Automation

The Secret Benefits of ERP You Can’t Afford to Ignore

                                                                                    April 2020

And the Key to Unlocking Them

Is the ERP that is running your business able to help you effectively achieve your goals in the current market? Does it take advantage of the kind of advanced technology that we have all come to rely on in our personal lives? Is it agile and flexible? Does it adapt easily to our rapidly changing world? Does it provide the level of connectivity needed to successfully operate in today’s global, digital economy? Or are you running a solution that may have once been state of the art, the best of the best available at the time, but is now stuck – stuck on an older release because of customizations that built barriers to innovation? Or stuck because you simply can’t justify the cost and effort of upgrading for the limited business benefit, because you’ll still be constrained by older technology?

If you are indeed stuck, your best path forward is most likely replacing it. But for decades ERP replacement was likened to brain surgery. It was reserved for dire cases only. “Rip and replace” was to be avoided at all costs. Today these perceptions are just as outdated as the solutions to which they apply. Yes, early ERP solutions were rigid and inflexible, limited in functionality, hard to install and implement and even harder to use. Innovation was painfully slow due to rigid architectures and older technology.

You can’t really blame those early solutions or the software companies that created them. The kind of technology needed for flexibility, ease of use and agility simply didn’t exist, making those conclusions justified. Why go through all the blood, sweat and tears, not to mention the cost, of implementing a newer solution just to wind up right back where you started?

But the world, and your business continued to change, and so have newer, next generation ERP solutions. Solutions now are far more flexible and technology-enabled, provide many more features and functions, are easier to install, easier to implement and easier to use. They bring far more benefits than ever before, but for those with lingering (mis)perceptions about ERP today, they remain hidden. And in today’s fast-moving, global, digital economy, you simply can’t afford to ignore them. The key to unlocking these secret benefits is in understanding the potential and then mapping out a plan to realize them.

Advanced Technology Holds the Key

What makes today’s next generation ERP so different? A variety of different type of advanced technologies can be embedded in enterprise applications today. It is through these kinds of embedded technologies that new ERP systems provide additional value. Of course, some vendors do a better job than others in leveraging them, and hence provide more value than others. This is why I’ve included a section later that provides some insight on how to best evaluate ERP solutions in order to ensure success. In the meantime, Table 1 presents some results from my 2019 Enterprise Solution Study, on the perceived value of several of these technologies. Note this study collected feedback from 464 survey respondents from companies of all shapes and sizes.

Table 1: Perceived Value of Advanced Technologies

Source: Mint Jutras 2019 Enterprise Solution Study

While a growing percentage of respondents perceive these technologies as providing strong value, on average (across all) 30% are unsure of the value. Essentially, they are saying, “Show me.” More than one in five (22%) see little or no value and another 10% simply don’t know. And therefore, it falls to industry experts and the vendors themselves to educate their audiences in order to prove the value and unlock these secrets. Let’s start that process by exploring a few of these.

Platforms and Architecture

Development platforms and microservices architectures, on which applications are built, provide the perfect example of those secret benefits. For the reader with a technical background, a microservice architecture is defined (by Wikipedia) as an architectural style that structures an application as a collection of loosely coupled services. For those nontechnical readers, think of it as constructing a solution from a set of Lego building blocks.

Think about how you build a structure from Legos. Each Lego block is made of the same kind of material and is attached (connected) to the other Lego blocks the same way. In many ways they are interchangeable. But by choosing different colors and sizes, and connecting them with a different design, you can make a structure that is very unique. And once constructed, if you want to change it, decoupling some of the blocks and replacing them doesn’t destroy the parts that are not affected. There is far less disruption introduced than if you had constructed it with a hammer and nails.

These platforms and technologies provide a level of agility, configurability and extensibility to today’s applications to help us respond to change.

Cloud and SaaS

We see more interest in cloud enablement and Software as a Service (SaaS). Indeed, whether you run a solution on your own premises or in a private or public cloud, the ability to access anytime, from anywhere is a significant advantage and cloud-enablement opens the door for the kind of connectivity you need as a full and active participant in the digital economy. Yet still, last year only half of our survey participants perceive it as bringing strong value. We suspect that if we were to ask this question today, given the current need for distancing and remote work, this might change.

But there are other benefits to moving to the cloud in general and SaaS in particular. We see subscriptions to software rapidly replacing the traditional license. When you license a copy of the software you take on the responsibility for maintenance and upgrades. This is especially important in light of the fact that when asked to select the top three challenges in achieving maximum value from ERP, “cost and disruption of upgrades prevent us from innovating” was at the very top of the list, selected by 40% of our respondents. With a SaaS solution, the solution provider assumes that responsibility and does the heavy lifting for you.

Artificial Intelligence

Technologies like machine learning, natural language processing and other forms of artificial intelligence have become quite prevalent in consumer technology (think Siri and Alexa, or GPS that learns your favorite route). Now is the time to bring them into the enterprise, much like they were insinuated into our personal lives – by adding value and embedding them.

Apple customers didn’t demand the ability to converse with their mobile devices. Apple just delivered it, not as an option and certainly not without adding to the cost. But they didn’t charge extra for it. Other device manufacturers followed suit. Pretty soon virtual assistants became commonplace features. And people got hooked. It was only after this secret was unlocked that people willingly went out and bought stand-alone devices like the Amazon Echo Dot and Google Home.

Make no mistake – the same thing is happening with applications for the enterprise. Modern platforms add a level of configurability and extensibility that adds agility needed to keep pace with the unprecedented pace of change in technology and business. Cloud and SaaS add speed and contribute to affordability. Pretty soon all sorts of artificial intelligence technologies will be generally available for the enterprise, but you won’t be able to take advantage of them if you are still stuck on old legacy solutions.

Automation

Robotic Process Automation (RPA), as the name implies, is all about automating routine tasks in order to free up time available to perform tasks which require more strategic thought and therefore contribute more value to your business. For decades ERP has claimed to streamline and automate these processes, but the term “automate” was used quite loosely, to say the least. Today’s technologies truly enable these tasks to be performed with little or no manual effort. Automating the filing of travel expenses, reconciling data for a month or year-end close, three-way matching and applying cash to outstanding invoices are all examples of routine tasks that can be largely automated, requiring manual intervention only when exceptions are detected.

And of course, the more intelligence you can add to these automated processes, the fewer the number of exceptions that require manual intervention. Embedding artificial intelligence and machine learning enables RPA to better detect anomalies and prevent errors. With these added capabilities, the more they are used and the more data that is collected, the more they continue to learn, adding more intelligence over time. Today’s “intelligent ERP” solutions are nothing like legacy applications of yesteryear.

Advanced Analytics

The addition of advanced analytics, often in the form of predictive or cognitive analytics, is another way to make ERP smarter. Early ERP solutions were notorious for being far easier to get data into than information out of. You had to know exactly where to look and how to get there if you had any hope at all of getting answers to business questions. And you had to ask all the questions because the solutions didn’t offer up much to notify you of issues.

That has all changed with new next generation solutions. Today decision makers are often greeted with role-based, personalized dashboards with data presented in charts, graphs and other visually appealing and meaningful ways. These dashboards become their portal, a gateway so to speak, to all the data previously hidden in applications. They get alerts and notifications on those dashboards and on their mobile devices. Not only have user interfaces become more intuitive, making systems easier to use, some have even learned to “listen” and “speak.”

All next generation solutions today do a better job of presenting data to you. But data driven decision-making requires more than just reporting. Predefined reports help you answer relatively static questions like: How much did I sell by customer type or region? Analytics present the bigger picture and can help you figure out what questions to ask like: Where and how will I have the most success in regaining and /or growing revenue? In your quest to answer that you might ask: Are all sales down, or only by region or customer type or sales rep or product? This might take several iterations and the exact path you will take in your questioning won’t be apparent until you start to drill down.

Smarter analytics (like predictive and cognitive analytics) can spot patterns that produce fewer sales. Smarter analytics can do predictive scoring and modeling to identify those patterns early and exploit them for guided decision- making. The smartest solutions will then continue to learn, getting better at spotting issues earlier, hopefully in time for you to course correct.

Tips For Your Evaluation

Looking for a new ERP solution is not something you do every day. If it has been awhile since you have been through this exercise, take note: A lot has changed.

Whereas fit and functionality once drove most decisions, basic and even not so basic features and functions are table stakes today. While an 80% fit used to be acceptable, today’s flexible and technology-enabled solutions should get you much closer to 100% than ever before, without the need for invasive customization.  Of course, you still need to perform due diligence and confirm robust functionality, including industry-specific features and functions, but if you haven’t looked around for awhile, expect to be pleasantly surprised.

Yet while features and functions are indeed important, there is danger in making a decision solely based on what you need today, because it might not be what or all that you need in the future. Last year my Enterprise Solution Study found 90% of companies believe they face some level of risk in their businesses and/or industries being disrupted by new innovative products, new ways of selling or pricing existing products or services, entirely new business models, or some combination of all of the above. And don’t forget all the traditional forms of disruption like expansion, reorganizations and regulatory issues. All this disruption can have a cascading impact on business application requirements, making agility – the ability to easily innovate, evolve and change – even more important than current functionality. For that you need the right approach to innovation and the right architecture and platform to support it.

Also equally important today is the whole user experience, including easy navigation, visual appearance and personalization. And don’t forget integration capabilities and the quality of built in reporting and analytics. Any evaluation today requires you to raise the bar in terms of your search.

So…Where do you Start?

The answer to that question may be closer to home than you think. Just because you are not running a next generation ERP, enabled with the latest and greatest technology, doesn’t necessarily mean your current ERP solution provider hasn’t stepped out ahead of you.

SAP might be the perfect example of this. A longtime leader in the market, SAP is perhaps one of the very few, if not the only “household name” in ERP. However, many of its customers have yet to move to its latest, most technically advanced product, SAP S/4HANA. While SAP also has products that target the small to midsize market (SAP Business One and SAP Business ByDesign), it is also the incumbent in many very large multi-national enterprises that have invested heavily in predecessors to S/4HANA. And if these solutions date back far enough, chances are they have been heavily customized. Without the advantage of platforms and architectures available today, any kind of modification or invasive customizations created barriers to moving forward. And therefore, the move to S/4HANA is certainly no simple migration.

However, if you are currently running your business on an outdated solution, whether it is an older version of SAP’s ERP or a legacy solution from any vendor, simply migrating to a newer, more technology-enabled system means you will drag along decisions that were made when ERP was far less feature rich, technology enabled and flexible. You shouldn’t be looking to recreate what you are doing today, but instead automating, improving efficiency and productivity, providing added visibility and giving yourself the ability to make more data-driven, strategic decisions. You should also look for a return on your investment (ROI) in terms are real cost savings and/or the generation of increased revenue. For this, you need to treat it like a re-implementation, with all the careful planning and commitment that implies.

Not sure where to look for this kind of ROI? I would strongly encourage you to examine these real-world SAP Success Stories.

Conclusion and Recommendations

If you are currently running an ERP solution that you cannot legitimately call modern, intelligent or next generation, you might still be viewing its replacement like brain surgery. I prefer to treat it more like joint replacement. You suffer with that bum knee or hip until you can’t stand the pain any longer, or you simply can’t function properly. Many ERP implementations today suffer from pain, and prevent you from being flexible and able to do what they need to do.

Whether you view ERP as brain surgery or joint replacement, there is no such thing as non-invasive surgery. It can and should have a serious impact on your business, but hopefully in a positive way.

Here are a few recommendations for a successful ERP journey:

  • Don’t wait until the patient is critical. Making a selection and running an implementation project when the business is under duress does not create an atmosphere of careful consideration, planning and execution. You will be tempted to take shortcuts that you may later regret.
  • Need it but can’t afford it? Consider the potential cost savings. Most ERP solutions pay for themselves in less than two years. If capital funds are not available to support the project, consider SaaS deployment with less up-front cost.
  • Set goals and measure. Before embarking on your ERP project, decide which metrics will measure success. Establish a base line, set goals and measure progress against those goals. When you reach them, set another goal. Continue to measure and continue to reap more benefits.

An ERP implementation is not easy. Just like surgery, there will be some “recovery” time. But that doesn’t mean your business stops during that recovery period. It just means you need to take extra care to insure a full recovery, with the result being a healthy business that is able to function better than ever.

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