Most organisations of any size will be running a form of ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) and probably have been running it for a number of years now. They were implemented for two main reasons. The fear that time was running out for the old systems because of the year 2000, usually remembered as the apocalyptic Y2K, or the promise that ERP would run all elements of our business and save huge amounts of money and make us more efficient.
The business benefits were bold and one that had executives frothing at the spreadsheet with excitement. One system that can run everything. Why would we not buy in to that vision?
So, we’re nearly 25yrs down the line, some of these implementation projects have still not been signed off as finished, some look nothing like the plan on the whiteboard from 1993 and most never delivered on the promise of doing everything for everyone. In some cases operational costs even went up as a result.
Did the ERP vendor oversell its capabilities? The harsh truth is that the businesses we mapped out were never that simple. The time it took to implement means that things changed and the new systems never could to take into account operational systems that had been in place for 20 years prior.
The problem is, now these systems are embedded in businesses, they couldn’t be turned off, even if we wanted to - and the business environment keeps relentlessly changing.
It’s not all doom and gloom, on the plus side some of the fundamental mechanics of the business haven’t changed and are being served very well by ERP. Finance Operations, Warehousing and HR largely still do what they always did, and huge volumes of repetitive tasks get concluded each month like clockwork. It’s the subtle changes, that are too costly to change, that are the problem.
An example of this: A utility organisation has a process when customers challenge meter readings as incorrect. The customer will be on the phone to a representative for over 25mins. The time taken is mainly the representative stepping through several ‘awkward’ ERP screens, log into a separate billing systems and log in to another metering system as well. That’s what takes the time, not the task itself - switching from system to system and keying and rekeying information within ERP - the process now doesn’t quite match the one mapped out 20yrs ago.
As the business landscape changes, new ways of doing business and technologies to support it emerge. Yet, despite these new and exciting ways to interact, we still generate invoices, process purchase orders, move stuff around in warehouses and pay people – there is still a place and need for ERP.
So, is there an answer to this lack of flexibility, integration headache and fancy new technological advances? The rise of process robotics and more recently Intelligent Automation is helping drive efficiencies back in to ERP systems, bridging the gap between the systems and the technology, and more importantly driving the costs of human transactions down to pennies.
So, lets pick some off. Using Intelligent Automation, back office functions are being transformed where digital labor is now processing thousands of administrative tasks in area such as finance and operations. This frees up resources to work on more value-based tasks or reduce the costs of outsourcing to low cost centres to handle volumes.
Because Virtual Workers don’t care about how ‘awkward’ a system is to use. They will step through any number of screens in an ERP system, log on and log off into as many disparate systems as are necessary to conclude a task, and do it way beyond human scale and speed, without error or boredom creeping in. So, even in a customer service environment, a call agent can gather all the information needed for a task, up front, pass that to a Virtual Worker and they can then step through the ‘awkward’ system in the background. This effectively cuts the time on the phone for a customer from 25 minutes to just 2 minutes.
The list of uses and business cases for Intelligent Automation within the landscape of existing ERP systems and legacy applications is almost endless. This is because the way it does what it does, costs a fraction of the traditional IT change project and certainly less than a Digital Transformation Program. But don’t just take our word for it, in a recent article even SAP has mentioned that to make their ERP better they need to introduce RPA, or intelligent automation.
In summary, ERP wasn’t a bad choice and with the speed of change at the time and the availability of technology, was probably the only choice at the time. No one saw the acceleration of technology that occurred post Y2K, that cost some global brands their businesses; Blockbusters, Nokia and Barnes & Noble to quote just three. The disruption just keeps coming, at pace, without let up.
Intelligent Automation is showing massive reductions in operational costs, bringing together disparate processes and systems without the huge integration costs. Ultimately, freeing people from repetitive tasks that no one wants to do anyway – taking the robot out of the person, if you like.
James Ewing, Senior Client Manager