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What is ERP? A guide to enterprise resource planning systems

Thomas Wailgum | July 28, 2017
Enterprise resource planning (ERP) software 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. It attempts to integrate all departments and functions across a company onto a single system that can serve all those different departments’ particular needs.

In addition, ERP inevitably involves compromises. Many departments have computer systems that have been honed to match the ways they work. In most cases, ERP offers neither the range of functionality nor the comfort of familiarity that a custom legacy system can offer. In many cases, the speed of the new system may suffer because it is serving the entire company rather than a single department. ERP implementation requires a direct mandate from the CEO.

Franchising strategy — This approach suits large or diverse companies that do not share many common processes across business units. Independent ERP systems are installed in each business unit, while linking common processes, such as financial bookkeeping, across the enterprise. This has emerged as the most common way of implementing ERP. In most cases, the business units each have their own "instances" of ERP — that is, a separate system and database. The systems link together only to share the information necessary for the corporation to get a performance big picture across all the business units (business unit revenues, for example), or for processes that don’t vary much from business unit to business unit (perhaps HR benefits).

Usually, these implementations begin with a demonstration or pilot installation in a particularly open-minded and patient business unit where the core business of the corporation will not be disrupted if something goes wrong. Once the project team gets the system up and running and works out all the bugs, the team begins selling other units on ERP, using the first implementation as a kind of in-house customer reference. Plan for this strategy to take a long time.

Slam dunk — ERP dictates the process design in this method, where the focus is on just a few key processes, such as those contained in an ERP system’s financial module. The slam dunk is generally for smaller companies expecting to grow into ERP. The goal here is to get ERP up and running quickly and to ditch the fancy reengineering in favor of the ERP system’s "canned" processes.

Few companies that have approached ERP this way can claim much payback from the new system. Most use it as an infrastructure to support more diligent installation efforts down the road. Yet many discover that a slammed-in ERP system is little better than a legacy system because it doesn’t force employees to change any of their old habits. In fact, doing the hard work of process reengineering after the system is in can be more challenging than if there had been no system at all because at that point few people in the company will have seen much benefit.

The on-demand nibble — You're most likely to see this approach in a small or midsize business that has lost its patience for Excel spreadsheets and the fax machine, and in large companies that either have massive operations and will never be able to standardize on one system or have been burned by costly and not-so-satisfying ERP rollouts in the past. In this instance, companies turn to cloud ERP solutions that can offer:

  • Faster implementation times (not having to install software on-premises shaves months off installation
  • Easier and more frequent upgrades (upgrades can happen automatically because the vendor manages the applications and can roll out patches and bug fixes more regularly
  • Lower up-front costs (the software price tag can be much cheaper than traditional on-premises applications because of subscription pricing that is on a "per user, per month" basis as well as big reductions in integration and consulting fees)

 

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