The prediction from the movie Back to the Future, that cars would be flying in 2015 sadly didn't come to fruition, yet there is no doubt that cars have come a long way since 1985.
The same cannot be said of enterprise software and especially Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) applications. In an era when a car can drive itself, the business systems running our organizations are still cumbersome, clunky and very manual. They rely on laborious data entry, which then has to be checked to correct any mistakes. Then someone has to manually start each process, and check the outcome for exceptions – and so it goes on, day after day. It sometimes feels like you`re running a 1985 model – and in many cases you are…
ERP is changing though. It is time for a radical shift.
From cosmetic UI to digital UX
In the last few years, attention to user experience (UX) has been coming to the fore in ERP design. This has led to improved user interfaces (UIs) but the overall experience consists of so much more than just the look and feel. Often, UI improvements are merely cosmetic and the underlying processes are the same.
It’s true to say that in general we’re still awash with documents - the idea of the paperless office hasn’t really materialised yet, with many of us still printing expense sheets and receipts. To a certain extent, workflow/process management have helped and automated what used to be manual document flows and a manual hierarchy of approvals. But the processes underneath are still lengthy, complicated and inflexible.
Instead of making slight improvements to UIs based on the same processes, the goal must be to simplify business processes by digitizing and automating them to the extent that the majority of traditional business processes will be almost 100% automated, liberating people from tasks that in essence provide no value to the business.
In fact, many of the traditional ERP processes should no longer be relevant as they no longer exist in the world of true digitization. We live in a world where everything is online, things are updated instantly. ERP will have to reflect that as well.
We should challenge every ERP-business process and rethink why a user interface is needed as an interaction point in the process; even ask why we have these processes in the first place.
By using machines and computing power to do what they are best for and applying advanced analytics and intelligence, systems can eliminate the majority of manual steps related to business processes as well as eliminating some business processes altogether. With all the computing power and the data available, there is no need for many of the traditional processes anymore. We can move towards a self-driven, intelligent ERP.
Let the machine analytics take the strain
New predictive technologies provide huge opportunity for assisting users and eliminating as much manual data entry as possible. Analytics is the core to fully automating any process and analysing data is the core of understanding the surroundings, identifying patterns, predicting behaviour and identifying exceptions, as well as screening to make data personal and relevant. This is making the most of the power of machines.
Users should be involved only when really needed, that is, when common sense is required. When users interact, business systems must deliver a great experience, similar to the best experiences we have from our favourite personal applications, from any device.
To give a real-world example, UNIT4 is currently working on the use of predictive analytics to support the project manager when creating a new project estimate. It is a very simple use case, but can provide huge value. If a company has already run hundreds of projects and your ERP has captured all the budgets, forecasts, re-forecasts, timesheets, expenses, invoices and other actual costs related to the project, the ERP can make a prediction on the time and cost of the next project to be estimated. It is all about leveraging the data, defining patterns, clustering similar types of projects and using machines for what they do best – processing vast amounts of data. There’s no reason why the machine can’t work out the best project plan, propose the best resources available and the right competence for each job.
The final decisions must be taken by the project manager – there is still a lot we humans do better than machines. Making qualified judgements based on experience is one of the things we do better, but systems will provide the support for making those decisions.
Payroll is the first example of how we are turning a very complex process that usually involves a lot of manual work into an automated, exception-based experience with less UI than before.
The system will tell the user when the next payment is due and creates the payment proposal which is generated automatically. Once the payment proposal has run, the system will automatically warn the user if there are potential errors and areas to look into. Rather than looking through large datasets to find exceptions (such as, are all our new employees included, are there payments with negative amounts, are there payments above or below a certain threshold and so on) the system will surface these exceptions. If you need to make changes, the user can do it there and then. No need to rerun the proposal or start the process all over again. All of this from one dashboard means less UI.
So the next time your car parks itself, think about having a similar experience when paying your employees. Sit back and let it happen in the knowledge you can take control if needed.
We`re still a while away from completely self-driven ERP applications, and perhaps there’s a limit to how far we should go. Humans do play an important part and will continue to. After all, running a business is much more complicated than driving a car. But there is still a lot we can improve in the quest for better usability to enable the next generation of workers to work smarter, faster and more collectively than before. We are taking that very seriously – our mantra is “the best UI is no UI”.
Image credit: Self-driving car © RioPatuca Images - Fotolia.