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Top 5 Challenges to avoid on Enterprise System Implementation Projects

During the past 11 years, I have enjoyed helping Higher Education Institutions leverage the power of cloud technologies to advance their overall mission more effectively. Despite being hampered by outdated legacy systems and tightening capital budgets, Colleges and Universities are genuinely dedicated to creating world-class learning environments.

I’ve been involved with hundreds of technology implementation projects of all shapes and sizes, across many different products and platforms, both as a customer and as a consultant. These projects can involve large teams of people, many workstreams, and very complicated timelines. Despite each project varying in length, complexity, and size, I often found they faced similar challenges. In this blog, I am going to discuss what I think are the top five mistakes both customers and consulting firms make when managing a system implementation project.

1) Not planning enough time for client discovery

Most of the Higher Ed projects I have worked on leverage a Hybrid Agile implementation methodology. This means that the overall scope of the project is determined during the early discovery phase and then designed and built using an agile sprint approach. As such, many activities take place during the initial Discovery phase: business process review, user story development, user story prioritization, solution design, and scope sign-off are just some of them. In my opinion, the Discovery phase is the most impactful to the overall success of the project. Yet, it can also consume a disproportionate amount of the overall budget with all the moving parts and many people working on many different workstreams all at the same time. For budget-constrained institutions, the pressure to reduce the amount of time and resources spent on Discovery is immense. On the consulting side, we can fall victim to underestimating the time it takes to get a client through all the Discovery activities, especially if the client is new to or inexperienced with the new platform being implemented. The amount of unexpected complex questions and platform-specific business decisions can derail a timeline, slowing down the process and impacting the overall delivery.

ADVICE: Make sure the amount of time and resources allocated for the Discovery phase is realistic and provides some additional margin in case something unexpected and complex arises (which always does!). Add additional time if the client is super new to the technology and doesn’t have that specific platform experience on the team.

2) Over-estimating the client’s knowledge and comfort with the new platform

While I initially mentioned this topic above, I think its worth further discussion considering the impact this mistake can have on the overall project. Consultants are hired for their expertise working on a particular platform, and they bring years of experience in designing and implementing solutions. With all that knowledge and experience, we sometimes forget that not everyone is as versed in the technology, nor can they learn it as quickly (hence why the client has hired you in the first place). We can make the mistake of assuming that the client can get comfortable, very fast with the technology to help make design decisions. We forget to consider the extra time it might take to help the client get comfortable with the technology. This can also hold true if the client team isn’t familiar or experienced in running an agile or hybrid agile project methodology. Creating and writing user stories and pooling them into Epic categories is not a simple task. Again, the client might need some ramp-up time to get where they need to in the project timeline.

ADVICE: Validate early on in the sales cycle what the client’s knowledge of and comfort level with the technology, as well as with a Hybrid Agile methodology. Adjust the discovery phase timeline and resource plan to account for any required ramp up and training time. Consider holding initial technology overview sessions pre-discovery to help the client team and business end-users get comfortable with the base platform.

3) Undervalue Change Management

Change is just plain difficult. Organizations and the people in them are creatures of habit, and over time they get used to doing something in a very particular way. Implementing a new system involves much change. There are new business processes, new functionality, improved work efficiencies, upgraded user experiences, and so on. Frequently, project teams will find resistance amongst business leadership, end users, and even within the IT organization. Smart consulting firms know that implementing a system requires significant change and are ready to provide change management services to support the organization. Unfortunately, a lot of Higher Ed organizations equate Change Management with training. To reduce the project’s overall consulting budget, they assume responsibilities for training their end-users and leave it at that. Change Management is more than just training. A good Change Management plan starts at the beginning and involves designing and executing a strategic change plan that involves multi-level communications, engagement activities, and training (yes training). One often overlooked area of change management is post-go-live reinforcement. Rarely, any end-user will completely absorb and understand all of the new training relevant to a project. It is critically important for a Change Management strategy to provide the follow-up training and other activities that reinforce the change for the long term. I’ve never seen a project fail that had a robust change management plan, but I’ve seen less than stellar outcomes on projects that didn’t.

ADVICE: Don’t eliminate Change Management support, thinking that your Higher Ed organization can adequately replace it with an internal team. Change is more than just training, so leverage your consulting partner’s expertise and experience in this area.

4) Underestimating the data preparation work required for a project

I probably mention “data” in every blog I write. That’s because it probably is the single most critical aspect of any implementation project. The whole purpose in upgrading organizational systems is to ultimately gain access to better data and to do something awesome with it. Whether you are an Alumni Relations Officer looking for a better way to track Alumni engagement or a Student Services representative trying to provide excellent customer care to students, good data is critical to your success. One of the major mistakes I see teams make when implementing a new system is assuming that the team can figure out their new data architecture and strategy during the early Discovery phase. When it comes to data, teams are reviewing data sources, building data maps, and migration plans. There usually isn’t enough time to debate data governance issues or quality issues. It is super important to do a lot of data prep work before the consulting team shows up on campus. It’s important to know all of your sources of data and the quality of that data. Don’t wait for the project to start to clean up data, you can do that now. It is also important to understand what your end data architecture should look like. You might not have all of the answers right now, but you should have a sense of what that architecture needs to look like to support the new system and processes and align with the institution’s central data governance and stewardship policies. You do not want to be making these decisions under the pressure of a tight timeline.

ADVICE: Do significant prep work around data before the project begins. Understand your data sources, the quality of the data, and start to clean things up proactively. You should already have an idea of what the data architecture needs to look like so that the consulting experts can help you build it properly within tight project deadlines.

5) Overconfidence with Blended teams

Higher Educations institutions are always trying to do more with ever-decreasing project budgets. On IT projects, one of the strategies they like to employ is replacing expensive consultants on a project team with internal employees. It makes sense, right? Why pay for an expensive hourly resource when you can swap for an internal salaried employee already accounted for in the university’s operational budget? It might make sense from a budgetary standpoint, but the challenges you might face with this swapping approach may nullify those budget savings. It’s difficult to find employees with the right type of experience and expertise for any individual IT project. Not having the right skill set and experience on the team can impact the timeline and budget of a project. Work might not get done at a pace required to meet agreed-upon deadlines. The work might be prone to errors, which then requires rework, impacting the budget and timeline. The one area where I see blended teams are challenged is where there is a misalignment of team culture. This misalignment is shows up in two ways:
1) Conflicting work styles: Consulting team members from the same firm have worked with each other before, and they are experienced in each other’s’ abilities and workstyle. Introducing an internal employee can upset that dynamic, create friction, and impact the pace at which work can get done.
2) Conflicting work schedules: Consulting teams are full of high performing individuals who are smart, dedicated, and incentivized to do whatever it takes to make the project successful. Often, consultants need to work 18-hour days or through weekends to make a deadline. It might be challenging to get an internal employee to join in the same overtime burst. Blended teams are challenging when there is a misalignment in work culture between the consulting resources and internal employees. This can impact the timeline and budget as well.

ADVICE: Blended teams can work, but you have to be particularly mindful of the consulting resources you are replacing, and the level of fit your internal resources have with the broader consulting team. Don’t assume that all smart and dedicated people can naturally work together. Pay particular attention to differences in personalities, work style and schedule expectations.

I’ve learned over the years that regardless of the size or complexity of an implementation project, there are common challenges throughout. The 5 things I listed above are the top 5 most common mistakes I see made by clients and consultants on enterprise projects. My hope is that you can recognize these mistakes too and avoid them in your future endeavors.

Founded in 2018, Spaulding Ridge is a top management consulting firm, dedicated to client success and helping organizations implement and adopt best-in-cloud technology to solve their most pressing challenges. We provide the office of the CFO financial clarity to Sales and Operational complexity by integrating financial and sales SaaS Platforms.

We help:
• Finance gain control ” Increasing financial effectiveness, insight and impact
• Sales increase Productivity ” Hitting quota more quickly, consistently and efficiently
• Operations increase Competitiveness ” Through productivity rates, customer service outcomes, and efficiency

Shane Sugino leads the Higher Education consulting practice for Spaulding Ridge that helps educational institutions leverage cloud technologies to efficiently and effectively