ERP system provides value for U.N. organization

United Nations Development Programme

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Officials from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) are adding functionality to a 2-year-old enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, which has reportedly improved integration, collaboration and transparency among offices worldwide.

UNDP employees already had secure Internet access to 17 modules – such as project management, finances, human resources and others – within the system. An e-procurement module was added in September, and an e-recruit one, which will help the organization better sift through job applications, is planned for next year.

“It is not unusual for us to have between 400 to several thousand applicants per post,” said Jens Wandel, project director for UNDP’s Center for Business Solutions. “And that’s where e-recruit can come in and filter against preset norms or competencies.… That will, of course, save us time and target better in the recruitment process.”

In partnership with the U.N. Population Fund and the U.N. Office for Project Services, UNDP officials implemented an integrated Oracle PeopleSoft system in January 2004 through a “big bang approach” across offices in 145 countries. About 8,000 people use the ERP system – which replaced nearly two-dozen existing systems – and the plan is to expand access to thousands more.

Developing the system has cost about $58 million to date, Wandel said. Although return on investment is hard to calculate, he said productivity and transparency has improved.

“Everybody can see everybody else’s project, we can see budgets and we can start learning from each, and we also start behaving differently with each other,” he said. “We’re much more integrated and we are much more efficient in many ways.”

In the past two years, UNDP officials have been fine-tuning the system, improving security and data quality and dealing with the cultural or “change management” issues associated with such an implementation.

“You can imagine that the capacity for utilizing this kind of tool is not the same in Burundi as in Brazil or in Bangladesh,” Wandel said.

Through surveys, UNDP officials have been keeping close tabs on how employees in 145 nations have been coping with the ERP system. Two-thirds of employees have consistently said the system is good for the organization, but support drops off when it comes to their interaction, he said.

Support varies depending on where the employee is stationed. But that enables UNDP officials to target training where it’s most needed. Also user communities were created around the four practices, namely procurement, financial management, human resources and project management.

Several years ago, Wandel said the organization realized it had antiquated systems and needed to revamp business processes to stay relevant and effective in development work. UNDP provides assistance to countries in areas of governance, the environment, poverty, HIV/AIDS, and increasingly in crisis prevention and recovery.

“As a United Nations organization, we needed to move toward international best practices in terms of our business processes,” he said. “We needed to be able to capture the increasing complexity in providing development assistance throughout the world.

“And we also needed to put everything on the Internet so we can access our management systems from wherever we want to in geographical terms,” he added. “You can imagine, for example, that in an Iraqi situation, it is better to provide some of the services from either Jordan or from Yemen or Dubai or even New York than it is to sit in Iraq.”

In 2002, Wandel said UNDP officials like himself, with business expertise – as opposed to those information technology skills – created a global strategy to reform business processes. They purchased a PeopleSoft system at the time and created a prototype, proof-of-concept system. In 2003, it went out to bid for integration services and configured the 17 modules before going live in January 2004.

The organization looked at implementations by other U.N. organizations and the Defense Department, but nothing compared with what UNDP was going to do.

Jackie Cheng, senior practice director of Oracle’s Public Sector Consulting, said the UNDP project presents a good case study for American corporations and others looking to successfully implement large projects. She said UNDP has visible management support and sponsorship and a winning project management practice.

“They have put a dashboard on the Internet for each of the country offices to log their progress,” she said. “So, they can see who’s ready and who’s not.”

Wandel said that although configuration and testing of the software was done in New York City, change management was done at offices in the countries. The dashboard application enabled those offices to score themselves on connectivity, conversion, training and other business processes. He said it was a practical, cheap and effective way for a large, complex system to regulate itself, spurring UNDP workers to communicate and share experiences with one another.

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