Grasping the ERP nettle

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Grasping the ERP nettle

Spending thousands on an enterprise resource planning system is useless if the staff don't get along with it. Julia Vowler reports on one company's way of moving staff away from paper to a successful automated system

What do you do when you've spent a fortune on a massive enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, which is core to your business, but you find a whole section of your critical end-users do not want to go near it? There are three choices before you:

  • Replace the ERP system with one the end-users will accept

  • Make the system more attractive to the end-users

  • Provide them with a separate system just to do their tasks, but leave the ERP system in place behind the scenes.

    That was the dilemma facing telecommunications consultancy Touchbase, which invested about £500,000 in an all-singing, all-dancing greenfield ERP system - SAP R/3 - to carry the huge increase in business the fast-growing company was experiencing. It became, says IT manager Jane Aldersley, "the smallest company in the UK to run R/3".

    For Touchbase, the option of replacing the ERP system root and branch was unacceptable, and not just because of the amount of money involved in replacing it.

    Running on an IBM AS/400 platform, R/3, says Aldersley, is extremely good at doing what it does best: crunching through core business processes such as accounting.

    "It's a very solid platform, very reliable. It's great for production systems," she says. "R/3 for the back-endhas never been a problem."

    This bliss at theback-end, however, was not replicated at the front-end. A critical segment of the end-user population, most notably Touchbase's sales force, found the new ERP system intimidating and were reluctant to use it, resorting to paper-based files and the more familiar and friendly Lotus Notes already installed.

    "The sales force felt that the SAP system didn't support the sales principle and processes we use at Touchbase. It proved too complex and rigid to deal with the ever-changing demands of our clients and their businesses, and could not store the soft information on clients that is all-important to a service business," says Aldersley.

    When it comes to a computer system that can handle a business environment where sales staff can make up to 50 calls a day, all of which have to be noted and documented - "there was nothing in R/3 for that sort of thing", says Aldersley. "It was proving almost impossible to link in to our off-site call centre, and transfer information about new leads or client opportunities to our sales force."

    Without R/3 to take the burden adequately, she says, "a mix of paper-based system, ad hoc Lotus Notes databases and mail messages were being used that made it very difficult to identify which account manager was responsible for which client, or what stage a client opportunity or project had reached".

    So, Touchbase was faced with the challenge of using the back-end strengths of R/3 while placating its sales staff, as well as solving the problem of an unacceptable hotchpotch to fill the front-end gap.

    "We accepted that R/3 was not good as a front-end for our sales people," says Aldersley. "It's a great system, but it was not particularly suited to all our needs and it needed more customisation to be perfect for us."

    At the time of the R/3 implementation - March 1998, going live seven months later in October - SAP had not yet made available its SAP.com front-end, which, says Aldersley, could be obviating the unfriendly front-end problem for R/3 users.

    Moreover, Touchbase's implementation of SAP occurred at the beginning of SAP's targeting of the small- to medium-sized enterprise sector, when both it, and the value-added resellers -the ERP company's new-found channel to market for this sector - were still low down on their learning curve.

    Evaluating its options

    Touchbase did consider tackling R/3 itself and customising the front-end so that its sales staff would be happier about using it, and the ERP would be better adapted to the kind of customer relationship tasks the consultancy wanted it to do - more easily, flexibly and comprehensively.

    The trouble with this option is that R/3 is notoriously expensive to adapt or customise, simply in terms of the cost of the SAP consultants. Touchbase was using SAP implementor Axon for its ERP installation, which was, says Aldersley, great but also expensive. Did Touchbase really want to spend £1,000 a day on R/3 experts to wrestle with the SAP front-end? The answer was no, and so the third option was explored.

    Would it be best to accept defeat over the front-end issues and simply provide the Touchbase sales staff with a system they did like to use, and which provided them and the company with more of what it was after? The answer was yes.

    Touchbase decided to make a clear systemseparation between

    thecore back-end applications executed powerfullyand reliablyby R/3, and what it realised was fundamentally a set of customer-oriented processes that could be categorised as the newly-emergingcustomerrelationship management (CRM) class of applications. One of the earliest manifestations of CRM was the arrival of self-contained salesforce automation (SFA) packages.

    The next decision was to look for the most appropriate SFA package available. Touchbase took advice from Axon, which suggested the company look at Computasoft Consulting. Computasoft had just written its Involvesales SFA product, which was in prototype. At the time of selection, there wasn't a lot to choose from, says Aldersley. "Computasoft had a local flavour and had done the most work on its product."

    Involvesales had two key advantages, irrespective of the performance and functionality of the product: it ran in the Notes environment and it integrated with R/3.

    Both were crucial for Touchbase. Since sales staff were familiar and comfortable with Notes, this gave Involvesales an immediately identifiable friendliness so far as the end-user community was concerned.

    "The sales people had always been using Notes, and this was just another Notes application," says Aldersley.

    From the corporate and IT point of view, however, it was the integration with R/3 that was even more of a winner, especially with Aldersley. Having implemented a clean, homogeneous, future-proof ERP environment, the very last thing she wanted was to introduce heterogeneity by way of a critical corporate system that would create a legacy environment.

    It is dangerously easy for new, fast-growing companies to let system chaos develop simply because their needs are too urgent and the board is focused on the steep growth curve the company is riding. Adopting the strategy of buying the easiest to hand, best-of-breed products that can be installed fast and hit the ground running, is all too tempting, as is the assumption that integration issues can be sorted out some time in the nebulous future.

    That is a strategy which has resulted in the massive enterprise application integration challenge facing mature companies everywhere.

    Instead, says Aldersley, she insisted that whichever SFA was selected, it had to be capable of being well integrated with the core ERP system. The selection team consisted of herself, Touchbase's managing director and its top business manager, both of whom had been in sales themselves and understood what their sales force needed by way of a computer system. For that reason perhaps, and with their focus on future growth and customer management, they were, says Aldersley, not too bothered about integration with SAP.

    Many business managers find it difficult to understand that IT integration is not a given - it has to be planned for specifically. Some business managers erroneously assume it comes with the product and won't be a significant problem or the lack of it a constraint to future flexibility and progress.

    "I knew we had to be integrated," Aldersley says. Her arguments were persuasive and - after a brief show of force - her concerns were accepted.

    That put Involvesales in prime position for choice of SFA. "The other products looked good, and were very glossy, but they had no integration with R/3," says Aldersley.

    And although their sales people were quick to promise that the products could be made to integrate with R/3, or promised that they could integrate with everything, it wasInvolvesales that had gone furthest down the track, says Aldersley.

    "Computasoft had a tested prototype and could demonstrate that it integrated cleanly," she says. "We could see the data coming through from SAP."

    The product did require more work, however, before it could be installed. Computasoft ran a workshop to define Touchbase's unique processes and work culture and develop the exact nature and scope of what was needed. "There was a lot of customisation," says Aldersley. "Computasoft worked intensively for about two months, and then it came to us for user acceptance testing. It took about six weeks to get to the point when we had a customised prototype in house, and then a further two weeks to go live in July l999."

    End-user training was not laborious, partly because sales staff were already familiar with Notes and saw Involvesales as just another Notes application, but also because, says Aldersley, "they work in a very fast-moving environment and it was difficult to take them out of it to train them".

    Training was kept tight and ongoing "with the emphasis on using the system properly", says Aldersley.

    The system was rolled out to 100 customer-facing staff and is used to manage all of Touchbase's customers. Running on the Notes Domino server, the Involvesales product holds two separate databases that end-users can access.

    The Clients database stores the core information about each of the Touchbase clients, such as name and address. This is imported from SAP automatically, without the need to rekey any of the profile information. It also holds technical data on each client, such as what its communications infrastructure is, plus a historical profile such as whether the client has any outstanding invoices, and a commercial profile, such as the client's organisational values. All this information is necessary for the sales people to have their clients' details at their fingertips.

    The Engagements database holds information specific to individual projects and logs Touchbase's interaction with the customer. Each project has its own engagement document listing the technology, staffing and contract details in the equivalent of an electronic file. It holds the correspondence, work requests, reports, actions and records of meetings in respect of the engagement.

    Lotus Notes' replication ability allows remote workers and people on client sites to up or download the latest information. A salesman can hold customers' relevant data on a laptop as he goes on-site and the locally-held data is updated from the server whenever he logs back in to the office. He can create new clients, which can be fed back into SAP from the Lotus Notes desktop and can also view the state of each client's financial accounts from Notes, and can prompt for payment as appropriate.

    The databases hold the exact type of customer data that the sales staff need, in a form in which they need it. "There was nowhere to hold such data in R/3," says Aldersley.

    R/3 provides the SFA with the financial information required, such as quotes or invoices, which is fed into Notes for the users to access, and all the profiling data is entered directly into the SFA.

    Interaction

    The interaction between Involvesales and R/3 is both ways. If a sales person completes a quote for a prospect, that can be entered into the SFA and is then exported to R/3 to become a prospect in SAP. The R/3 and SFA databases can be mirrored to ensure all the data is held in sync with each other.

    "If you change a customer address in SAP and the SAP server changes, that will be fed to the SFA overnight," says Aldersley.

    There's no complex middleware needed to pass data between R/3 and Involvesales. "We use SAP's Lotus script extension," says Aldersley. This lets R/3 communicate directly with Involvesales.

    Although sales staff can still access R/3 directly, such as for putting quotes on the system, they use it less, she says.

    Having a front-end system just for them "has made a huge difference," she says. "Involvesales supports us in our key area of differentiation in the market, our customer focus and high quality of service. The solution has eliminated the duplication of effort and information that used to take place with the number of different databases and systems our sales force were using. There is now an easily accessible pool of knowledge about clients and engagements across the organisation, which also extends to our telemarketing organisation."

    Touchbase managing director of markets Mike Danson agrees, "Our personnel have access to all client information while on site, which means they can offer a professional service based on accurate knowledge of the client's situation at all times. Our sales force are more content because they have access to the hard client data such as orders and invoices from R/3 without having to use the SAP system to access it."

    Between the combination of R/3 and a customised SFA, the sales culture of Touchbase has been tightened and codified - which can often be a management challenge in many organisations. "The company culture did change because of SAP," says Aldersley. "We definitely needed structure and business processes clarified."

    The aim has been to achieve the best of both worlds. Sound back-end production processes churn away in R/3, with the SFA's customised sales processes reflecting the real way of working among the sales force.

    With major management consultancies earmarking ERP leverage as a key issue for those who have spent serious sums of money on products such as SAP R/3, the principle of spending just a little more to release the benefits is a cogent one. When it comes to getting value for money back from an ERP system, spending a little extra can go a long, long way.

    At a glance

    The company: Touchbase is a London-based technology consultancy and systems integrator for small- to medium-sized companies.

    The challenge: What do you do when you discover that your sales force is still relying on paper-based files because your SAP system is too complex and rigid?

    The solution: Find a sales force automation solution that integrates with the back-office system, minimises data transfer and leverages your investment in SAP. And find a supplier that can implement this solution quickly and effectively.

    The Computer Weekly/Buy IT case studies offer an in-depth analysis of a successful IT project, with expert comment from a panel. BuyIT was launched in 1995 by the DTI and an alliance of top industry bodies to help industry realise the business benefits from information systems. BuyIT has selected best practice examples on a range of projects. Each case study is scrutinised by the BuyIT team of experts who make their recommendations and comments. The BuyIT Computer Weekly Best Practice Series is endorsed by Fit for the Future, a CBI-led, government-backed campaign to get business learning from business.

    The technology

    Involvesales is part of Computasoft Consulting's Enterprise Involvement Suite of self-service applications. It extends the reach and functionality of SAP through the ease of use, flexibility and wide reach of Lotus Notes/Domino.

    Best practice tips

    Peter Duschinsky, secretary, BuyIT Best Practice Group, explains what did Touchbase did right.

  • Carried out a thorough evaluation of sales force automation tools on the market

  • Looked for a solution using an application environment familiar to the end-users

  • Insisted on tackling the integration issue up front

  • Put together a selection team that included senior management who understood the end-user requirements

  • Did not believe the sales claims for products that "could be made to integrate with everything", but preferred to rely on a tested and demonstrable capability to integrate specifically with its SAP product

  • Worked closely with its supplier to introduce the solution efficiently

    Compusoft:

  • Consulted end-users to define the client's unique processes and work

    culture

  • Managed a rigorous feedback process including on-site user acceptance

    testing to bring the solution into the final development stage

  • Tailored end-user training to suit their needs

  • Implemented the whole project in under four months

    Key Benefits:

  • Improved customer focus and quality of service

  • Eliminated duplication of effort and information between databases and

    systems

  • Improved access to accurate client knowledge for whole organisation

  • Improved control over sales processes

  • Leveraged the original ERP investment - sales force now getting

    benefits of streamlined back-office operation

    Coming next

    How does a software system support a call centre with more than 100 employees and a "follow the sun" multi-lingual operation, deal with the problem of 26% of calls being misplaced in the call centre? By tearing up the most fundamental paradigm in call centre technology - the placement of agents into static groups defined by function or skill. In its place, it has implemented a design concept that creates the best possible group of resources for each caller - virtual groups on a call-by-call basis.

    Best practice

    Do you have any comments on this case study or any examples of best practice of your own you think should be considered for this series? If so, you can contact us at cwfeatures@rbi.co.uk

    What the Buy IT experts say

    Chairman, BuyIT Best Practice Group

    Alistair Fulton

    Implementing an integrated enterprise-wide management application can mean sacrificing specific end-user requirements, but then, that's a small price to pay for the overall benefits, isn't it? Not when it's the sales force who can't or won't use it. This case study highlights a common problem - and one company's success in coming up with a practical solution. But Touchbase recognised that bolting on a "best-of-breed" sales management product and assuming it could be integrated at a later date was not the answer.

    BuyIT identified that failure to integrate new and existing systems represented one of the main reasons why projects do not deliver expected benefits and devoted an entire section of the BuyIT Guidelines to this issue.

    Here are just three of the good practice tips we identified:

  • Plan integration from the start and do not underestimate the time and effort needed; simple solutions are often tempting but unlikely to be realistic

  • It is essential that the links between new and existing systems are well-defined - look beyond the technology to the people, processes and information flows supporting existing systems

  • Good communication between stakeholders is vital.

    Member of BuyIT Marketing and Communications Working Group and managing director, IT communications consultancy Kaizo

    Ken Deeks

    Forrester Research recently reported that less than 2% of companies today have a unified view of their customers across sales, marketing and customer-service channels. That's an astonishing statistic.

    The Internet has given rise to huge increases in customer service expectations. However, today back-office systems often lag behind front-office guarantees.

    For companies which specialise in technology consultancy, good customer service is all about exploiting IT intelligently to ensure customer-facing teams work smarter, not harder.

    The Involvesales implementation will certainly improve customer response times, which should help to drive customer loyalty and minimise customer churn.

    By enabling collaborative working, the sales automation process should also escalate staff productivity, and which will also have a knock-on effect on business profitability.

    But the biggest return on investment is likely to come from the competitive advantage Touchbase will secure by introducing a knowledge-based business culture. Touchbase will reap benefits.

    Roy Ayliffe

    Director of professional practice, The Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply and chairman of the BuyIT E-Procurement Best Practice Group

    Touchbase took a proactive and strategic approach to its procurement by:

  • Utilising its SAP implementor Axon to provide market and product information, Touchbase took an intelligent sourcing approach. Axon was in a position to advise Touchbase impartially, which saved time and resources evaluating unsuitable solutions

  • Creating a cross-functional procurement team, it utilised its human resources to the best advantage. The team had a thorough appreciation of what was required from the computer system and commercial acumen to undertake the procurement process

  • Focusing on a set of selection criteria for the solution, the team could benchmark other products and ensure value for money

  • Insisting that the Computasoft product could be demonstrated to integrate cleanly, the procurement team minimised risk.

  • Defining Touchbase's unique processes, work culture and precise needs with the supplier, it addressed the change management and human resource considerations

  • Requiring focused training and support for staff utilising the new system - it ensured successful take-up of the IT solution.


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    This was first published in May 2000

     

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