Building better mobile apps for ERP users

By: Tony Storr

Current enterprise resource planning (ERP) solutions come with many prebuilt mobile apps and frameworks, but is adopting these solutions the right approach for users who are looking for engagement and return on investment?

The answer depends on the who you consider to be the ERP users

The traditional view is of back-office employees: finance professionals, HR managers and procurement teams for whom the natural workplace is considered to be in front of their PC (the one exception being the sales teams who are naturally out in the field). In this case, mobile ERP apps tend to simply offer a subset of ERP functionality on a smaller screen.  These users also tend to be viewed as tied to a process, so the apps they use are naturally restricted to a specific ERP function. For example, the finance department uses finance apps and the procurement department uses the procurement apps. For these user groups, the pre-packaged apps and frameworks that now come with the ERP solution may well be a good choice — but most organizations end up with heavily customized ERP processes, so they may need heavily customized apps.

What about everybody else?

By far the biggest group of ERP users are everybody else in the organization. These users have natural workflows that may span multiple ERP processes, with some combination of buying, selling, transacting, time recording, reporting and so on as part of this flow. And as the nature of work is changing and more mundane and routine tasks are automated away, the cross-functional aspects of this work will increase — not just within the scope of the ERP functions, but in the requirements to interact with other systems in the organization and increasingly in the business ecosystem outside of the organization.

Presenting these users with a suite of ERP functional apps is not a great experience. Each ERP function is only a small proportion of the workflow for them, and the combination of disjointed apps, repeated input of information and rigid procedural steps do not align with their reality and end up creating a huge barrier to both adoption and organizational effectiveness.

For these users, the winning strategy is to build the mobile app around their role. The paradigm here is that each app is not a function with a window to all humans, but rather a role-assisting app that consolidates and hides the complexities of the organizational processes. The app must belong to the human, not the process.

The simplest example is perhaps the role of a manager. One workflow for this role is processing of a wide range of approvals, such as vacation, expenses, travel authorization and purchase orders. Each one of these things typically has a different system (or app) that the manager must log into and then follow a different process. The human need is much simpler: access to an approvals app where they see everything on their workstack to approve. Swipe left to approve, swipe right to reject or pull down for more information.  It’s obvious when you think about it holistically, but not a conclusion often reached through the segmented, functional view of work.

This role-based design is the driving factor behind the IBM MobileFirst for iOS apps and services that continue to transform how people work — services that remain unbiased by technology and platform. Although we do The need for an open framework that enables secure integration to ERP and beyond is critical here. Some ERP mobile solutions do provide this, but the absolute need to choose a solution based on the resident ERP is not so compelling.

Beyond your people

One final consideration: leading enterprises are now focused beyond their direct employees. Providing experiences for their ecosystem of business partners can also drive business results and customer satisfaction. For example, third-party delivery drivers complete the end of the process and are the final point of customer engagement; access to ERP functions for these users requires a smart mobile app strategy that allows secure access and works both connected and disconnected from the main ERP application.

A strategy of strategies

With different categorizations of ERP users, a single ERP mobile strategy will rarely suffice. The strategy should instead be determined by your users’ needs and the potential impact on and return on investment from deploying a transformational mobile experience vs. basic ERP functions on the move. The decision should be driven not only by your current needs, but by the envisaged needs of the next generation of ERP users in your organization.

Learn how IBM is helping organizations build digital workplaces with a focus on the end user.




About The Author

Tony Storr

Mobile at Scale Global Leader

Tony is a digital strategy leader and delivery executive at the forefront of bringing IBM strategic new digital initiatives to market. As global leader and offering creator of IBM Mobile at Scale he inspires clients across industries to move to the next generation of mobile app services, empowering users and achieving significant cost, time and... Read more