Flexible Business Process Management with ERP – Waiting for Godot?

China Martens of Forrester Research published a great paper last week titled, “Put Process at The Heart of ERP”.  Here’s my favorite quote – “Today’s ERP applications are still too complex and inflexible. Organizations continue to be plagued with customization and upgrade headaches as a direct result of the software’s rigidity and poor match with real-world business processes. Help may be at hand, however, with the emergence of next generation [software applications].”

I applaud Ms. Martens’ work but believe she missed a key point by suggesting solutions are just starting to emerge.  This makes me think of Samuel Beckett’s famous play, Waiting for Godot, where two actors kill time while they wait expectantly and in vain for someone named Godot to arrive.  The capabilities ERP users want, so aptly described by Ms. Martens, won’t unfold the way Ms. Martens’ suggests, and in fact are already available today through BPM software.

Why do I say this? First let’s review some of Ms. Martens’ main points:

  • ERP systems are complex, inflexible, and a poor match with real-world business processes
  • ERP app vendors provide fairly generic sets of automated tasks rather than help for specific business processes
  • Even with good ERP systems, barriers to free data flow across applications remain largely in place

ERP vendors recognize the need to extend functionality to increase process flexibility and make data flow more freely, especially for exception processes that aren’t currently handled effectively within ERP systems.  Ms. Martens suggests ERP vendors will build their own solutions to specific client challenges.  We’ve seen some of this already.  Many Appian clients have told me they first tried using their ERP vendor’s extension for a particular issue, only to abandon it quickly because it didn’t fit their need.  It was aimed, by design and necessity, at solving the average need across a large group of users.  Even in common processes like on-boarding new clients and handling financial exceptions such as deductions management, companies have plenty of nuances in their businesses that make solutions designed for an average organization a poor fit.  Will this change? I doubt it.  I expect ERP vendors will continue to follow the 80/20 rule, putting 80% of their effort into their core platform, with few resources dedicated to process needs specific to individual clients.

The next option Ms. Martens suggests is ERP vendors opening up APIs and creating “app stores” for third parties to share and sell extensions to handle specific problems.  It’s natural to think of applying the wildly successful Apple App Store to an ERP world, but I foresee many problems.  Large companies often have multiple ERP systems, either from independent business units making their own choices or through acquisitions.  Companies that I’ve seen standardize on one ERP vendor often have multiple instances running different versions.  Will independent app vendors build programs that work across this disparate “middleware” layer? I doubt it.  Without that, there’s not a complete solution.

I said earlier that the solution to the ERP business process problem is already here today.  So what is it? It’s Business Process Management (BPM) software.  BPM is designed for flexibility so users can easily create applications that fit their specific processes.  BPM can integrate with external systems to pull information into a process and write the results back.  It can be deployed across different systems so users have a single interface to cross-system processes.  When business conditions change (and aren’t they always changing?), BPM applications can be quickly adjusted to fit a client’s specific evolving needs without having to wait for a vendor to update a software product.

BPM is the solution to circumvent the ERP process-gap challenge.  But not all BPM systems are created equal.  Flexibility and ease of use are key.  You want a product that’s equally at home on-premise and in the cloud, allowing you to choose what works best and migrate from one to the other.  The business world is going mobile and social faster than most would have ever thought.  You need mobile BPM. Your BPM platform has to automatically mobile-enable the processes you build so they work across all mobile platforms – without you having to build mobile apps.  And you need social BPM to truly speed up processes. BPM needs to have social collaboration tied to process driven events, allowing your team to collaborate with context.

So the next time someone comments to you about the inflexibility and limitations with your ERP system, ask yourself, “Am I ‘Waiting for Godot’ – awaiting a solution at some point in the future  that may or may not solve the problem – or am I ready to take advantage today of the ultimate solutionBPM from Appian.”

Evan McDonnell

Vice President of Solutions