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By now you've probably heard the acronym ERP, which stands for Enterprise Resource Planning, but are you familiar with what an ERP system really is?

ERP is an integrated software system that manages an organization's business. It manages processes and information on financial, human and physical resources. It facilitates effective planning, management, and decision-making in a single system, irrespective of departments or geographic locations. It has been implemented by more than 15 peer organizations including UNDP and UNICEF.

Like these peer organizations, the Secretariat is undertaking an ERP implementation which will obviously require a great deal of change. Staff members will not only have to learn how to use a new computer system, but in many cases an entirely different business process. Different units and missions will face the challenge of continuing to meet their mission-driven goals while working to make a successful transition from the legacy systems to the ERP. Although this is a major undertaking, we want to assure you that you will be fully supported throughout this process. We will be providing you more information as the project progresses.

Given these challenges, many have wondered just why a change is necessary. To start with, the sheer number of the Secretariat's unintegrated systems (more than 270) is one important reason to implement an ERP solution. Currently, there are more than 20 systems that support human resources and payroll administration, and more than 50 systems that support financial management, procurement and other administrative areas. This fragmented technological environment has the following drawbacks:

Data itself is fragmented and hard to bring together in a usable format, making it difficult for management to generate useful and timely information for decision-making.

  • Systems are costly to maintain and operate.
  • Systems are difficult to use – especially for staff members who are used to a Windows-based environment.

Some of these systems are also 10 to 20 years old; they were originally implemented in a dramatically different technological landscape. Furthermore, many of these systems were developed specifically for the Secretariat using archaic programming language. As a result:

  • The Secretariat is exposed to significant risk as the current technologies are becoming obsolete and increasingly difficult to replace or even maintain.
  • The Secretariat is unable to easily take advantage of new technologies.

Quite simply, the current systems no longer meet the Secretariat's business needs. It is expected that the ERP system will relieve a great deal of the administrative burden that currently rests on managers, and enable staff members at every level to better serve the needs of the United Nations.

In addition to the projected cost savings, the ERP will lead to a more effective and efficient Secretariat in the following areas:

Streamlined Processes
A lot of time is wasted entering the same data into different systems. Currently, a department might have to enter identical information into IMIS, Galileo, ProcurePlus, a service-delivery system, and an Excel spreadsheet. The goal of the ERP is that information will only need to be entered once. This leads to fewer errors, increased efficiency, and time and money saved. The system also makes the approval process more efficient by allowing electronic workflows, signatures and approvals. In other words, when a staff member in Sudan completes a task, you'll know immediately and be able to approve the work just as quickly.

More Effective Decision-Making
An ERP system gives managers access to real-time data, allowing them to make decisions based on the most current information. The ERP's integration will also help to make information consistent across functional units, departments and geographic locations. For example, the names of staff and vendors will appear in a consistent manner throughout the system because the information is only entered once.

Opportunity to Reevaluate Business Processes
Many of our current business processes serve the Secretariat well. Many do not. It's likely that staff members at every level have experienced a process that just doesn't seem to make sense – the procedure that no one seems to know the reason for, other than that it's been done that way for as long as anyone can remember. The ERP will allow the Secretariat to take advantage of best practices available to commercial and government organizations, and give managers the opportunity to eliminate some of the processes that have outlived their usefulness. The result will be more efficient and effective service delivery.

Improved Staff Morale
In addition to the cost-saving benefits, staff members will be freed from repetitive and redundant tasks, enabling them to devote their energies to providing value-added services. In addition, staff will be able to update their personal information, complete benefits enrollment, view their leave balances, submit travel request and expenses, and check their payments – all online.

A Few Specific Examples
The Staff Self Service (SSS) system will give staff members access to enter and change many types of personal information, freeing up time for managers and human resources officers. Staff members, for example, will be able to complete the following processes online:

  • Enter leave and overtime requests and track their approval;
  • Enroll in training courses;
  • View and update personnel data;
  • View staff and dependent benefit enrollment;
  • Participate in interactive performance evaluations.

Obviously, many of the new rights will be regulated to ensure proper use of information and maintain the integrity of data.

For more information, read the Secretary-General's Report: Enterprise systems for the United Nations Secretariat worldwide, A/62/510/Rev.1 or email the ERP Project Team at erpproject@un.org.

Originally published iSeek Friday, 18 July 2008, New York