Enterprise resource planning (ERP) software is a strange beast: invisible to those who don’t encounter it directly, it nevertheless is at the heart of most. At its best ERP allows for a global view of business resources and process, from cash on hand and stock to customer orders and finances.
If it sounds useful, it also sounds like the kind of thing that only large enterprises can implement. Not so, said Justin Lawless, chief executive of Intact Software. Every business can make use of ERP.
“Size doesn't necessarily matter; it’s more about the attitude and the approach to business. You have a lot of smaller businesses that use accounting software and maybe a few disconnected spreadsheets. Now they’re looking at ERP and it’s more affordable than ever,” he said.
Intact’s key EPR product, Intact iQ, has a long history in the market and is designed to be flexible and customisable for all kinds of business needs. One growing area is online retailing, both business-to-business and business-to-consumer.
“We've been doing this for over two decades and we’ve seen interesting trends in the last four years in particular. Traditionally you’d have bricks and mortar but now it has become more omni-channel,” he said.
In the online sphere, expectations have been raised and business-to-business operations increasingly have to meet expectations set in the consumer arena.
“They’ve had to adapt to that customer demand. Businesses are [themselves] made of consumers – they have certain expectations that they pick up from the likes of Amazon,” said Lawless.
Intact iQ meets this by being customisable.
“The product is fully ready out of the box. It works as ERP from start to finish, but it’s built to be as flexible as a fully custom system.”
Key performance indicators (KPIs) are a typical area of customisation, but Intact iQ’s flexibility goes a lot further.
“You can be up and running in a couple of days or you can customise it very specially,” he said.
It is also tailored to flex and can be as either an on-premise system or in the cloud.
“The answer doesn’t have to be 'no',” said Lawless.
But when it comes to ‘yes’ and ‘no’, is it hard to persuade businesses to upgrade their systems? Lawless said that the centrality of ERP can result in a certain conservatism but, on the other hand, new needs are making themselves known in the contemporary world. As a result, the process tends to be consultative.
“People are not looking to change ERP systems for a laugh. There’s usually a problem or a benefit; they want to know the things that other people in the industry are doing and they will know what they are doing.
“After a few weeks you usually know what you should be monitoring [but] there is a factor of unknown unknowns, outside the core financial guidance and KPIs,” he said.
Some upgrades come when older systems are simply no longer suitable for modern business processes.
“We do have a lot of companies coming from old Unix systems and [even things like] COBOL, and they've been locked-in for years and have known they needed to move, but found it difficult,” he said.
“The sales process can take a year. You almost have to build a solution for them to see it run. ERP is running someone’s business; it's the heart of things. We call it a heart transplant.”
New technologies that customers want to bring into their business includes machine learning (ML). But, again, flexibility has come into the picture: the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is the kind of event that bedevils intelligent machine processes.
“We have predictive modelling for purchasing, but who could have predicted what we’re going through now?”
The key is to ensure humans remain in charge.
“Most people don’t want computers making decisions; they want the guidance of the computer, but they want a human making the decision,” said Lawless.
The uses remain real, though. Intact Software worked with a professor of management and forecasting to develop algorithms for predictive inventory control and management.
“One of the things ERP should do is, if your business is entitled to discounts and rebates if you hit a certain amount, it should drive you toward that,” he said.
For Lawless the right approach is to understand if your current ERP system truly understands your business.
“Is now a good time for ERP change? How do you know when it’s time? If you suspect it’s time you changed, then it’s probably time. It doesn’t cost anything to engage an ERP vendor,” he said.