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10 Secrets of Successful Software Implementations

An HRIS professional shares 10 hard-earned lessons that ease enterprisewide technology installations.

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1114-Cover.gifI’m embarrassed to say I’ve been selecting and implementing enterprise software for almost 20 years. It’s not that it’s a bad job; it’s just not the sort of thing I aspired to do back in elementary school.

But the 8-year-old me had no way of knowing that the rate of change in the technology world would never disappoint, that it would constantly challenge me, and that it would draw me deep into the evolving world of efficiency, automation and analytics. I’ve learned many tricks to make implementations successful—some the easy way, some the other way—and I want to share 10 that I hope will be helpful to others engaged in enterprise software implementations.

1. Be Clear About the Outcome

When starting an implementation, clarify the project’s goals and share them with the project team and stakeholders. Clearly stated outcomes will focus the team and become a critical measure of success after the system goes live. There are two components of a successfully stated outcome: return on investment (ROI) and audience.

First, document your targeted ROI. Meet with the finance department to determine how ROI will be measured before you begin. This shared approach will be valuable in guiding your work and in avoiding disagreements on ROI calculations later. Revisit the ROI criteria regularly throughout the implementation to be certain the objectives are reached.

Following implementation, and at the end of the period for the projected ROI, report back to the company on the results. When decision-makers see accountability for investments, they will be much more likely to invest again.

Second, engage your nonfinance audiences with a clear understanding of the returns they’ll see by creating a compelling vision of what life will be like after the system is in place. For example, if you are implementing an integrated talent management suite, communicate what employees will be able to do that they cannot do now and how managers’ jobs will be easier. A compelling vision will give affected audiences their own personal reasons to push through roadblocks.

2. Secure a Committed Executive Sponsor

Find a committed executive sponsor for the project, and work hard to make him or her a successful owner of the implementation. A handful of concepts will help make the project and your sponsor succeed.

First, apply the “ARCIE” decision-rights model: Determine who will (A)pprove decisions, make (R)ecommendations, be (C)onsulted, (I)mplement decisions, and (E)xecute tasks. Share this with all involved parties when the project starts. Refer to it when differences of opinion arise during the project to get the teams moving forward again.

Second, hold regular meetings with the executive sponsor to keep her informed on progress and, more important, risks. Executive sponsors don’t like to be surprised. If a potential issue is brewing, arm her with the information she’ll need to respond if confronted in a meeting.

Third, document key business decisions. One of the greatest project derailers is when a business decision changes late in a project. If work must be undone, the business loses a significant investment, costs exceed budgets, and project deadlines are jeopardized or delayed. Create a single document to identify and record all key business decisions. This document should be made visible to the project team and business owners so that it can serve as a handy reminder of past decisions as well as a timetable for decision-makers in planning their work.

3. Don’t Go It Alone

HR alone does not contain all the resources needed to successfully execute a project. Pockets of deep expertise are available in many other departments. Ask for their assistance. These requests not only will help you secure the resources needed for success but also will help overcome any internal reservations people may have as implementation progresses. Consider the following resource pools:

  • Communications teams can help design and execute a project communications plan. It will identify key audiences and can manage communication with them throughout the project, allowing HR to focus on implementation. An effective communications plan lets everyone know what to expect, when to expect it and why it’s being done.
  • Information technology (IT) teams are responsible for many components of technology, including strategy, standards and making everything work. Approach IT early for assistance in reviewing potential vendors and to identify the timeline for tasks that will require its resources.
  • A financial analyst and a partner in the finance department can assist with budgeting and resource management during the project. If you encounter any obstacles, having the finance department involved and aware of the project will help you quickly secure the support needed.
  • Project management resources can help set up a project governance structure, track tasks, help coordinate with other departments and otherwise free up human resource information systems (HRIS) resources to focus on the implementation.
  • A supply chain department can help find vendors, manage requests for proposal, and coordinate vendor demonstrations or site visits with a prospective vendor’s customers. As a neutral party, the supply chain department can help HRIS teams and business owners get past any biases in the selection process. And the supply chain department’s familiarity with many company contracts will strengthen your company’s presence during negotiations.

4. Consider the Aftermath

Selecting and implementing a major software solution is so time-consuming that we sometimes do not take time to consider what will happen after the new system is live. Thinking through this question will help ensure your post-implementation success. If you plan to manage the system with in-house resources, you’ll want to budget extra time for implementation so that staff members can learn the skills they’ll need to configure and maintain the system.

This small amount of additional time could pay big dividends in reduced professional service fees. If you plan to budget for more professional services to be provided by the vendor, ask the vendor’s other customers how much they typically incur in service fees. Although many software providers are evolving their systems to enable business users to configure them, there are still some holdouts. Know your plan as you begin implementation.

5. Build a Strong Partnership with the Vendor

The “honeymoon period” of a vendor relationship is a blissful time when you have access to many resources in seemingly every department of the vendor’s company. Product managers seek your opinion, executives join you on calls, and perhaps even the CEO or owner will pay you a visit. However, when you sign the contract, the honeymoon is over.

So start thinking of your value to the vendor beyond the licensing fee you pay. Look for opportunities to become visible in your industry. Speak at conferences, write articles, volunteer in professional associations. As you do, peers can tap you for advice, and your vendor will see the value you bring as a potential reference.

Look for opportunities to assist the vendor in designing new product features. Vendors that use best practices will have established product design opportunities for their customers. Participate and bring your best ideas. Let the vendor know what is going on, not just in your company but also in your industry. Consider the vendor’s point of view: It is trying to build software in a very competitive market and wants to see solid business cases behind your requests.

6. Challenge Conversions

One of the most difficult questions that comes up early in an implementation is whether you should convert old data from the existing system into the new software. This can get expensive, so before you let the past dictate the future, articulate the primary business reasons for accessing old data, then decide whether to take on the cost of converting it. There are usually three reasons to retain old data.

The first reason is so you can access historical data for trending analytics. If this is the case, consider placing it into a warehouse or other database where it can be easily accessed for reporting. Because this database will not have to meet all the demands of the new system, you can design it any way you like, with only one set of reporting or analytical requirements in mind.

Second, you may need to access old data for audit purposes. If this is the case, consider how and how often auditors will access it. If the need is infrequent, export the data into a simple stand-alone database where analysts can access it if requested. If the need is more frequent, build some self-service reports over this simple database and allow auditors to run the reports themselves.

Third, you may need to make historical data visible to end users. Again, you can place the data in a simple database and build reports over it. Consider that the data will be accessed less and less over time. Is the inconvenience of pulling up a report in a separate system less than that of trying to drag a mountain of historical data into a different system and then maintaining it for years as the new system evolves?

You may need to access some historical data within the new system. Carefully examine the cases where customers will be accessing that information. Could the need be solved by bringing only a small amount of it into the new system (and sending the bulk to another database)? The small historical dataset may only be a year’s worth of data, or it may be just a few select fields.

7. Challenge Business Processes

Your current business practices are like bad habits—they’re really hard to give up. Invariably, you will find that the new system does not do things the same way your old one did. Your customers will often want to build a customization in the new system to make it like the old one. (This madness really does happen.)

Customizations are an attractive short-term solution because they minimize the organization’s change management challenge. However, in the long term, customizations become increasingly expensive and will often prevent you from upgrading.

What to do? Challenge business practices. Ask the project’s executive sponsor to invite the teams to challenge the old ways of thinking. This will help break down barriers to change.

Then, try some of the following methods:

  • Instead of starting with the old workflow, try describing the outcome needed and listing only the requirements that are critical to making that happen. Then design the simplest workflow possible to reach that outcome.
  • Call some of the vendor’s other customers and ask how they perform the same function. This often results in the discovery of a simple solution.
  • Contact the product manager, ask why the product was designed the way it was, and explain your business challenge. The product manager may be able to tell you about some lesser-known features that will solve the problem.

8. Decide on a ‘Big Bang’ vs. Phased Release

As software matures, it becomes more integrated with other systems, and, as users grow more computer-literate, more software implementations are rolled out in “big bang” releases. In other words, the entire company begins using the software all at once. The opposite approach is a phased release, where new software is made available to the company one group at a time over an extended period.

Phased releases are typically favored when there is significant risk of failure in some portion of the technology, or when the implementation team expects to pilot or test the software and make corrections before releasing it to wider audiences. The disadvantages are a delay in realizing the project’s ROI, the additional expense of maintaining the legacy system during implementation of the new one, and potential change management resistance as initial users of the new system share any frustrations with future users.

Big bang releases allow companies to reach ROI more quickly. They also benefit from economies of scale as communication and change management efforts are leveraged enterprisewide.

9. Reduce the Cost of Ownership

In choosing an implementation strategy, we have more choices—and more chances to reduce costs—than we did just a few years ago. Consider the following:

  • Integrated vs. point solutions. There has been considerable consolidation in the enterprise software industry over the past few years. As a result, HR is having to spend less time and money managing point solutions (a separate, best solution for each disparate HR business function). Although point solutions can match business requirements closely, your staff will spend significant resources managing each vendor’s product releases and troubleshooting data feeds between systems, and employees will have to learn to navigate several different systems.

    Integrated solutions are maturing and relieve HR teams of all the intersystem management overhead. The downside is that you may miss a few “bells and whistles” offered by vendors. However, the rate of evolution in product features has slowed noticeably. HR software has matured and become more commoditized. The strategic differentiators moving forward are less about unique features and more about deeper integration and embedding prescriptive analytics.
  • Cloud services and software-as-a-service. These are also compelling options for reducing long-term costs. The full benefits of cloud hosting go beyond a simple cost comparison. When something goes wrong in the cloud, you call the vendor and leverage its 24/7 resources. You also benefit from a large customer base that is testing the same releases as you. This leads to less buggy software and less time-consuming upgrades.

10. Create the Phase 2 Enhancement List

This last tip is a great way to balance your internal customers’ feedback, expectations and frustrations with the limited resources at your disposal.

There is no shortage of good ideas, and nothing brings them out of the woodwork more than a new software system.

When customers call with a complaint, suggestion or problem, log it in an “enhancement list.” This is a simple spreadsheet that records the request, the requestor, the date and the type of request (bug or enhancement). Recording the request will let the customer know that it has been received and will not be lost. Let him or her know that it will be brought to a decision-making group for prioritization.

The decision-making group usually consists of business leaders and key customers. Before you present the enhancement list to them for prioritization, go through each item and estimate the amount of time each will take to complete. Then, explain to the group that you have X number of hours available to address items on the list, and ask them to choose the ones they want done first, adding up the time required for each so that it does not exceed available resources. This is a great way to involve your stakeholders.

There they are—10 tips for successful software implementations. I hope they will help you avoid doing things the hard way. And if you happen to run into 8-year-old me, give him a copy of this list and tell him it will save him a lot of trouble in the future.

Mike Harmer is the director of HR analytics and technology for Intermountain Healthcare in Salt Lake City. Harmer is a frequent speaker at industry conferences and has been with Intermountain Healthcare for more than 14 years. He consults with ThinkTroop, a research consulting firm. He can be reached at


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