What US wars can teach us about ERP strategy

usa army

Thanks to Hollywood, US wars are etched in our collective understanding.  Not to mention politicians’ soundbites, the moving images captured by photojournalists, the accounts of war reporters and of course the analysis of scholars. For long periods the US military has been well-led, resourceful, innovative, capable of assembling forces far from home, and most importantly victorious. But as several influential writers have pointed out, of its past five wars,

it has only won one – the Gulf War in 1991.

ERP is an altogether more prosaic affair without the life, death and fate of millions dependent on it.  On the other hand, leaders in both fields face similarities in decision making:

• Whether to launch or not

• The need for clarity of objectives

• Consideration of the scale of operations

• How best to manage the latest technologies

• Focus on the biggest challenges

   and on strategic objectives

• The criticality of alliances

• How to deploy resources on a large-scale

• Delegation of command

• Management of local impact 

   and of uncertainty itself

• Finally the exit strategy


We ERP managers are hungry for ongoing success and are (usually at least) keen to learn from experience. So, where better to look than at lessons in US military history?

Before we start, I should caution the reader, who might rush to a hasty conclusion based on chronology, something like: ‘well, large-scale ERP deployments could be compared to the large-scale global conflicts decades ago that the US mastered, but now we face an equivalent set of fragmented and fluid challenges similar to those with which the US is struggling. So, the conclusion is clear – it is no longer relevant’. 

This is inappropriate for two reasons. Firstly, lessons from right across history apply today. Secondly, the US’ principles of liberalism, capitalism and freedom from tyranny, (however tarnished and poorly represented by some leaders) are still part of the solution to the world’s problems. ERP has suffered a similarly poor reputation at times (albeit on a smaller scale) – bloated, overly complex, inflexible – but its principles of integration, consistent best practice, and single version of the truth are as relevant in today’s organisations as they ever were. It is easy to argue that in both cases the core values are preferable than the alternatives, but (and it’s a big but) only if they are applied wisely to local circumstances and for achievable objectives.  

Consequently, a better framework for this analysis is the sequence of questions to shape and manage your ERP strategy, drawing lessons from US wars (successful and not so successful) relevant to each question.   

And with that mind, I chose the following questions:

1. How should I assess the current situation and near future and bring stakeholders on board?

2. How do I bring business stakeholders with me?

3. Once the objectives have been defined, what are the key means to achieve them?

4. What is the programme approach from start to finish?

How should I assess the current situation, near future and bring stakeholders on board?

How to do it well: the US entry into World War II. By late 1940, President Roosevelt was all too aware that the situation overseas was untenable, and that the biggest challenge was to educate the electorate that a policy of do-nothing would be fatal. Nazi rule was extended over most of Europe and the Japanese had extended their hegemony throughout much of East China and French Indochina (more on that region later). Both had become unassailably domineering and the US could not ignore the threats they posed any more. In August 1941 (before entering the war), he and Churchill set out eight principles of a post-war world. Having laid out the objectives clearly and concisely, he could focus on finalising the internal support needed for successful execution.  This took time, patience, diplomacy, flexibility and luck (just as is required to construct and manage an alliance to move forward with ERP).

So, as you review your imperfect legacy ERP with all its bespoke code, technical debt and user dissatisfaction, you should consider the point of view of external competition. Could these systems enable a challenge from a new, agile and ambitious competitor or from tougher regulation? Could they provide the flexibility and information required for your managers to respond? If not, it’s time to proactively do something about it and to start working out how to bring business managers on board by illustrating both the drag on performance your legacy systems engender and the benefits of a digital alternative. At the right time, draw up your objectives that are clear and aligned to the overall strategy of your organisation, and you will secure sufficient support. Don’t drift and stagnate, letting the competition overtake you.

Another lesson (with the need to point out recent specifics) is the need to weigh up carefully the alternatives before committing ‘boots on the ground’. After all, the US has found that not only is war costly but also there is no guarantee the initial objectives will be achieved.  

This analogy applies to the question of how to go to S/4. Ok, so your current ERP solution isn’t great – lots of bespoke objects and so on – but might it be more practical and less costly to sort this out gradually rather than a full-blown risky reimplementation? I am still surprised by some companies that embark on an S/4 greenfield reimplementation without conducting a thorough analysis of the alternatives, even though there are already plenty of examples of companies who committed a lot of money on that particular grand revolution only to be forced later to write the costs off and reconsider their approach. It is as though the advocates of greenfield are sometimes IT’s equivalent to sabre rattlers – grand gestures and bravado rather than objective inquiry and analysis.

How do I bring business stakeholders with me?

This is the most important question and one for which US history throws up the most illuminating examples.

How to do it well: the early years of the Cold War. Immediately after World War II, Germany posed the greatest set of questions for the victors and, as a result, exposed the fundamental differences of their ideologies and strategic objectives. After four years of devastating struggle, the Soviet Union, perhaps understandably, was more focussed on retribution and control over Germany. Also it became apparent that it had no intention of cooperating in establishing post war recovery in Europe.  When the Russian leader, Stalin, decided to blockade West Berlin, the US and UK acted and launched thousands of flights to feed and supply the hard-pressed population. The enormous goodwill that blossomed across West German society meant that the country became a loyal and reliable ally for decades. Then as the Marshall Plan was launched to provide all manner of provisions and infrastructure for a hard-pressed Western Europe, this sense of solidarity flourished further and crystallised with the formation of NATO, a coordinated defence strategy. So decisive action brought on board not only 50 million German citizens but also swathes of society across the continent.  The US had its wider stakeholders on board and if that lesson doesn’t apply to ERP, then what does?

There are three clear positive lessons here for an ERP roll-out:

1. Seize any opportunity for positive impacts that are entirely consistent with the underlying principles of your emerging solution and facilitate the development of goodwill towards your programme.

2. Lay the foundations for the next decade or so. Have faith that the underlying strength of ERP can do that.

3. Work with local conditions and respected local managers.

Whereas the bureaucratic, stifling, and inflexible communism of East Germany proved impossible to reform and became a relic of history; the Stalinist alternative of doing it to them, not with them, doesn’t work!  

Once the objectives have been defined, what are the key means to achieve them?

How to do it well: the War of Independence. Once armed insurrection broke out against the British in 1775, the course to the declaration of independence the following year was inevitable. Easy so far, but now the hard part: how would these scattered and untrained militia defeat the greatest global military power of the time, and what lessons does this provide those of us working in ERP?

There are three answers to these questions, each pertinent to successful ERP:

1. Mastery of the whole country, not of an individual area. The war was fought on a vast geographic sweep and while the revolutionaries understood that, their opposition did not. ERP remains the only solution that can perform similarly across the swathe of business functions, and although a specific point solution will offer benefits in a particular area, the value of integration should still triumph.

2. Work closely with allies. As hard as it may be for some to admit, independence would not have been won without the assistance of the French, Spanish and Dutch. They supplied and trained the revolutionaries and harassed British maritime supply lines. In today’s organisation, a successful ERP leadership team should cooperate with those responsible for other domains such as Product or Customer and with outside experts of course!  Building such alliances are essential.

In today’s organisation, a successful ERP leadership team should cooperate with those responsible for other domains such as product or customer and with outside experts of course! Building such alliances are essential.

3. Financing. Fighting wars (just like ERP programmes) are costly and can spark bitter political infighting. Alexander Hamilton merits a multi-award-winning musical given the wonders he achieved. He secured the necessary agreement across a squabbling gaggle of colonies to finance a continental war and to preserve the fledging republic. As you embark on an ERP transformation, do not shy away from the equivalent of this challenge because it’s essential you secure a sufficient war chest to finance your central project services and local financing of variations to the templated solution. Sadly though, don’t expect a Broadway smash heralding your success!

What is the programme approach from start to finish?

Having committed resources and decided on the objectives, the approach or methodology is critical. Consider questions such as:

• Waterfall or agile

• A maxim of adopt standard or first establish critical user requirements

• Top-down transformation vs resolution of day-to-day pain points

Lesson for consideration: Vietnam. This war was lost neither in the US newsrooms, nor liberal university campuses but in the local conditions in South Vietnam because of the approach the US chose to adopt. The objective was clear – to preserve the newly formed country of South Vietnam from communism thereby preventing the spread of that much feared ideology across the region.  But in terms of execution, there are two clear and very painful lessons:

1. Try to understand local priorities and work on hearts and minds. By and large in the early 1960s, the South Vietnamese wished for independence having dispensed with French colonial rule.  The US should have realised this given their own history (see above) and should have had enough faith in their own principles of economic and political liberalism to encourage essential reforms – just as it did previously in South Korea and West Germany.  But here it threw its weight behind a series of corrupt and short-sighted leaders. So, for your new ERP solution, set up a framework for empowered business ownership of the essentials such as master data, analytics tools and priority setting for new functionality.  

2. Smaller focussed teams achieve more than large-scale armies. We have all seen the films (from the US point of view) – camera sweeps through dense jungle scanning for elusive enemy fighters, and massive and fruitless aerial bombardment. Whereas the smaller agile forces in the contemporaneous Malaya Emergency did quash the violent threat there. The equivalent in ERP is now possible – you can deploy agile, focussed teams in a DevOps environment to work with local users and co-create solutions.  But only if this approach is right for your business environment and objectives.


For many organisations ERP is as relevant today as it ever was. Business users demand greater digitalisation, comprehensive analytics and flexible solutions. This provides us all with a welcome challenge, but we should have faith in the underlying virtues of ERP. We can work with business leadership, to assess the requirements objectively and work out the right approach. The rewards are clear. Yes, there will be difficulties and we must be flexible and pragmatic, as it is perfectly possible to succeed and nimbly avoid the equivalent of the jungles of South East Asia.