An enterprise resource planning (ERP) system is a software application with a centralized database that can be used to run an entire company. Let’s take a closer look at the definition of each of these components:
A software application: The system is a software application, which means that it has been developed with specific logic and rules behind it. It has to be installed and configured to work specifically for an individual organization.
- With a centralized database: All data in an ERP system is stored in a single, central database. This centralization is key to the success of an ERP – data entered in one part of the company can be immediately available to other parts of the company.
- That can be used to run an entire company: An ERP can be used to manage an entire organization’s operations. If they so wish, companies can purchase modules for an ERP that represent different functions within the organization, such as finance, manufacturing, and sales. Some companies choose to purchase many modules, others choose a subset of the modules.
An ERP system not only centralizes an organization’s data, but the processes it enforces are the processes the organization adopts. When an ERP vendor designs a module, it has to implement the rules for the associated business processes. A selling point of an ERP system is that it has best practices built right into it. In other words, when an organization implements an ERP, it also gets improved best practices as part of the deal!
For many organizations, the implementation of an ERP system is an excellent opportunity to improve their business practices and upgrade their software at the same time. But for others, an ERP brings them a challenge: Is the process embedded in the ERP really better than the process they are currently utilizing? And if they implement this ERP, and it happens to be the same one that all of their competitors have, will they simply become more like them, making it much more difficult to differentiate themselves?
This has been one of the criticisms of ERP systems: that they commoditize business processes, driving all businesses to use the same processes and thereby lose their uniqueness. The good news is that ERP systems also have the capability to be configured with custom processes. For organizations that want to continue using their own processes or even design new ones, ERP systems offer ways to support this through the use of customizations.
But there is a drawback to customizing an ERP system: organizations have to maintain the changes themselves. Whenever an update to the ERP system comes out, any organization that has created a custom process will be required to add that change to their ERP. This will require someone to maintain a listing of these changes and will also require retesting the system every time an upgrade is made. Organizations will have to wrestle with this decision: When should they go ahead and accept the best-practice processes built into the ERP system and when should they spend the resources to develop their own processes? It makes the most sense to only customize those processes that are critical to the competitive advantage of the company.
Some of the best-known ERP vendors are SAP, Microsoft, and Oracle.