Traditional ERP is undergoing a transformation – commonplace in many other solutions – but what an update! I had the opportunity to get to know Microsoft’s latest flagship ERP product at the Microsoft Dynamics Technical Conference 2016 in Seattle. I was greatly impressed by what I saw: one of the biggest updates in the history of ERP. The following include 10 observations on how ERP is changing:
1. How to sell and buy ERP?
There’s no way around it. Selling and buying ERP systems have traditionally been very painful experiences for both parties. The process is long, laborious and expensive. There’s also the risk that the end result will not necessarily be the kind of system that really adapts to the customer’s operations in the best way possible. The question is: how do we ensure the system’s most effective fit, when, in some cases, the buyer only sees the product for the first time months after the purchasing decision?
The latest release version of Dynamics AX is a cloud solution that can be put into use in minutes using sample data for testing purposes. Specialists representing both buyer and seller can review the most important processes together to ensure they match the customer’s needs. The buyer gets to genuinely and quickly test the solution before deciding to buy.
Another key factor relating to acquisitions is the subscription-based billing model breakthrough. Paying for services with monthly pricing has become popular amongst customers. ERP has adopted a similar approach. The customer pays a subscription fee for as many users as they need at a given point. This allows the business to react efficiently to fluctuations in operations.
2. What’s really included in an ERP delivery?
A classic problem with ERP projects is uncertainty about what is and what is not included in the delivery. I believe that the new AX version’s most important improvement, the integrated lifecycle portal (Lifecycle Services), is the answer to managing expectations. This cloud-based portal service compiles practically all the essential issues related to ERP. One of the most important is what ERP is used for and what processes it is meant to manage in the business. In future, it will be significantly easier to manage operational changes once their location in ERP processes are known.
3. More efficient ERP projects
In terms of project management, the new lifecycle portal includes essential tasks and outputs for ERP projects. The different stages of ERP projects – for example, specifications or product development – can be managed using the lifecycle portal. All parties are able to track the project’s progress, helping to improve transparency. Independent of project methodology, the portal can use project models best suited to the implementation of the ERP project.
4. Where to place system levers?
ERP platforms must be customised. However, it is still just a platform used in various ways in different business operations. With its new version of AX, Microsoft intends to convert the work that is now done by coding right into the configuration. A good example shown at the conference is the General Electronic Reporting tool used to create official reports or invoice XMLs in desired formats.
5. Simplified data import
The dark side of modern ERP’s excellent features has normally been its highly complex data model, making it very challenging to import data from old systems. For example, customer data might have been fragmented in ten different tables. Microsoft recognised this deficiency and developed a data management module offering simplified data import.
The data management module includes simplified data entities. Each data item is matched to information in the old system. The data is imported into a preview field for checking or enriching before it is finally added to the system. The module can also be used for different types of integration.
6. Coordination with other systems
Integration is one of the most burdensome aspects of ERP projects. Harmonising complex systems and processes requires a great deal of time to plan, implement and test. Many of those who have worked with AX in the past will breathe a sigh of relief, because in future the AIF (Application Integration Framework) will no longer exist. Integration can now take place quickly using AX’s new data entities. For example, publishing customer data on an e-commerce site can be easily managed, even with a single parameter.
7. Same as everyone else has
Many ERP projects start too close to zero. In future, it won’t be necessary to reinvent the wheel. Modern ERP customers want to buy standardised solutions – what everyone else is using – particularly in terms of business processes where there is no option for differentiating from others. The new AX gives partners the opportunity to easily create commercialised and reusable packages. The lifecycle portal facilitates this, because all of the assets required for productisation – codes, configurations, processes, documents and other artefacts – can be stored in the same location.
It will also be possible to export these packages to Microsoft’s Azure store where customers can order them for trial use. This feature is sure to shorten ERP implementation times, as it will be possible to start projects from a point where the majority of elements are already well developed. Additionally, commercialisation and configuration packages enable customers to start using ERP systems in smaller deployments and gradually expand them by taking new features into use. Partners can better focus on delivering genuine added value.
8. ERP usability 2.0
ERPs have traditionally been ugly beasts. They include thousands of forms that are difficult to find if one doesn’t know exactly what to look for. The new AX tackles the usability issue with its Workspaces feature. Workspaces are websites that process matters related to certain tasks. For example, all items relating to product pricing can be seen on the same page. Workspaces allow users to see the good and the bad in the system. This, in turn, guides users’ actions (KPIs).
This feature makes it easy to identify typically time-consuming issues; in other words, users are able to manage exceptions as easily as possible. Microsoft’s Power BI component providing a direct graphical view of different reports has also been integrated into Workspaces. Moreover, Workspaces include links, reports and other context-specific elements. I believe that Workspaces will significantly improve usability.
Another usability-enhancing factor is the task guide. This integrated feature enables users to record and replicate processes in the system. In practice, the task guide directs users to perform actions required to carry out certain processes. This kind of user guidance is built into the system. In addition, recordings can be imported into the lifecycle portal as processes and saved as test cases. AX will, therefore, have the capacity to construct automated tests!
9. What’s often left for last
The wait is over! Microsoft’s analytics solution – Power BI – has finally been included with AX. It’s now a part of the newest AX; the old version’s familiar cubes are now history. As I mentioned earlier, Power BI’s components have now been directly embedded inside AX in their relevant contexts. The architecture has been honed to ensure efficient reporting, since data is sent to another read-only database. In addition, Microsoft has introduced standardised reporting packages to BI, starting with the retail trade module. This significantly reduces the need for separate reporting platforms in AX implementation, since the Power BI licence is included in the price of the AX licence. SSRS reporting remains unchanged but there have been major improvements in the capacity to modify the appearance of reports (such as printed invoices).
10. Managing problem situations
The updated AX has a much-needed new feature: the option to send support requests directly from the system. The request goes directly to the lifecycle portal, which conveniently stores all support requests in one location. The threshold for requesting assistance couldn’t be lower. It is also possible to attach a recording of the user’s actions as part of the support request. At the same time the system includes other metadata about system conditions, such as loads. Microsoft gathers this information from all AXs allowing developers to react quickly to the biggest problems. The cloud-based delivery model also makes it possible to efficiently deliver fixes to customers.
This time around Microsoft has succeeded in doing all the right things. It has understood that it’s not all about product features, but how well the ERP life cycle can be managed from beginning to end and how easily it can be used.