Probably the biggest difficulty that companies face in achieving full value from their investments in ERP systems has nothing to do with the capabilities of the technology itself. Rather, the limitation lies in the propensity and ability of the people using the technology to understand and take advantage of what the system has to offer.
With the advent of a concept called Visual Processes, ERP vendor Sage is ushering in an era where the system itself shows users what it can do and walks them through how to do it.
It’s a revolutionary development, says Immo Böhm, MD of Sage solution provider Afresh Consult – but not an unprecedented one.
“Technology today has to be easy to use if it is any good. That’s as true for an ERP system as it is for a smartphone handset. If it isn’t user-friendly, there’s a design problem.”
It is this level of user friendliness which he says Visual Processes brings to arguably one of the most complex software systems likely to be found in the business environment.
“You cannot oversimplify ERP; it is by necessity a complex system. However, what Visual Processes does is to provide insight, context and demonstration of how and why certain processes and actions are taken with the system.”
Explaining how it works, Böhm says the functionality of ERP systems is often contained deep within menus and sub-menus. Visual Processes replace menus to provide a view of this functionality by role and function, providing a ‘picture’ of the business process flow.
“This not only shows the immediate task that is being performed, but also provides context up and down the process.”
Context, says Böhm, is important as it provides the oft-absent "why" for people performing tasks.
“Nobody likes to perform what can be perceived as meaningless tasks; all of the tasks performed in an ERP environment have a specific reason, but this reason is often not obvious. Visual Processes directly addresses that.”
Continuing, Böhm explains that Visual Processes allow the user to click on any step in the process to launch the related application – such as placing a purchase order, entering a receipt, processing a sales order. “The system shows the user what needs to be done, how it needs to be done and why.”
More than that, he says the requirement for process documentation falls away. “Traditionally, it is necessary to maintain records and descriptions of business processes.” And while recognised as essential, documentation is broadly regarded as painful and is often neglected. “Visual Processes builds the necessary instruction and detail into the system.”
Something else that Visual Processes does effectively is role-switching.
“If a user goes on leave or is unavailable, it is straightforward to put another person into their role without having to create a new user, provision him or her and provide access. Because the system shows the relief worker what they need to do, it becomes a simple process of moving a user into the role for the short term.”
With a system that requires reduced training – in particular, practically eliminating the need for "refresher" courses to ensure that staff take advantage of the full functionality of the system – Böhm moves on to another advantage offered by Visual Processes.
“The system allows for a level of flexibility to customise views depending on the role of the user. It also allows for processes to be adjusted and customised to suit the particular way of doing things in any one organisation,” he explains.
Böhm says this directly addresses the commonly-encountered issue of a mismatch between the ERP system and the business processes of specific companies, which can often differ.
At present, Visual Processes is available in Sage ERP X3, but Böhm believes this is a step forward to the future of enterprise software.
“Systems which are easier to use and which have some intelligence in terms of showing the user what, how and why they need to perform certain tasks will help companies to get the full value from their software, just like a smartphone which shows you how to use it does. It’s just a better way of using a complex system effectively.”