ERP Definition and Solutions

ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) topics covering definition, objectives, systems and solutions.

Compiled by Christopher Koch and Thomas Wailgum

Editor's Note: This article was updated April 17, 2008 to reflect changes in ERP technology.

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What is ERP?

Enterprise resource planning software, or ERP, 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 computer system that can serve all those different departments’ particular needs.

That is a tall order, building a single software program that serves the needs of people in finance as well as it does the people in human resources and in the warehouse. Each of those departments typically has its own computer system optimized for the particular ways that the department does its work. But ERP combines them all together into a single, integrated software program that runs off a single database so that the various departments can more easily share information and communicate with each other.

That integrated approach can have a tremendous payback if companies install the software correctly.

Take a customer order, 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.

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 software 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 vendors’ 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 a company’s 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 road map for automating the different steps along the path to fulfilling it. When a customer service representative enters a customer order into an ERP system, he 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).

People in these different departments all see the same information and can update it. When one department finishes with the order it is automatically routed via the ERP system to the next department. To find out where the order is at any point, you need only log in to the ERP system and track it down. With luck, the order process moves like a bolt of lightning through the organization, and customers get their orders faster and with fewer errors than before. ERP can apply that same magic to the other major business processes, such as employee benefits or financial reporting.

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That, at least, is the dream of ERP. The reality is much harsher.

Let’s go back to those inboxes for a minute. That process may not have been efficient, but it was simple. Finance did its job, the warehouse did its job, and if anything went wrong outside of the department’s walls, it was somebody else’s problem. Not anymore. With ERP, the customer service representatives are no longer just typists entering someone’s name into a computer and hitting the return key. The ERP screen makes them businesspeople. It flickers with the customer’s credit rating from the finance department and the product inventory levels from the warehouse. Will the customer pay on time? Will we be able to ship the order on time? These are decisions that customer service representatives have never had to make before, and the answers affect the customer and every other department in the company. But it’s not just the customer service representatives who have to wake up. People in the warehouse who used to keep inventory in their heads or on scraps of paper now need to put that information online. If they don’t, customer service reps will see low inventory levels on their screens and tell customers that their requested item is not in stock. Accountability, responsibility and communication have never been tested like this before.

People don’t like to change, and ERP asks them to change how they do their jobs. That is why the value of ERP is so hard to pin down. The software is less important than the changes companies make in the ways they do business. If you use ERP to improve the ways your people take orders, manufacture goods, ship them and bill for them, you will see value from the software. If you simply install the software without changing the ways people do their jobs, you may not see any value at all—indeed, the new software could slow you down by simply replacing the old software that everyone knew with new software that no one does.

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