One problem with ERP is that, once you've made the transition, you may feel you've caved in to the mind-set of solving your major functional IT issues with high-powered, high-priced software. Instead, consider that, by implementing ERP, you've installed an infrastructure that gives you the basic components of quite a few important systems. And you won't have to spend a fortune to implement them.
It doesn't matter if you bought an ERP starter kit or the full treatment, loaded with extras. The same infrastructure enables you in any case. Learn the parts, put some creative thought into what you might do with them, and new possibilities will emerge.
Your new parts kit
There are a number of versatile mechanisms that drive an ERP infrastructure, but three in particular are fundamental to integrated, distributed systems and the means of automating them:
processing monitor / component transaction monitor
In distributed systems, it is essential to maintain the integrity of individual data objects. Transaction processing monitor (TPM) technology (sometimes called component transaction monitor technology) exists for this reason. Data can be tracked, isolated, secured, and its movement logged via TPMs. As such, TPMs are essentially "change detectors," and you can build components to spot changes to a file, a database, a directory, or the execution of an application, or to detect the presence of users internal and external, etc.
This is the centerpiece of ERP middleware, and the core technology that enables process automation and application integration. Workflow management middleware is software that performs a mid-level management function, overseeing a group of related applications and data sources to maintain collaborative function and perform error-handling in an extended process. Workflow technology is used to take low-level applications—often combining legacy apps with new ones—and use them as components in more sophisticated high-level apps. The technology can be used to extend applications across departmental, and even company, boundaries.
Without this piece, the previous two are nearly powerless. ERP systems, and application integrations of all kinds, depend on messaging as a fundamental component. Specifically, a messaging system performs communication between applications in a workflow—or even between workflows—and specifies how a data object or some other transitory system component is to be used. It is a high-level control mechanism that compliments the data-integrity function of the TPM by ensuring correct use of data or the contextually appropriate execution of an application, in accordance with the intent of the workflow of which they are a part.
The keys to the candy store
But that's not all. Think beyond the ERP vendor's sales pitch and the hoops you've jumped through to create a distributed systems architecture. You now have in place the infrastructure described above and have wrapped it around your core application systems. Consider that now that it's there, you can creatively apply these components to create additional business-enhancing functions, with a clever developer at your elbow.
Exactly how you will do this depends upon the specific middleware you've purchased, how it's licensed, and the skills of your developer. But the idea here is to make you aware of the possibilities.
Your basic distributed system component capabilities now include:
- The ability to monitor the creation and modification of files, database entries, directory activity, or any other change in your data storage landscape.
- The facility, through workflows, to organize a high-level "skeleton" function atop a complex distributed application, with peripheral events being triggered as routine events in the application take place.
- The capacity to send out notifications and alerts as events in a workflow unfold, to stop an event in its tracks if some condition is unmet, to hold events pending authorization, and to ensure process integrity by initiating human review of data or a process, all via the messaging system.
What can you do with these capabilities?
If you view the capabilities as a new, high-powered IT toolkit, here's a start on how to put them into practice.
Standards compliance: ISO 9001/9002/9003, ITIL, HIPAA, etc.
Many companies are adopting, or being required to adopt, industry quality standards of some kind, from the generic ISO standards to the industry-specific HIPAA to the departmentally oriented ITIL. Imagine a "shell" system encompassing your ERP foundation that is configured to monitor activity on a day-to-day basis, enforcing procedural standards with compliance-specific security, authorizations, error handling, review prompts, and compliance-specific activity reporting.
There are a number of packages specifically for just this sort of compliance enforcement—and they're pricey and need to be customized. Since you're going to go through all that configuration anyway, why not do it with software you've already paid for?
If document handling is critical, the mechanisms described above can be applied to your document control needs. Document control software tends to be static and an "add-on" concern to employees who are already buried in details. Automation of document control can relieve pressure and add additional security to the process of routing documents, tracking their whereabouts and progress in a process, and acquiring sign-offs and acknowledgments.
Help desk functions
The more automation, the better in troubleshooting routine operations for the user. A help-desk layer atop your ERP infrastructure is easily achieved with the tools we've discussed above, and many routine help functions can be implemented. As an example, did you know that 30 percent of all help desk calls are password related? An automated password-recovery process, which is a simple server-to-client interaction, could be assembled so that a help desk consultant is not burdened with those questions.
Roll your own
We haven't even scratched the surface. The primary colors of application integration technology can be recombined to create a brilliant palette of new and vibrant IT capabilities. Think not only of the benefits of creating these functions on such a flexible platform; consider that you won't have to pay nearly as much to implement them and will be able to leverage the software investment you've already made. And you're always better off, regardless of budget, when you encourage in-house innovation.
Scott Robinson is a 20-year IT veteran with extensive experience in business intelligence and systems integration. An enterprise architect with a background in social psychology, he frequently consults and lectures on analytics, business intelligence and social informatics, primarily in the health care and HR industries.