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Legacy ERP systems consolidation and modernization efforts can often reveal a great deal about the ways and means of program management excellence.

Take Royal Vopak — the world’s leading provider of tank storage systems. The company embarked on a program to modernize its global finance systems to significantly strengthen how it generates business value and insights, and exert stricter operational controls. Vopak was also looking to optimize the cost of business finance and move toward a global shared services center. To move forward, the company made a strategic decision to hire us to implement an Oracle Cloud single finance and procurement ERP environment.

Just as we were getting into the most critical phase of the project — with imminent go-lives in the Netherlands and Belgium (and post user acceptance testing in Australia and system integration testing in Singapore) — the COVID-19 pandemic struck, causing sudden unforeseen disruption.

The global lockdowns that ensued tested our ability to effectively deliver projects and programs worldwide, particularly those for which seamless global mobility sat at the very heart of delivery strategy. Some projects and programs adapted quickly and effectively — by switching to remote working — while others were substantially delayed or cancelled.

Pandemic-induced challenges

The COVID-19 pandemic further highlighted the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity of global programs and surfaced multidimensional questions:

  • Is there time to re-plan for the new situation as cut-overs in the Netherlands and Belgium are already inflight?

  • How do we replicate an enhanced collaboration typical of a co-located environment in a virtual setup?

  • How do we manage parallel execution of different phases of the project in four different countries all impacted by the pandemic?

  • How do we maintain high morale of the project team and users, both internal and external?

  • How do we work with suppliers and customers to address shared project challenges?

  • How do we rapidly adapt the program governance and implementation approach to achieve delivery continuity?

A reactive/proactive action plan

The rapid and large-scale ban on travel caused significant disruption to ongoing projects that relied heavily on global mobility. This requirement demanded immediate changes to how the program was set up. The need to reset processes to govern delivery for projects especially in regional centers in Asia required significant changes to ways of working to remain effective. A shift in the level of collaboration and governance was needed.

We quickly transitioned to Google Hangouts, operated by experts in process towers. Moreover, we measured goals with “beginning of play/end of play” scheduled daily reviews for tracking. These daily reviews ensured seamless transition of critical tasks from one geography to another across different time zones.

Establishing governance with clear realigned roles and responsibilities was core to our response plan. Given the dispersed nature of our teams (including client personnel), reassignment of roles was needed to address time-zone differences. We effectively leveraged a network of change agents — handpicked ambassadors from the business who advocate, propagate and help in assimilation of change — to communicate updates/actions and maintain team morale. We also digitized all vital materials e.g., training, testing, etc.) to support a more remote approach, and capability centers (global and/or regional) were established and operated by experts, mirroring local time zones. An open feedback loop for corrections and remediation ensured that corrective actions were quickly identified and actioned.


Key lessons learned

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the susceptibility of our global program management to unforeseen Black Swan events. Although each organization may adapt differently, actions can be taken to enable effective project delivery. Our efforts reveal the following best practices:

  • Be transparent.  If or when an unprecedented unforeseen challenge strikes, bring it up immediately with clients, team members and stakeholders, so the issue can be addressed while it is manageable. There will always be give and take, and so long as issues are brought to the attention of stakeholders in a timely and transparent manner, most stakeholders will support efforts to reach a successful outcome.

  • Embrace change. External changes outside of the direct control of the program leadership are inevitable. Keep your end goal in mind and do what’s necessary to achieve it. For example, COVID-19 required quick empowerment of local organizations and decentralization of decision-making. This is not to be looked at as a loss of control, and embracing this change is vital to keeping the program aligned with changing requirements. Limiting control and trusting people with decision-making is absolutely vital.

  • Be analytical. Work out exactly how each change will affect a program, for good or for bad, and then devise workable solutions to adopt, mitigate or defuse them. Reassessing the risk register may be the right point from which to start. Additional investment in digital assets such as dashboards to identify, track and improve laggard metrics (as proven with procurement dashboards used in our program) are likely to prove very impactful during critical phases.

  • Put people first. Team members are the most valuable project resource. Empower them with decentralized decision-making, with the right tools, data and platforms to enable agility. Simultaneously, project team members need to be flexible to changed needs — such as mirroring the time zone.

Post-pandemic program management principles

If and when something resembling business normalcy returns, it’s likely that our ways of working will be changed forever — as will the way that projects are delivered. This means that the role of program leader will similarly need to adapt to this new way of working.

  • Programs with a clear delivery structure, typically led by experienced and professional program managers, will be better able to adapt to the new operating environment. Governance regimes will need to be more effectively documented and executed to withstand the impact of whatever changes ensue.

  • Global programs will need to empower local delivery organizations with greater decision-making authority; moreover, global leads must transition to facilitators of success who excel at removing bottlenecks and constraints while the operational decision-making transitions to local organizations.

  • Agile project delivery thinking must increase as organizations recognize the importance of being able to pivot quickly and maintain focus on benefits delivery in achievable windows.

  • Increased emphasis and recognition of the importance of key program delivery frameworks and disciplines such as governance committee meetings accompanied by documented delivery plans, change management processes, risk and issues tools, etc., will drive success.

  • The role of program sponsor is critical in providing guidance and assistance when dealing with significant changes in the external environment. That’s how it played out in our program.

  • Facilitation skills will increasingly be important to program managers as they strive to coordinate outputs across a globally dispersed team. If not coordinated properly, a lack of communication and clarity on decisions can cause duplication, inefficiency, frustration and potentially the wrong direction of travel.

This article was written by Marc Veul, global program manager for Royal Vopak’s MOVES transformation program and Sachin Jain, Cognizant global program manager responsible for the delivery of the finance transformation under MOVES program.

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