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Selecting BI for ERP environment presents challenges, opportunities for manufacturer

One manufacturer learned some lessons when selecting a BI system for its ERP environment, including getting a live demo, getting data in order and fostering adoption of BI ERP.

Implementing business intelligence in ERP environments presents some unique opportunities and challenges, as U.K.-based Brunner Mond found.

The choices were wide open for Brunner Mond, a manufacturer and supplier of soda ash and associated chemicals, IT director Martin Murgatroyd explained. The company, which uses Lawson for its ERP, considered Lawson's integrated BI functionality, in addition to several third-party options.

Start by selecting a BI vendor

And yet, the choice wasn't straightforward. Lawson's integrated M3 Analytics was both cost-effective and feature-capable, Murgatroyd noted, while other third-party BI ERP solutions were feature-rich but too expensive -- or inexpensive but lacking capability.

Lawson nailed the deal, Murgatroyd said, by showing Brunner Mond a demonstration with the company's own data, revealing an interesting lesson: If it's too hard for your ERP vendor to do that, your built-in advantages may not be as large as you think.

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However, picking the vendor was just the first challenge Brunner Mond encountered. Murgatroyd said that the initial BI rollout alerted the company to some unexpected data problems that hadn't been recognized through the previous use of spreadsheets.

"We could tell we weren't getting the figures we thought we should, so that prompted questions about the data," he said. "If something looked wrong, it was because we had some data put in incorrectly, and the spreadsheets weren't showing that up -- it was in the data model."

Benefiting from side effects of BI implementation

"Fixing it is something we wouldn't have been able to do until after we bought M3 Analytics," Murgatroyd noted. Interestingly, it wasn't that the data was incorrect outright, it was a mismatch between how it was being used and its new intended use.

"We had to add fields to the models where we weren't using M3 in a standard way -- we had built something out of the ordinary, so we had to add fields to the data models," he explained.

That's just one reason why Murgatroyd recommends that ERP-oriented companies start with something small. In this case, Brunner Mond's initial rollout focused on procurement.

"We looked initially at finance, but finance has a finger in every pie -- all roads lead to finance," he said. Brunner Mond's plan was to pick off procurement, pick off sales, maintenance, and so on.

"So when we got to finance, the work would be done really," Murgatroyd explained. "And any issues with data would have been corrected in each area rather than try to do it from the center out."

And completing a point solution has tangential benefits.

"The advantage of focusing on one area is we got to the endpoint," he said. "We had something substantial and meaningful to show the rest of the business. Whereas in the past, when we tried to build a little for everyone at once, we had a more protracted implementation because you can't get all the results for all the areas at the same time."

Focusing on just the one area also helped inspire the other areas of the business to get on board. And that may be far more important than any single technology decision, with effects pushing beyond BI.

"It's given them a bit more enthusiasm about doing things," he explained, noting that business users across the company have now seen the endgame -- successful BI rollouts -- and are now turning on new point solutions in Lawson M3 that the company hasn't used before, like demand planning and forecasting.

An ERP and BI deployment tip: Don't take away the spreadsheets

As Brunner Mond rolled out its BI solutions, its IT department didn't try to pry spreadsheets out of the hands of business users who were used to their rows and columns. Instead, IT changed the spreadsheet delivery method. "We've got the old reports in the menu structure within the tool -- just so they get used to the whole environment around BI," Murgatroyd explained. "So they are getting used to logging in, seeing the tabs and dashboards -- spreadsheets for some and BI for others -- and slowly but surely, we're picking them off and converting them away from the spreadsheet and into the BI version."

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