ERP software packages hit the market in the early 1990’s with promises to solve any operational, sales, and financial woes a company might have. While the ERP packages support efficiency and controls, few achieved the investment returns originally anticipated.

Even the most successful organization’s ERP implementations were wrought with challenges. Organizations found critical information wasn’t easily accessible and the systems were difficult to use. Companies that reengineered processes and structured the organizations around ERP were no longer as flexible or nimble as they once were.

In the early 2000’s, ERP vendors started to address challenges by adding industry-specific functionality, which further complicated the ERP solutions. Most recently, ERP vendors have acquired business intelligence and integration solutions which are being incorporated into the core ERP systems.

While vendors are making steps in the right direction, are these changes enough to support true success?

Systems must be easy to use the closer the user gets to the customer. Many ERP screens are complicated and require numerous keystrokes to support basic data entry needs. While this may not be a large issue for back office personnel, sales can be lost if customers are kept waiting or if billing errors are made as a result of complicated data entry requirements. Unfortunately, many ERP solutions add complexity to business processes.

Organizations require reliable, timely and accurate information from the ERP systems to support decision making. While ERP systems capture a great deal of data, information is not easily given up. Some ERP systems are affectionately referred to as data jail. The standard ERP reports and prepackaged portals merely provide views into transactions. The core ERPs do not easily meld the data with information generated from other systems to provide true enterprise business intelligence. A small number of organizations have figured out how to make the most of their ERP investment.

Successful organizations focus efforts to make sure transactions can be easily and quickly entered into the system, and the subsequent data can be turned into accessible, useful, and timely information. Successful organizations have actually done very little in the way of modifying the core ERP transactional systems. These organizations have kept the ERP vanilla and built unique solutions to address ease of use (data-in) and access to information (data-out). In sum, the successful organizations are treating the ERP system as a middleware template.

Ease of Use Improves Adoption Rates

A pipe manufacturer was in the process of developing an ERP strategy when they realized the need for a simple set of tools to support their sales staff and real-time reporting. The organization determined they wanted to use a specific front-end product to support their sales force as they went from prospect to prospect. This front-end product would allow the sales force to show contractors pictures of the pipes and fittings with installation examples. Orders could be entered into laptops and then synched to the ERP when the salesperson had internet access.

As a result, the company selected a front-end data entry tool and quickly developed simple screens to help field personnel navigate and use the system more effectively. There are a variety of tools that can be used to support this type of effort, including Microsoft .NET, Force.com, and Adobe LiveCycle along with business process management tools.

Access to Information Is Equally Important

An oil and gas production company required systems to support the need for faster access to financial, production, revenue, and operational information. This required the melding of information between the ERP systems and the industry-specific solutions. Prior to the start of the project, the company developed a reporting strategy to identify key reporting and information needs. The information needs dictated the future systems and the implementation of information reporting capabilities became the critical part of the systems solutions. The solutions that provide information reporting capabilities typically come under the banner of business intelligence or corporate performance management solutions, such as Hyperion, Business Objects, BPC, Cognos, and Microsoft Analytics.

The traditional approach for developing an ERP strategy has not worked. The traditional approach usually consists of guessing future state business requirements, countless meetings, painfully scoring package demonstrations, arguing about which vendor demonstrated their wares better, and selecting a package that half the participants didn’t like. Once an ERP vendor has been selected, implementation costs must be discussed.

A better approach is to focus on solutions enabling processes to support ease of use and access to information. After that, find an ERP solution that can fit both of these objectives. This approach helps avoid the two critical failure points of ERP implementations: ease of use and information access.

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