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Web-based ERP improves productivity, customer satisfaction

Many larger enterprises are incorporating Web 2.0 into their ERP software to improve collaboration and information sharing among employees and customers.

Accessing ERP systems via the Web is becoming a reality for many companies, including Fidelity National Real Estate Solutions (FNRES), which got into Web-based ERP by way of e-commerce.

Processing a Web-based customer order used to be a lengthy, labor-intensive job, according to Todd A. Voge, manager of enterprise business solutions at FNRES. The salesperson had to contact the customer care center, which would enter the order into the financial system, then notify the shipping department, which would package it, generate the install code and serial number, and ship it to the customer. Total turnaround time: one to five days.

A year ago, Voge's group bought Service Connect, a Web-based workflow and business integration platform offered by Epicor Software Corp. "Now, order fulfillment is immediate," Voge said. The moment an order goes through, an XML file containing purchase and customer data is sent to Service Connect, whose workflow engine manages the whole process of recording the sale, getting sign-offs if applicable, and generating and sending the serial number and code that permits the customer to download the software from FNRES' Web site. Total processing time: minutes.

Apart from boosting customer satisfaction, the new ERP system enables salespeople, accountants and other workers to focus on other things besides getting orders out, Voge said. "We've taken about 95% of human interaction out of order processing."

Collaboration driving Web-based ERP trend

Enterprise CIOs are turning to Web-based ERP systems that incorporate languages like XML and HTTP, and Web tools such as portals and peer-to-peer networking. The goal is to provide users with more seamless integration, easier data access and richer collaboration across corporate back-office systems as well as customer-facing systems such as sales, marketing and customer relationship management.

Driving this demand is a highly collaborative, information-driven business environment that extends beyond the firewall to customers and business partners. Enterprise CIOs also see Web tools as a means of addressing increasingly stringent "time-to-market concerns, and the need to be able to access people, information and other resources quickly, at any given point in time," said Ray Wang, a principal analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass.

Major players like SAP AG and Oracle Corp., as well as smaller firms like Epicor, QAD Inc. and Lawson Software Inc., have come out with Web-based ERP systems, and are starting to incorporate Web 2.0 tools such as Really Simple Syndication (RSS), wikis and mashups.

We've taken about 95% of human interaction out of order processing.

Todd A. Voge, manager of enterprise business solutions, Fidelity National Real Estate Solutions

"Enterprise Web 2.0 is now delivering substantial business value around collaboration and productivity, and has reached the 2008 priority list for many enterprises," states "Top Enterprise Web 2.0 Predictions for 2008," a Forrester report. A McKinsey & Co. global survey of 2,847 IT executives, published in March 2007, found that 80% of respondents were either using or planning to use Web 2.0 services. Of those currently using Web 2.0, 70% were using it to interface with customers, 51% to interface with suppliers and partners and 75% to manage collaboration internally.

"Web 1.0 was about single-user access, clicking around the Web," said Scott Hays, senior director of product marketing at Epicor. "2.0 is not just collaboration but about taking action immediately with other people." For example, a sales manager can use a mashup to pull together sales data from a variety of internal and external sources, create a portal page, then contact colleagues online and do a group analysis of the data via the portal.

A financial manager can also arrange to get a pop-up on his desktop RSS reader every time a customer makes a big payment, or goes into credit-hold status.

Web-based ERP challenges and opportunities

Getting IT staffs and end users to buy into a corporate-wide Web-based ERP system can be a major challenge. "It was a huge paradigm shift for us, requiring changes to all our processes," Voge said. The breakthrough came when his group threw together some sample applications "to show what we could do with it."

FNRES' long-term plans for Epicor's Web-based ERP system go way beyond automated order processing, Voge said. Having grown substantially through acquisitions during the last couple of years, the real estate services firm is "replacing a lot of home-built ERP and CRM systems" with Epicor's Web-based ERP suite. Voge's group is using Service Connect's Web tools "to bring everything together under the same back-end umbrella," and integrate back-office systems with CRM and other customer-facing applications.

Another exciting possibility, Voge said, is to use Service Connect to automatically send tasks or specific requests entered into the ERP system as Microsoft Outlook attachments.

The real estate services company is currently beta testing Service Connect version 8.3, which uses standardized Web services to take much of the grunt work out of creating and updating workflow tasks, "So you can react to market changes quicker," Voge says. "That's big for us. There's a lot of potential in Web-based ERP that we're just beginning to explore."

Elizabeth Horwitt is a freelance writer based in Waban, Mass.

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