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Six tips for smooth SAP upgrades

Paul Desmond

There's no sugarcoating it: Upgrading a global SAP implementation can be a daunting task, requiring careful coordination. The good news is many others have been through it and have established tips and best practices to ensure a successful project. From formally planning the project to understanding cultural differences, these global SAP upgrade tips can help ensure success.

1. Formally plan the project.

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Treat SAP upgrades as a project, just as you would a new implementation. Develop a project plan, and allocate specific tasks, timeframes and resources, recommended Jim Shepherd, senior vice president with Boston-based AMR Research Inc. and author of the report "Reduce the Pain of ERP Upgrades With Better Planning." Companies should have an SAP center of excellence (COE) and make sure that group is involved in the project, Shepherd said. In the report, he advised companies to have an upgrade plan that spans a minimum of five to seven years, although companies in volatile business environments may find it makes sense to upgrade every two to three years.

2. Standardize. Many global companies have SAP installations that were not necessarily implemented in a coordinated fashion. Take advantage of the upgrade to fix that and standardize as much as possible, Shepherd said.

"Try to find areas where you can get to common business processes, eliminate local customizations and drive back to a standard footprint," he said. "That can dramatically lower the cost of managing the system."

3. Respect cross-cultural differences. When planning an upgrade, get feedback from users on improvements they'd like to see – and do it in a manner familiar to them, noted Jon Reed, an independent SAP analyst and SAP Mentor. Holding a group meeting and asking for feedback may work just fine in North America, but offering suggestions for change may be construed as complaining, which is taboo in some cultures, Reed said. In such instances, organizations need to set up one-on-one time to find out what users really want and need.

4. Conduct a gap analysis. Companies migrating from SAP R/3 to ECC 6.0 may well encounter significant technical differences, such as use of the NetWeaver platform, Java, Unicode and Solution Manager. Conduct a technical gap analysis to determine which technologies to implement off the bat and whether the skills are available in-house to handle them, Reed said.

5. Partner with experts. Reed and Shepherd both advise users to augment internal staff with outside professionals. Shepherd's report noted that -- owing to the maturity and size of the ERP market -- a parallel market has developed of companies dedicated to help implement, manage and upgrade ERP systems.

"There are hundreds of methodologies, sizing analyzers, testing tools, data management utilities, and consulting services proven to deliver excellent ROI investment," Shepherd wrote.

6. Get users on board early. In any SAP update, there will be changes in the functions users employ every day. Rather than spring those changes on users upon rollout, get their input into the process and educate them about changes coming down the pike, Reed said.

"Then when the lights go on and things are slightly different, they'll know why," he said.