The right process can help with the simplest tasks. I recently had a ‘discussion’ with my kids (because I’m like that!) about the best way to take glasses of water through to the living room if we were having supper in front of the television.
There are four of us, and we like water with our meals, so we have a jug as well. My kids both approach the task in the same way – they fill up the four glasses and make two trips to the living room to take them through, and then come back for the jug, so making three trips in total.
My approach is to carry the four empty glasses through, along with the jug. I then fill the glasses in the living room, and go back through and refill the jug. Two trips. It’s a silly example, but it’s a process, and (unfortunately for my family) it’s the way my brain is wired.
Every little process helps …
Business is full of tiny processes. Even if you are stuffing invoices into envelopes, you need to decide whether it is better to fold them all first and then insert them into the envelopes, or whether to fold, insert, fold, insert, and so on. These are all manual activities, of course, and sometimes we will vary the way in which we do them just to make them a little less tedious, because in the end it doesn’t really matter as long as we get the job done and don’t waste time.
There are other processes that are more important, and not as flexible in terms of the way that we need to carry them out. These might be things like processing sales orders, raising and approving purchase orders, reviewing and issuing contracts, or managing resources or inventory. Perhaps one of the most important processes for any business is managing its customers and prospects, and keeping the sales pipeline full.
Many businesses, therefore, have implemented some form of Customer Relationship Management software (CRM) and this manages that aspect for them. Equally, many businesses have an accounting system, so that they can deal with their invoices, purchases and VAT returns and so on.
What is odd is that lots of businesses have nothing in between. It’s like they have concentrated their software investment on [a] getting customers in the first place and [b] invoicing them. Both critical functions, sure, but the part where they actually deliver their goods and services is often left out in the cold and dealt with manually in some way, or perhaps by a complex series of spreadsheets and internal processes.
Off-the-shelf or bespoke?
The reason that this gap exists in the centre of businesses is because it’s difficult to find ‘off-the-shelf’ systems that work the way you want to work or, if you can find them, they are more complex and expensive than you require because of the need for them to be as generic as possible to fit the widest possible market.
There is also an understandable reticence to buy a bespoke system because everybody has a horror story about bespoke developments. Don’t worry, I have horror stories about bespoke developments as well, and that is why I work the way that I do, with agile and flexible technologies that deliver what a business requires with the minimum of fuss and upheaval.
Many technology businesses engage with their clients from the perspective of the technology – they have a product or service that they are used to delivering in a particular way. This is particularly true of ‘business-wide’ systems; call them what you will – ERP, MRP, BPM and all the other acronyms. They are large, modular, often process-driven, systems that can land on top of a business like a concrete block.
These systems do everything, and very often they do it very well. The problem is that is isn’t ‘everything’ that you want to be done – you’re only interested in the bits that affect your business, but you have to have the whole thing or it doesn’t work. It’s like booking an entire campsite just to pitch one tent.
Very often what you need is something very simple to join up the CRM at the front of your business with the accounting system at the back. What that will be depends on what you do, obviously, but the principle remains the same – look at the business processes first, from the business point of view. Then consider the software you need.
Don’t be frightened of customisation, or bespoke development. The reason these things went so badly wrong in the past was because you had to decide everything in advance, often without any meaningful support from the technology vendor. By the time it was delivered, either your requirement had changed or it simply hadn’t been met by the application.
Agile development technologies, cloud-based customisable modules, and proper business analysis (emphasis on the ‘business’) should minimise the risk of such a project nowadays. Simple, iterative steps can be taken and, with proper control of the project, you can be up and running with parts of the solution pretty early on. You can then build on it, and this not only ensures that you are far more likely to get what you want, but also helps you and your team to become familiar with the solution, thus the need for change management and retraining is much less.
The right system
Unfortunately, there are still plenty of technology vendors who would prefer to force the square peg of their software into the round hole of your business. There are countless articles, blogs and studies that show that the risk of a decrease in productivity following the implementation of an enterprise system is significant – normally down to poor planning and implementation.
It is also very complicated to compare the different vendors properly before you decide to invest in a system, and difficult for non-technical decision-makers to fully understand what the system will deliver. There are plenty of salesmen that will tell you that you will get the kitchen sink thrown in, but there is often a catch.
So my answer to the original question of whether enterprise software will help your business is to say that it will, if it’s the right software and properly implemented. But I would question whether you need it. I bet that 80% of your problems are caused by 20% of your processes, so it’s all about the business analysis. Get that right, and you will automatically be pointed in the direction of the right software for your business.
This means that you need to talk to someone who will look at your business need first, with no pre-conceived idea of what bit of software you are going to need. Someone who will support you through the process of finding and/or building that software, and who will ensure that it is done in manageable, bite-size pieces so that you are not at any point suffering downtime or a drop in your service levels.
I’m obviously not the only person that can do this, but if you’ve read this far, and have found what I have said to be relevant, then I’d welcome a conversation!