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Slow in coming, ERP mobility boosted by cloud, web application tools

Analysts say legacy vendors are reluctant to rewrite code, but cloud ERP offers an inherent advantage for viewing reports and analytics on smartphones and tablets.

For John Kearns, vice president of finance at IntegraMed America Inc., a specialty healthcare services company based in Purchase, N.Y., ERP mobility lets him take advantage of "front-porch" accounting and finance.

Since 2014, IntegraMed's 29 clinics, located in large cities across North America, have been running on Intacct cloud ERP.

"We have general ledger, accounts payable, budgeting, forecasting, cash management -- we're trying to move everything up to the cloud," Kearns said. "The idea is that it's all accessible anywhere you have an internet connection and on any device."

Kearns said Intacct allows him to control everything from his front porch with his Apple iPad. "I can run P&Ls [profit and loss statements] for any of my profit centers," he said. "With Intacct, I can then drill down into the transaction to get to the source document -- the invoice or whatever the source document is. I can also approve accounts payable."

IntegraMed also has a cloud-based travel and expense system, so employees can do their expense reports -- and managers can approve them -- all from their mobile devices.

Bob Shawgo, content marketing manager at Intacct Corp., based in San Jose, Calif., said his company has a responsive website that automatically fits the size of any device.

When users log into Intacct from their mobile devices, the system brings up an interface designed for mobile that enables them to look at dashboards or do approvals. There's also a link at the bottom of the screen that will take users to their companies' full ERP sites, Shawgo said.

ERP mobility not yet widespread

Such executive-level ERP mobility isn't yet mainstream, said Joel Schneider, president of Liberty Technology Advisors Inc., an IT consulting firm based in Northbrook, Ill.

"It's there, but it's not yet heavily used," Schneider said. "You have to truly make that ERP system for a mobile device. You can't expect the CEO or CFO or head of sales to start clicking through a hundred screens pretending it's an ERP system. It has to be a true app."

While application vendors are making strides in this area, use of mobile ERP is not all that widespread. That's according to David Rowe, senior vice president and chief marketing officer at Rimini Street Inc., an independent provider of ERP support services based in Las Vegas.

Frank Scavo, president of Strativa Inc., a management consulting firm, agreed with Rowe's assessment.

"Most vendors are in transition toward mobilizing their ERP systems," Scavo said. "Some vendors are farther ahead than others."

Business-to-consumer engagement has been the main focus of mobility in the last few years. For business-to-business, the emphasis has been on extending business processes, such as approving purchase order requisitions or personal time off, Rowe said. ERP mobility is being used across different parts of the business, including sales, finance, support, fulfillment and operations, human resources, and others.

"We see strong growth ahead for mobile ERP to enable corporations who need to interact with other companies and partners, as well as serving their internal enterprise stakeholders," Rowe said. "The majority of these users are remote, field-based workers: sales representatives, truck drivers, service technicians, shop floor managers [and] factory workers."

ERP mobility can solve many problems, such as allowing companies to capitalize on the substantial investments they've made in business-critical legacy applications by enabling better workflows and helping companies become more competitive in fast-changing environments.

"The quick ROI for mobile ERP is the impact it can make on sales and customer satisfaction, as well as internal efficiencies," Rowe said. "It's easy for all of us to envision common tasks, like requesting time off, submitting an expense report or approving a purchase."

For years, workers on the shop floor and in warehouses have been using expensive hand-held devices, such as scanners, to read barcodes and collect data, about such things as inventory, and to feed it into ERP systems.

 "Now they can get smartphones or tablets for several hundred dollars each," Scavo said.

The most popular mobile applications, however, are aimed at two types of ERP users: nomadic employees who are often away from their desks, such as service people and sales reps checking on open orders or conducting credit checks, and managers and executives who need reporting and analytics while they're in meetings or on the road. These users are "CFOs, CEOs, COOs, managers who are looking for quick inquiries on, say, an account or an order or looking at dashboard information on financials," Scavo said.

Vendor clouds drive ERP mobility

When Oracle thinks of mobile ERP, it thinks of ERP cloud, said Steve Cox, vice president of ERP and enterprise performance management cloud go to market at Oracle, based in Redwood Shores, Calif.

Cox said Oracle doesn't have a specific mobile offering because its ERP product, which includes embedded analytics and which has social networking built in, is natively mobile, just as it is natively cloud.

"Everyone recognizes that today's ERP is mobile, it's in the cloud; it has secure, in-context social networking built in; and, of course, it includes analytics from the get-go," Cox said. "Those are the things that can change the way you work with ERP."

Oracle ERP is designed to support employees who work remotely or who are on the move and need to employ advanced analytics to make smarter business decisions. For instance, finance execs can access real-time financial results from their mobile devices.

Over the past couple of years, SAP has been focused on delivering mobile ERP applications that customers can use and extend, said Holger Fritzinger, vice president and head of solution management mobile apps and platforms at SAP, based in Walldorf, Germany.

"The way we look at the world is, there is a mobile platform and mobile applications, so we do both," Fritzinger said. "When you talk to customers, you never have everything they need off the shelf."

Take sales scenarios, for example, which tend to be more customized, as sales processes are very different from company to company.

"That is more of a platform discussion -- basically building out the right solutions," Fritzinger said.

However, in some other areas, such as mobile maintenance, SAP has so much experience that it delivers the key building blocks, and customers may only need to adapt the building blocks a bit. But that is more of an application discussion.

"We also do both at the same time -- mobile platform and mobile apps -- depending on the customer's situation," Fritzinger said.

One area where SAP is seeing companies investing in ERP mobility is field service, Fritzinger said. "We help companies in the field service sector extend their applications to mobile phones."

Liberty Technology Advisors' Schneider said there are some clear leaders in the mobile ERP space when it comes to manufacturing.

"Plex [Systems] has been around forever doing this, and Infor is getting there," Schneider said. "In the midmarket space, you have NetSuite and Intacct. Those are very strong solutions that are built for the web, but they still need help getting it down to that small device that the executive could use."

In addition, Strativa's Scavo acknowledged that there is a difference between native mobile apps and cloud-based apps.

"The nice thing about a web-based mobile app using HTML5 is that it's cross-platform, so it works on any device," Scavo said. "However, it doesn't take advantage of the native features of the device as well as an app that's written specifically for the device, whether it's an iOS device or an Android device or a Windows Phone device."

The wave of the future in mobile ERP apps, however, is in the responsive web design that Intacct, as well as Workday Inc., are using.

"This is a terrific mobile strategy because it has just one user interface, and that scales to all devices," Scavo said. "Whether it's a desktop, laptop, tablet or a smartphone, you're using the same basic app. It's a responsive design."

The most comprehensive strategy then, according to Scavo, is for vendors to rewrite their user interface so that they don't have mobile versions or desktop versions, but rather one version that works on all devices.

"That's where things need to go, but it's going to take some of the older vendors much longer to get there because they don't want to necessarily rewrite everything," Scavo said.

Barrie Vince, software architect at Plex, an ERP vendor based in Troy, Mich., said his company is doing innovative work. Plex recently developed the Plex Manufacturing Cloud.

"When Plex was founded, we wanted to collect data right where a transaction [took] place," Vince said. "By capturing information at the source, we increase the quality of the data and, ultimately, that will provide CFOs [with] more timely and accurate analytics and insight into what's going on in the company."

The areas where Plex focuses on using mobility on the shop floor are inventory control, filling out check sheets, giving employees access to work instructions, as well as shipping and receiving.

"We're seeing a lot of movement in the manufacturing sector, especially with Android-type devices, like Google Glass, as well as Apple Watch," Vince said.

Plex is deploying Google Glass in conjunction with iBeacon devices for shop floor location capabilities, as well as wearable scanners to allow for hands-free movement. The beacons provide accurate location awareness for Google Glass and other mobile devices, enabling automatic, location-based information display and functionality, Vince said. Shop floor supervisors use Google Glass to get immediate, hands-free updates on production activity, and material handlers use wearable ring scanners. 

Next Steps

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