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ERP, The Next Generation: The Final Frontier? Part 2

This is the second post of a series on Next Generation ERP. If you missed the first in the series, take a moment and read it here.

If you are running an older ERP solution, especially those implemented prior to the year 2000 (Y2K), you may not even be aware of what you can expect from a modern, technology-enabled, next generation ERP. For many, many years ERP selection was largely driven by fit and functionality. Even today, Mint Jutras ERP Solution Study survey respondents put fit and functionality close to the top of the list of selection criteria (ease of use was number 1).

As a result, the footprint of ERP has grown steadily, to the point where it is sometimes hard to figure out where ERP ends and other applications begin. But it isn’t the depth and breadth of functionality that qualifies an ERP solution as “next generation.” It is the underlying technology. And conversely, it is that new technology that enables ERP footprints to expand at an accelerated rate.

Unless you are a technologist (and most business executives are not), you might not know or care about that underlying technology, because you don’t understand it. But it is dangerous to ignore it simply because of what it can do for you. You don’t know how the USS Enterprise achieved warp speed, but you know that it can. You don’t know how the transporter beam works, but you know what happens when Captain Kirk says, “Beam me up, Scottie.” You don’t need to know how the development platform allows your solution provider to deliver more innovation, but it is important that you understand the potential.  It is far less important to understand how this new technology works than it is to know what it can do for you.

The New Basics

The “basics” of ERP used to be defined by basic functionality required by all types of companies. Basics usually referred to core modules of ERP: general ledger, accounts payable, accounts receivable, order management, purchasing and inventory control. For manufacturers it also included MRP and the basic requirements to schedule, create and manage production orders. Those modules are still important today but “basic” functionality has become somewhat of a commodity. Forty-three percent (43%) of survey respondents to the 2013 Mint Jutras ERP Solution Study would consider purchasing core ERP functions like a monthly utility and realigning their selection team to focus on the remaining “value-add” to produce strategic or competitive advantage, or simply to cut costs.

Basics now extend to include some advanced technology modules like work flow, event management (triggers and alerts), process modeling and enterprise portals. Yet, unlike basic functional modules, which are fully implemented by the majority of our survey respondents, these technology basics, including business intelligence and analytics, are still largely under-utilized – even as we gain ground in adoption.

Table 1: Advanced Technology Modules – Fully Implemented

table1 Source: Mint Jutras 2011 and 2013 ERP Solution Studies

Older legacy solutions may not even include these technology options in their portfolios, but any next generation ERP certainly will.

What else should you be looking for? Without fully understanding the technology platform upon which “next generation” ERP solutions are built it may be difficult to recognize them. Here are a few hints you can listen for as vendors describe their offerings: service oriented architecture, object-oriented data models, event-driven and/or message-based technology, semantic layers, mobility, rules engines, in-memory databases, HTML5 and XML. What all these boil down to are new ways of engaging with ERP, ease of configuration versus customization, better integration capabilities and new ways of delivering innovation.

New Ways of Engaging with ERP

Traditionally users have engaged with ERP through a hierarchical series of menus, which require at least a rudimentary knowledge of how data and processes are organized. Hopefully this organization reflects how the business processes and the enterprise itself are structured, but with a hierarchy of menus, there are no guarantees. And therefore there are no guarantees that navigation is intuitive or that business processes are streamlined and efficient.

Next generation ERP attacks this very real problem by making the user interface more intuitive and more personalized. It has been hypothesized that Star Trek’s communication devices inspired the first mobile phones, which of course evolved into today’s smart phones and tablets. Now with the introduction of so many consumer applications on mobile devices, we have all become much more demanding of user interfaces. It’s called “the consumerization of IT” and it is a very real phenomenon. We demand truly intuitive screens and touch technology.

Next generation ERP has responded to these demands with web-based access, making ERP accessible anywhere, anytime with an increasing number of functions available through mobile devices. Touch technology is making its way into the hands of ERP users. Look for this to become more pervasive and for more devices to be natively supported.

And don’t forget enterprise search functions. It is not entirely clear when “Google” became a verb, but that is indeed how we use the term today. We’re very accustomed to conducting Internet based searches on topics and questions. Next generation ERP supports those same search capabilities within its own structured data, adding a level of context not previously available. Next generation search capabilities embedded in ERP can tell the difference between searching for Phillips, your customer, and a Phillips head screwdriver.

New ways of engaging with ERP have put “Ease of Use” at the top of the leader board in terms of selection criteria. But “Ease of Use” means much more today than just an intuitive user interface. Mint Jutras 2013 ERP Solution Study participants were asked to select their top three priorities for ease of use. Results are shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Top 3 Most Important “Ease of Use” Issues

Figure1

Source: Mint Jutras  2013 ERP Solution Study

Yet how an accounts payable clerk or a material handler interacts with ERP is (and should be) very different from how an executive decision maker engages. Line of business executives will likely keep tabs on the pulse of the business through a select number of key performance indicators (KPIs). Next generation ERP will present a customized, graphical view of those KPIs but also allow the executive to drill down to successive levels of detail. Those customized views will combine ERP with other tools including email and productivity tools such as Microsoft Office and even chat functions that can record instant messaging “conversations.” And they will be available on a myriad of devices.

In the next part of this series we will explore customization versus configuration and tailoring to be followed by a section on innovation and integration.

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Bringing Collaboration, Visibility and Connectivity to Enterprise Applications. Just don’t call it “Social”

If you follow social media, you have been hearing for a couple years now that soon all successful businesses will be “social businesses.” Much of this hype centers on the promotional aspects, creating awareness by establishing a social media presence and engaging in online conversations with prospects and customers. If you cut through the hype though, the reality is that some types of businesses benefit more directly from this type of social activity than others. But on a different note, more recently we’re seeing enterprise application solution providers adding “social” features and functions to their product portfolios.  More traditional businesses, which may not be engaging in social media, may be tempted to ignore these new features and functions. And yet by doing so they will be missing out on significant business value delivered through improved collaboration, visibility and connectivity.

What’s this “social” about?

“Social” is about gaining visibility, not only to transactional data that flows through enterprise applications, but also from other extraneous, far less structured sources. Until recently it has been impossible to keep tabs on all these potential sources of data in a structured and organized way.

“Social” is also about engagement, collaboration and connectivity. The ability to “follow” and “converse” online brings a whole new dimension to “real-time.” All those who participate in this social conversation are getting good at communicating in concise sound bites and they see great value in instant and electronic communication. But what about those that don’t?

If you listen to the technology pundits you might think everyone is engaging in “social.” But if you are not engaged, then you’re not “listening” and chances are you don’t really care. You don’t care about reproducing a Facebook-like experience because you’re not experiencing Facebook…or Twitter, Google Plus, Pinterest or any other kind of “social” vehicle. If you are also a business owner, executive or manager, you probably think of “social” as a distraction, something that should be done on your employees’ personal time. If someone refers to a tool or an application as “social” you are likely to immediately shut down. You’re interested in the business at hand and need applications like Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) and Customer Relationship Management (CRM) to run your business, but you aren’t interested in “social business” or “social ERP” or “social CRM.”

But maybe you should be. First you need to look beyond the moniker of “social” to find the value it brings. For the traditional businessperson accustomed to traditional means of communication, “social” has an unfortunate connotation. Traditionalists distinguish between a business event and a social event, between a business conversation and a social chat, between a business colleague and a friend or social acquaintance. Which is why the “social” tag is unfortunate, even though it is really just shorthand for new and improved means of getting and staying informed in a collaborative way.

If you ignore the term “social” and look at the value delivered, a good businessperson can’t help but be interested. But can we explain that value without resorting to the same social jargon that is meaningless to those not currently participating? Let’s try.

Change the Experience – Expand the Reach

Think about who is most likely to have access to enterprise applications today. Typically for a comprehensive solution like ERP it is either a power user or someone trained in a specific function like sales or purchase order entry, inventory transactions, invoice matching or cash application. It’s not the executives responsible for growth and profits, even though the vast store of data contained in an ERP solution is essential for making sound business decisions. While these executives and even their line managers may rely on that data, they also rely on someone else to bring it to them, often in a distilled format that is easier to consume.

Why is that? Because traditionally you need to understand how both the data and the application are organized in order to effectively access the data from ERP. The perception (and often the reality) is that real decision-makers don’t have time to figure all that out.

So one aspect of bringing social to enterprise applications is to provide a “consumer grade” user experience, the same kind of experience you have in downloading an app to your mobile device. Need directions? Pay your bills online? Want to keep track of your daily caloric intake? Need all the latest sports stats? There’s an app for that. Unlike your typical enterprise application, these apps are intuitive; any consumer can immediately understand and use them.

“Consumer grade” means it’s intuitive and easy to get information out without having to understand how it all works under the covers. Of course implementing the solution still requires you to carefully design and map your business processes modeled by the solution, so yes, someone still needs to understand all that.  Consumer grade doesn’t mean it is not industrial strength. But once implemented, data needed for decision-making should be easily retrieved. Consumer grade means you should be able to just walk right up to ERP, on a laptop, a tablet or any kind of device, and get the answers you need.

Different enterprise application solution providers will take different approaches to providing a new type of user experience. The best way to evaluate the potential value is to see it and feel it. If it is truly “consumer grade” the vendor should be able to put it in your hands and let you give it a test drive. In fact, if it truly consumer grade, the vendor will be eager for you to touch and feel it.

Here are some of the ways solution providers are delivering a new user experience:

Enterprise search:

This approach is through incorporating a simple enterprise search capability. Don’t know exactly what you are looking for? Don’t know exactly where to look? What do you do? In the real world, you start searching and perhaps as you start to retrieve information, you refine that search. Why not apply the same principle to accessing data in enterprise applications? Search by customer, order, supplier, part or product, perhaps combining data residing in your enterprise applications with unstructured data available on the Internet.

Configurable user interfaces:

Over the years enterprise applications have progressed from hierarchical menus and tabbing through “forms” to point and click and drag and drop. Now as we also begin to bring these applications to mobile devices, touch screen technology is emerging. It is important today for the user interface to allow individuals to choose the paradigm they are most comfortable with and customize it to their individual needs.

Personalized workspaces:

These may be called dashboards, portals or even workspaces. Think of it as a home base of operations from which you can easily access the data and tools you need and use every day, all day. The power of a well-constructed workspace lies in blurring the boundaries between enterprise applications, desktop tools like spreadsheets, email, instant messaging, alerts and more. You should be able to reach out and touch any of these without closing down or minimizing one application before firing up another.

Charts and graphs are popular in these workspaces. Click on a chart to drill down into further detail. These workspaces are also a convenient place to insert that enterprise search button. These too should be easily configured and customized by role or by individual.

Push versus pull:

While all of these new consumer grade interfaces can be very valuable, they only deliver answers when interrogated. Why not have enterprise applications deliver data to you without having to ask for it? In its most simple form, this could simply be in the format of an alert.

Event management, which is the underlying technology that triggers an alert, is hardly new, but still not widely used. An event manager can be constantly searching for conditions or for events that occur (e.g. a big order comes in) or fail to occur (e.g. payment of a large invoice does not) while you go about your business.  Alerts can be delivered in any number of ways, but the most common today is still via email.

While the exception management facilitated by these alerts is certainly a plus, executives and line managers can still be blind-sided by a notification that seemingly comes out of the blue. Of course in some cases the sensitivity level can be increased to give a warning, but think how much more valuable it would be to have the ability to monitor a stream of activity surrounding that big order or the efforts made to collect payment from that delinquent account. In order to do that, you need to be “following” the account.

The concept of “following”

If you aren’t already a fan of “social” the concept of “following” someone or something might not seem immediately familiar to you. But chances are, you are already following someone or something either in your professional or personal life. Perhaps you follow the stock price of specific companies, or you watch a stock exchange like NASDAQ or the Nikkei. Or maybe you follow the stats of your favorite sports teams. Maybe you do that through newspapers, online or using an app on your mobile device. Perhaps newsfeeds are delivered to you through email. Regardless of the delivery method, the objective is to stay informed.

What if you could easily apply that same concept to your customers, orders or prospects? Let’s look at that big deal you are expecting to close. The sales rep has it on his forecast and his manager also feels confident. But if you really want to get a feel for the timing and the likelihood of closing the deal, today you probably pick up the phone and talk to the rep or his manager. But do you get the full picture?

Wouldn’t it also be helpful to follow the trail of activity that has already occurred during the sales cycle?  What if you could see the conversations or chatter between sales rep and manager? What documents have been delivered to the prospect? And what if this potential deal is with an existing customer? Wouldn’t you like to be able to scroll through the support activity over the past few months, including the calls, issues, resolutions? Has the customer experienced any quality or delivery issues? Have they been consistently paying their bills on time or is its outstanding balance over 90 days?

And of course you need to keep a watchful eye on any breaking news about that company or the market it serves. What if all that activity was collected for you and presented in a single stream? The result of monitoring these types of activity streams is better visibility, fewer surprises and more proactive versus reactive management.

Collaboration

Simply aggregating all this activity and data and making it available to all interested and involved parties provides an environment conducive to collaboration. Most business today is conducted as a team effort. When all members of the team happen to be in the same location, within shouting (or at least walking) distance, collaboration happens naturally. But more and more these teams operate in more virtual environments, distributed across geographically dispersed locations, often spanning multiple time zones. This makes getting answers, sharing, connecting people and teams much more difficult.

Many collaboration tools have emerged over the past decade to counter the challenges of a virtual environment. We have shared networks, instant messaging and online chats, file sharing technology and document management, to name just a few. But these conversations, documents and files typically exist entirely outside the enterprise applications that should be helping you manage the processes and the transactions that comprise your business.

For example, even though your orders are stored as records in your ERP system, creating a transactional system of record, you most likely also have  paper documents that are signed and counter-signed contracts to accompany the order within ERP. These may be filed away at corporate headquarters, eventually to be archived and perhaps moved to a secure off-site location. Chances are you also store a scanned image of that contract electronically. But can you attach that scanned image to the order in your ERP solution and assign it the same level of visibility and security?

Attaching contracts to an order in ERP is probably the last thing a traditional businessperson would describe as “social” and yet providing a method for sharing all related documents in a secure, yet collaborative environment is actually one of the goals of “social.”

A concept more readily associated with social is instant messaging or organized online meetings. As team members chat online about a schedule conflict, a support issue or a quality problem, can you store that conversation and attach it to the customer or the product in your ERP solution? Or do you lose that conversation once you sign off and resort to searching through email trails and notes to reconstruct it later?

These are just a couple of examples of how social concepts can be applied and integrated with enterprise applications.

Summary and Conclusions

In short, applying social concepts to enterprise applications can unlock the potential of those same applications. By improving the user experience, making data more easily and naturally accessible, a layer of disconnect can be removed, improving transparency and visibility. This added visibility is effective in connecting teams and supporting collaboration. So you see, bringing collaboration, visibility and connectivity to enterprise applications also brings added value… just don’t call it “social.”

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