(continued from Part 4 - The World Has Gone Mobile)

Internet Browser Friendly or ERP Citadel?

Non-Browser Friendly ERP Product

Non-Browser Friendly ERP Product

Many legacy ERP systems force users to access the full application via a VPN or Terminal Services connection and a heavy application running on server. This paradigm is affectionately known as the “ERP Citadel” – to enter and access one must cross the drawbridge and moat or else!

ERP vendors who maintain an attitude that “most users are in the office and can access via VPN or Terminal Services” are just sticking their head in the ground!

Look at the IDC graph again (see previous post): where are your customers and employees going? They are going mobile in droves and working outside the office. How are you going to empower your staff to do their job remotely?

If the ERP is browser based (full application runs in an Internet browser and not via an installed application) and is tablet friendly then the entire problem resolves rather nicely!

If your ERP was browser based and supported responsive design concepts then that would open the door to exposing the full power of the ERP and empower external users outside the office:

  • Sales Staff
  • Service Technicians
  • Remote Consultants
  • Professional Service Staff
  • Vendor and Supplier Staff

Users on any mobile device or any computer anywhere in the world can access the full ERP application if it is truly browser based.

That is powerful!  Very powerful – you only have one application to use and customize!

ERP Citadel vendors try to creatively solve this problem by:

  • Providing custom mobile applications for specific functions (e.g. order entry or CRM);
  • Developing dumbed down Internet browser applications also for specific targeted functions.

This is a losing strategy because such applications are very restricted in their capabilities and generally are not very customizable (being proprietary). This puts the business in a real bind as it may be forced into web/mobile development in order to get the applications it needs.

For example, let’s say the business needs to provide a supplier portal to its main partner suppliers in order for them to update drop-ship and custom order POs as well as track their invoices into the business. If the ERP does not already provide this feature and the ERP is not browser based then this requirement now becomes a major web development project in order to get it right.

PICKING AN ERP WINNER FOR THE LONG-TERM

  1.  Have an IT Professional on your side who can evaluate solutions and options and knows your business thoroughly.
  2. Find a dynamic solution: one that is flexible, easily configurable and swiftly modified to meet rapidly changing business requirements
  3. Ensure the solution is fully web enabled: either has a fully integrated web platform or can and has been connected to best-in-class eCommerce platforms.
  4. Verify the solution is Cloud friendly with dozens or hundreds of connected Cloud apps and a vibrant development community building ever more Cloud based apps.
  5. The solution takes full advantage of the exploding mobile market and is fully mobile ready with a website or web application that has built-in “responsive design” such that it will operate on any mobile device with good usability.
  6. External users can easily access the full application from any device anywhere in the world – a browser based solution.

If the solution passes the above muster points then you have a real winner for the long-term!

(continued from Part 3 - Embracing the Cloud or the Grave Yard?)

The World Has Gone Mobile

In 2013 IDC predicted that “87% Of Connected Devices Sales By 2017 Will Be Tablets And Smartphones”. This graph shows the amazing trend to mobile devices worldwide:

IDC Smart Connected Device Forecast

IDC Smart Connected Device Forecast

By 2017, 87% of the worldwide smart connected device market will be tablets and smart phone, with PCs (both desktop and laptop) being 13% of the market.

The point here is that customers have gone mobile and in order to reach them and maintain or improve customer service, a business must have a robust mobile strategy. Having a “website” is not a mobile strategy because most websites present poorly on smaller devices like tablets and smartphones. No, a true mobile strategy in today’s technology landscape means: a website or web application that has built-in “responsive design” such that it will operate on any mobile device with good usability.

Responsive Design means the website automatically changes the design (is responsive) to the size of the device it is being displayed on. Now, that is powerful! It means you do not have multiple versions of the website to maintain and design and pay for – a regular web site, another “version” for tablets and an actual smartphone app.

The key then is selecting and adopting a web platform that is fully integrated with the ERP providing excellent responsive design capabilities. Then you can reach all those mobile users and not lose business because your site is relatively useless on smartphones and wildly awkward on tablets!

How mobile ready is the ERP solution?

  • Is the ERP Cloud friendly? (see previous post)
  • Do best of breed eCommerce platforms providing responsive design already integrate with the ERP?
  • Does the ERP itself have a fully integrated eCommerce platform that supports responsive design?
  • Are there any fully featured mobile applications to the ERP either by the vendor or a 3rd party?

The next long-term viewpoint on ERPs addresses how users gain access to the system.

Read Part 5 – Internet Browser Friendly or ERP Citadel?

(continued from Part 2 - Blurring The Lines Between Web and ERP)

Embracing the Cloud or the Grave Yard?

Cloud Rush

Embracing the Cloud

The “Cloud” is just another way of saying, “applications running in a data center, accessed via the Internet and easily connected to other applications.” Today there is an explosion of Cloud based applications and the really good ones have integrations with a whole plethora of other Cloud applications giving businesses the power of choice and opening the door to selecting and using best of breed solutions.

This is an avalanching trend and any ERP system which is not whole-heartedly embracing the Cloud is slated for the grave yard. Why? Businesses need and want “choice” and no ERP vendor today can provide everything. The IBM or SAP monolithic ERP paradigm is dead.

What would you think if you had to do all of your grocery shopping in one boutique store with no other choices? You might do a lot of “custom” orders to get what you needed but that adds time and cost. You might ask the owner to stock other items but there is no guarantee that will happen. Other customers could stop shopping there, go elsewhere and the store might close: what would you do for groceries then? You would probably go down to that other store giving their customers a lot of choices.

If an ERP vendor is embracing the Cloud with plenty of integrations and lots of 3rd party developers creating solutions, that creates a market for quickly bringing online best of breed solutions or integrating with other systems. Now, that is like hooking up hyper drives to your ERP!

While ERPs try to be all things to all companies they will always come up short in many areas and that is where being able to plug in Cloud based applications easily and swiftly if a real game changer in today’s market.

Here are some examples:

Email marketing platforms being driven from ERP customer lists, target niche lists, campaign criteria and providing metrics back to the ERP (e.g. Acton Software, Marketo, ExactTarget, etc.).

  • Outsourced payroll integration for Accounting (e.g. ADP).
  • Contract and document signing to support Sales (e.g. Docusign).
  • Check writing and mailing (e.g. Bill.com).
  • Niche eCommerce stores (e.g. Shopify, Volusion, BigCommerce).

The list is almost endless and the Cloud is growing by orders of magnitude every year. Talk about choices! Wow!

So, a word of CAUTION is in order if the prospective ERP vendor is not Cloud friendly. How does one tell?

  • Does the vendor have a robust and active 3rd party application marketplace? Think of Apple’s app store. What would you think if you only saw a handful of apps in the store?
  • Does the vendor actively promote, support and certify 3rd party application development firms and apps?
  • How many 3rd party applications are available?
  • How many customers use these 3rd party apps? Are there any customer reviews posted?
  • Does the vendor have an online marketplace showcasing all the 3rd party apps?

Assuming the ERP solution is very flexible with self-service customization options, is web enabled and is Cloud friendly, what else should be considered for the long-term?

Read Part 4 – The World Has Gone Mobile

(continued from Part 1 – Dynamic Businesses Succeed, Static Ones Perish)

Blurring The Lines Between Web and ERP

Web Enabled ERP

Web Enabled ERP

One night you may have woken up as an express train went through your back yard with such a racket that you might have felt the world was coming to an end! That express train was the sound of your competitors flying by with their ERP solution fully integrated with the web.

ERP systems have traditionally been back-end systems for internal staff only with various “add-ons” and “connectors” to provide additional features and access to other systems like eCommerce. Now, the lines are blurring between the web and ERP with every ERP vendor scrambling to provide a fully integrated and seamless web enabled front-end.

Sounds good doesn’t it? What exactly does that mean though? It means that you can build any website or web portal or eCommerce store or any web connection to another system easily, quickly and with the ability to access any data or feature within the ERP without custom development.

Think of two Lego sets: one a castle (ERP) and the other a boat (eCommerce). Goods need to travel out of the castle to the boat, which then takes them to market for delivery with cash being brought back to the castle. You have to hire staff and materials and wagons and beasts of burden to move all these goods back and forth.

Now what would happen if the market could be brought right to the courtyard within the castle? No more boats and staff and wagons, etc! No expensive road improvements and custom boat development!

Similarly, a truly integrated and seamless web enabled front-end for an ERP accomplishes the same thing: no expensive custom integration development, dramatically reduces overhead, streamlines operations, improves customer service and is much more profitable!

Here are some questions to ask to determine if the prospective ERP is fully web enabled:

  • Does the web/eCommerce platform reside along with the ERP and have full access to the entire database? Or, is it a separate system running somewhere else that requires a vendor supplied and supported connector?
  • If custom fields are added to the ERP are they instantly available to the web platform or must custom development be done to expose them?
  • Is the web platform built with modern technology like HTML5?
  • Are best in class B2C, B2B and B2G websites being created with the platform?
  • Are custom niche web portals being built with the platform (e.g. a supplier portal for managing, updating and checking on invoices and POs)?

Now, beyond intimate web enabled ERP applications is the Cloud – think of it like hyper-drive for your ERP!

Read Part 3 – Embracing the Cloud or the Grave Yard?

ERP Technology Maze

ERP Technology Maze

Selecting an ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) solution to run your business is akin to navigating a technology maze and hoping that one does not end up in the sticky dark wondering what went wrong and whom do I sue?

Once one enters the ERP evaluation and selection process – the “maze” – then the ERP vendor song and dance begins in earnest any many a business owner is lured by the sales pitch into a dead-end: a solution that may or may not meet the immediate needs of the business but is a poor long-term choice.

There is nothing worse than that gut wrenching realization that the selected ERP solution was a mistake after having spent over $1,000,000 in company cash: there is no easy “out” when running into that dead-end!

Most business owners know the existing pain points and can evaluate a new ERP from those but looking long-term is the key to making the best decision. Why? ERPs tend to stay in play for a long, long time (8-12 years) because of the initial cost and massive change the organization must go through when adopting a new solution.

ERP systems are complex beasts, have innumerable features and any ERP sales person worth their salt can dazzle a business owner into assuming they are making the right choice when signing the contract. One can just hear the swan song, “but it all looked so great during the demos!”

This post could dive into all the mechanics of how to do a proper ERP evaluation and selection process for immediate ends but the focal point being stressed here is making the best long-term choice.

The first and foremost criteria is: will the new ERP solution provide a quantum leap for the business or only modest improvements in certain areas? Why put your organization through the utter agony of implementing a new ERP solution unless it really can deliver a quantum leap? A new ERP should deliver on strategic initiatives that boost the company and profits! Otherwise, there will be no ROI and a lot of wasted effort.

What is the one critical feature a new ERP must then deliver on?

DYNAMIC BUSINESSES SUCCEED, STATIC ONES PERISH

Dynamic Business Growth

Dynamic Business Growth

We live in a world of terrific change and the business landscape can change very quickly requiring fast action to keep up with a variety of factors: economic shifts, competitors, new technology, acquisitions, business process changes, etc. Thus, businesses are not static things but are live organisms that are either dynamic and adapt to shifting environmental factors or stay static and perish.

ERP systems are notorious for being inflexible and a serious drain on IT resources in order to make necessary changes. If those resources are even available it can take weeks or months or even years to get those changes implemented. This situation has caused many businesses to simply clamp down on ERP modifications and mandating that the “company must adhere to how the ERP works!”

Now, when rapid environmental changes occur how well will that attitude fare for the company?

It is absolutely vital that a new ERP be flexible, easily configurable and swiftly modified without heavy IT resources such that the ERP is molded to how the company does business. Otherwise, the ERP “solution” will become the veritable oxen yoke around the company’s neck: ever restricting business expansion and its ability to quickly respond to market demands.

Let’s consider a significant example to underline the point: a large business merger and acquisition which brings major issues to be solved -

  • Merging the target business’ financials;
  • Incorporating the existing target business’ processes;
  • Integrating with an existing large and successful eCommerce website without re-platforming.

Most ERPs handle financials well so that part should be relatively straightforward.

Handling the unique business processes is another matter altogether: traditional ERPs will take significant, expensive and lengthy timelines to deal with the new processes. It actually may take years before the two companies are successfully merged. This all depends on the type of company being acquired but you can count on all kinds of “unique” business processes that you had never thought of before!

Here are some questions to ask to ensure the new ERP is flexible, configurable and swiftly modified which empowers a dynamic business:

  • Can your existing IT staff make all the custom modifications to the ERP or will it require external professional services?
  • What caliber of IT staffer is needed to make custom modifications? Do you need a $100,000+ per year Microsoft C# or Java developer? Or, does your existing staff need some basic training to make them?
  • How fast can modifications be made? Days or weeks or months? Using internal or external staff?
  • How expensive are these modifications to make?
  • What are the limitations regarding modifications to the base system? Can entirely new functionality be built into the system or must one “wait” for potential upgrades by the vendor?

These points, especially the last one, are critical to understand and a very sharp IT person on your side of the table is your best ally to assess and bring clarity to what is possible with the new system.

Now, what about that eCommerce website that needs to be integrated with the existing ERP?

Read Part 2 - Blurring The Lines Between Web and ERP

Originally posted on Real-World Information Systems Management:

New Technology?

New Technology?

Introducing new technology within any organization faces adoption challenges from the user community for a variety of reasons but a major barrier can be just the learning process of how to use the new technology without disrupting or destroying existing work flows.

Prior to 1868 there was no usable typewriter in existence and thus communication was hand written or using a printing press. In 1853, the record handwriting speed was 30 words per minute. Then the first practical typewriter was invented by Christopher Latham Sholes in 1868 which easily doubled the possible number of words per minute.  Speeds of over 150 words per minute were possible.  Wow, a 5x speed improvement!

Imagine standing there in 1868 with fountain pen in hand and your boss gesticulating about this fantastic new device called a “typewriter” that you now had to learn immediately and that written communication was now frowned upon!…

View original 1,059 more words

A CEO Technology Survival Guide

TechnologyIf you feel the Nerds have gotten you cornered and are a bit confused regarding technology in your business then this guide will help steer you out of the technology labyrinth:

  • Critical computer systems not reliable?
  • IT too slow to respond to the needs of the business?
  • Poor internal IT customer service?
  • Constant headaches from IT?
  • Trouble understanding IT staff?
  • IT acting as a barrier to expansion rather than a business partner?
  • Users seeking technology solutions outside the company?

Would you like a sure-fire plan for IT?

Then, download and read this free guide which will help steer you out of the technology labyrinth that well meaning Nerds may have steered the company into.

Free Download

Cloud RushCloud Services is just a handy way of marketing the concept of leased application platforms running in a vendor’s data center and accessible over the Internet. Thus, instead of owning and running an application on-premise, in your own data center, you are leasing the right to access and run an application over the Internet that is being maintained in a vendor’s data center.

Cloud Services provides many benefits depending on the service being offered:

  1. Hosted in the vendor’s data center removes the pain and hassle of maintaining expensive hardware in your own data center – hardware and software upgrades; Internet connectivity and security; and your own data center logistics.
  2. Reduced cost in the short-term due to the leasing arrangement but potentially higher costs in the long-term.
  3. Simplified application upgrade procedure as the vendor handles that completely within their data center.
  4. Faster to market features and upgrades as vendors typically roll-out new feature releases 2-4x per year.
  5. Depending on the vendor, superior customer service as the vendor controls the entire application environment in their data center.

Now, let’s compare those benefits with the typical on-premise solution:

  1. Hosted in your own on-premise or off-site data center with your staff buying, maintaining and upgrading all hardware and software; monitoring and handling Internet connectivity and security issues; maintaining on-site data center logistics (A/C, power, UPS’, security, etc.) or maintaining your equipment in an off-site data center.
  2. Cost is typically higher in the first year with initial purchase but then drops below the cost of Cloud Services in years 2 & 3 but then spikes as hardware is replaced and expensive software upgrades are purchased.  Calculate costs out to 7 years to determine true long-term costs of either solution.
  3. Software upgrades can be a real nightmare and require professional services from the vendor; or, at least, consume expensive staff time to perform all the upgrade steps including testing.
  4. Frequency of upgrades is usually once a year or even longer depending on the upgrade process and hassle.
  5. Customer service can be challenging as the application is running in your environment and the finger-pointing game can be used to avoid digging harder to isolate problems.

With all of these clear benefits, it’s no wonder it feels like a repeat of the Old West Land Rush but in this case it is a New Frontier Cloud Rush!

CIOs like Cloud Services as they are quick to roll-out, provide key technology solutions without the overhead of building them in-house and reduce internal overhead in maintaining an ever-growing application pool for the enterprise.

Not to paint too rosy a picture here, Cloud Services do have their drawbacks as well:

  • The enterprise data that is locked up in a Cloud Service may be difficult to extract and use in your other applications.  Yes, you may be able to download a data file but in order to use it dynamically in your other applications will require professional services from a 3rd party.
  • Cloud Services do not lend themselves to the concept of Single-Sign-On (SSO) very easily: users will need to manage all their logins separately; or, professional services may be needed to connect into your enterprise authentication system.  The Okta solution may help here.
  • Security of your data is always a concern as it is located in the vendor’s data center and you are relying on the vendor to have fantastic data security.
  • Cloud Services do fail from time to time and while they may hype 100% up-time that is just impossible: systems fail and people make mistakes. Typically the outages are of short duration (a few minutes to an hour) and rarely longer than that.  But, there have been horrible outages, like when Amazon Web Services went down for most of the Eastern U.S. in 2011 with problems persisting for four days.

In some cases on-premise solutions are still the only way to go. Thus, use those Cloud Solutions where they make sense for the business and be sure to retain a core group of internal technologists that fully understand your business and can keep everything running in a coordinated fashion.

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Mulesoft MuleSoft is an emerging startup with a fantastic Cloud platform for connecting Cloud Services with other Cloud Services and On-premise APIs. I had the pleasure of being introduced to MuleSoft via a day at Lightspeed Ventures of Menlo Park, Ca with eight other CIOs (or senior staffers) from around the San Francisco Bay Area interacting with and providing feedback on 10 emerging tech start-ups backed by Lightspeed (see my post The Day at Lightspeed Ventures).

Market Positioning: speed connecting enterprise apps with cloud apps using cloud or premise middleware that provides a turn-key connection solution to 1,000s of published APIs.

Solution: CloudHub™ integration platform as a service (iPaaS) allows you to build and offer repeatable integration applications without creating custom code. Connect applications on premise or in the cloud in a matter of days, not weeks -

Mulesoft

Amazingly Mulesoft has over 13,000 published APIs and actively supports 140 of the most used APIs. Nice! What a joy to have such a resource for connecting your legacy enterprise apps to the ever-growing cloud services without heavy custom coding.

MuleSoft provides the most widely used integration platform for connecting SaaS and enterprise applications in the cloud and on-premise

With the rise of cloud and mobile, enterprises face a choice: become overwhelmed by the resulting explosion of end points or seize the opportunity to gain competitive advantage. Founded on the idea that connecting applications should not be hard, MuleSoft lets organizations harness the power of their applications through integration.

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Salesforce Support OptionsWhen getting ready to ink the normal 3-year deal with your Salesforce rep, you need to safely navigate your Salesforce support options: once you sign then you are locked in for the full 3-year term! That’s right, if you decide you need less support then you are out of luck.

This is an important point on Salesforce contracts: you can always add licences and support options but you can never reduce them.

You have four main support options to choose from:

  1. Standard Success – basic email only support with a 2-business day SLA.
  2. Premier Success – email or phone support with a 2-hour SLA on phone calls.
  3. Premier Success+ – same as Premier Success but you get an assigned Salesforce Administrator to help out on routine functions.
  4. Mission Critical Success – dedicated support teams for large enterprises.

Standard Success is acceptable for low-priority support requests when you are not in a rush. You may need to go back and forth a few times to resolve your issue which may give you a real-world 3-4 business day resolution SLA. Standard Success comes at no charge – free!

Premier Success used to be premier up until April of 2012 when it was downgraded from immediately getting a Level 2 support rep on the phone to having a triage specialist (aka level zero tech) create a ticket for you and arrange to have the appropriate specialist call you back within 2 hours. Now you may get into phone tag which can stretch over many days unless you are tied to your phone.

With Premier Success you pay a high premium for having an on-demand team of triage specialists! The original lure of Premier Success was being able to call anytime and get a competent tech on the phone almost immediately. Alas, those days are gone.

An alternative option is to work with a Salesforce partner to provide on-demand support which should be quite cost-effective in comparison to paying the hefty per user charges for Premier Success.  The folks over at WestCoast Consulting Group provide great support – very knowledgeable.

Premier Success+ gives you a Salesforce Administrator to help out which may be useful if you have routine requests (e.g. building dashboards) but you may be better served contracting with a Salesforce partner.

For more info about the premier downgrade in 2012, see my post Salesforce New Support Model Falls Short.

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