new system.

Aplicor's business intelligence (BI) suite is very cool, however, we're not really sure which of our users are truly capable of transcending new found (dynamic and interactive) information into better decision making and this will be an item we come back to in a follow-on phase. For now, we're simply making available the dashboards, scorecards, data warehouses and OLAP (online analytical processing) to see how users react and leverage the information. Those experiences will ultimately determine our agenda and approach for the follow-on phase.

We used a train-the-trainer approach for user training. We also divided up training classes into back office training (for the accounting staff), SFA training (for sales staff), marketing training and customer support training. All the training classes went exceptionally well and users gave thumbs up to the new system. SFA training took longer than the other training classes - largely because some of the role-based configurations were changed based on sales input.

The go-live event was very anticlimactic (thank goodness). The system was well received and the expected initial user operational questions were quickly resolved. User adoption was very impressive (far better than the norm) and while we did have some remote sales staff test management's will, our executive sponsor was outstanding in meeting the challenge timely and head on (which resolved the issue).

A by-product experience from this engagement was a new reflection of the old 'best of breed' versus 'enterprise wide' argument. The best of breed argument references various system integration approaches to link together business software systems from different vendors. What's not changed with this approach over the last 20 years is that the integration is never as simple, straight-forward or easy to maintain as the vendors suggest. What has changed is the challenge of system integration continually uses new marketing catch-phrases to suggest that the technical difficulties have been put to rest.

When I started implementing business systems in the 1980's, the industry used the term EDI (Electronic Data Interchange), however, that eventually sounded old-school so the software marketing pundits created the term 'Web Services' and then later expanded it to 'XML Web Services' and then even later morphed the term into SOA (Service Oriented Architecture). Now with SaaS (software as a service), the unfashionable term for 'system integration' has been replaced by 'mashups'. Like all of its predecessors, I expect the term mashups will also be replaced by some new marketing concoction, probably something related to Web 2.0 or a social media term. However, irrespective of its buzzword evolution, the reality of integrating business software systems from different vendors is that it's never as easy as the vendors marketing brochures or sales people indicate. Further, it's only obvious that the different vendors use different user interface designs and navigation techniques (thereby increasing user training requirements and user adoption challenges), have different new product upgrade and release schedules and will probably distance themselves from system integration trouble-shooting problems that deal with a different vendor (the old finger pointing from one vendor to another we've all experienced).

The Aplicor implementation was the first hosted enterprise-wide business system I've done (but hopefully not the last). It included CRM (SFA, marketing and some light customer support), financial accounting, project accounting, some light distribution and human resources - and all of it was integrated 'out of the box'. We avoided the need (and the costs) to merge together mashups and create web services exchanges between the front office and back office systems. Hallelujah.

I'm scheduled to project manage a NetSuite implementation in about a month or two and look forward to both comparing the experience to Aplicor as well as sharing the lessons learned from that implementation. NetSuite is the other on-demand ERP and CRM system provider which also offers out of the box integrated front office and back office business systems.

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