Enterprise Resource Planning systems (ERPs) attempt to integrate all data and processes of an organization into a single unified system. A typical ERP system will use multiple components of computer software and hardware to achieve the integration. A key ingredient of most ERP systems is the use of a single, unified database to store data for the various system modules.
The term ERP originally implied systems designed to plan the utilization of enterprise-wide resources. Although the acronym ERP originated in the manufacturing environment, today's use of the term ERP systems has much broader scope. ERP systems typically attempt to cover all basic functions of an organization, regardless of the organization's business or charter. Business, non-profit organizations, non governmental organizations, governments, and other large entities utilize ERP systems.
Additionally, it may be noted that to be considered an ERP system, a software package generally would only need to provide functionality in a single package that would normally be covered by two or more systems. Technically, a software package that provides both Payroll and Accounting functions (such as QuickBooks) would be considered an ERP software package.
However, the term is typically reserved for larger, more broadly based applications. The introduction of an ERP system to replace two or more independent applications eliminates the need for external interfaces previously required between systems, and provides additional benefits that range from standardization and lower maintenance (one system instead of two or more) to easier and/or greater reporting capabilities (as all data is typically kept in one database).
Some organizations choose to only implement portions of an ERP system and develop an external interface to other ERP or stand-alone systems for their other application needs. For instance, the PeopleSoft HRMS and Financials systems are generally considered better than SAP's HRMS solution. And SAP's manufacturing and CRM systems are generally considered better than PeopleSoft's equivalents. So an organization large enough to justify the purchase of an ERP system, may choose to purchase the PeopleSoft HRMS and Financials modules from Oracle, and their remaining applications from SAP.
ERPs are cross-functional and enterprise wide. All functional departments that are involved in operations or production are integrated in one system. In addition to manufacturing, warehousing, logistics, and Information Technology, this would include accounting, human resources, marketing, and strategic management.
To implement ERP systems, companies often seek the help of an ERP vendor or of third-party consulting companies. Consulting in ERP involves three levels, namely top level systems architecture, business process consulting (primarily re-engineering) and technical consulting (primarily programming and tool configuration activity). A systems architect designs the overall dataflow for the enterprise including the future dataflow plan. A business consultant studies an organization's current business processes and matches them to the corresponding processes in the ERP system, thus 'configuring' the ERP system to the organization's needs. Technical consulting often involves programming. Most ERP vendors allow modification of their software to suit the business needs of their customer.
Customizing an ERP package can be very expensive and complicated, because many ERP packages are not designed to support customization, so most businesses implement the best practices embedded in the acquired ERP system. Some ERP packages are very generic in their reports and inquiries, such that customization is expected in every implementation. It is important to recognize that for these packages it often makes sense to buy third party plug-ins that interface well with your ERP software rather than reinventing the wheel.
Today there are also web-based ERP systems. Companies would deploy web-based ERP because it requires no client side installation, and is cross-platform and maintained centrally. As long as you have an Internet connection, or a network connection to a system installed on the LAN, you can access web-based ERPs through typical web browsers.
How can ERP improve a company's business performance?
ERP’s best hope for demonstrating value is as a sort of battering ram for improving the way your company takes a customer order and processes that into an invoice and revenue—otherwise known as the order fulfillment process. That is why ERP is often referred to as back-office software. It doesn’t handle the up-front selling process (although most ERP vendors have recently developed CRM software to do this); rather, ERP takes a customer order and provides a software road map for automating the different steps along the path to fulfilling the order. When a customer service representative enters a customer order into an ERP system, he has all the information necessary to complete the order (the customer’s credit rating and order history from the finance module, the company’s inventory levels from the warehouse module and the shipping dock’s trucking schedule from the logistics module, for example).
People in these different departments all see the same information and can update it. When one department finishes with the order it is automatically routed via the ERP system to the next department. To find out where the order is at any point, you need only log in to the ERP system to track it down. With luck, the order process moves like a bolt of lightning through the organization, and customers get their orders faster and with fewer errors than before. ERP can apply that same magic to the other major business processes, such as employee benefits or financial reporting.
That, at least, is the dream of ERP. The reality is not so rosy.