Thursday, September 13, 2007

Strategic Technology Alliance: Avoiding the Phoney War

Regents Vanilla helped us build institutional will quickly by using NAU's version of PeopleSoft as a reference implementation. But just using NAU as a model wasn't enough. In order to get started right away, we had to find a way to avoid the Phoney War.

According to Wikipedia:

"... the Phoney War was a phase in early World War II marked by few military operations in Continental Europe, in the months following the German invasion of Poland and preceding the Battle of France. Although the great powers of Europe had declared war on one another, neither side had yet committed to launching a significant attack, and there was relatively little fighting on the ground."

In the context of an ERP implementation, the Phoney War is the part where you've declared your intention to implement an ERP system but lack the technical resources or expertise necessary to implement it. In the traditional mode, this means that you send a large number of your folks to school where they learn how to bring up the various platforms you'll need. Much hardware is bought, software installed and patches applied. Lessons are learned as systems fail and are restored due to nuances in the deployment of the databases, development environments, and applications software that go into making an ERP.

This normally takes a considerable amount of time, especially for an institution the size and complexity of ASU. The real Phoney War lasted several months and ASU's Phoney War would certainly have lasted at least that long. We needed a way to trim nine months to a year off the front end of the development schedule so that work on a Regents Vanilla solution could begin immediately. Our answer came in the form of a strategic technology alliance. By finding a partner that was already skilled in the deployment of PeopleSoft applications, both for development and large-scale delivery, we could eliminate much of the start-up time and have confidence that the solution we deployed would be able to handle ASU's loads.

We put our proposal out to bid and chose CedarCrestone as both primary implementation partner and hosting provider. CedarCrestone offered more than just rack space, power, and a guy to watch the lights. Their experienced team already knew how to create the various development and test environments needed to implement, as well as the complex, multi-tiered, load-balanced environments needed to deliver production performance under load. While ASU's technical team is certainly able enough to create these kinds of environments themselves, the new skills needed to create this specific environment are not trivial to acquire. To make matters worse, the world does not stand still during the months of training; software and hardware versions continue to advance, making the end target even more difficult to hit. Working with CedarCrestone gave us the opportunity to skip much of the learning curve lag and focus instead on the work specific to ASU.

Time to market is really important. The longer a project takes, the more it costs, not only because people have to be paid during its entire duration but because every day that goes by is an opportunity for the scope to get larger. The job of a CEO is said to be killing good ideas so there's room for great ideas to flourish. The Phoney War period of an ERP is an enormous opportunity for the proliferation of good ideas at the expense of focus of the central idea: system replacement. An early start has a lot to do with an early finish.

The ERP troubles experienced by other universities, including the North Dakota University System, Cleveland State University, and the University of Wisconsin at Madison, were proof enough that ASU needed to carve a new path in the ERP jungle -- one that was easier and faster to travel, one that was shorter in distance, and one that posed less risk. It was critical that we get to work immediately, and our strategic technology alliance with our state-of-the-art hosting and implementation partner CedarCrestone was a key component in forging that new path.

Not that this decision was without controversy. How could we consider taking the University's core data assets and entrust them to the care of "outsiders"? What about privacy concerns? What about business continuity concerns? Could we expect "outsiders" to look after our data as well as we could? Would they care as much?

Our decision to externally host can best be understood as an abiding belief in the virtue of banks over mattresses. It's entirely consistent with ASU's overall Core vs. Context technology strategy to look for partners whose business it is to provide safe, secure, backed-up, redundant storage and hosting rather than continuing to build it ourselves. In the transition away from the cottage industry phase of IT, enterprises must look outward to identify players who are engaged in activities at scales larger than their own if they wish to keep up.

Our partnership was central to our success in several key ways:

  • CedarCrestone was already experienced with PeopleSoft implementations.

  • We were ensured a stable hosting environment, enabling us to move forward quickly.

  • We were able to decrease the time to market, eliminating a Phoney War.

Working with CedarCrestone helped us take the next step, and while we had to learn to dance with a new partner, we were in the dance much faster - with a higher level of quality and reliability - than we ever would have been otherwise.

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