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WPI Studies Software's Hardest Lessons

There comes a time in the life of every company when it needs to make a dramatic change to stay competitive. Pratt & Whitney, like many large corporations, is in the midst of such a transition: it is replacing many small-scale out-of-date computer systems with one integrated state-of-the-art mega system. The changeover is known in the industry as enterprise resource planning, or simply ERP. WPI went through a similar process several years ago when it switched over to Banner--one computer system for all of its financial, student and alumni recordkeeping.

"Pratt & Whitney's implementation is one of the biggest in the world," says Diane Strong, professor of management, who, along with her fellow professors Olga Volkoff and Michael Elmes, is studying the effect of the new software on the way the company--and its employees--do business. "The implementation is incredibly disruptive, and stressful," she says. "It's the biggest single investment a company has ever made--it can make or break them."

The benefits are the Holy Grail of the corporate world: improved profits, efficiency, and being positioned to tap into--in real time--into the latest information infrastructure in the marketplace. But along the way, the company's very perception of itself goes through an interesting metamorphosis.

"When you bring in a large piece of software, it brings in some built-in assumptions about the company and the way it does business that aren't necessarily true," explains Volkoff. "What we're looking at is how the organization adapts--what changes and what stays the same."

Pratt has generously allowed Strong, Elmes and Volkoff complete access to observe the implementation. Their research is funded by a National Science Foundation grant of $300,000. While the team's findings won't be published in time to help the company, they are already benefiting WPI's management students, says Strong. "We are able to use real-world examples in the classroom of how technology is changing the way companies do business."

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