Workflow, BPM, ERP Systems and ERP Workflow Integration

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The aim of an ERP system is to provide an integrated solution to all business areas of a particular enterprise. Ideally, you have one software system that the entire company can access and work with. So, for example, all the data for finance, sales, accounting, human resources and inventory is managed in one central repository and each business group within the organization accesses only the subset of data that they need.

Workflow as a concept is nothing new. Even before the era of computers, there have always been established procedures for handling operations within a corporate structure. Take a purchase order, for example: an employee notifies their manager that they require a particular item; the manager then puts in a requisition, which, depending on his level of authority, may need to be bumped further up the management chain until it is authorized; it is then handed over to the purchasing coordinator and finally purchased. The workflow can be relatively straightforward or very complex, but it is basically a business process that consists of a number of sequential tasks performed in a particular order or following a set of rules that is designed to facilitate a particular objective. Examples of processes for which workflows are commonly in place include order processing and fulfillment, sales cycle and campaign management, performance reviews, medical/insurance claims processing, expense reporting, warranty management, invoice processing and more.

The ERP workflow can be part of the larger concept of Business Process Management (BPM), which is a more holistic approach to business processes. Companies that employ BPM aim to optimize their business processes while striving to be more efficient, more effective, and improve the level of tracking and control built into their processes as a whole.

BPM and workflow implementation force companies to sit down and evaluate their processes and the rationale behind them:  what is the flow of a particular task (e.g. draft -> ready -> financial approval -> final authorization -> sent to vendor), what possible scenarios exist, what rules need to be applied at each stage of the process (e.g., a purchase order cannot be moved from a status of “cancelled” to “sent to vendor” or any order over $10,000 needs another level of authorization), who is involved at each stage and what level of authority should they be granted. Creating a detailed blueprint of business processes, streamlining and regulating the workflow facilitates a greater degree of control; enhanced ability to respond to any potential issues; and increased efficiency, accountability and transparency for continued auditing and analysis of the process.

In many of the available solutions, in addition to automating the routing of documents and tasks from one person to another, email or SMS notification is employed to inform the next person in the chain of events that a document or process requires their attention. Rules can often be set so that another person in the chain is notified if a document remains at a particular status for too long (e.g. if the tracking document for an item in a repair shop remains by a certain technician at the status “in process” for more than two days, both the technician and his or her supervisor will receive automatic notification so that they can investigate the delay).

BPM and workflow functionality are increasingly a part of many ERP solutions, and it makes sense to implement such process maps and controls early in the game in order to maximize the benefits of the ERP system. Some ERP vendors offer built-in workflow functionalities, while others offer possibilities for third-party integration. If third-party solutions are employed, it’s very important that the ERP and BPM/Workflow groups understand and communicate about the technology and processes that are being implemented.

Remember: workflows involve humans, and the people involved at all levels of the process should also be involved in the initial mapping out of the processes before they are implemented. While mapping out the process, you may discover new and better ways to perform tasks or provide better oversight. The defining and modeling phase is often a learning process for both employees and managers. Collaboration during the definition process can produce enhanced processes, improve performance of both the system as a whole and of individual employees, and ultimately foster a sense of “ownership” in each individual regarding his or her part in the process itself.

In conclusion and to recap, workflow and BPM systems control the flow of information between individuals or departments, and direct it to the next appropriate processing stage according to an established workflow map. A good system should enable managers to monitor the progress of a particular process within the workflow, handle exceptions, escalate individual exceptions and generate reports that can be used to improve performance. It is therefore advisable that you make BPM and workflow one of your priorities when selecting or implementing an ERP software solution.

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BI – Wave of the future in ERP?

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Business intelligence. Now more than ever you need to have your finger on the pulse of your business – to ensure that all department heads know how their sectors are performing, are able to identify problems as they arise and are in a position to put corrective action into place quickly and efficient. Businesses just can’t afford to waste time and effort on getting data out of their systems and then figuring out what to do about it.

 

The ability to identify fluctuating business conditions in real time, as they are happening, and then react accordingly can significantly affect a company’s overall performance.  Business Intelligence needs to go beyond gathering of data. Corporations need to be able to set and monitor goals, build strategies and scenarios to address business needs as they arise, and turn these strategies into action items if necessary. They also need to gather data to assess the execution of plans on a financial and operational level.

 

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There are plenty of BI solutions that can plug into your data and churn out reports, or that you can integrate with your existing corporate system. But ideally, you want a software solution that can not only manage your business, but provide you with a bird’s eye view of the information you need to make critical business decisions. A system that can help you build the plans and strategies for dealing with your operation. A system within which you can set parameters, and then examine your data from multiple angles.

 

ERP systems, in helping you to run your business, must be able to address this need. They should not only provide you with real-time data that can tell, for example, what product or campaign is performing best, in what region and even what store, but help you analyze why something is not performing as expected. In drilling down to the details of orders and analyzing trends, you can determine that selling snow shovels in Florida isn’t the most effective approach, and re-organize to allocate that stock to Maine. Or if sales for one particular store or salesperson have been outpacing all others, you need to figure out why and see if the same strategies can be effectively employed elsewhere in the organization. In manufacturing, managing and monitoring production or scrap materials can have a significant impact, as can tracking the efficiency of vendors and quality of raw materials. All these are key factors that can substantially impact the bottom line of any business.

 

When evaluating products that are designed to help you make sense of your data, beyond the cost of the software itself and integration with your existing system (if required), look for the following:

 

Timely data: Running analysis on data that is a week old won’t be very effective. Conversely, systems that can only provide you with a snapshot of where your data is holding at any given moment are limited in scope and usefulness. Look for solutions that can provide you with real-time and historical data.

 

Ease of use and rapid implementation: If you can’t figure out how to get the information you need out of a system, the fanciest and most expensive tool in the world won’t be much use. Look for solutions that have pre-defined reports and even dashboards for certain targeted groups or areas of operation (executives, sales/marketing managers, CFOs, HR, Projects etc.), which can be customized for an individual’s particular requirements. This will not only make it easier for your team to access the data they need, but will ultimately save countless hours in putting the pieces together.

 

Analysis, or “slicing and dicing”: Look for systems that can filter and sort data to identify potential problems before they snowball into bigger issues. Analysis of dimensional data through intuitive query and online analytical processing (OLAP) tools should let your users “slice and dice” data and drill down to as many levels as there are parameters. So you can sort and analyze data by region, store and even sales rep. Or flip the data and look by item sold, then region. Different angles can reveal different trends, so make sure you can see as many as possible within the data.

Visualization: Try to find a solution that will help you understand key trends and patterns at a glance and display data in familiar forms, such as graphs and charts. Dashboards and key performance indicator (KPI) dials are particularly effective tools. The visualizations will enable users to track and monitor the metrics they are responsible for, compare actual performance to predefined targets and trigger alerts when performance strays too much from goals.

Access to data: Seeing data in real-time is crucial, but what if you want to analyze that data off-line as well? Make sure your data can be accessed when you are online and offline for maximum ROI.

 

As a rule, but especially now in this time of belt-tightening across the board, every company should be looking for ways to streamline operations and expenses. Make the most of the software you have and see what kind of BI information you can get out of it. Go one step further and ask your software representative or consultant what they can do to help you mine your business data and make sense of it. All too often, complicated BI tools make it too hard to find the data you are looking for, and too easy to get confused by what you find. Integration can be a problem with stand-alone BI systems. Try to look for software that can pull all your data together, help you set up targets in the form of KPIs, set business rules for alerts when KPIs are missed or met, and of course display the information in a simple and intuitive interface.                 

By Rebecca Haviv

 

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