An ERP system combines software systems from departments like finance, human resources and warehouse management into a single, integrated software program that runs off a single database so that the various departments can more easily share information and collaborate.
It's a tall order to build a single software program that serves the needs of the finance department as well as it does human resources and warehouse management. Each of those departments typically has its own software system optimized for the particular ways that it works. But that integrated approach can have a tremendous payback if companies install the software correctly.
Take the ordering process, for example. Typically, when a customer places an order, that order begins a mostly paper-based journey from in-basket to in-basket around the company, often being keyed and rekeyed into different departments’ computer systems along the way. All that lounging around in in-baskets 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.
What is ERP?
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 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. Most ERP software is flexible enough that you can install some modules without buying the whole package. Many companies, for example, will just install an ERP finance or HR module and leave the rest of the functions for another day.
How can ERP improve 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 it 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 developed CRM software or acquired pure-play CRM providers that can do this); rather, ERP takes a customer order and provides a software roadmap for automating the steps along the path to fulfilling it. When a customer service representative enters a customer order into an ERP system, he or she 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).
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