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:

  1. Transaction
    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.
  1. Workflow
    management

    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.
  1. Messaging
    system

    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?

Document control

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.