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ERP Journey: Branching Out: Remote Offices Start to Plug In

As remote branches from Alaska to Arizona plug in, the new system exposes some old flaws.

As the old adage goes, a pair of shoes fits well if you forget about your feet. This is true of IT too. IT succeeds when it fits so well with the business that it's forgotten.

In preparing for the second phase of our ERP implementation, our team traveled to the four most remote branches of our company, from Fairbanks to Phoenix. We found our new applications didn't fit well with our existing infrastructure.

Our first phase converted back-office corporate functions of our legacy system. Like most companies, our headquarters receives more resources than our branches. While the environment of our data center is climate-controlled, our branches have closets.

These closets have been collecting dust since our last upgrade three years ago. They contain a snarled vermicelli of data cables and ancient routers. Growth has produced creative stacks of hubs and switches that made understanding the network a feast for puzzle enthusiasts. So it wasn't surprising when we found that the closet aggregations were having trouble with our new applications' requirements. Our replacement parts arrived before us, containing most of what we needed, but there were surprises.

Making Adjustments

Freight is a major cost component of our business, especially in remote locations like Anchorage. We installed a shipping application that promised full integration with major commercial freight carriers, allowing price shopping. But it doesn't work in Alaska, so we found a half-loaf solution. It weighs the packages on an integrated scale, calculates the rate from the shipper's Internet site and stuffs the cost back into our ERP system. The drawback: It prevents rate shopping, requiring us to use only one carrier.

Even if plug-and-play isn't a cruel joke, first-time hardware installations are dangerous. You might say our new printers and scanners are full of personality. Fortunately, some of my staff finds charm in the nuances of inanimate objects.

When we finished in Alaska, we learned that a new version of the core software was ready for release. It promised to be easier to implement and to produce fewer bugs. We went with this version in our branch offices for training and began our preproduction testing. Our back office stayed on the older version.

We had been reconfiguring the branch desktops with the new, improved version for a day or so when the lead implementation consultant walked into my office. I learned that the upgrade was more new than improved. Field testing at another company had exposed a serious flaw: The new version breaks when more than 100 users log in. And while we never train more than 50 users at a time, we need to resolve the issue before our final go-live.

By the time we finished preparing our branches, our confidence had rebounded. The hardware was cooperating; the software was running. And even though every email brought a new complication, we were gaining on the problems. Our mock go-live required five branches to rekey the previous day's transactions, but we survived. We learned the way IT departments learn best: by putting broken things back together.

Four down and 28 to go. Like any new pair of shoes, we are breaking in the system. And little by little, everyone outside of IT is beginning to forget about it.

Next: Customer expectations and advanced products.

Les Johnson is CIO at North Coast Electric Co., a wholesale electrical distributor in Bellevue, Wash. To comment on this story, email

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