Plenty of Planning

By Edward Cone  |  Posted 2002-08-06 Print this article Print

The city of Detroit had a perfectly clear blueprint when it committed $48 million to an Oracle system a few years ago. Then how come it came out like this?

Plenty of Planning

Although the city would overreach considerably with its goals for DRMS, the planning process seemed to be adequate. "We had white papers up the gazoo, and we took advantage of them," says Bentley. Oracle's Natelson says Detroit's request for proposal was comprehensive and was followed by extensive meetings and an in-depth review of vendor plans and vision. The city spent almost $500,000 to draft its proposal and select IBM and Oracle.

Auditor Harris, however, can't get it out of his head that the city may have been better off giving the contract to KPMG from the beginning. He thinks Detroit's technologists may have been swayed by the "bleeding-edge" technology IBM promised—as opposed to the mainframe-based solution KPMG was proposing—and by IBM's superior presentation skills. "They had the best presentation, very snazzy, strictly high-tech," Harris remembers. "KPMG was just awful—the guy put his microphone down when he spoke to this huge room. They blew it."

By April 1999 the financial applications were running, although bugs continued to plague the system for months. "We have about 90% of the financials we expected," says Harris. Detroit has automated its purchasing and accounts-payable functions, two of the areas identified as important priorities in the original planning documents for the project.

"The improvement in the ability to pay vendors on time, get discounts on payment, and so on, adds up to real dollars," says Natelson.

But the human resources and payroll software is still not in use and may never be implemented. "That was the catalyst to start the project to begin with," admits Bentley. Oracle's payroll software may not be up to the job anyway, with dozens of separate collective-bargaining agreements between the city and different unions putting payroll beyond the capability of an off-the-shelf product. In a city where workers have sometimes not been paid on time and have waited years for promotions and raises, the lack of a new system is frustrating.

A phased implementation plan, built around a better understanding of worker abilities and guided by the political will to change work processes, might have given DRMS a chance at achieving most of its goals. Instead, Detroit spent a lot to get a fractional return and a dream deferred.

Senior Writer and author of the Know It All blog

Ed Cone has worked as a contributing editor at Wired, a staff writer at Forbes, a senior writer for Ziff Davis with Baseline and Interactive Week, and as a freelancer based in Paris and then North Carolina for a wide variety of magazines and papers including the International Herald Tribune, Texas Monthly, and Playboy. He writes an opinion column in his hometown paper, the Greensboro News & Record, and publishes the semi-popular EdCone.com weblog. He lives in North Carolina with his wife, Lisa, two kids, and a dog.

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