ERP: working smarter, working faster

From two-way radios to smartphones, laptops to landlines, tablets to rugged handhelds no one is beyond reach in today's smart factory - image courtesy of DFC.
Industry's need for collaboration has never been greater.

ERP as a social collaboration tool? You’d better believe it. IT contributing editor Malcolm Wheatley finds out more.

Go back to the early days of ERP, and the word “collaboration” was heard a lot.

Steve Winder, VP UK & Eire, Epicor Software UK
Steve Winder, VP UK & I, Epicor Software UK.

ERP helped people to collaborate, we were told, providing a corporate glue to join together people, processes, and organisational silos.

These days, that initial enthusiasm is more nuanced.

With a more mature understanding of what ERP can and can’t deliver, there’s a growing recognition that workflow is not the same as collaboration, and that those organisational silos remain worryingly intact.

And yet the need for collaboration has never been greater, says Steve Winder, Epicor Software’s regional vice president for UK and Ireland.

“Manufacturers are under huge pressure to bring new products to market in shorter timescales, build-to-order on even quicker lead times, and respond to customer queries while the customer is still on the phone,” he points out.

“ERP helps, but isn’t the complete solution – and emerging business models such as servitisation just add to the strain.”

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At root, he explains, the core difficulty is that ERP is designed around a set of structured processes, codifying them in data entry screens, workflow, and business rules.

“The challenge arises when you move away from these standard structured business processes, and into unstructured business processes: that’s when collaboration fails, and difficulties arise,” he sums up. “And the problem is only going to get worse.”

So what’s the answer? A lot can be learned, says Winder, from looking at the real-life collaboration challenges that businesses face.

Xtrac, for instance, which builds hi-tech transmissions for the motorsport industry, meeting exacting performance standards on extremely short lead times.

Or pump manufacturer Hayward Tyler, where customers demand both short lead times and high levels of on-time delivery performance.

Or indeed, any one of a growing number of Epicor customers coming under pressure to respond in almost real-time to ad hoc customer queries.

“What we see is that ERP has the data that businesses need, but not the social processes that they need,” he stresses.

“What’s required is a way of building social collaboration processes alongside that data, rather than starting again and developing some kind of parallel collaborative community.”

Epicor ERP PQ Oct 2015Which is precisely the approach being taken by next generation ERP solutions, he adds: these now increasingly have “social business” functionality built in, augmenting ERP’s core workflow with an information-rich collaborative environment.

And among those next generation ERP solutions is of course Epicor ERP 10. Designed with social working in mind, it incorporates social “tools” that will be instantly familiar to users who use social media tools at home as individual consumers, says Winder.

Users can “follow”, comment on, and share information, connecting with each other in new ways, leading to improved processes, better decision making, and closer relationships – both within the business and externally, with customers and suppliers.

“And you’re doing it in real time, just as in the consumer world,” he stresses.

“It’s not some separate, off-line means of social collaboration: you’re doing it inside the ERP system—and not picking up the phone, or sending an e-mail, or walking over to ask someone.

“That’s the future of collaboration: ERP for data and workflow, and ERP plus social processes for real-time collaboration.”