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"Founded in 2003, West Trax provides in-depth consulting services to large and mid-size national and international enterprises. Using its extensive subject matter expertise combined with proprietary tools and methodologies it aims to transform
the value derived from clients? ERP investments. The company is privately held."
Source : West Trax
Compliance Exposures in ERP Systems, Part 1
Compliance Exposures in ERP Systems is also known as :
Diverse World of Compliance,
Automated Risk and Compliance Management,
Fair Lending Compliance,
Dramatic Reduction in Compliance Cost,
Compliance Management vendor,
to access compliance,
Evaluating Compliance exposures,
What?s the Problem?
Major enterprises around the world rely on ERP systems for both operational
purposes and financial reporting. In doing so, the ERP systems become an
integral part of the corporate governance and legal compliance landscape.
Whilst most IT management attention seems to be on document retention,
reporting quality, and security, there are much broader issues to be
considered to ensure good governance and compliance with regulations such
as Sarbanes-Oxley, IFRS and Basle II.
These three regulations are directed at various aspects of
governance, and have different origins. Sarbanes-Oxley (named after
the two US law-makers that pushed through the legislation) resulted
from a number of corporate scandals in America. IFRS is a European
initiative with its origins in the accounting profession and a focus on
accurate financial reporting. European subsidiaries of US companies
will be subject to both Sarbanes-Oxley as well as IFRS. Basle II is
concerned about risk and exposures in the financial services market.
What they have in common is the objective to give various
stakeholders timely, accurate, dependable information expressed in
They are also regulations with various degrees of bite. Because
Sarbanes-Oxley was born out of financial scandal with subsequent
legal actions, the legislation uses tough penalties as a threat for future
law-breakers. IFRS and Basle II are less onerous, but the impact on a
company?s fortunes in the marketplace could be considerable and
damaging if there were serious breaches.
Since most enterprises that are subject to these regulations rely on
ERP systems for the generation of their published financial
information, and for the purpose of this document, they will be
assumed to impose a common set of compliance requirements on
ERP system users.
In particular, managements are required to demonstrate they have
appropriate processes in place to support good value and risk management.
In addition, auditors are now focused on verifying the processes that produce
data in addition to the reported information itself.
To meet compliance requirements, both managements and auditors
must be able to show they have tested the processes and shown that
they satisfy the legislation. Some pointers -
For example, global cross-enterprise financial reporting must be
consistent and comparable. In real terms, this means that the ERP
systems employed in an international group must be the same
[vendor] system, at the same release level, and be implemented in the
In addition, there is a need for transparency of information through
detailed disclosure of enterprise-wide data, including an analysis and
reporting of the business by segmentation - again, impossible without
a common and consistent data source.
ERP systems are significant investments with long-term impacts on major
enterprises. Meta Group reckons that the cost of a 1,000 users system is
£21.7 million each year based on a five-year average. For all these reasons
the compliance of any ERP system must be a focus for the CEO and CFO,
and not assigned to IT as a technology project.
Meta Group is one of the most respected IT observers and
consultants with operations around the globe. Even if their figures are
wrong by, say 10 - 15%, the numbers are still significant.
ERP systems are major investments, and are made only after
thorough analysis and planning by the enterprises concerned, and
intense sales campaigns by the ERP system vendors. In monetary
terms, these investment decisions rank alongside the largest capital
projects for any business, and the systems adopted will be expected
to be used for ten to fifteen years. Senior executives will invest much
management time and effort in considering the Return on Investment (ROI) before approving the expenditure. Multinational companies will
often deploy systems for 10,000 and more users - hence the costs
will often exceed hundreds of millions of pounds every year, and for
The legislation referred to above is continuous and has global reach.
Hence, because of the numbers involved, and the significance of the
impact of failure, compliance is not simply another IT project.
Unfortunately, many companies have consigned ERP compliance to
IT executives. This does not absolve the CEO and CFO from their
legal obligations, and is also completely unreasonable on the IT team!
A body of evidence is now available that points to serious issues with
compliance and efficiency in the way ERP systems are implemented by
companies and their consultants. West Trax Applications LLC, which provides
analytical and diagnostic services for ERP systems, has undertaken some
300 benchmarks for over sixty enterprises across Europe in 2003-2005, and
the results are disturbing.
Not one organisation was using more than 50% of the vendor
software they were licensed and paying for. Software that is never
used only adds to costs without contributing to ROI. IT is not aligned
with the business. (Remember the mustard allegory? The profit lies
uneaten on the side of the plate).
Typically, a contract for ERP software includes licence fees for
the software and annual fees for maintenance - usually,
maintenance is a percentage of the software licence fee, say, 15
ERP systems are priced and contracted by functional module,
e.g. finance, manufacturing, retail, warehousing, purchasing,
human resources. Each module contains major elements, subsystems,
and individual transactions and processes.
In addition to the licence and maintenance costs, ERP users
incur significant people costs e.g. training, support. Typically, IT
departments are organised around functional skills i.e. to match
the ERP system modules. Hence, there is a key productivity
issue when considering the ROI for the IT people investment.
The benchmark database shows that, on average, enterprises
use less than 50% of the transactions and processes within each
module licensed. Some transactions may not be needed by the
specific enterprise or subsidiary, some may be inappropriate and
require modification, some may simply be overlooked. However,
the benchmark sample shows that companies are paying a
significant overhead or premium for the software they are
actually using. There is also the strong probability that they are
missing valuable opportunities to optimise their systems and
operations by not implementing available software that they are
already paying for.
Enterprises cannot achieve optimal ROI if they don?t use the
software. Who is tasked within the enterprise to continuously
review this untapped opportunity? IT? Finance?
One of the key features of leading ERP systems is the
integration between the various modules, enabling processes to
easily span functions. This is both efficient and also provides a
solid internal control structure - a key compliance requirement.
Hence, compliance is weakened when software modules are not
fully implemented and a process or transaction is interrupted or
In most of the systems analysed, the proportion of ERP vendor
transactions used was surprisingly low. More than half of the
software actually used was custom code written by internal staff or
external consultants. The ERP vendor software may be compliant,
but not necessarily the total system.
Every system consists of four elements -
- Standard vendor software used
- Standard vendor software, unused
- Custom written software, used
- Custom written software, unused
Clearly, the most effective systems will use as much standard
vendor code as possible, will minimise the use of custom code,
and will have no unused custom code.
Therefore, the benchmark results show that most enterprises are
far away from the ideal situation. It also raises key questions
about the costs incurred in writing custom code (internal and
external resources), and whether the custom code meets
Other evidence suggests that this situation worsens over time
i.e. divergence from the ideal state continues unless action is
taken to counter the trend. This characteristic has been labelled
"application erosion" - where the proportion of vendor code is
reduced and the proportion of custom code increases.
The result is that compliance issues will become an increasing
problem unless tackled aggressively.
Many of the custom programmes were seldom or never used.
Unless deleted, these redundant programmes continue to incur
support costs, over and above standard vendor maintenance
This finding implies that custom software has been written
without a clear requirement (or approval?). This might include
temporary software to enable migration from one system to
another, or short-term requirements for one-off projects. A more
dangerous cause would be code written to work-around
standard transactions, or introduce data from off-line
spreadsheets. All of these are potential exposures for internal
As well as the internal control risks, custom code collects
ongoing support costs whether it is used or not. For example, all
transactions must be tested when implementing a vendor
software release, or consolidating systems. A rigorous spring
clean of this software on a regular basis will reduce the problem.
In the systems analysed, the annual costs associated with custom
software ranged from circa €250,000 to over €2 million. In the
enterprises benchmarked, ERP vendor maintenance costs (based
on a fixed percentage of the licence fee) were more than twice the
level justified simply because less than 50% of the software was
The compliance legislation calls for a focus on value
management as well as risk management. The systems
analysed in the benchmark are not large systems (measured by
numbers of users), yet the overhead associated with custom
code carried by the enterprises is significant. There is clearly a
wide range between "best practice" and enterprises at the wrong
end of the scale. It would also appear that some sectors are
better than others.
The interfaces between vendor code and custom code showed
major internal control exposures. They may be poorly documented
and lack audit approval. Cross-functional processes are rarely
understood and monitored because IT organisations and skills are
commonly focused on vertical applications e.g. manufacturing,
This is a key compliance issue. As soon as an enterprise
introduces custom code either in place of or in addition to vendor
code, there is an internal control risk at the point of interface.
Documentation is an issue. The vendor documentation should
be reliable; the custom code itself may be documented; but the
interfaces are a problem. The ERP vendor is, of course,
completely unaware of the existence of the custom code, and
the custom code writers will move on to other work (or
employers) in due course, and will not be available to constantly
monitor these interfaces.
There is also another key issue here. As mentioned previously,
efficient ERP systems will integrate processes that span across
functional modules. For example the process to approve a
supplier?s invoice for payment could span purchasing,
warehousing and financial modules. In this example, the contract
price features in two of the modules, as does the quantity
received and the receipt date. Approval to pay a supplier?s
invoice relies on the agreement of certain information in line with
a company?s procedures. If one piece of this data is introduced
from a custom source, internal controls are exposed, and the
system is open to mistakes, incorrect payments, and even fraud.
The compliance legislation expects managements to test and
document internal controls. This is one area where those tests
The most revealing information from these benchmarks was that, in
most cases, the CEO and CFO did not know they had a problem.
The results came as a surprise, and the lack of previous visibility a
serious concern - and a real compliance issue.
Why is this a compliance issue? Because the CEO and CFO are
required to personally attest (by signature on reporting
schedules) to meeting the various legal requirements. Therefore,
if much of the risk management and value management
information in their ERP system is hidden from them, their
attestation is worthless.
The CEO and his team should be able to ask -
- Is the system actually supporting the business operations as intended?
- Is the system delivering the strategic business benefits anticipated in the original business case?
- Do the benefits justify the investments to be made throughout the ERP implementation?s life cycle?
The failure to conduct post-implementation reviews and track
actual versus planned benefits is frequently put down to conflicting priorities and a lack of tools to gather appropriate
management data. In fact, sources of data are available, but
they are often not used, for a variety of reasons -
- The "C" level executives may not be aware of the importance
and availability of system optimisation data and its potential
to help them manage ROI, business alignment and
- IT management may not be aware of the available
compliance data or its value to corporate executives.
- They may be too busy supporting and updating current
systems to analyse historical performance.
- There may be a reluctance to expose historical governance
and performance issues.
Whilst some ERP vendors are now offering software tools to tackle
compliance issues, these can only apply to the vendor?s own software. If the
enterprise is not using 50% of the vendor software, then these tools are a
questionable investment. And, the custom built software is not included in the
support, training and documentation provided by the ERP vendor, plus the
original implementation team has moved on to other projects - another
"What is possibly more surprising than this habit of customising more than
half the application is the fact that in most instances the CFO knows
nothing about it - revelling in the warm glow created by the certain
knowledge that his or her organisation is using a standard set of processes
and that this has done no harm at all to their CV. What is particularly
worrying is that much of this custom code is undocumented and involves
the use of private spreadsheets. Most CFOs and CIOs think their
organisations just have one version of the truth - held in ERP data files.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
All of this should be ringing alarm bells for those with any responsibility for
compliance. Undocumented, multiple versions of the truth are exactly what
the regulatory authorities are keen to unearth." Martin Butler, Butler Group.
There used to be a saying in IT organisations that you couldn?t be
fired for buying from IBM. That may no longer be true, but perhaps the
ERP system vendors (who are huge global enterprises) may now be
in the same situation. Within the IT function, the safe option is to stick
with major players that are already endorsed by peers, and can
provide excellent support. In most cases, the ERP system will have
been implemented with the help of a specialised ERP consulting (or
outsourcing) company that also enjoys wide acclaim and approval.
The potential risks to be faced by challenging this well-trodden path
are unwelcome by IT managers.
It is clearly difficult to persuade CEO's and CFO's to recognise the
risks to the business and their own positions by not challenging the
status quo. Enterprises are not making decisions or looking at their
ERP system deficiencies based on objective information - they are typically provided with subjective opinions influenced by career
concerns, compensation, personal motivation, and the desire to avoid
change and being the bearer of bad news.
Perhaps a recent survey by the National Computing Centre will help
to focus attention on the problem -
"Nearly half of IT executives claim they aren't fully aware of the
standards and legal requirements that apply to them.
In a survey of 300 IT decision-makers conducted by the National
Computing Centre (NCC), 44 per cent admitted to not being fully
aware of IT standards and legal requirements - and 22 per cent
admitted to not having any awareness of the issue at all.
Sarbanes-Oxley Act and Financial Services Authority regulations, as
well as legislation such as the Data Protection Act, can all have a
bearing on the IT department. Other standards such as BS7799 and
the e-government interoperability framework can also apply.
Stefan Foster, managing director of NCC, said: "This is an alarming
figure, indicating significant lapses in compliance and poor adoption
of best practice."
In the meantime, what are the practical measures that can be taken,
and how can these be achieved within the organisation?
Actions for Management Accountants
One of the most common reasons for these worrying results is the failure of
organisations to conduct ongoing post-implementation reviews, to track
realised benefits versus the original goals, and to do this throughout the life
cycle of the ERP system. Evaluating the strategic benefits and legal
compliance provided by ERP systems cannot be made on purely technical
grounds. If the task of assessing attainment of these goals is delegated
downwards within an organisation, the focus will be on tactical or technical
"Regardless of the technology used or the efforts of IS, the formal system
and the actual business processes will have a widening gap over time. A
periodic review of this gap will help focus attention on the problem."Olin
Thompson, a principal of Process ERP Partners.
Martin Butler and Olin Thompson are just two of the many
consultants calling for constant vigilance and monitoring of ERP
systems during their life cycle.
The methodologies and tools for conducting management
reviews are normally to be found in the CFO's area, and suit the
skills and experience of Management Accountants.
So, here are three key questions for Management Accountants to ask their IT
colleagues, with a request for objective answers based on real data, and in
straightforward business language.
- What percentage of the ERP vendor software licensed is actually
being used? What are the plans to optimise the current applications,
or to conduct a cost/benefit analysis of lightly used modules?
- What percentage of the custom code is essential, what percentage
can be replaced with vendor code, and what percentage is unused?
What are the plans to delete unused code before the next software
release, or request for more server capacity?
- Which processes and transactions contain interfaces between
vendor and custom code? Are they documented, and approved by
The key objective here is to get real objective data, which can be
analysed, and then used, confidently for decision-making. The
raw data required lies in the system log files. In its raw state, it is
of no use, but using automated analysis tools the raw data can
be turned into valuable information.
Often, IT management is aware of the data, but not aware of its
importance or usefulness. The West Trax experience strongly
suggests that CEO's and CFO's are not aware that the data
exists, nor aware of how valuable it could be.
The analysis tools can provide much more information than
simple percentages of unused vendor code or custom code. For
example, the transaction-level information shows how many
times a file is changed after its first creation. This information is
invaluable in looking for internal control weaknesses. A purchase
order that is changed several times after its first creation may
point to poor purchasing processes, but could also point to fraud.
A customer order that is changed several times may point to
poor order management that in turn could lead to customer
The system log files are just that - a log of how the ERP system
is being used. There is no need to analyse sensitive commercial
data, so the analysis process itself is not a compliance threat.
The next step would be to use a combination of System Benchmarking and
Activity Based Costing to express the problem in financial terms. First, all
planned costs associated with the four system components (or "activities")
would be established by using Zero Based Budgeting (Used Vendor Code,
Unused Vendor Code, Used Custom Code, Unused Custom Code). The
process would then be repeated to reveal and review the actual costs for
appropriate time periods. A management analysis of activities not delivering
targeted benefits would result in their elimination or revised targets and costs
based on ZBB. This analysis process could also be employed when reviewing
and approving new projects, software upgrades, server consolidations, and
The system benchmarks would produce a comprehensive list of
all transactions in the ERP system, separated not only by the
four "activities", but also by functional module and sub system.
The major costs elements for the ABC analysis are (1) people
(2) software licences (3) ongoing support and (4) capital
Since most IT departments assign ERP modules by functional
skills, this helps to identify people to activities. The people costs
of any new implementation can be directly attributed to relevant
activities i.e. they should only be working on implementing
vendor code or custom code. In practice, we know that much of
the custom code will not be used, so this analysis will pose some
Vendor software licensing is typically based on the vendor?s own
module structure - users pay for whole modules no matter how
much of a module is actually implemented. The system
benchmarks will show how much code is used or unused, so
that the costs can be allocated to both areas. It can be argued
that the vendor?s licence fee for a particular module should be
assigned 100% to the actual transactions implemented, with no
cost assigned to the unused code. However, this may not show
the real cost of unused software, and therefore the motivation for
looking for opportunities to use this code in the future.
The vendors will also charge maintenance in addition to the
licence fee, and this would normally be allocated with the licence
costs. However, since the vendor will only be responding to
maintenance requests on the used software, perhaps this again
could be assigned 100% to the used code. Note that failure to
implement new vendor releases within a given timeframe often
results in cost penalties from increased vendor maintenance
Ongoing support costs cover a range of activities - training,
documentation, help desk - each of which can be assigned to
vendor or custom code.
ERP systems typically have a programme of vendor upgrade
releases, maintenance releases, consolidations, de-mergers,
etc. These can be major events in the calendar with people and
other costs specifically budgeted for the purpose. All should be
allocated to the function and vendor/custom code areas. This will
inevitably lead to valuable debate about people assigned to work
on software that is no longer or rarely used! Why document this
software, why test it, why not just delete it?
Capital budgets will consist of both core infrastructure spend as
well as client equipment for new ERP implementations. In
assessing ROI, it is essential to assign both existing IT assets
and new planned expenditures across the various areas. Of
equal significance is the ability to consider the potential to defer
capital spend as a result of deleting software not used.
If the ERP system is outsourced, or outsourcing is being considered, these
questions (and more) should be in the outsourcing contract as essential
components of system monitoring and the contractor?s continuous
improvement programme. Outsourcing does not remove the responsibility for
compliance - it just makes the job more complex. Following a decision to
outsource, then ZBB is also an effective tool in the process of re-establishing
the in-house IT organisation. One of the critical new roles for IT and Finance
together is conducting ongoing post-implementation reviews - benchmarking
at quarterly intervals would make this an objective exercise, based on real
system data. These reviews can also be the forum for developing system
efficiencies and, hence, driving down outsourcing contractor fees.
Much has been written about outsourcing, and it is not the
purpose of this document to add to that particular debate.
However, it is essential to fully understand the legal
responsibilities for compliance when planning to outsource an
ERP system. The bottom line is that an enterprise cannot
outsource compliance of the system. Therefore, the outsource
contract must include all the necessary processes for both
parties to adhere to the relevant legislation, and apply
continuous monitoring to maintain compliance management.
A regime of regular post implementation reviews is an ideal
basis for such monitoring. It is recommended that IT and
Finance together manage this process, with the support and
advice from Internal Audit.
These reviews will serve several purposes -
- Monitoring outsource compliance issues
- Demonstrating compliance to external auditors as
required by the legislation
- Advising the CEO and CFO on opportunities to cut
costs, improve productivity, cut risks and really
measure ERP operations
- Comparing the performance of the enterprise with
others, particularly peers in the same industry sector,
and using this information to direct improvements
The final area for consideration in this white paper concerns the internal
control exposures created by over-dependence on custom code -issues like
documentation, training, and skill retention have a direct impact; but also the
interfaces within and between custom applications and vendor software are
fraught with dangers. To identify and tackle these exposures requires
accurate benchmarking data throughout the various layers of the system, and
across the vertical or functional applications. Two actions required - first, to
scope and tackle the problems with existing systems which requires the cooperation
of IT, Management Accounting and Internal Audit; second, to
establish the management process for the review and approval of all future
proposals to implement custom code rather than vendor code in new systems
This is a complex area. It is both a challenge for enterprises to
understand the issues involved, and therefore a significant area
of risk where breakdowns in internal controls are most likely.
It cannot be avoided. As external audit firms become more
familiar with the requirements of compliance legislation, they will
demand detailed assurances from management about the
workings of their ERP systems.
As well as carrying out the benchmarking analyses described
earlier, the enterprise compliance management process should
ensure that lessons are learned from past problems. A strong
recommendation would be to formally review and approve all
ERP implementation plans from the compliance perspective.
Certainly this would include any proposals to develop custom
software instead of using vendor code. It should also include the
reverse situation - a cost/benefit analysis of using only a small
part of any particular vendor module compared to writing some
small transaction for the purpose.
Compliance exposures in ERP systems are a reality today, yet a key
responsibility of CEO's and CFO's. Technology is now available to identify
problem areas and corrective action, and this is also an opportunity for
Management Accountants to take the lead in tackling the problem.
Ken Gorf is Chief Financial Officer of West Trax Applications LLC, a software
and services company with operations in the UK, Germany, and the USA. Ken
is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants.