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Unlocking Libya

Software giant IFS is proud of its association with GECOL

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IFS regional managing director Ian Fleming speaks to a packed crowd.
IFS regional managing director Ian Fleming speaks to a packed crowd.
Utlities Middle East, ANALYSIS
GECOL chairman Abulgasem Uneas (centre) alongside IFS CEO Alastair Sorbie (right).
GECOL chairman Abulgasem Uneas (centre) alongside IFS CEO Alastair Sorbie (right).

Any roll-out of an ERP solution is a tough proposition. But when you’re implementing a country’s first ever ERP product, and the client is one of that country’s largest employers, the problems can start to stack up even further. The fact that the country in question is Libya might be enough to convince many players that the task was beyond them. Not so IFS, which celebrated in October its long-running partnership with the state-run utilities giant in the North African nation, General Electricity Company of Libya, or GECOL.

The relationship between the Libyan firm and IFS is undoubtedly a strong one; at a conference held in Tripoli, around 150 of Libya’s most prominent businessmen were in the audience to see first-hand a number of senior executives from both companies discuss the success of the project. Presentations from the IFS team were made by company CEO Alastair Sorbie, CTO Dan Matthews and regional managing director for Africa, the Middle East and South Asia Ian Fleming, while on the GECOL side, chairman Abulgasem Uneas and IT project manager Hazem Zentani explained how the implementation had worked from their perspective.

GECOL saw the requirement for a strong ERP provider in 2000 and spent the next three years defining specific needs. Among the challenges that the firm faced were an adherence to manual procedures, excessive paperwork and a host of variable legacy systems, none of which were integrated. Combined with Libya’s large size, the end-result was a dissatisfied customer base and delays in book closing.

IFS quickly saw that this was an ideal opportunity to gain a foothold in what is now a fast-expanding market. “We carried out multiple presentations in-country, and I visited Libya on an exploratory basis,” says Fleming. “Following on from that, we sent experts from our utilities industry team in Scandinavia to meet with GECOL, and we also arranged a reciprocal visit so that GECOL representatives could take a look at our utilities reference customers in Sweden.”

A major challenge initially was to provide a consulting team that could operate in-country. IFS brought in staff from locations such as Johannesburg, Poland and Scandinavia, with the project being managed from Dubai. But other challenges manifested themselves as time progressed. “Any time you go into a new country, you have to appreciate that there will be unknowns and that there is going to be a steep learning curve,” explains Fleming. “We spent a lot of time with the GECOL team in-country looking for peculiarities, localisations that were particularly unusual.” One of those requirements was the need for a pricing simulation and modelling capability to allow GECOL to determine the optimum future pricing bands or tariffs based on both historical and current data. Another requirement was for Arabic-language software; although IFS provides this as standard, the product supplied to GECOL needed to take into account the nuances of the local dialect.

“The fact that we were going into a country where there was no knowledge of ERP was also tough,” adds Fleming. “But a lot of people on the GECOL side had been involved in the evaluation process and were absolutely dedicated to the project. The push came right from the top of the company and the ethos to succeed flowed right through.”

On the GECOL side, there were other obstacles to overcome. “We had three major challenges to cope with as a result of this implantation,” says Mohamed Ali Madi, GECOL’s technical support manager on the ERP project. “There was the data trail, end-user preparation and the building out of the infrastructure network. IFS helped us with our data cleansing and qualification strategy, and also with the migration to the system and our end-user training.”

IFS also recommended a phased roll-out of the system, another factor that contributed towards its success. “One of the key points was strong management on both sides, which certainly helped us a lot,” continues Madi. “We really started to see the benefits from day one, which is when we took overall control of the decision-making process.”

A watchword for both companies was training, both on and off-site. This was set up to hammer home a detailed understanding of the system and ensure that it was used after the ‘go-live’. For IFS, it was crucial that even those employees at the lower reaches at the GECOL organisation understood the implications of every item that was entered into the system. “The go-live was managed well, from our perspective,” says Fleming. “It can be tricky because there can be a reluctance – on the part of any firm, not just GECOL – to go live as companies then have to accept they are fully responsible for what’s happening. The reality is that for any ERP implementation, the partnership continues for a longer time thereafter.”

In total, there are now around 3,000 named users for GECOL’s ERP, out of a total 37,000 employees. The component-based structure of the IFS ERP means that different products are still being added to the GECOL portfolio some four years on. The firm has augmented the initial roll-out with IFS’ Project Management, Maintenance and Business Performance components.

During the Tripoli conference, GECOL listed a number of ‘lessons learnt’, which was of particular interest to the assembled delegates.

The utility recommended full and continuous support from senior management, the establishing of a well-prepared support organisation, transparent information exchange and the selection of a qualified and committed project team as being the major tools for success.

So where does the partnership go from here? Both parties are keen to continue, particularly as IFS rolls out its new user interface, Enterprise Explorer, which will be available next year. “In terms of where we going now, we are constantly providing new products that GECOL will evaluate and determine whether they are relevant to its requirements,” Fleming observes. “What we’re focusing on right now is the key performance indicator information that is provided to the top management of the company. The tariff addition has been another important step; tariff computations and simulation models are not part of standard ERP functionality, but it made sense to work with GECOL on this as it’s tightly integrated with the rest of its system.”

For Fleming, the conference was a benchmark for the future of ERP in the country. “Some of the questions that the meeting sought to answer were critical to the success of similar roll-outs in Libya,” he explains. “Among these questions were: did the go-live occur on time, was the project completed within the initial budget and was GECOL happy with the end results? One of the great things about the conference from our perspective was that GECOL gave a positive response to each of these questions to the audience.”

Theoretically speaking, the GECOL success story should lead to other companies opting to take the ERP route. But Fleming also has a quick word of warning. “There’s still a lot of education required about ERP – some companies think they need a solution without really knowing what the technology is all about, and this is not just in Libya,” he says. One of IFS’ next steps is to establish an education programme in-country that will help people understand why ERP systems are implemented.

“So far, we’re still on same track, we understand each other and we have a lot of respect for their recommendations,” concludes Madi.

“We are planning to implement more IFS products as well, now that we have an ERP solution. We definitely see our future with IFS.”

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