Technology

How Cook County Standardized on J.D. Edwards

Getting 300 employees live on new financial systems was no walk through Grant Park.
Joseph RadiganJune 27, 2001

In the heart of Chicago’s Loop sits the block-long, 11-story monolith of 118 North Clark Street, the nerve center for the city and county governments.

For the last 18 months, the late nineteenth-century building has housed an IBM AS/400 server that runs J.D. Edwards’ OneWorld enterprise- resource-planning (ERP) system, a piece of software that already supports 300 county employees in the comptroller’s and treasurer’s offices. By October, OneWorld and an earlier version of the application, World, will support a total of 1,500 workers serving the county’s 6 million people, 27,000 employees, and an assortment of agencies.

Cathy Maras O’Leary, Cook County’s chief information officer, has been supervising the system’s implementation since the end of 1999. The ride’s had its bumps and bruises. But overall, Maras O’Leary is convinced, most of the kinks have been worked out of the core financials system. Now she’s ready to tackle the payroll and human- resources systems.

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As long as everything goes smoothly, she won’t have to worry about fielding angry phone calls from county workers who had their paychecks messed up.

For vendors like J.D. Edwards, government clients such as Cook County are becoming more important as the economy weakens. KPMG Consulting notes that technology spending typically runs through cycles, with tech firms being among the early adopters, industrial firms joining the second wave, and government making up a third wave.

According to the IT consulting firm, state and local governments are only now catching up to the technological revolution that hit the rest of the economy in the 1990s. But if the public sector is behind the private sector when it comes to tech spending, the timing couldn’t be better in that it helps take some of the sting out of the cutbacks in tech spending throughout the broader economy. As government agencies accelerate their adoption of the Web, they will become more important clients of technology providers.

The path to Cook County’s current technology status began three years ago with John Stroger, president of the county’s Board of Commissioners, and the chief elected official in the local government. For years, the county was run with a patchwork of software applications. The net result was a financial process that was simply too slow and unable to provide timely budget data.

Stroger directed Maras O’Leary to come up with a system that would give the county a better grip on the $2.7 billion it spends each year.

In the spring of 1999, she gathered 25 users from agencies scattered throughout the county government, and had them evaluate demonstration versions of ERP systems from American Management Systems, PeopleSoft, SAP, and J.D. Edwards.

Maras O’Leary says the users liked working with OneWorld. But almost as important, by picking J.D. Edwards, the county was able to stick with the AS/400 server that had been running part of its old system. Had the county picked PeopleSoft or SAP, it would have had to switch hardware vendors, probably moving to Sun Microsystems, and trained or hired new employees on the new equipment. That would have raised the total system cost.

As it is, Cook County is hardly getting off cheap. The installation’s contract with IBM’s Global Services unit is worth $22 million, plus another $600,000 annually in maintenance fees to J.D. Edwards.

By December 1999, the county went live on the general ledger, accounts payable, purchasing, and procurement systems.

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To get an idea of how the new system has improved things, Bob Farrington, project manager for financial management information systems, says, you have to consider how things worked under the old system.

An employee in the county Sheriff’s Office, for example, would fill out a paper requisition and send it up to the purchasing department, which would then review the request and see if the agency budget had enough money left for the purchase. From there, it was sent to the MIS department, where it would be entered into the mainframe computer.

Actually, at each stage, the requisition would have to be manually entered into the system for each department handling it–the originating agency, the purchasing department, the comptroller’s office, and MIS. Maras O’Leary says that simply created too many opportunities for error.

The requisition would next be issued to a supplier, and when the goods were delivered, both an invoice and a receiving report would go back to the purchasing agent. The agent would then reconcile both forms and send them up to the county comptroller, who would have to reconcile both forms again.

OneWorld has removed many of the more tortured twists and turns from the old process. Invoices and shipping reports still have to be reconciled at every point in the process. They just won’t have to be typed and retyped by every office that handles them. That will go a long way in cutting down on errors.

What’s more, Maras O’Leary says that if the agency making the request is over budget, the new system simply won’t permit a requisition to be entered. Under the old system, a request that was over budget wouldn’t be uncovered until it reached the purchasing agent. That saves the agent the trouble of rejecting and returning the errant request back to the office that submitted it.

Despite all the improvements, it hasn’t been easy. Maras O’Leary says employees were more than willing to learn the new system, but they had to unlearn years of habits.

“It’s been a big learning curve,” she says. “We do thousands of transactions a day, and people were comfortable with what they were doing.”

Two issues hindered an easy implementation. The county wasn’t in a position to budget any employees full-time to the project. Essentially, everyone who worked on it either worked late or crammed their training in between their regular jobs.

In addition, the county quickly learned that a “plain vanilla” version of OneWorld wouldn’t work. For example, Maras O’Leary notes that the county government typically prohibits raises exceeding 10 percent. If someone’s paycheck is going to get hiked by more than that, it has to be reviewed by the comptroller’s office. But the county had to get IBM to modify the system in order to track raises greater than 10 percent. Changes like that dragged out the implementation.

The delays in getting OneWorld up and running convinced Maras O’Leary to take a go-slow approach with the payroll and HR system.

The rollout gets underway in August and proceeds in six stages through October. The county payroll will be divided up into groups so that no one stage is overloaded with a particularly complicated office or bureau.

For example, Maras O’Leary says she won’t switch the Bureau of Health, which includes Cook County Hospital, and the Sheriff’s Office, on the same weekend, since both include a round-the-clock workforce. That makes switching the payroll messy.

Back to The Future

Interestingly enough, Cook County will revert back to J.D. Edwards’ old version of its software, World, for the HR and payroll systems. Maras O’Leary says that choice was made for two reasons.

First, in 1999, when the systems were selected, OneWorld’s HR and payroll functions had just been released. Given the risk-averse nature of local governments in their technology requests, the county didn’t want to install a system that had yet to be fully tested in the marketplace.

“We’re government, and we like to mitigate risk as much as possible,” Maras O’Leary says.

Second, the majority of the 400 to 500 users in the various payroll and HR functions were familiar with older “green-screen” terminals, and the use of World, as opposed to OneWorld with its browser interface, meant the staff didn’t need to learn a new system.

As it is, J.D. Edwards’ officials announced at their recent user meeting in Denver that the company will support the World installed base until 2005. By then, Maras O’Leary says Cook County will have long since migrated to J.D. Edwards’ current system.

Once all is said and done, Cook County will have a so-called “three- tier” technology architecture, the first tier being the browser-based interface on more than 1,000 desktop computers. The second will consist of OneWorld, running on two Windows NT servers. The third tier will include the World application supporting payroll and human resources plus the OneWorld database on the IBM AS/400 server.

Will it all work? Maras O’Leary is confident it will. She’ll know for certain when the first payday comes around and her phone isn’t ringing off the hook.

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