Since today’s global business structures are bigger than the enterprise, we are bombarded by the power of social networking for the enterprise. But after sitting through the annual conferences of several mega-enterprise software firms who are clearly committed to incorporating social networking into their solutions, the question occurred to me — is it time to abandon the ERP in favor of a new solution? A new platform? A new software category for business? Or is enterprise social networking an element of the enterprise — ERP — package?
Going beyond ERP
Business processes are bigger than the enterprise. And today’s businesses are global and virtual, creating federated models that create markets and product to sell and service. Collaboration is at the core of what we do. But ERP fashioned in the early nineties is a moat-like system, designed to keep ‘strangers’ out.
To quote Patrick Ferrington of Epicor, “If social is the way we work, should we not encourage it?” Epicor is on a mission to modernize. In future releases of Epicor 9, Epicor will do just that. However, we also see a new entrant into the market, Kenandy, built on the Force.com platform which has social at its root. These companies, plus the explosion of new apps with social at their core beg the question, “Are these solutions a sign of the end of the ERP era?”
Don’t misunderstand. We will always need accounting, sales order processing, and HR that provide an enterprise transaction layer. But if we look at the broad view of what occurs in the business process, both with customers and across supply chain, we understand that there is more than transaction management going on.
A decade ago this would have been considered an intellectual discussion between AI and internet geeks. But today this can no longer be theoretical. The technology exists today and is mature and reliable to support universal search and collaborative dialogue (through collaborative and social platforms, MFT and cloud business solutions). Unfortunately, our technology still exists in stovepipes. If we step back and look at businesses’ structured and unstructured workflows, not everything culminates in an ERP transaction. (We have written about this issue before in Collaboration at the Crossroads).
In addition, statistically, many of the people in the enterprise never touch the ERP — it’s not part of their job. And among those who do, percentages vary as to how much time they actually spend in the ERP. Other technologies such as analytics, conferencing/voice/mobile communications, and document management (proposals, contracts, and designs) also vie for management’s attention.
Epicor has an intriguing phrase, ‘enterprise everywhere,’ that they used a lot during their customer conference. Though I might be over-conceptualizing what they mean by that, over the next two releases (through 2013), their products are packed with search on everything in the system and social connectivity.
“If social is the way we work, should we not encourage it?”
Though Kenandy’s and Epicor’s fundamental message is still an ‘enterprise ERP,’ these companies open the door to a broader definition and discussion of enterprise software that reflects reality.
Stepping back from all the messages in the media, let’s take a look at the challenges and opportunities of a social-based business solution. Some observations on what’s required:
- Business process concept modeling for ad hoc workflow. Today’s solutions have pretty strong workflow baked in that guides the process or transaction. Take for example, the sales order process consisting of configure, order, credit check, and confirmation which are all part of an automated workflow in the system. But if we think beyond the transaction, which takes place in the last ten minutes in the sales process, we find that in the weeks, months, or maybe years it takes to find, sell and close the business, many of those processes are not well orchestrated. The same is true with supply chain processes or many other business activities. In an attempt to organize those processes, users create their own ‘personalization’ by putting a lot of icons on their desktop to access frequently-used documents and system entry points.
When all data is searchable and sharable, the paradigm of account-level security is dead.
- Role-based and context-based search. For raw searching, we
already have Bing and Google, so these applications don’t need to be replicated. But a solution needs to provide the memory of who I am and what is relevant to me.
- Supra-search. I loved the Epicor search through the entire system, but the search did not include the world-wide web. If we continue with the sales example above, the daily search activities of a salesperson might include searching on their prospects, or customers or competitor’s products.
- File and media sharing baked in. If we look at business people’s daily activities, they spend a percentage of their timesharing files. So bake it in.
- Voice and video collaboration. Want to talk? Usually. Today this capability is not in the system, but again, is part of the day-to-day activities of all layers of an organization. In order to talk today, most systems require jumping to another platform. That platform usually does not allow for a truly collaborative set of activities beyond a presentation layer.
- Rationalizing and integrating the various data types — big data context. Transaction data, cubes and analytics and unstructured data are all part of the mix. Document proposals contain pictures of the product, maybe a video demonstration, and a quote extracted from the transaction system, or a forecast link. We do this today by document management software and inserting links and pictures — quasi-manually. The on-the-fly element of daily activity: “Hey, I saw this, what do you think?” is pretty messy. Why not bake these elements in. That fulfills collaborative elements of a full social/sharing platform.
- The data needs to be defined — the metadata associated with the medium. Today it’s every user for themselves. Each software platform has its own file types and file-naming convention. Take a look at your media/picture directory to understand what I mean: you might have iTunes naming for your music; another type for pictures taken on your Blackberry or iPhone phone; a third, Nikon type for your digital camera, and Microsoft-type for media files you have downloaded. YouTube has its own system. And if you are sending files ad hoc you bind additional descriptive data around the file, which may or may not get saved as part of the metadata of that file. You get the point. And then, they all need their own software to open and use files. And each software package takes up a huge amount of space.
- IP everything. URLs for every item — physical and digital.
- Social Network and subscriber management. The business process with its transaction has its own unique network. Today, for example, I have to manually create this network and determine security and permission layers for the subscribers. (Often done by IT.) If I need to join another network, I have to go through the same process again. Now we have multiple networks, and the user has to manage each and every one. Some good messaging systems do integrate with authorization and authenticating enterprise security software. And surely within an ERP these authentication elements exist. But if users are using multiple systems, that ERP authentication capability will not be available to them.
- Security. Saving the best or the worst issue for last, how do I protect my data in a totally searchable social world? The old model was account driven. I can’t get into an account so I can’t get at the data. That paradigm is gone. Data is everywhere, searchable and sharable. So account level passwords won’t assure security. Talking to my friends at EMC, they told me the answer is quite simple — and difficult. Each piece of data needs its own security.
What is the ubiquitous platform for global business? It’s not ERP — it’s the smart phone. With it, I can talk, access, locate, and manage my whole life. So it is no surprise that software companies are feverously adapting their solutions to this platform. Even Infor, the master of legacy, is in a significant reinvigoration phase to provide elements of their business solutions on the mobile platform, what to say of the new kids on the block. But creating the mobile business solution on the mobile platform is not just porting and shrinking screens. Although the topic of mobile enterprise is its own thesis, its relevancy beyond ERP is clear. In order to achieve the ‘everywhere enterprise,’ the cloud becomes a core component of mobile, since we don’t have a terabyte of software and data on our phone (not yet anyway). And of course we have to refer back to and have access to our core data and systems. More important is the interface, though, since I think we now can state definitively that we have a rich selection of business solutions in the cloud.
Conclusion: UI Is Not Just UI
If I want an all-inclusive work day, then the UI becomes critical. These all-inclusive UIs, like Microsoft’s Metro1 or iOS developer tools, for example, work across the PC to tablet to phone. Epicor, as a major Microsoft partner, is committed to adopting Metro UI, not just in mobile, but across the new releases of their solutions. Why is this not just another pretty face? The Metro’s design principle is to bring together common tasks to enable better work flow and usage. This is a familiar theme being reinvigorated. Past development paradigms relied on a common look and feel that users could relate to. MyERP adopted the Google search paradigm as a mode familiar to people. You start activities by just typing in the activity you want to do or the process you want to initiate. What is cool about this is it reduces the exacting nature of key stroke prison (precision). It is forgiving in typing and spelling. But more importantly, the user moves across so many devices in the given day that it can be difficult to remember which application feature and key strokes you have to find to do what you want to do — or just find the record or document needed without layers of menus.
Of course, iOS was the pioneer in the intuitive interface, liberating us from menus. I don’t know about you, but I am not keen on sitting down with a client and selecting from a menu just to begin a discussion. The old phrase, at a touch of a button (or in this case, an icon) is very attractive.2
If developers are really true to the anytime, anywhere principles, then UI is a major consideration — not just a make-up job — that reflects the streams and threads of daily business life. As the old architecture saying goes, “Form follows function.”3
UI is a big topic. Between mobile, enterprise and collaborative suites there are a variety of UI constructs. But mobile and collaborative are starting to converge and agree on the UI and other key workflows. This means that some enterprise firms should look at their partners a bit differently. We have already seen a plethora of business apps being developed on tablets, for example, with these UIs adopted for their tablet version. Sometimes this rolls back to the UI on the desktop — but sometimes not.What will move software firms to rethink the desktop UI?
This challenges the developer to think very differently about who they are developing for — and what users want to do.And that might also mean that solutions provider companies have to eschew the ERP label and find a new identity.
Much more to come on ERP for the SMB . . .
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