Buyers of manufacturing software have been looking for the "holy grail" of user-friendliness for years. User-friendliness is a frequent discussion topic when companies evaluate enterprise resource planning (ERP) but it is one of those things nobody can really define, but everybody knows it when they see it.

To begin to define usability, it is best to start with the anticipated benefits such software solutions can deliver. A software solution that scores high in usability will shorten implementation time frames and reduce the amount of training required to go live, in turn enabling a faster return on investment and delivering benefits more quickly. Such a system will result in a lower total cost of ownership, is likely to change and grow with your company, allows for easy upgrades and interoperability and makes it much less likely that it will need to be replaced to enable future business processes.

Software vendors are adept at making their ERP look user-friendly. Carefully scripted and well-prepared demos can mask the more cumbersome aspects of day-to-day business processes. Selection committees are not usually made up of people who process transactions all day, so extra screens, background processes or required keystrokes may go unnoticed. And matching up the software business flows with your in-house business processes doesn't really tell you anything about the system's ability to support your future needs. Even a hands-on session won't help you make the right choice in this crucial decision.

So how can you judge whether software is truly usable?

Flexible IT Architecture

Surprisingly, the vendor's IT architecture is just as important as the functionality of the system to your future success. First and foremost, the architecture should use industry standards. In addition, a good IT architecture should be lean, just like a manufacturing facility. It should have everything that you need -- including strong security features -- but shouldn't include or require you to purchase a lot of stuff you don't need.

Next, look for application flexibility. Your business will change; how easily can the software change with you? A role-based development process and real-life usability testing are two key things to look for when interviewing a vendor. Business processes should be easily changeable through switches or table entries. The underlying design philosophy should make it easy to customize the application if necessary to support a differentiating business process, and the application should be easy and inexpensive to upgrade as new releases come out, even after customization. In addition, there should be built-in workflows, analytics and a world-class portal with role-based metrics available. If your prospective vendor can't show you evidence of these, then it is not likely to make the grade in terms of usability.

Works The Way You Do

We all know that business processes don't remain static for very long. Who reading this article does business in exactly the same way they did even five years ago? Nobody -- or you wouldn't still be in business. So much has changed so rapidly that companies are continuously reinventing themselves -- and you need systems that can keep pace with the changes.

Even recently it was inconceivable that customers would enter their own sales orders and configure products themselves over the Web. Today they demand this ability. Suppliers release their own purchase orders against contracts, or participate in vendor-managed inventory programs. Who knows what changes will occur in the future? Software needs to be flexible and adaptable as new ways of doing business emerge.

Today more and more companies compete based on the speed of their supply chain. Flexibility, communication, collaboration and visibility are the most important enablers of supply chain velocity and transparency. How can you ensure that you provide supply chain transparency?

In most cases, it means providing portal access and other collaboration tools to customers and suppliers. A portal is the best and fastest way to share documents and to collaborate around the world at all hours of the day or night, every single day. A portal must be easy for users to access and set up without requiring a lot of IT help, and yet must include strong security.

Also look for pervasive workflows that notify users, customers or suppliers of events or delays that can affect business results. Workflows should be able to communicate across company boundaries, have easily set thresholds and be easy to create or modify without requiring IT intervention.

Familiar Interfaces

It is important that systems are easy to navigate for people who may use them only occasionally as well as for power users. Information workers today spend a large portion of their workday using their e-mail applications, probably the most widely deployed applications in the world. Messages from co-workers, customers and suppliers constantly flow through e-mail inboxes. Rather than jump from an ERP system to e-mail, it's simpler if business applications not only look and feel like e-mail but are actually integrated with it.

A familiar interface enables workers to feel comfortable with an application immediately. And since industry analysts agree that one of the biggest costs involved in implementing new ERP systems is training, which often equals or exceeds the cost of the actual software purchase, eliminating the need for some training can speed up the implementation time frame dramatically, leading to faster ROI and time to benefit from the ERP investment.

Confident Decision Making

One of the lesser-known disadvantages of earlier generations of ERP is that software rarely communicated information to users about upcoming problems, unless the user was savvy enough to ask the right question at the right time. If the user was lucky or smart enough to stumble on a problem, deciding how to solve it was more often a matter of intuition than data analysis. The tools available were simply too slow and cumbersome, especially as the pace of business got faster and faster. Data warehouses and other analytical tools usually rely on periodic updates, forcing users to work with less-than-current data. Disparate systems often yield conflicting information. No wonder most manufacturers ran by the seat of their pants. They simply had no tools.

Today it's possible for analytics engines to be embedded in applications or in the IT stack. Engines can access information from multiple disparate systems instantly and present the user with up-to-date information in a graphical format. Some engines and search tools can combine both structured data, like that found in ERP databases, and unstructured data, like that found in documents like contracts or RFPs (requests for proposal), to present the user with an immediate and complete picture.

Conclusion

It's rare today that a company has no IT systems in place, so it's important to select applications that run on industry-standard platforms so that applications can easily interoperate. Investigating the technology that surrounds required business functionality can be even more important than the functionality itself. After all, it's relatively easy to add new features to a system, but it's often impossible -- or at least difficult and expensive -- to change your IT architecture.

Sharon Ward is worldwide manufacturing industry director for the Microsoft Business Solutions group at Microsoft Corp. In this role, she is responsible for setting the global industry strategy and ensuring communication throughout Microsoft's global industry community. http://www.microsoft.com/dynamics