Exploiting Your ERP Infrastructure
Well, here's some good news. That no-so-small fortune you paid to go enterprise does, in fact, include some infrastructure that can save you a bundle. If your IT staff is nuts-and-bolts-competent and has a creative streak, you can put together some powerful management systems that would otherwise cost you your other arm and leg.
Most enterprise application environments are enabled by a "nervous system" that overlays your conventional database/application infrastructure. There are three major components making up this system, and they are tightly integrated with your databases, applications and interfaces, and (by definition) very tightly integrated with each other.
The Enterprise Toy Box
Here's a run-down on the super-tools you have in place by virtue of having an ERP system in-house. If you choose, you can take them beyond their original purpose for time- and money-saving initiatives.
Messaging. The primary enabler in many enterprise infrastructural functions is a stateless messaging system, a clearinghouse for intra-app and inter-app communications, to which app and system components can refer for instructions, conditions, and referents of all kinds. This messaging system is, under most circumstances, highly configurable and necessarily flexible and all-pervasive.
If this messaging system can send and receive status and instructions from upline apps for the purpose of informing downline apps, it is equally capable of informing you, your boss, your partner companies or anyone else of the status of a process or event.
You can turn that information and communications power to your advantage, informing new management applications of what's going on within your company operations and processes as they're being executed.
Workflow management. This tool binds together related apps and the resources that feed them into business-oriented configurations, increasing efficiency and enabling the smooth cooperation of legacy apps and newer ones.
You can link work flows together in such a way as to surround a work flow (read: business process) with a communications wrapper that will keep key people informed of its progress, and notify both individuals and processes beyond the workflow that key events have occurred or need to occur.
Transaction processing monitors. Your enterprise infrastructure allows you to monitor interactions between application components, data objects, files and databases, and instances of interfaces. You can follow processes in progress and detect changes in files, databases and other source structures.
Why is this valuable? You can spin this feature to enable reporting on system and app activity beyond your enterprise applications themselves, in effect auditing enterprise activity for your own purposes.
Now we'll look at some examples of what those purposes can be.
Consider using your enterprise toy box to implement home-grown, customized management systems to keep your organization on track. Software for any of these important functions would cost a considerable amount but you already have the basics in place. With some creativity, you can implement these functions for far less than you'd pay a software vendor.
Industry standards compliance. Are ISO, ITIL or HIPAA breathing down your neck? Perhaps you've considered one of the many compliance enforcement packages out there. It's good software performing an important purpose but since that purpose is to keep tabs on daily operations, specific processes, proper notifications and the integrity of key data, why re-invent the wheel? You have the guts of all of these functions already at your fingertips.
Document Control and Change Management. Do your company's operations require the close observation of document change, or the close management of change in products? This need for change management and the orderly control of documents is often found in engineering environments, development groups, the handling of financial products, and administration of legal affairs. Your home-grown observe-and-communicate tools can be wrapped around these important business operations to give you the control you need.
Help Desk functions. Help desk operations are becoming more and more important to just about every company. As our service-oriented marketplace expands, and customer options proliferate, the help desk has risen in prominence.
You can buy help desk software, though the products out there today are somewhat behind the curve. Consider that if you let your help desk operations evolve naturally from systems that are already closely tied to your operations, you can conveniently automate many help desk functions (password recovery, etc.) that could only be automated otherwise at great expense.
This is just a taste of what your IT staff can do with the expensive but powerful ERP infrastructure you'll taken great pains to put in place. Before your next management software purchase, consider building exactly what you need with tools you already have.
Scott Robinson is an enterprise software and systems consultant with Quantumetrics a consultant's collaborative. Robinson has worked with such well-known organizations as the Dept. of Defense (DOD), Dept. of Energy (DOE), Wal-Mart, and Roche Pharmaceuticals. As well as CIO Update, he is also a regular contributor to TechRepublic and can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.