Vanilla ERP: Best Practice or Implementation Headache?

The term “vanilla ERP” was first introduced in the 90’s as vendors like SAP and Oracle, drained by the never-ending customization of their systems, pushed back.  They challenged customers to accept their code and processes as originally developed.  The argument was clear.  After hundreds of implementations, their vanilla systems and best practice processes were better, lower risk and cheaper to implement than an intensive customization effort.

This concept, along with ongoing refinements, paved the way for thousands of successful ERP implementations worldwide.  If you were wrestling with convoluted processes, vanilla ERP was, and still is, a lifeboat.  It is both an excuse and means to unravel years or even decades of sprawl, barriers and workarounds that can cripple an organization.  It also eliminated months and years of development effort, cost and risk.

However, as the concepts of “vanilla” and best practice reached the status of buzzword, they also took on their own dangers.  As you consider implementing ERP best practices today, keep three things in mind.

Vanilla does not mean easy

The goal of vanilla was eliminating changes to the ERP system – which means dramatic changes to your business processes.  The implementation project may be cheaper, but the overall effort can be more intense.  The challenges of implementing ERP aren’t eliminated.  Rather, they’re shifted to the individuals who use the ERP system every day. Vanilla ERP means an entirely new way of doing business.

Investing in process mapping and even organizational design early in the process will allow you to identify the impacts of change early and address them as changes are implemented.

Vanilla can be whittled away over time…leading you back to where you started

If process changes, or other impacts aren’t mapped to completion, they can lead to gaps in your operation.  Those gaps will quickly turn into workarounds.  The mix of excel spreadsheets, double entry and access databases you implemented ERP to eliminate can creep back into operations as customers demand the services they’ve expected for years.

Applying a comprehensive change management strategy to both prepare users for “vanilla” and to identify those process gaps before they become reality can avoid slipping back into the status quo.

ERP impacts, vanilla or otherwise, may go deeper than process – even clashing against your culture

Many businesses, especially small and mid-sized ones, have succeeded through flexibility.  They do whatever it takes to please the customer and win their business.  This time-honored recipe for growth can actually clash with the core concept of ERP.  Specifically, doing the same thing, the same way, every time.  Clashes at this level can impact not only the implementation of an ERP system, but the sustainability of it over the long term.

Looking at the potential for cultural and organizational clashes early in implementation efforts can help to determine which parts of your business can succeed with ERP, let alone the vanilla best practices that come with it.

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