There is a movement taking place in the IT industry that is really driven by major consumer technology vendors like Apple, Google, and Facebook. What these three companies do is really starting to set the tone for what people expect from a software application. The expectations of a software application may have historically centered around its ability to solve business problems or to enable specific types of transactions or management processes. Today, the software application is expected to let users communicate and interact with each other the way that they can on Facebook. Organic and guided search as found on Google is also expected, as is the intuitive usability of the iPad.
In fact, employees and managers of most any business are already communicating with each other through various Web 2.0 technologies -- the problem being that all of this communication is taking place outside the bounds of formal and secure IT systems.
While some business software companies work to integrate their offerings directly with online tools like Twitter or Facebook, the real business benefits will come from ERP (enterprise resources planning) and other enterprise software that mimics the functionality of these popular online tools. This serves to improve internal communication and pull company business currently taking place outside of ERP systems back into the enterprise.
The critical role of security
One primary deliverable of an ERP solution is the enhanced data and organizational security that result from access to company data being strictly controlled. Security is also provided by the ERP's ability to control which individuals within a company can complete various business tasks and processes and by the ability to track, after the fact, transactions that have taken place.
When technologies or individuals circumvent ERP, these security measures are rendered ineffective. Building social media-type enterprise 2.0 functionality into ERP will leverage the inherent security benefits of the ERP system. Furthermore, the security of social media channels like Facebook, Twitter, and various instant messaging services is not as robust as that of a 21st century ERP system. If executives are using these public tools to discuss mission-critical matters, this increases the risk profile of the organization on a number of levels. Using social media can compromise the ability to ensure that critical and potentially damaging information is not accessed by unauthorized people, in addition, the preservation of content from conversations for legal and regulatory purposes is at risk. Free public social media on its face presents a challenge because the technology and your enterprise data are housed on servers through a license that may be poorly understood or subject to change without notice.
Increased focus, knowledge retention
Building social media functionality into an ERP platform will also help ensure that employees using Web 2.0 tools like instant messaging or wikis are not leaving their working context and are likely to remain more productive. Harder to quantify but also important is the degree to which the workforce enjoys the tool they are using. Intuitive communication tools like enterprise 2.0 can cause workers to more closely follow updates about what is going on within the company -- even when they are not at the office.
This dynamic can cut the other way as well. Intuitive enterprise 2.0 tools can make it more likely that workers will share information with others, increasing the degree of intellectual capital entering an ERP solution.
Within much of the developed world, the number of people of working age is actually decreasing. This trend is hitting some industries -- including utilities, process manufacturing, and other complex, engineering-intensive fields -- harder than others. Enterprise 2.0 ERP may be one of the best tools to capture and retain the knowledge of senior, expert, professionals and technicians -- intellectual capital that would otherwise have been lost.
Wikis for lean
One consistent principle of lean initiatives is documentation of change over time. As processes and practices within the organization change, it is necessary to record how things are done, why they are done that way, and the resulting outcome.
By structuring the software documentation as a wiki, it becomes possible to document not only how the ERP software is being used, but the processes it is used to execute. The wiki format automates the lean mandate to document process change. As processes are altered, the wiki is updated, leaving a full history of when and how the process was changed and the results that ensued.
Wikis can also reduce the amount of value added work spent looking for information or trying to determine the proper process to follow in a particular situation. They can have an immediate and understandable impact on the amount of training required to use an ERP solution and to learn the processes within a company, speeding the time to value following a new hire.
Selecting ERP with enterprise 2.0
Once you have determined that enterprise 2.0 holds real value for your business, there are a few factors to take into consideration.
Without question, the most important consideration is integration. Social media functionality that stands apart from ERP or lacks very tight integration with the platform as a whole will not deliver true enterprise 2.0 benefits. This integration needs to work both ways. You need to be able to search conversations and other social media data quickly so you can determine who said what to who and when they said it. You also need to be able to link any object in the application freely with social media conversations. This allows discussions regarding customer orders, for instance, to be tied in with the relevant functionality in the application, or a question about a particular customer invoice can be linked directly to the correct document.
Integration with the application at large is also important when it comes to ensuring that wikis and other organic data structures that are a part of enterprise 2.0 allow you to truly see how your company operates and how things get done. When unstructured data like conversations and wikis are embedded directly in the working environment, your company can become a learning organization that absorbs and retains the wisdom and collective decisions of executives, managers, and employees in a comprehensible and actionable format.
It is also important to ensure that an ERP product with embedded enterprise 2.0 features addresses both types of social media communication -- synchronous communication and asynchronous communication. Synchronous communication includes things that happen in real time like instant messaging, chat, IP telephony, and the like. Asynchronous communication includes tools that allow users to "time lag," including wikis, blogs, and message boards. Each is useful under different circumstances. Oftentimes, someone will first use synchronous communication to an individual or two to get an answer immediately and then, if questions still exist or clarity is lacking, they will broadcast their question using asynchronous communication to solicit feedback or thoughts from a group.
Particularly valuable synchronous communication tools allow a user to instantly communicate with any individual in the system including internally and external contacts like a customer or supplier. This is driven by a customizable contact card, and benefits flow to the organization as each conversation or contact is documented. This organizational memory can, for instance, improve customer service as a discussion about a customer order is clearly visible to others that might interact with that customer, allowing for exponentially greater responsiveness and a more satisfied customer.
Asynchronous communication features in ERP are ideal for those situations where you have a question but are not expecting a real-time answer. They scale particularly well to a group, and a number of people can contribute thoughts on a topic or collaborate on documentation over an indefinite period of time. Asynchronous communication tools of this type are very similar to Facebook, where you can post an update about a new smartphone that you have purchased along with questions about how to configure it. Your tech-savvy friends, wanting to show their knowledge as well as be of service, readily chime in with specific and detailed directions.
Another killer asynchronous communication feature is to structure help text as a wiki. This allows users to change the help text and augment it with documentation of the business process flow they are automating. This lets you become a learning organization and, in a more immediate and practical sense, gives you the organizational memory to avoid making the same mistakes twice. As stated earlier, using the wiki to record your processes can also support lean process change documentation requirements.
Most of us have found that social media tools are extremely effective tools when it comes to facilitating communication. However, they are so powerful that many of us block access to sites like Facebook from our offices.
The time has come to stop fighting the tide towards social media and instead harness its power within the enterprise. As the system of record within a company, ERP is the natural place for social media tools to enter. Enterprise 2.0 features will result in increased utilization of ERP, increasing the amount and quality of information available to managers and executives. It will also eliminate potential security risks and productivity drains that result when employees use public social media sites to facilitate business discussions.
As Director of IFS Labs, David Andersson is responsible for the strategic direction of research and development including newly available Enterprise 2.0 and social media functionality within IFS Applications. Prior to his role as Director of IFS Labs, David was Program Manager at IFS where he was in charge of several research & development projects and has been a Principal Research Engineer and Project Manager in charge of innovation of platforms and infrastructure. Andersson holds a masters degree in corporate finance from Lund University.
This story, "Enterprise 2.0 and social media coming to ERP" was originally published by CIO.