A Shower of Software

Manufacturers can expect a host of new applications.

After experiencing MRP, MRPII, ERP, MES, SCM, and CRM, it turns out there's a whole new array of task-specific software applications that is about to cascade upon the business world. For manufacturers that means things are likely to get more complex before they get any easier. The main reason for this sudden proliferation of new software is, of course, the Internet. It's as if everything were moving along at technology's usual fast pace when a meteor the size of Lake Huron smacked into Mother Computing Earth. As we know now, this was the Internet Meteor. Initially some business leaders, most notably Microsoft Corp. 's founder and Chairman Bill Gates, predicted it would have only a small impact. So small, in fact, that Gates instructed his people not to spend too much time on it. But the Internet Meteor completely overturned the computing world as we know it. The change was of a magnitude similar to Columbus' discovery that the planet was shaped like a ball, not a disc. It changed not only the way businesses and people communicate, but also the way people think about information. Naturally, rather than be perceived as part of the old flat computing world, Microsoft has come to worship the Internet Meteor, too. Meanwhile, the mother of all meteors seems to have brought with it a shower of new applications. AMR Research Inc. has identified at least a dozen "hot new application markets." You've heard of the more common varieties: e-commerce, B2B collaborative software, and e-procurement systems, to name a few. But some of the newer ones tilt toward the exotic. Take, for instance, enterprise incentive management. While there have been incentive plans ever since a carrot was strung to a stick, this software helps managers create, monitor, and analyze such plans, while allowing employees to see their status. Another new software arena is corporate productivity. Here the goal is to automate just about every corporate administrative function. Activities such as filling out purchase requisitions, accessing HR information, booking and approving travel, and T&E reporting can be automated, streamlining these normally paper-laden, manual processes. Yet another application is e-service management. This means letting the customer handle his or her own service needs -- returns, product questions, billing problems, etc. -- online. Many software vendors have sprung up in the last year or so to help companies perform customer service online. How about enterprise workforce management? With the Internet having swiftly taken the central role as the primary channel to promote and interact with potential employees, this Web-based software automates the online recruiting process. These applications typically support requisition creation and approval and automated job posting, as well as applicant review and hiring. And let's not forget enterprise channel management. In the old days, manufacturers had different markets they sold to. Today, this is simply called "the channel." Channel management means, basically, keeping track of all of one's business partners and making sure their needs are supported effectively in the presales and postsales processes. Tasks such as launching marketing programs, processing warranty claims, and handling returns are duck soup to these software packages. Then there's e-mail marketing software. Some say the real power of the Web is the ability to tailor messages specifically for the individual audience, whether it's another manufacturer or a consumer. Finally, companies need something to tie systems together, especially those of acquired or merged companies. Enter enterprise application integration (EAI). This software connects disparate systems so that a business process, such as a product order that comes in over the Web, can function smoothly without lots of manual handoffs. After all, that Web-initiated order must interact with accounting, inventory, and shipping. EAI also promises to connect newer Web-based systems with older legacy systems. The Web may be a standard platform, but all software and business processes are not created alike. Somehow these disparate systems have to be made to talk to one another. And therein lies the biggest challenge facing e-business. It's in this area of integration that manufacturers will have to take special care to make sure that things work, so that this giant e-commerce ball doesn't get dropped somewhere along the way. Like a meteor crashing to earth.

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