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.

ERP Fees & Installation Alternatives

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ERP vendors come in all shapes and sizes, offer varying levels of functionality as well as functional integration and offer different options for installation. On the face of it, there are three basic installation options, and each enterprise has to decide which the best fit is for their purposes: a traditional on-site one-time payment installation; an over the internet on-demand, software as a service (SaaS) model on a pay per-user/per-month basis; or an on-premise deployment, also on a pay per-user/per-month basis.

 

Traditional On-Premise Installation – One-time license payment

 

Although SaaS and hosted software are the buzzwords of the day, traditional on-site implementations provide some companies with the sense of security and ownership they require, with a one-time license fee instead of an ongoing monthly expense. There is often an additional yearly maintenance fee which must also be taken into consideration. While this model requires an investment in the purchasing and maintenance of hardware and infrastructure, it can sometimes be more cost effective in the long run then a per-user/per-month installation. Once you’ve paid the initial license cost, the service charges are usually fairly stable and hosting and other charges (including testing environments, which in on-premise installations can be a back-up or test server) shouldn’t surprisingly increase as time goes on.

 

To summarize some of the benefits of an on-premise installation:

 

  • Ownership vs. monthly fees: This might be most cost effective in the long run
  • Security: You control of the security of the environment including back-ups
  • Accessibility: Connectivity to the system is intrinsic, without the need for internet connections throughout the organization

 

Software as a Service (SaaS) – Hosted Option

 

The SaaS model provides an ERP option for companies who need the solutions provided in ERP software, without forcing them to make a capital investment in on-premise IT infrastructure: software, hardware and implementation.

 

The hosted option has a number of benefits over an on-premise installation:

                                                                                        

  • Fees: Ease of use, no costly set up fees, and no need to invest in IT infrastructure or personnel.
  • Automatic upgrade: Upgrades are handled automatically on the hosted platform so you are always using the latest version of the software.
  • Accessibility: Connectivity is available online, anytime, from any common web browser.
  • Low-risk: With no large up-front investment or long-term commitment, this model allows you to “try-before-you-buy,” as it were, though migration from an existing system does need to be considered.
  • Security: In general, data is protected by the platform security; systems and backups should be in place to ensure uninterrupted service.

 

When the SaaS model is offered a pay-as-you-go, per-user/per-month basis, with its own advantages:

 

  • Initial cost: No major initial outlay of capital
  • Stability: Your fees are ostensibly stable and on a regular basis with no surprises
  • Functional Scalability: Often, no additional fees required for most of the functionality (e.g. begin using ERP software for CRM and expand to Accounting, Inventory Control etc., at either scalable or no additional cost, depending on the package)

 

On-Premise Installation – Pay-As-You-Go

 

For companies that want to take advantage of the pay-as-you-go per-user/per-month basis model, while maintaining their ERP system in-house, many companies now offer the option to do so, though it’s a mixture of both benefits and disadvantages or each approach. The benefits are, as above for the SaaS option:

 

  • Initial cost: No major initial outlay of capital
  • Stability: Your fees are ostensibly stable and on a regular basis with no surprises
  • Functional Scalability: While often no additional fees are required for most of the functionality (e.g. begin using ERP software for CRM and expand to Accounting, Inventory Control etc., at either scalable or no additional cost, depending on the package) – there might be some configuration involved and updating which would be automatic in the regular SaaS solution

 

Mixed with advantages from the traditional on-premise installation:

 

  • Security: You control of the security of the environment including back-ups
  • Accessibility: Connectivity to the system is intrinsic, without the need for internet connections throughout the organization

 

The many flavors of ERP systems now give you the power of choice. So it’s important that you consider both the short and long term requirements of your organization. If you’re not sure, try to find a solution that offers as many variations as possible so that you can move from SaaS to on-premise if the need arises, without costly migration expenses and the headache of switching such a major part of your business operation.

By Rebecca Haviv

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How Real Is Your TCO?

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Addressing the issue of Total Cost of Ownership of an ERP project means spelling out some of the “hidden costs” that are sometimes overlooked or minimized when a vendor is trying to sell you their ERP or satellite software solution. Don’t be fooled. Those hidden costs can add up and need to be taken into consideration.

The leading expenditures on ERP projects are (listed in order of magnitude):

  • Internal resources
  • External (consulting) services
  • Software (licenses and maintenance)

Some of the factors that affect these expenses are the size of the company, number of ERP users, and the depth and breadth of functionality. The true total cost of the ERP system’s deployment, however, is usually unclear during the evaluation process, because these expenditures are not readily apparent until they come up over the lifecycle of the project. Some (but not all) of these “unexpected” or “hidden” costs can include:

  1. Data conversion and improvement (both from existing systems and ongoing)
  2. Add-ons (external components), private customizations, satellite utilities (web sites, BI, BPM, Document Management, mail, etc.), their interfaces to the main ERP application and their migration through ERP upgrades (service packs and advanced versions).
  3. Identity management and security enforcement

All of these hidden costs take close scrutiny and time to discover.

IT Related Expenses

One of the bigger hidden costs, or one not always adequately factored into the equation, is the expense item of IT (or the IT staff/internal resources).

Data collected for 2004-2007 on companies with 500-999 employees in the U.K by Kew Associates clearly shows that annual spending on IT staff is larger by a factor of 4 than any other IT expense item.

What are the IT people doing?

IT people make a host of applications tick, including the selected ERP system and all other applications. An ERP system that can incorporate as many applications as possible will minimize the costs involved in maintaining a large IT staff and the hours spent on dealing with multiple applications, not to mention the costs of the applications themselves.
 
To be sure, there are plenty of good-quality, low-priced, very specific software tools out there in the market. But when you combine the price of the software with the expense of their integration with an ERP application and the IT overhead required to support and maintain them all – the costs just keep adding up.

 

Installation
Installation of traditional ERP products can take months. There are a few products out there that can shorten that time frame substantially. Ask when vetting products, in order to get a clearer picture of what the cost and time frame for this will be.

Implementation & Adoption
A speedy implementation cycle lowers the TCO, but the truth is that there is no easy road for implementation. It doesn’t matter if your solution is SaaS, on-demand or on-premise since the time and cost of implementation depends on the depth and functionality of the chosen system, and the effectiveness of its adoption by the workforce.

Finding a solution that can either smooth the road to a successful implementation, or provide you with tools to do it yourself as much as possible, is the best solution. This can often also provide a hidden benefit, if you will, of giving end users a sense of “ownership” of their processes, which can smooth the path to adoption. Some things you can look for in a software package are:

  • User-level configuration utilities for data migration, eliminating the burden of writing customized conversion routines.
  • Training tools incorporated in the application, including ready made templates, and step-by-step interactive help files and/or wizards which will ultimately empower end users.
  • Good, easy-to-understand documentation and help tools.

Software Costs/Platform Options
Special pricing plans for various software solutions offer a wide array of convenient flexible options, from fully hosted SaaS ERP to per-user/per-month to flat fee on-site installation:

  1. Choosing the fully hosted on-demand/SaaS ERP plan not only sets a low-cost fee per user per month, but can help you save on the cost of servers, operating systems, middleware, databases and accompanying administration (maintenance and security). You can also “try before you buy,” and stop using it if the software does not match your requirements.
  2. With the “Per-User/Per-Month” on-site installation you can start out small, using a few of the modules, and expand to use additional modules as you need them. Let the use of the software grow with the features you gradually employ and the number of users within the organization that progressively move over to the new system.
  3. For companies that have existing infrastructure, or that need to keep the application “in-house”, on-site installation are often the only solution.

Private Customizations

Look for software that includes user-level design and configuration tools for as many aspects of the software as possible (which can also be limited if required), especially to control layout and reporting functionality (e.g. look for software that can help you build the reports you need). This will keep private customizations to a minimum.

 

These are some of the major factors that are part of the equation and affect the TCO of any ERP solution. The challenge is to choose an ERP solution that not only fits your business requirements, but can help you address and minimize even these “hidden costs.”

 

By Rebecca Haviv

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The Art of Choosing an ERP Solution

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If you are looking for a blog post that will detail the benefits, functionality or implementation processes of a particular ERP solution you can stop reading now. This post will step back a level and try to see the overall picture of deciding to move forward with an ERP solution, the forest, and not just the trees. Our journey begins with a short description of why ERP software can be an outstanding tool for an organization, and goes on to take a look at why so many implementations fail leaving a bitter taste in the mouths of all involved. The road ends with solid recommended practices, foundations as it were, for a secure and effective ERP implementation.

 

Why ERP?

Even with the economy in trouble and companies looking to cut costs in order to stay afloat, many are still making the decision to move forward with new ERP systems, or continue to invest and develop the ERP systems they have in place, often to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Why? Because ERP systems, when properly chosen and implemented, make sense. In the long run, they ensure better business practices, have the potential to reduce time spent on tasks that can be automated, freeing people up to concentrate on other tasks and improve productivity, and can ultimately result in tangible monetary benefits in the long run. 

ERP systems are not simple. They are, or should be, an enterprise level investment of most of all, time and energy. An ERP system should not be purchased to address the needs of the finance team, or the sales people, or even the people on the floor of a manufacturing plant. An ERP system must be able to address the needs of a company as a whole, and when it does, that company will reap the true benefits of the system. 

Where in the past a company may have one software package for their accountants, another for sales and yet another for their warehouse, using ERP can not only give all of these different entities information across the company, but also give management a bird’s eye view of what is really going on, without the need for complicated reports generated from different systems. How much more efficient is a system if a sales clerk can see if a particular item of merchandise is available in a different store, or in the warehouse, or if not there if it is on order and when it is supposed to arrive – all at his or her fingertips. And that is just one example. Consolidation, integration and the sharing of information. How would it benefit your company?

 

What are some of the other advantages of ERP?

Proper implementation of an ERP system forces companies to get organized. You have to take a good look at the current business practices, make sure they are actually the “best” they could be and are achieving the expected results, and then think about how to make them better. Once this is all documented, it’s time to set rules and constraints in the software to control events. All this translates into establishing best business practices and processes. This is time consuming at first, but once everything is in place, and you know that management will be receiving an email if something out of stock was ordered and didn’t arrive within 24 hours of its expected delivery date (for example), it’s time that is worth investing. And with the rapid turnover of personnel in some companies, the “knowledge” of how a particular task is done is documented to ensure that it doesn’t get lost if a particular employee is no longer with the company.

 

Flexibility 

This is key to a successful ERP implementation, from both sides of the table. The ERP system chosen must be flexible enough to meet the growing needs of an organization, and to be able to change, modify and adjust processes as business needs change within the company. From the other end, the management must be aware that as business needs change, they may have to reinvest time and resources into making sure the software is keeping up with their needs.

 

Conclusion

Deciding on an ERP system is deciding who you want your business to partner with in the long term. It’s a partnership that needs to be re-evaluated periodically to ensure that the software is keeping up with advances in technology and changes in business needs. The ERP customer must be ready to commit to this long term partnership, and acknowledge that implementation is an ongoing process. Ultimately, the rewards will become apparent.

Future posts will address some of the pitfalls of ERP decision making processes and implementation, and how to avoid them.

 

By Rebecca Haviv

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