OPINION: Extending ERP to mobile users

12 Jul 2010

Neville Merritt looks at how users access their company’s in-house systems when they are working away from the office.


The world has changed, and the business world has had to change, too. Our end customers – consumers – now see the world as a smaller place without boundaries or restriction. Where consumers were once happy to buy locally or wait for a delivery, they now demand choice, great value, excellent quality and most of all, they want it now.

This has in turn created a vastly more complex supply chain to meet these demands. Add to that globalisation, deregulation and new technology and you end up with an expansive and diverse supply network.

For businesses operating within this supply chain, the technologies of choice for managing this complexity include enterprise resource planning (ERP), business intelligence (BI) and supply chain management (SCM) systems. These sophisticated enterprise management systems empower businesses to meet the operational, competitive and cost challenges responsively and efficiently. 

As part of the cultural change that has created these consumer-driven business pressures, our working environment has also changed. The distinction between manufacturing, distribution and service companies is less clear.

The need for more mobility

These changes are resulting in an increased need for business and employee mobility as operations move from customer sites to supplier offices to partner premises to the new mobile worker location – “anywhere with a Wi-Fi connection”. This has created a significant challenge for companies that use ERP, BI and SCM systems, as they seek to service remote users as efficiently as office staff.

As our products and services are deeply embedded in this complex consumer supply chain, we were very interested to find out how this challenge was being addressed in the wider market. We conducted our own survey last year, gathering information from nearly 100 manufacturers, distributors and senior executives in Ireland and the UK. The results displayed a wide range of experiences, ranging from the basic “we just phone the office,” to highly sophisticated smartphone systems.

The survey highlighted two distinct segments of mobile workers, the traditional mobile worker and the new segment of mobile worker. An interesting divergence in technology adoption was evident between these two categories.

Traditional mobile functions

The first segment covered functions that were always carried out away from the office. These had previously used paper-based data collection, with information entered into a business system back in the office through a separate data entry process. Examples of these include insurance assessors, delivery drivers, meter readers and field service engineers. The data access or entry function was mainly repetitive and simple.

These functions were among the earliest and most numerous to be automated, usually with custom applications deployed on a variety of hardware from rugged PDAs to laptops. Most are used offline with batch updates, although some now have real-time connection to the organisation. User acceptance was not a problem, either because it was considered easier than the forms used previously, or it was imposed anyway.

New mobile workers

The second segment covers employees such as sales representatives, operations staff and some senior executives who through the evolution of working practices now spend more time away from the office than they would have previously. The system requirements for this category of user were found to be far more varied in nature, but mostly the same as for the traditional office-based worker. The degree and the depth of adoption of mobile applications in this segment warranted further investigation.

The employees that work from a home office, either occasionally or regularly, are almost universally using remote access via virtual private networks (VPN) and broadband to their systems back at the office. It was clear that employees that are more mobile are less well supported and rely heavily on occasional laptop hook-ups using wireless hot spots or GSM dongles. This results in great functionality, but lots of interruption and frustration.

The other major form of mobile connection used by all, but especially the new mobile worker segment, is push email, with BlackBerry dominating. Although not technically defined as access to business systems such as ERP, BI and SCM, email is the easiest and most widely used medium for transferring business information. For example, email attachments are used to update sales representatives on the status of a customer’s order book, and financial reports are sent to executives.

There were few examples of custom business applications developed to service the needs of employees on the road. Given the sophistication and level of adoption of mobile applications by the traditional remote worker, this relatively simple use of systems by the “executive” category was surprising at first glance, however, a deeper analysis reveals some more interesting facts. First, scale was significant. Many companies had only a few executives needing access to systems when mobile, making it more difficult to justify the cost of developing custom mobile applications for a small number of users.

Secondly, executives’ need for mobile systems was largely determined by the sophistication of the systems they were using in the office. If their use of BI or ERP while in the office was limited, then they would neither expect nor need access to those systems remotely. 

This highlights a bigger issue: many companies are not realising the value of implementing true end-to-end business systems. Most companies have ERP systems which are effective tools at a business transaction level but are failing to elevate them to a more strategic position. Linking these remote systems to management information systems brings sizeable business efficiency gains and competitive advantage.

Mobile access to systems usually involves custom applications linking host ERP systems to the executives’ laptops. However, the demand is there for the same capability on smartphones. 

There are some interesting new dedicated mobile ERP applications emerging for BlackBerry right now. They can help sales professionals, among others, to obtain up-to-the-minute information regarding the status of their customer accounts and allow executives to monitor the progress of accounts remotely. 

Information that can be accessed via these new apps include customer details, sales orders, sales pricing, accounts receivable aged summary, account receivable detail inquiry, current inventory, projected inventory, and order and shipping status. They allow mobile employees to check inventory availability, determine customers’ credit status, monitor shipping status and view their client’s pending orders and invoices. 

So it seems that the answer is already here. The technology exists, the applications are available and the desire is there. We as a business community just have to put it all together. 

Neville Merritt is business development manager for Aspera Solutions.