by Thomas Wailgum

Why Can’t ERP Software Be More Like Pandora Radio?

Nov 10, 2010
Enterprise Applications

Lumber Liquidators' painful SAP rollout shows why employees need software that reflects individual tastes and needs.

While listening to Pandora Radio the other day, I had a minor epiphany. For those who don’t know, Pandora is a 10-year-old Internet radio service that allows its users to create their own “radio stations” based on their individual musical tastes.

After offering up a couple of your favorite musicians, the music starts to flow. Every so often, Pandora throws in a new artist that the service thinks you’ll like. You can say yes or no to the new artist’s song. If you don’t like the artist, then Pandora will play a song from an artist that it knows you’ll like, that you’ll feel comfortable about.

The service eases you into the new by never veering too far from the familiar. And it’s so darn easy to use that “change” doesn’t feel like “change” at all. Even though change is, indeed, happening.

How does Pandora Radio do all of this? It’s called the Music Genome Project, a serious undertaking to analyze, deconstruct and capture all the details that make a song a song. Pandora, according to its website, is able to “scan its entire world of analyzed music, almost a century of popular recordings—new and old, well known and completely obscure—to find songs with interesting musical similarities to your choice.”

Back to the minor epiphany: Everything about using Pandora makes me contrast it with how companies roll out enterprise software to their users today (especially in traditional on-premise software deployments).

Just look at the troubling experience of Lumber Liquidators, a $500 million discount flooring chain, as it rolled out SAP’s ERP software. The software, though complex, worked fine; the problem was with those Lumber Liquidators employees tasked with using the software.

CEO Jeffrey Griffiths noted on a conference call that employees’ difficulties adjusting to the new software—they had previously used manual processes and spreadsheets—caused a “weak” third quarter: lower productivity led to an estimated $12 million to $14 million in unrealized net sales, reported Chris Kanaracus, in an IDG News Service article.

Now, I don’t mean to single out SAP; this situation could happen (and has) with scores of other enterprise software vendors. And, of course, Lumber Liquidators would not be the first company to flub change-management processes and user training when rolling out an ERP system.

But just think of how different a user’s experience would be if ERP software could work like Pandora Radio: A user inputs his role on an easy-to-consume GUI page; the system then walks the user through one or two core software processes and gets them familiar with those pages; “What else do you work on?” asks the system; the user inputs a new process related to, say, invoicing, and the system introduces him to the new process and page; the user works on that, then goes back to the core process pages that he’s familiar with to see how the new process dovetails with the already learned ones; when the system offers a pre-built process or task that the user doesn’t need to know about, the ERP system can remove that view from the user’s tasks list.

In addition, pre-defined user roles and tasks could also help steer users through all the tasks and pages they need to know, again removing the extra software functionality “noise” that can overwhelm anyone. Users could also explore new features once they become familiar with their core tasks, with the help of the software guiding it through the training.

I’m not sure of how the “change management” plan at Lumber Liquidators ran, but it’s high time to chuck paper-based manuals, boring “classroom” settings and 30-minute YouTube instructional videos.

Eric Kimberling, of Panorama Consulting Group, notes in a related blog post of the importance of user acceptance of new ERP software. He urges companies to:

Ensure that employees have adequate IT skills in general, especially if they are going from a completely manual business process environment to a powerful, automated and complex ERP system. This requires much more than transactional training; it also requires that employees are given plenty of time to become comfortable with technology in general.

Listen, I understand that I’m not a software developer, project manager or change-management specialist. I have, however, been a user on many software rollouts. And it seems to me that to stay relevant (and not end up being a contributory factor to your customer’s “fiscal disaster” next quarter), enterprise software needs to offer an individualized feel for corporate apps, just like the experience those same users get from using today’s consumer apps.

It’s also surprising that software vendors, consultants and systems integrators haven’t, with their decades of experience, R&D efforts and “innovation” quests, been able to figure out how to better entice users to actually use the software.

Shouldn’t that be the Goal No. 1 of every software installation or upgrade?

Like the Music Genome Project, how about a similar “ERP Genome Project” to better understand how users work, how to introduce new software, and what will keep their interest? That would be sweet music to many users’ ears.

Thomas Wailgum covers Enterprise Software, Data Management and Personal Productivity Apps for Follow him on Twitter @twailgum. Follow everything from on Twitter @CIOonline. E-mail Thomas at