As a consultant, you walk a fine line when you do ERP work. Your presence is justified by your knowledge and insight. But often, you’re acting as a skilled technician doing the implementation at the behest of indigenous decision-makers; if occasionally you are decision-maker, it’s at a functional, hands-on level.

The ERP implementation, while it may be only the latest of many such jobs for you, is a first-time experience for the client. Your client will often expect you to execute a plan put together by in-house management in cooperation with the ERP software provider. And, not surprisingly, the client may end up making the same mistakes you’ve seen made by other clients.

Your challenge is to keep your client on track without overstepping the lines of authority, or creating a bad impression. From past experience, I’ve learned that you can do so by clearly establishing your credibility and presenting your ideas in a politically astute manner.

Stand on solid ground
If you have the experience to offer value as a design-level troubleshooter, you must establish your credibility in this area if you want your client’s senior managers to take your advice seriously. The surest path to losing your credibility here is misunderstanding your client’s plans and offering meaningless input. So your first, best contribution to the implementation process is to be certain that the problems you’ve identified are real.

If your role is that of software guru, you’ve been given a hands-on-level to-do list that spells out how your client’s new business processes are intended to work. But this alone doesn’t give you the picture you need to truly critique the overall ERP conversion. You need input from many sources to create a comprehensive picture.

Go through the implementation plan with the development lead. Ask questions liberally. Be certain you have a clear picture of how the company does business today, apart from the plan for the postimplementation system.

A good exercise is to pretend that no ERP implementation plan exists. Give yourself a couple of hours and plan out exactly how you would convert the company’s central business processes to an ERP paradigm. Write down your ideas as if you were the highest-level in-house planner.

Then, compare your ideas with the plan the client wrote. Carefully compare the differences, challenging their assumptions and your own. Whatever doesn’t wash out is something you want to seriously consider introducing to your client’s management.

That’s your reactive list. You may also develop a proactive list; since you’ve probably done this before, you’re used to seeing ERP implementation clients missing business-enhancing application opportunities because they haven’t yet adapted to the ERP mindset.

Once you have a good grasp of what the company does and how it needs to improve in order to prosper in the marketplace, go through the plans before you and ask the following questions:

  • Is information being distributed everywhere in the company that it’s truly useful, at the moment it’s captured or modified?
  • Is information being distributed to all outside partner companies where it could really make a difference, at the moment it’s captured or modified?
  • Have all the steps in each modified business process been combined where possible?
  • Is every proposed user interface sufficiently dynamic? That is, has each interface been appraised for its potential to set background processes in motion, beyond the entering or modifying of data?

If your client hasn’t asked these questions, you must: These considerations are the backbone of the process reengineering that ERP is supposed to facilitate. Undoubtedly, some of this—probably a great deal—has occurred. But you’re good at asking these questions, and your client is likely a beginner. Add value where you can.

Making your recommendations graciously
When you have your recommendations, you need to present them in a way that doesn’t make you seem arrogant or intrusive. There is a political structure and process with any client, and knowing how to work within it is often the difference between success and failure in consulting. Here are some suggestions on how you might proceed:

Begin by raising questions, rather than spouting answers
The best way to make yourself welcome in a revision process of your own devising is to get people thinking. On my first ERP implementation, this never occurred to me, and I went the long way around, writing lengthy recommendations and submitting them unsolicited. It was all I could do to get them read by the right people. A veteran consultant later suggested that I would do better to ask the in-house lead (and sometimes that person’s manager or a knowledgeable user) how a particular batch of data was going to be distributed (when I knew perfectly well that a manual, report-based process was in place and wasn’t slated for change). This kind of question gets people thinking, and once they’re thinking, they’ll quite likely ask you for input.

Get people talking
One great way to get further dialogue going, when more work needs to go into the plan, is to get users and planners talking. This is one I did think of and try on that first ERP implementation, with good results. It was a bit cumbersome because I was working with a large company where everything was scheduled to the last detail, and even the most informal dialogues were hard to initiate. But it was worth it: Once the users started asking follow-up questions, ideas flowed. I hardly had to say a word (and a distributor was included in a supply chain update that otherwise wouldn’t have been thought of).

Speak from experience
When you’ve gotten a dialogue started, and your opinion on further design changes is solicited, the best response is to recount how you’ve handled that problem in the past. Your opinion is then more than an opinion: It has a built-in track record. Keep in mind that your client is in new territory and looking for reassurance in the face of an expensive and chancy ERP implementation. An understanding that your proposed innovations have worked well in other, similar circumstances enhances the value of your suggestions.

Share the credit
Finally, it’s important to offer your value-added perspective, not for brownie points but for the sake of the best possible implementation. The line managers you work with day-to-day are looking for brownie points of their own, and it’s useless to set up a competition. Ultimately, it’s the managers of the line managers that will ultimately score your performance. And that score will be based on the outcome of the game, not on the outcome of individual plays.

By all means, enhance your client’s ERP plans; make suggestions, and do so with the ultimate aim of enhancing your value and reputation. But share the credit liberally with your in-house colleagues. Your reputation in the world of ERP is as much a function of your capacity as a team player as it is an acknowledgment of your greater experience.