When a deadly tsunami hit the shores of Indonesia in early 2004, an IT system took out the stress over whether the right people would receive the money they needed to get the relief effort off the ground.
The waters of the South Pacific stormed ashore in the wake of a monstrous magnitude 9.0 underwater earthquake, it all but destroyed the U.N. field offices in the region. But even as the waters retreated and the devastation was exposed, an Oracle-PeopleSoft application was busy updating bank accounts and cutting checks that would arrive in the hours and days after the tsunami receded.
It was a case where the software performed exactly as intended, in the background and out of sight, and it allowed U.N. workers to focus on the unimaginable task at hand, said Jens Wandel, project director of the Center for Business Solutions at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
Wandel said getting relief checks to the U.N. workers would have taken 30-60 days if it hadn't been for the PeopleSoft enterprise resource planning (ERP) applications, including Enterprise Human Capital Management (HCM), Enterprise Supply Chain Management (SCM), Enterprise Financial Management and PeopleSoft Portal.
Last week, UNDP announced that a PeopleSoft application had been implemented as a way to try and streamline and automate the UNDP's stable of homegrown legacy systems.
At many IT departments, time is money, but for Wandel and his worldwide staff of 7,500 distributed across 145 countries, time is often associated with saving lives. The switch to PeopleSoft was a move that would "allow [the UNDP] to focus on its core business, which is social development and not software development," Wandel said.
A life of paper
Before the UNDP was battling the aftereffects of tsunamis in 2004, life at the agency was full of paper documents and homegrown legacy systems.
As the U.N.'s global development network, the UNDP connects its network of 145 countries to knowledge, experience and resources to help people build a better life, Wandel said.
The organization advocates for change by helping nations develop their own solutions to urgent challenges in several areas, including democratic governance, poverty, crisis prevention and recovery, energy and environment, and HIV/AIDS.
"All of our legacy systems were homegrown systems," Wandel said. "Part of our reform goal was to take the U.N. out of software development and the management of databases."
To reach that goal, Wandel said the UNDP began reengineering its architecture and stripping out legacy systems.
"We formed [an internal] group from the business community, and not from IT, to lead the implementation," Wandel said.
Wandel said the group finally opted for PeopleSoft ERP over similar offerings from SAP AG and homegrown Oracle packages.
"The key was that [it] worked better on the Internet, which was an important driver for us. [PeopleSoft] also had slightly better functionality in human resources, and we also felt that the user interface of the applications was appropriate for the skill levels of our users," Wandel said.
The challenge of change
When the decision was made to roll out PeopleSoft across the UNDP network, no one could have known that the 17-module, 15-month project would become the largest and fastest implementation of its type ever attempted -- but Wandel and his team learned exactly that when the system went live.
"We got a little worried … there were challenges," Wandel said, adding that the tests included connectivity concerns.
"Because we operate in developing countries where IT might not be up to standards, we needed to implement a management system using v-sat [satellite] uplinks where [U.N. headquarters in New York City] was connected to every country through the Internet," he said.
As a real world example of how the new technology worked, Wandel described the scene in Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami.
The eleven offices that the UNDP maintains in the region had been adversely affected by the disaster, but the agency was still able to establish an Internet connection via satellite uplink and issue checks electronically to aide workers.
"We can use ERP via the satellite uplink," Wandel said. "Our objective is to put money out into the communities; to fix water pipelines, reestablish teachers' salaries. The ability to pay correctly and on time is important to alleviate the suffering."
Working with Oracle, UNDP also replaced dozens of separate financial, HR and supply chain applications, as well as hundreds of spreadsheets used to manage personnel, projects, donors and suppliers.
"The [PeopleSoft] solution appealed to us because of its Internet architecture," Wandel said. "We were able to deploy the entire solution in just 14 days and allow our employees to access the system from anywhere in the world via the Internet."
Life today and tomorrow
As a result of the PeopleSoft implementation and the elimination of the homegrown legacy systems, Wandel said the UNDP enjoyed a number of big changes and benefits from the earliest stages in 2002 to the present.
"We have been able to increase transparency with digital documentation, which was a key driver for the U.N. We managed to get the same standards everywhere," he said. "We also have a better understanding of ourselves; on the financial side we had 21 different systems, with endless consolation issues, but now have much better grip of financial status -- all in real time -- and people have access to information in the field."