Every IT professional is aware of enterprise resource planning (ERP) and its endless expansion through just about every industry. And while your company might not have gone the ERP route, odds are that it probably will soon. That means you’re going to deal with ERP eventually—even if only to accommodate some partner company.

For tech leaders or staff members on development teams, there will come a day when the CIO sends word that ERP is on the way, and you’re going to have to learn some new tricks. That means there are two options today: you can start digging into ERP now, or you can wait until someone makes you learn it.

For your career advancement, the best move is to take the initiative to educate yourself on ERP. In this article, I’ll examine what you need to learn and why it’s probably the best professional move you could make.

What you need to know
ERP covers a multitude of topics, all integral parts of a very expansive and comprehensive process. In learning what it’s about and how it works, there are some central features you must understand. They are:

  • Business process reengineering: ERP is about leveraging a company’s information, as well as the information resources of partner companies, in the pursuit of more efficient ways of doing business. In general, a company’s business processes already leverage existing resources and information availability optimally in order to achieve the most efficient operation possible. But by reconfiguring information resources, combining and extending applications, and partnering with other companies in the sharing of information, new possibilities emerge in terms of how business processes (such as manufacturing, order processing, and inventory control) may be implemented. Making business systems better is a central ERP objective.
  • Database integration: Most traditional businesses store information by business function. Financial information is in an accounting database, customer data is in a customer database, and so on. ERP calls for the integration of databases into a super-database that enables logical links between records that traditional applications would not require but that process-oriented ERP applications do require. Often, ERP platform software simply creates convenient and easily maintained bridges between existing databases rather than requiring the awkward generation of new databases from old.
  • Enhanced user interfaces: ERP applications, in general, cease to be stand-alone and become steps in a process. Often, a user interface will initiate down-line processes, in addition to its primary function, in highly efficient ways (such as the triggering of updates in down-line databases when a record is changed in the database the user interface is using). It is also often the case that ERP-integrated databases offer wider reporting options via application interfaces than conventional systems do. It is important to learn what options are useful and how this extended reporting may be enabled.
  • Data transport between companies: As the Internet continues to blossom, the sharing of strategic information between partner companies and logistical data between companies partnered in supply chains is increasingly important. The enhanced databases and interfaces of an ERP-based company are made all the more valuable if partner companies are invited to the party. So a broad and detailed knowledge of the various data communication options is essential to an ERP designer.
  • Extended and distributed applications: What exactly does it mean to extend an application or to share in a distributed application? Basically, a conventional information system is much like a farm covered with ponds: you go to a particular pond and scoop out a bucket of water in order to water your plants. In an ERP environment, the ponds are all converted into an irrigation system: the water is routed to the section of the farm where it’s needed. And this includes sharing water with neighboring farms. An extended application has ancillary functions; a distributed application accommodates many users—even if the users have different needs and are all making use of different portions of database records. It is essential to understand how to facilitate this varied use of common data and to familiarize yourself with how a particular development environment can enable it.

How to get educated
Now that you have a basic idea of what ERP is, there are some simple steps to get your ERP education up and running.

Step 1: Start asking questions
There is no better place to begin in pursuing an ERP education than speaking with anyone and everyone who has done an implementation. These can be staffers working for partner companies, consultants who might be in your shop for other reasons but who have done ERP, or fellow consultants you communicate with as colleagues. If an ERP sales rep visits your company and you can corner that person for 10 minutes, by all means do so. Start asking questions, soaking up war stories, and getting perspectives—anything you can do to get a feel for what ERP entails.

Step 2: Read, read, read
There are paper journals, online journals, and books by the score that all focus on ERP. Do online searches on TechRepublic and Google, and you’ll turn up more reading material than you can cover in five years. Pick some good sources and start reading.

Step 3: Choose and study a development environment
There are a number of ERP-friendly development environments (and Java leads the pack). While it may be beyond your means to attend an ERP training course in another town for a large fee, you can certainly home in on a development environment that you can use in the future and pursue it at a much more reasonable cost—and on your own time. For instance, if you choose to learn J2EE, you’re talking about a couple hundred dollars spent on some of the excellent books available and some evenings dedicated to reading them thoroughly.

Step 4: Consider course work
There are many platform-specific courses available for ERP, offered by the vendors and by third-party companies. These are expensive and awkward to schedule and, therefore, are probably out of reach of most IT managers until a CIO springs for the course. But having such courses on your resume can make a big difference when you’re pursuing that first ERP implementation.

The career benefits
If you are considering making a career move and becoming a consultant, a self-motivated ERP education is self-justifying. You will simply be more attractive to a larger number of potential clients if you are ERP-knowledgeable than if you’re not. While many available ERP consulting positions seem to want at least one implementation experience, this isn’t a big hurdle. You can overcome this issue by pursuing certification or simply marketing yourself at a bargain rate. Having an ERP knowledge base but no practical experience is certainly a much better skills position than not having any ERP knowledge at all.

If you realize the probability that your company will soon go to ERP, then a proactive approach to learning the ropes will make you the point person when the CIO begins putting the program plan together. There could be no better career move than to be three jumps ahead when the reinvention of your company gets under way. You’ll be indispensable to the CIO and CTO and a tremendous aide to all your peers.

And keep in mind that even if you go to the trouble of learning ERP only to find that your company won’t be converting anytime soon, your career and potential advancement have been greatly enhanced and will prove beneficial despite your company’s ERP setback.

That’s because unless your company is some kind of unusual standalone that just doesn’t work with vendors or customers, your non-ERP shop is still required to work with partner companies that are. The tasks involved in this kind of relationship include setting up portals, designing shared B2B apps, and, in general, accommodating the partner company that is into integrated and distributed processes.

Once again, you will become the go-to staffer if these tasks are on the table and you’re the one with some ERP know-how.