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Cloud broadens scope of ERP support to focus more on users

A truly modern ERP support strategy must consider the needs of both internal and external users and ERP's expanded role in the employer and customer experience.

The widespread adoption of cloud ERP software presents organizations with a host of new challenges.

They've had to let go of the on-premises ERP mindset in exchange for entrusting critical applications and data to a third party. They've had to learn new ways of doing things, and they've had to adapt to unprecedented complexity as they look to integrate hybrid environments. Underneath all of this lies a layer of ERP support that's quickly changing shape as well.

From sped-up deployments and update cycles to change management and increased access for external users, just about every aspect of ERP calls for a fresh approach -- a truly modern ERP support strategy.

Learning to think outside the box

The way Eric Kimberling, CEO and founder of ERP specialist Third Stage Consulting, sees it, ERP support has become less about technical support and more about enabling the business by ensuring that people and processes evolve.

"It's a cultural and mindset shift for IT support professionals," Kimberling said. "Instead of supporting something you can see and touch and feel, it's 'How can we enable the stuff we can't touch?'"

That might mean making it simple and attractive for employees to engage in HR self-service tasks, such as changing life insurance beneficiaries. Or it might mean creating super-users by building competency in an area such as software configuration, thereby enabling business teams to take care of their own needs.

And it's not just internal users who need to be brought into a new experience. As ERP systems have been opened up to external users, the user experience of customers and partners has become an important element of ERP support strategy.

This opening up of ERP data to new pools of users is having multiple impacts. For starters, as customers and partners access data themselves, employees who previously had considered themselves gatekeepers of that information are being deprived of what they considered a valuable middleman role.

This increased access to ERP data also exposes deficiencies that previously would have gone unnoticed, which in turn puts a premium on having clean, accurate data.

"No longer can you massage data, go to multiple sources and tidy it up to give them a report," Kimberling said. "Now they have direct access and they can see if your data is broken."

That means more data cleansing, but it also means taking a hard look at people and processes that mess up data in the first place. And it's not just data: Customers and partners are now directly affected by problems with the ERP system itself.

In other words, the scope of ERP support has grown significantly.

"That shift, from support being about making sure internal users are doing well to making sure everyone is doing well, is a big shift," said Josh Greenbaum, principal at Enterprise Applications Consulting.

CIO advises proactive approach to ERP support

Rick Gemereth, CIO of Lionel, a maker of model trains and die-cast NASCAR replicas based in Concord, N.C., describes the transition in ERP support strategy as a shift from gathering to hunting. Gatherers, Gemereth said, are focused on maintenance and keeping things going. Hunters, on the other hand, are more interested in extending capabilities, whether the organization as a whole, or a particular business team, partner or customer needs those capabilities.

"A sound IT leader who wants to extend his or her career, and maintain that seat at the big table, has to maintain that vision," he said.

That means building an ERP support strategy into the ERP system before deployment even begins. It also means involving the executive team in the support discussion, and tying that discussion to everything from business drivers and risk appetite to the look of the finished implementation. 

Along those lines, Greenbaum said there are a couple of steps that IT leaders should take before they get deep into a cloud ERP deployment.

First, he recommends they go into the effort with eyes wide open, because it won't be like any ERP deployment they've done before. They'll have to really understand the business processes they will be supporting, and be committed to engaging in change management and not just throw stuff over the wall.

"Looking at the business change that needs to happen and the ERP support that needs to happen, IT has to have a greatly expanded view of its role," Greenbaum said.

That leads into his second recommendation: establishing better dialogue with the business in general.

Let's say a company wants to improve the customer experience by speeding up product delivery. Before it can deliver on that promise and enable it in the ERP system, it has to make sure the supply chain has been tuned to meet the new expectations. IT has to know the business requirements, and vice versa, Greenbaum said.

"This is hard stuff," he said. "This is breaking silos that have existed for many years."

Which is exactly why modern ERP support strategies are so critical: Breaking down silos is fundamental to achieving digital transformation. And that means IT has to have a more horizontal view of a company's operations than ever. 

"ERP takes a whole lot of planning and orchestration. There are so many integration points, and you've got to have a broad view of the landscape," Gemereth said. "You can't be stuck in just one vertical tower."

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