Complex, time-intensive, too technical, difficult to use. I’ve heard frustrated people use each of these terms (and some others I won’t mention!) in reference to an ERP system. It’s fair to say that ERP software solutions don’t have the best reputation among users – and adoption often suffers as a result. But increasingly, these terms of frustration will only be used to describe the ERP systems of the past. Usability is on the rise.

Around the world, the workplace is changing. It’s increasingly populated by people who simply won’t accept software that is complicated and difficult to use. They’ve grown up surrounded by technology that is simple, accessible and intuitive – these workers expect business systems to have the same qualities. As millennials continue to enter the workplace and rise through the ranks, their presence is forcing vendors and ERP consultants to focus on responsive, user-friendly solutions.

In an article for Enterprise Innovation last month, Craig Charlton of Epicor emphasised the role that millennials have played in pushing usability up the agenda. He explained: “These new ERP users demand ease of use, accessibility and continuous system improvement. Catering to their high expectations is one of the factors driving innovation in ERP.”

 

High expectations, little patience

As well as driving ERP improvement, Charlton noted that this change in the workforce dynamic has affected how ERP selection is carried out in many organisations. Choosing a new ERP system is “no longer the privilege of the IT experts”, as people in multiple departments must be consulted to ensure the chosen software matches their processes and objectives.

Avon’s aborted rollout of a $125 million (£80.9 million) software implementation is now a famous example of how usability failings can completely derail a project. In 2013, the cosmetics firm abandoned its global plan to deploy the new SAP-based order management system after a pilot run in Canada stalled. The Wall Street Journal reported that Avon sales reps had found the new system so disruptive and onerous that they “left in meaningful numbers”.

Once upon a time, workers would begrudgingly accept business software that obstructed, frustrated and delayed – they didn’t know there was an alternative. Those days are gone. As industry analyst Michael Krigsman told the WSJ in the aftermath of the Avon incident: “Consumer software has become simple to use and has trained users to expect that business software will follow a similar model. And if it doesn’t, people are much less patient than they were in the past.”

 

The ‘user experience platform’

So what is actually being done to make ERP more usable? In a CIO Journal article last year, Jaco Van Eeden of Deloitte Consulting explained how some companies are boosting usability – and increasing user adoption – by equipping ERP systems with a ‘user experience platform’.

Essentially a user-specific interface, this kind of platform uses data analytics to present individual users with the specific priorities, procedures and transactions related to their jobs, all in one place. You could say it works on a similar principle to the social media news feeds and timelines cherished by the typical millennial (minus the data mining for advertising purposes!).

“The platform shows them the prioritised activities they need to perform on any given day, allows them to execute tasks within three clicks or less and reminds them of compliance policies, business workflows, leading practices for their roles and standard operating procedures,” Van Eeden explained.

This kind of add-on can certainly improve the user experience, but it’s worth remembering that ERP software solutions were never designed to be difficult and unwieldy. Problems of this nature typically result from a disconnect between what the system is doing and what the business is trying to achieve. As ERP consultants continue to deliver solutions for a new generation of users, I’m hopeful that a renewed focus on business processes and outcomes will see us make even greater strides in improving usability.

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