It’s easy to criticize traditional ERPs in the same way that it’s easy (at least proverbially) to shoot fish in a barrel; we can all do it but there are probably better ways to spend our time.
ERPs could be cooler, more useful, worth the money; they don’t need to be abandoned altogether. But how could they become measurably, tangibly, practically more useful to the companies that adopt them? In this article, we consider several features we think would be seriously awesome additions to ERPs; these additions are ones all ERP customers should demand, whether they have an old legacy system or the fanciest new showroom model.
At 3AG, these are the features we consider most useful for maximizing ERP effectiveness:
- IoT integration;
- mobility and intelligent data entry;
- modern dashboard tool integration;
- analytics capabilities beyond basic spreadsheets; and
- intelligent recommendations.
These elements can mean the difference between an ERP you’re constantly upgrading and/or maintaining, and one doing the kind of sophisticated thinking a properly set up and scalable ERP should.
One of the core challenges for ERP usage is the difficulty users have entering data. This results primarily from poor UX design; for example, creating a data entry form requiring users to enter values for 25 different measurements when they only measure 8 will discourage them to the point of inaction. Worse yet are business processes wherein staff fill out paper-based forms that then need to be converted to a digital format and then, finally, can be entered into the ERP.
IoT reduces friction associated with data gathering and entry by allowing already-digital sensor measurements directly populate the storage system. Further, IoT sensors generally don’t make mistakes, miss shifts or, arguably, cost as much as their human equivalents.
ERP vendors may claim their out-of-the-box standard IoT component will address these issues; this is rarely how things play out. Too often, such vendors subject clients to overly complicated processes that include adding all sorts of extra (non-complementary) modules during implementation. None of these extra steps or pieces are necessary.
IoT integration can and should be as simple as pressing a button to begin collecting a new data stream from a new sensor. It’s a given that new sensors will continue being added to IoT deployments over time. This means, whether data comes directly from a sensor or passes through intermediate storage like a data warehouse, collection and related data tasks should be simple, clean, and easily accomplished.
Integrating IoT data, whether as raw values or for KPI calculations, can be added to ERP business logic anytime. New KPIs or new calculations arise frequently; they should be easy to integrate and, of course, remain independent of source data streams to ensure accuracy and integrity.
Some ERP vendors may benefit from making IoT integration more complex than it need to be; business deals don’t need to be either difficult or adversarial, so don’t accept sub-par purchasing and implementation experiences up front.
Mobility and intelligent data entry
It’s not enough to have a system that can store system-wide data and provide analyses and reports—it should also support intuitive, simple data entry. Traditional ERPs don’t tend to allow for this, defaulting to forms containing more fields than users really need to populate. In fact, standard data forms often resemble their underlying databases more than the job at hand, which is precisely the opposite of what they should do.
None of this is intuitive!
There are several ways to address this issue. First, data entry forms should minimize the number of required fields. Context or situation-aware forms that understand those using them, and at what stage of the process they’re at, can minimize the fields users need to fill. Also, because automatic data collection is more accurate than manual entry, easy integration of IoT sensors is very helpful in this context.
Recognizing that employees might use different devices to enter data, embracing the variety of hardware available is smart. Tablets and mobile phones have microphones, GPS, and even accelerometers. Using such native hardware capabilities for ERP data entry will make it easier and for workers to accurately and enter all data into the system.
Modern dashboard tool integration
In the fast-paced world of business intelligence and dashboard tools, two things stand out in the Gartner Magic Quadrant: first, how few cloud-based providers are also traditional ERP vendors; second, the massive leads held by Microsoft and Tableau. The latter makes sense; BI tool vendors have spent years creating products that give non-technical users near super-powers for analysis and data visualization. We won’t speculate on why cloud vendors tend not to offer ERP but we will say this: At least part of your organization’s data system should be stored safely in the cloud, dashboard tools in particular because of their key strategic value.
The question then is, why would anyone choose to work with sub-par dashboard tools? Cost? Inadequate research? A weakness for great marketing? Convenience, given most ERPs come with built-in dashboard tools? Convenience may be the most compelling reason for using an ERP’s standard dashboards; it’s also the riskiest.
The true cost of a tool may be calculated through cost-benefit analysis: measuring its upfront and ongoing costs against improved productivity. A tool that’s hard to use and/or doesn’t allow for seamless dashboard and insight sharing across devices will likely cost much more than you realize—or bargained for.
As with IoT integration, reporting tools should be housed in the cloud and independent of your ERP system; this is the most dependable way to source and present your organization’s best insights.
Analytics capabilities beyond basic spreadsheets
If you have had the “pleasure” of using either an ERP or a traditional data tool, your default problem-solving tool is likely “Download to Excel.” Excel is an amazingly powerful tool that does incredible things. But our point is, you shouldn’t pay a fortune for an enterprise resource planning tool just to use it only as a glorified data storage system.
- create web-based reports sharable across devices (desktop, tablet, mobile);
- provide interactive, real-time reports;
- easily perform statistical analysis on your data;
- identify trends; and
- pre-emptively inform you when inventory levels are trending in the wrong direction.
It should be easy to extract information from your ERP and your ERP should start telling you when things are not going well. If your ERP cannot perform these tasks, it’s simply not doing what it’s meant to do.
A modern ERP should be actively intelligent. It should constantly scour your data, looking for patterns and identifying potential financial and operational improvements.
Those used to working with old-school data systems may be thinking, “It’s difficult to get data out of an ERP, never mind analyze that data—but now I’m supposed to trust the ERP to tell me what to do??”
Yes, that’s what we’re saying and it’s not a new concept. We trust other smart systems to give us insights daily; consider your car’s automatic braking system or your smartphone’s map function. Even common auto-suggestion responses in most email services are a form of insight. If a traditional ERP vendor isn’t giving you this information, they’re doing you (and themselves, in the long run) a disservice.
So, alongside the analytics insights listed above, your ERP should also tell you
- how to correct any issues it detects;
- the general health of your operations;
- ways to increase profitability and KPIs; and
- how to bolster system resilience.
You deserve a modern data tool
Bottom line, traditional ERP systems lack many features everyone working with data should expect from such a big-ticket purchase. If your ERP doesn’t allow for seamless IoT integration, intelligent data entry, modern dashboard integration, and intelligent recommendations, a bad case of sticker shock will likely result.
Your money can be better spent and you can reap the benefits of truly cutting-edge ERP capabilities; there’s no need to sacrifice one for the other. To discover what a modern, comprehensive ERP experience can look like, stay tuned.