One of the cornerstones of any successful business is the way it has developed unique business practices that give the company a competitive advantage in its marketplace. So why, then, are so many organisations expected to abandon the distinctive way in which they operate to accommodate new enterprise software systems, like supply chain management (SCM)?
It is one of the oddities of the modern enterprise software space - and if it continues to take root, we will end up with hordes of companies which all look and work the same way. You can have any flavour you like, as long as it is vanilla.
I have long been an outspoken proponent of the notion that software should work the way the customers do, and not the other way round. It is starting to happen, but I would like to see even more SCM software which incorporates a client's competitive advantages and even improves on them, thus allowing the system to fit into and grow with the client's business.
After all, software is meant to be a business enabler. It must therefore work for the client consistently and with extreme dedication to simplicity of use, responsiveness, and the client's unique business processes.
Another hallmark of successful organisations is the fact that it is easy to do business with them. They also become more competitive by reducing unnecessary administrative processes - and therefore, overheads. The ideal SCM solution, then, should be specifically designed to improve responsiveness to customer needs while reducing fixed administrative costs.
What is more, if software manufacturers really want to minimise the barriers to entry, they should create SCM software which is able to run everywhere. It should be specifically designed to make maximum use of legacy hardware while exploiting the latest generation of devices available.
Fact is, customers today are demanding systems that are easy to implement and use. It is also crucial that a supply chain in these environments is responsive and acts immediately to any given change. This is especially applicable in the production and jobbing markets.
The way to do this is to embed technology that makes the product highly customisable without breaching the core integrity of the product. This is where elements like an integrated database and a rapid application development environment (RAD) play such an important role in creating this flexible and responsive environment.
The RAD difference
We are not talking about the relational database today, but briefly, it enables the client to easily change field lengths, add fields, report on and present data in any desired format. Data integrity is assured through the use of sophisticated transaction 'commit and roll back' functionality. Additional security like disk striping, RAID technology and 'hot standby' guarantees data integrity for even the most demanding requirements.
What is more to the point is RAD. At Interdyne, we call our RAD toolset Behind the Scenes (BTS) - and that is exactly how it works. This technology allows one to customise the product to suit clients' requirements exactly, without exposing them to the risks of custom written software. The development environment has automatic version and customisation control that will allow for upgrading to future versions of the software without complication or fear of losing work previously done.
The RAD environment allows for rapid programme development while ensuring adherence to programming standards. This is the big benefit of an RAD tool: it allows the developers to change the software without disturbing the core integrity of the system. This means that modifications can be rapidly implemented without affecting the system, allowing for swift response to changing market demands.
RAD also delivers user interface independence, allowing concurrent operation via either character-based terminals, Windows PCs under a Graphical User Interface, over the Internet, operating a browser Interface, or any mixture of these.
Interfacing is provided to on-line banking, bar coding and factory data collection devices, electronic data interchange (EDI) and external Microsoft applications like Excel and Word.
This ability to allow for simultaneous operation in all user interfaces ensures integration with present, past and future environments. This enables clients to retain much of their current hardware and migrate to newer equipment as needed. This can reduce the total cost of a new computer system by up to half, allowing the client to make a smaller initial investment and then invest in newer hardware only once the system is showing a payback.
Resistance to change within a company is also minimised if users are allowed to operate within the same environment as they did in the past.
What are the implications?
What does this mean for your average mid-range SCM solution? For a start, you will be able to react instantly to changing customer requirements. An organisation will be able to cater for the different ways in which customers may wish to interact with it. Changes in demand will be able to filter through the system in realtime without the need to first run planning processes like material requirements planning (MRP) and capacity requirements planning (CRP).
What this means is that this information can be available immediately to all relevant employees, allowing sales staff to inform affected customers, alert purchasing staff that component and raw material requirements may have changed and alert management that predicted turnover may change. These are all fairly critical factors in running a successful business today.
The beauty of the embedded development environment that is provided by RAD and the underlying relational database is that it is extremely efficient. It has become common for software to require complicated three-tier architecture and layer after layer of 'middleware' to enable it to operate at a reasonable speed and interface with other systems.
RAD largely eliminates the need for three-tier architecture (you can deploy it if you wish, but you certainly are not required to). Also unnecessary is the multitude of additional middleware products to allow interfacing to other systems and the Internet. This functionality is all included in the RAD embedded environment, resulting in reduced cost and a far lower cost of ownership. It is music to any embattled CIO's ears.
The business benefits are immediate and lasting. Quick and easy customisation, version control, linking of processes to fields, changing of screen images as well as field lengths all contribute to the flexibility and low cost of deployment and ownership that is associated with this technology.
Take responsiveness, for example. Suddenly, thanks to the RAD environment, you are able to respond to a customer's requirements and demands without the need for lengthy administrative processes. This means realtime reaction, which results in drastically improved customer service and increased competitiveness by reducing administrative overheads.
Responsiveness is further enhanced by architecture which allows for uninterrupted trading over month and year ends - ensuring that your internal administrative needs never affect your ability to service your customer.
Another benefit is that perennial favourite, ROI (return on investment). By simply easing administrative costs wherever possible, you can make a definitive and positive impact on the bottom line. By allowing for an evolutionary upgrade to new hardware, the total capital investment is generally far more attractive than competing systems that require a revolutionary change to new hardware throughout the client's company.
The technology benefits of an SCM solution which incorporates RAD functionality are equally compelling.
* Flexibility - The RAD environment ensures that the system is able to rapidly adapt to incorporate the unique processes of a client or overall improvements to processes. Changes can be made rapidly, and populated throughout the system, without disturbing the core functionality of the product.
* Availability - All processes are streamlined to maximum efficiency and customer service remains at its optimum level.
* Modern design - The product is designed with the ability to run any user interface simultaneously. This allows the user to operate in both character-, browser- and graphics-based interfaces at the same time, thus integrating seamlessly with other systems and maximising the use of old hardware.
* Support Central - the Support Central feature offers peace of mind, by giving access to an online knowledge base for all support queries. This system encourages user independence and makes all queries accountable to the pertinent persons or departments.
* Integration - The solution can be seamlessly integrated into the client's business. Just one example of this is integration into CAD systems for transfer of Product Engineering data without duplication of data entry. Conversion of data from the client's old system is now a routine function, generally achieved in a few days.
SCM software is not rocket science: you understand your customers' market, reduce fixed administrative costs, simplify the manufacturing and production processes and provide realtime updates at any given time. Using an RAD environment just pulls it all together and gives you the flexibility and responsiveness you need to react to change.
Albert Styger, MD, Interdyne Technologies