This chapter looks at one way information systems can bring competitive advantage through their effect on business processes. As you read, think about the previous chapter on competitive advantage. How are the two concepts related?
An Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system is software with a centralized database that can be used to run an entire company. Here are some of the main components of an ERP system.
An ERP System
- Computer program. The system is a computer program, which means that it has been developed with specific logic and rules behind it. It is customized and installed to work specifically for an individual organization.
- Centralized database. All data in an ERP system is stored in a single, central database. Centralization is key to the success of an ERP. Data entered in one part of the company can be immediately available to other parts of the company.
- Used to run an entire company. An ERP can be used to manage an entire organization's operations. Companies can purchase modules for an ERP that represent different functions within the organization such as finance, manufacturing, and sales. Some companies choose to purchase many modules, others choose a subset of the modules.
An ERP system not only centralizes an organization's data, but the processes it enforces are the processes the organization has adopted. When an ERP vendor designs a module, it has to implement the rules for the associated business processes. Best practices can be built into the ERP – a major selling point for ERP. In other words, when an organization implements an ERP, it also gets improved best practices as part of the deal.
For many organizations the implementation of an ERP system is an excellent opportunity to improve their business practices and upgrade their software at the same time. But for others an ERP brings a challenge. Is the process embedded in the ERP really better than the process they are currently utilizing? And if they implement this ERP and it happens to be the same one that all of their competitors have, will they simply become more like them, making it much more difficult to differentiate themselves? A large organization may have one version of the ERP, then acquire a subsidiary which has a more recent version. Imagine the challenge of requiring the subsidiary to change back to the earlier version.
One of the criticisms of ERP systems has been that they commoditize business processes, driving all businesses to use the same processes and thereby lose their uniqueness. The good news is that ERP systems also have the capability to be configured with custom processes. For organizations that want to continue using their own processes or even design new ones, ERP systems offer customization so the ERP is unique to the organization.
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There is a drawback to customizing an ERP system. Namely, organizations have to maintain the changes themselves. Whenever an update to the ERP system comes out, any organization that has created a custom process will be required to add that change to their new ERP version. This requires someone to maintain a listing of these changes as well as re-testing the system every time an upgrade is made. Organizations will have to wrestle with this decision. When should they go ahead and accept the best-practice processes built into the ERP system and when should they spend the resources to develop their own processes?
Some of the best-known ERP vendors are SAP, Microsoft, and Oracle.