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Exploring best-of-breed integrated business applications

Best-of-breed integrated business applications can come with a number of pitfalls.

Most ERP vendors offer a wide variety of integrated business applications designed to run an entire enterprise. Some vendors are even focusing their product offerings on specific types of manufacturers. With such options available, many manufacturers are exploring these best-of-breed systems when trying to address their software needs.

The best-of-breed package can take on many forms, but it usually entails a core ERP system to manage back office functions, coupled with multiple third-party applications in areas that normally fall within the scope most ERP packages.

For manufacturing companies, these bolt-on packages may include customer relationship management (CRM), manufacturing execution systems (MES), warehouse management system (WMS) or quality management systems (QMS). In large multi-site organizations, it is common to see a centralized purchasing function supported by a separate procurement system.

Best-of-breed software by design or default

Best-of-breed integrated business applications are usually the result of either a stated IT strategy or of an organization's software landscape simply evolving over time. In any case, it is mostly seen in organizations that place a high priority on the needs of individual departments when acquiring new systems. Also, the software modules provided by the ERP vendor may have major functionality gaps or not fit the legitimate operating paradigm of many manufacturers.

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For example, MES solutions are very common in industry today. In this area, many of the established ERP vendors originally designed their shop floor module to support mainly discrete manufacturing, typically found in job shop operations. Since discrete manufacturing systems are more computer transaction intense, the model does not easily address lean manufacturing strategies and the work flows found within many manufacturers today. Only in recent years have ERP vendors begun to address the needs of other types of manufacturing, such as repetitive or assembly-type operations, batch processors, or companies that do all the above within a single plant, i.e. mixed mode manufacturing.

Pitfalls of best-of-breed integrated business applications

While the best-of-breed approach is often a necessity for many companies, it is never the best choice from an enterprise integration standpoint. Any time many bolt-on systems are involved, overall systems integration will be compromised to a greater or lesser degree.

If you decide to use the best-of-breed approach (for good business reasons), it is important to understand what you are getting into and plan the project schedule and budget accordingly.

Application integration complexities

Developing interfaces between systems is rarely as seamless as most vendors claim. Below are the common pitfalls:

  • Different technology platforms or limitations may prohibit the best possible interface design.
  • Since multiple systems are used in the business, it may be necessary for some users to work in several systems to perform their daily jobs.
  • What at first may appear as a single interface between two systems could require many interfaces -- and some may go in both directions.
  • Field usage and format issues between systems can result in cross-reference tables and complex interface programs.
  • The required frequency of the interface -- real-time or period batch updates -- drives complexity. In most cases, the more real-time, the tougher it gets.
  • Software modifications to either system may be required to add fields to support the interface.
  • It may be necessary to purchase additional software, or middleware, and hardware to develop the interface.

In summary, ERP software may not provide all the necessary capabilities for particular areas of the business. It's important to note that the best-of-breed strategy is not a panacea, as the name implies. One should anticipate more time and money to develop interfaces and less business integration.

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