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Team behind delayed ERP project was aware of problems but didn't inform Surrey County Council for months

Move from SAP to Unit4 held up by comms 'issues' between supplier and authority

Problems with Surrey County Council's £30m projects to replace an ageing SAP R/3 system with a Unit4 SaaS application were known in June, but not discussed with key council committees until after September.

In April and June last year, new requirements from the HR department continued to arrive after the main software build was complete.

The application supplier assured the southern-England council these changes could be accommodated within the original project timeline, but by September it became clear it wasn't going to make that December 2021 launch date, a council meeting heard late last week.

Earlier this month it was revealed the council had incurred £3.2m additional costs on the project as the go-live date was reset for April 2022.

Veterans of large-scale IT projects might also be concerned that even now the project team is rolling over incomplete user acceptance tests into the following cycle, potentially creating a perilous backlog as the council struggles to meet its new deadline.

September was a critical period for the project. The original business case pointed out that it would need to "provide notice to SAP by September 2021 to end support & maintenance contract by January 2022" or negotiate a contract extension with the supplier of the legacy system.

That contract was renegotiated and extended in October, at a £700k additional cost to the council.

Feature requests from the HR department continued to arrive after the main build was complete

Project lead Andrew Richards, an interim digital business and insights programme manager trading as A C Richards Consulting, told the Resources and Performance Select Committee that the project team became aware of a significant backlog of change requests as the first software build period was extended.

Richards said that feature requests from the HR department continued to arrive after the main build was complete. There was a "volume of requirements from HR that built up during the build stage," he said.

"Once we got to the end of April, Unit4 proposed they needed further build sprints and there was a change control approved to extend the timeline through to the beginning of June. Then there were additional or backlog requirements produced by Unit4 which were then treated as change controls."

Richards said it was reported to the project board that there was a build risk on HR, but Unit4 had said the new requirements could be completed by the go-live date. "As things progressed, there were changes which we reviewed. It kind of compounded and we ended up with an issue where it was it was just this large backlog," Richards said.

It was early September when the project team realised it would not make its December launch date. However, the council committee was not told about this development in its September meeting.

'What was the project board doing?'

Committee chairman Nick Darby said it had warned in October 2020 over risks to the project caused by tight deadlines. "It comes across to me — without being overly hard on those involved — that there were things which were missed. What was the project board doing? It doesn't appear to me that those who were intimately involved with this had a complete grip on what was actually happening," Darby said.

Leigh Whitehouse, executive director of resources and chairman of the programme board said he was aware of the issue and Unit4's assurance that the initial deadline would be met. Although he had discussed the possibility of the project slipping with Richards in late August, the final decision to delay the project was not made until September, a week after the select committee meeting.

Another aspect of the project causing concern was data migration. Richards said a subcontractor to Unit4 is responsible for data migration. When there was a mismatch between data from SAP and data feed into Unit4, that was not always communicated to the council team, he said.

"The subcontractor was managing the transformation: our team would send over the data and they would manage that transformation using the supplier's tool. If a tool wasn't working, they would carry on. However, what they needed to do was actually talk to us," he said.

Richards assured the committee these communication problems had been rectified.

But another red flag for the council's ambitions to go live in April raised its head in the meeting. Richards admitted user acceptance testing would be a challenge and a risk to meeting the deadline.

In the committee meeting, he revealed how incomplete tests were being rolled over into the next cycle. For example, the December cycle had 1,052 tests only 381 of which were complete by Christmas. Around 500 were carried over to the January cycle.

"We had a new data migration load and data was really the factor that impacted progress [with] previous UAT cycles. It makes sense to do a new data load, refresh the environment and start a new cycle, a longer cycle through to 18 February. I agree that's not an ideal position to be in," Richards said.

The council will no doubt find out as the year progresses towards April whether the project's position continues to be less than ideal. ®

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