What is ERP?
Enterprise resource planning software, or ERP, doesn’t live up to its acronym. Forget about planning—it doesn’t do much of that—and forget about resource, a throwaway term. But remember the enterprise part. This is ERP’s true ambition. The software attempts to integrate all departments and functions across a company onto a single computer system that can serve all those departments’ particular needs.
Building a single software program that serves the needs of people in finance as well as it does the people in human resources and in the warehouse is a tall order. Each of those departments typically has its own computer system optimized for the particular ways that the department does its work. But ERP combines them all together into a single, integrated software program that runs off a single database so that the various departments can more easily share information and communicate with each other.
That integrated approach can have a tremendous payback if companies install the software correctly.
Take a customer order, for example. Typically, when a customer places an order, that order begins a mostly paper-based journey from inbox to inbox throughout the company, often being keyed and rekeyed into different departments’ computer systems along the way. All that lounging around in inbox causes delays and lost orders, and all the keying into different computer systems invites errors. Meanwhile, no one in the company truly knows what the status of the order is at any given point because there is no way for the finance department, for example, to get into the warehouse’s computer system to see whether the item has been shipped. "You’ll have to call the warehouse" is the familiar refrain heard by frustrated customers.
ERP vanquishes the old standalone computer systems in finance, HR, manufacturing and the warehouse, and replaces them with a single unified software program divided into software modules that roughly approximate the old standalone systems. Finance, manufacturing and the warehouse all still get their own software, except now the software is linked together so that someone in finance can look into the warehouse software to see if an order has been shipped. Back in the ‘90s ERP was developed as a tightly integrated monolith, but most vendors’ software has since become flexible enough that you can install some modules without buying the whole package. Many companies, for example, will install only an ERP finance or HR module and leave the rest of the functions for another day.
How can ERP improve a company's business performance?
ERP’s best hope for demonstrating value is as a sort of battering ram for improving the way your company takes a customer order and processes that into an invoice and revenue—otherwise known as the order fulfillment process. That is why ERP is often referred to as back-office software. It doesn’t handle the up-front selling process (although most ERP vendors have recently developed CRM software to do this); rather, ERP takes a customer order and provides a software road map for automating the different steps along the path to fulfilling the order. When a customer service representative enters a customer order into an ERP system, he has all the information necessary to complete the order (the customer’s credit rating and order history from the finance module, the company’s inventory levels from the warehouse module and the shipping dock’s trucking schedule from the logistics module, for example).
People in these different departments all see the same information and can update it. When one department finishes with the order it is automatically routed via the ERP system to the next department. To find out where the order is at any point, you need only log in to the ERP system to track it down. With luck, the order process moves like a bolt of lightning through the organization, and customers get their orders faster and with fewer errors than before. ERP can apply that same magic to the other major business processes, such as employee benefits or financial reporting.
That, at least, is the dream of ERP. The reality is not so rosy.
Let’s go back to those inboxes for a minute. That process may not have been efficient, but it was simple. Finance did its job, the warehouse did its job, and if anything went wrong outside of the department’s walls, it was somebody else’s problem. Not anymore. With ERP, the customer service representatives are no longer just typists entering someone’s name into a computer and hitting the return key. The ERP screen makes them businesspeople. It flickers with the customer’s credit rating from the finance department and the product inventory levels from the warehouse. Did the customer pay for the last order yet? Will we be able to ship the new order on time? These are decisions that customer service representatives have never had to make before, and the answers affect the customer and every other department in the company. But it’s not just the customer service representatives who have to wake up. People in the warehouse who used to keep inventory in their heads or on scraps of paper now need to put that information online. If they don’t, customer service reps’ screens will show low inventory levels and reps will tell customers that the requested item is not in stock. Accountability, responsibility and communication have never been tested like this before.
People don’t like to change, and ERP asks them to change how they do their jobs. That is why the value of ERP is so hard to pin down. The software is less important than the changes companies make in the ways they do business. If you use ERP to improve the ways your people take orders and manufacture, ship and bill for goods, you will see value from the software. If you simply install the software without trying to improve the ways people do their jobs, you may not see any value at all—indeed, the new software could slow you down by simply replacing the old software that everyone knew with new software that no one does.
What will ERP fix in my business?
There are five major reasons why companies undertake ERP.
1. Integrate financial information—;As the CEO tries to understand the company’s overall performance, he may find many different versions of the truth. Finance has its own set of revenue numbers, sales has another version, and the different business units may each have their own version of how much they contributed to revenue. ERP creates a single version of the truth that cannot be questioned because everyone is using the same system.
2. Integrate customer order information—;ERP systems can become the place where the customer order lives from the time a customer service representative receives it until the loading dock ships the merchandise and finance sends an invoice. By having this information in one software system, rather than scattered among many different systems that can’t communicate with one another, companies can keep track of orders more easily, and coordinate manufacturing, inventory and shipping among many different locations simultaneously.
3. Standardize and speed up manufacturing processes—;Manufacturing companies—especially those with an appetite for mergers and acquisitions—often find that multiple business units across the company make the same widget using different methods and computer systems. ERP systems come with standard methods for automating some of the steps of a manufacturing process. Standardizing those processes and using a single, integrated computer system can save time, increase productivity and reduce headcount.
4. Reduce inventory—;ERP helps the manufacturing process flow more smoothly, and it improves visibility of the order fulfillment process inside the company. That can lead to reduced inventories of the materials used to make products (work-in-progress inventory), and it can help users better plan deliveries to customers, reducing the finished good inventory at the warehouses and shipping docks. To really improve the flow of your supply chain, you need supply chain software, but ERP helps too.
5. Standardize HR information—;Especially in companies with multiple business units, HR may not have a unified, simple method for tracking employees’ time and communicating with them about benefits and services. ERP can fix that.
In the race to fix these problems, companies often lose sight of the fact that ERP packages are nothing more than generic representations of the ways a typical company does business. While most packages are exhaustively comprehensive, each industry has quirks that make it unique.
To make ERP effective it must be integrated into your way of doing business and you and your employees need to understand how it works best and learn how to use it.
That’s where we can help. The Launch Pad can take you through the process from start to finish of understanding your needs and your business, selecting the best ERP system, selecting and purchasing the hardware to run it, managing the installation and, most importantly, helping you to integrate the new system into the way you do business.