All software evolves over time. Many factors drive that evolution. Like automobiles, some of the change happens beneath the hood, but much of it is in the area that involves the users of the vehicle. I’m not suggesting these changes are unimportant or that they are cosmetic. Far from it, they are quite important.
At the heart of every automobile is the engine. If you look at engines of fifty years ago, you will see that they have a lot in common with large engines that come in cars today. They all have cylinders, camshafts, and valves, cooling systems, intake manifolds, exhaust manifolds and batteries. The most noticeable difference is in the area of carburetion. Fuel injection was rare and exotic in 1960 and now nearly all cars come with fuel injection systems rather than carburetors.
The point is, the basic technology of the internal combustion engine has remained pretty much the same over the past fifty or sixty years. However, if you were to climb into a 1960 automobile and drive it around for a few hours, you would very quickly see that much has changed for the driver and for the passengers.
The whole experience of driving a vehicle from that era is different. Just take a quick look around interior of your car and ask yourself if this or that would have been present on the 1960 version. Let’s look at some examples.
- Power Steering, Brakes and windows – expensive options in 1960
- Air conditioning system – expensive option in 1960
- Satellite Radio, Video players, MP3 players – Non-existent in 1960
- Navigation system – Non-existent in 1960
- Radar detector – Non-existent in 1960
- Digital instrumentation – Non-existent in 1960
- Passive restraint systems (Airbags) – Non-existent in 1960
The fact is that in 1960, the cars may have been cool, but you had to listen to AM radio and be content to find your way from A to B with a map supplied by your local service station. If you liked to speed it up a bit, you had to rely on your eyes to tell you where the cops were and if you were unlucky enough to run into something, chances are your person would subsequently run into the inside of the car which most likely did not even feature a padded dashboard.
In some ways, software is much the same. The first spreadsheet software I ever used was Multiplan from Microsoft. Twenty-eight years later, I still use spreadsheet software, Excel to be specific, and on the surface, not a lot has changed. It is still cells identified by rows, columns, and the mathematical interaction of the contents of those cells. The formulas have not changed. The look has not changed.
What has changed is the sophistication of the interface, the part of the software that helps you, the user, to access the systems functionality. Excel delivers the same basic product that Multiplan delivered. However, Excel brings along a whole host of functionality that is vastly superior and easily accessible by the user.
The combination of graphical images, tabbed functional access and mouse support are all old hat today, but they still facilitate use of the Excel product in ways that users of Multiplan can only have imagined.
When we look at ERP systems and how they have evolved over the years, I think you will see a similar or perhaps parallel evolution with other types of software. The earliest ERP systems were strictly character based, featuring large cumbersome batch reports containing historical data that would be used to plan future activities.
Users had to be intimately familiar with virtually all of the connected internal processes associated with any given level of functionality supplied by the system. It wasn’t enough to understand how to order supplies from this or that source; you had to understand how the entire purchasing process operated.
You also might need to know something about your own warehousing and internal distribution systems. This level of knowledge was not taught or built into the system; it came from years of experience working within the organization.
Reports gave way to online transactions driven by menu-based interfaces. However, people still demanded more functionality and they wanted it in an easier to use package.
The actual execution tools needed to be brought online. GUIs or graphical interfaces driven by mouse based input devices allowed complex functions to be accessed through screen-based icons. However, users were still required to know things beyond their own immediate areas of concern in order to utilize these systems.
Workflow of the era tended to rely on each person in each subsequent step of a process to check the quality and completeness of the work in the preceding steps. In other words, the process was still cumbersome and error prone. Each job required much of the worker in the way of esoteric knowledge about the over all process.
Today, organizations are seeking to transform themselves. ERP must help facilitate that transformation away from a focus on saving money here and there. Away from seeking the quick-fix to offset reduced or flat revenue streams. Today, the enterprise must think in terms of growing revenue and simultaneously reducing expenses.
So what does the ideal user experience for ERP look like today? How does a “user experience” help to facilitate the transformation of the enterprise into a margin growth engine?
Today, less is more. The goal is not to embed and pack as much content and functionality as possible onto a single screen, today, the User Experience starts with the user. That means clearly defining that user’s role is in the organization.
- Role Drives Content
- What does the person do?
- What tasks do they perform?
- What information do they require?
The only information the person should have access to is the information needed to perform their tasks. The only functionality available from the desktop are the actual execution controls that facilitate the work associated with the job.
The display presented to the user should be organized so the most commonly needed information and the most commonly used tools are immediately available.
The number of screens should be minimal, but that doesn’t mean they should be crammed with minutia of hidden links, tiny icons and data fields accessed through complex navigation.
The workstation needs to be a personalized job execution facility. If the person only pounds nails they don’t need the saws, wrenches and screw drivers, they only need the hammer. Everything else is clutter and useless to the worker.
This facilitates quick deployment, easy adaptability to change, increased personal productivity and enhanced security through the minimization of information and functionality dispersed throughout the organization.
This is simply the application of the Lean mentality to the work environment itself; doing away with everything that does not enhance the person’s ability to get the job done.
It is a new User Experience to match a new concept of ERP as a Business and Manufacturing Execution System. This can drive the transformation of the enterprise into something wholly different then the incrementally improving companies of the past. This facilitates profit generation and simultaneous expense reduction as a way of doing business.