ERP: why three little letters are enticing SMEs to rethink their business architecture

Efficiency, agility and flexibility aren’t buzzwords, they are paramount business considerations in today’s rapidly evolving and challenging economic climate.

And Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) solutions are fast becoming a necessity rather than a luxury for businesses to maintain control, pivot and grow. From automation of repetitive and time-consuming tasks to achieve efficiency, to facilitating remote working to using Artificial Intelligence (AI) and real-time data to inform business decision-making, there’s no doubt that technology solutions are a significant aid for many organisations.

Where the use of software systems may once have been perceived as accessible or necessary only to larger enterprises, the availability of cloud-based solutions means businesses of all sizes can discover the infinite benefits of ERP system technology. So, whether you’re running a small professional services firm, an omni-channel retail business or a manufacturing operation, there’s never been a better time to invest in an ERP solution – and here’s why.

One view = one clued-up business

If you’re one of those businesses that operates using a manual approach to records such as spreadsheets, or are executing different tasks across multiple systems, the bottom line is you can never achieve true efficiency, accuracy or real-time business visibility. If the accounts department is using one method or system to deal with purchases, invoices and accounts reconciliation, the sales team using another to manage sales leads, and the marketing team executing Customer Relationship Management (CRM) in a different system or record – with all that data sitting in siloes – there will never be a holistic, single version of the truth that any modern business needs to operate. In the current climate, agility has never been more important – but having disparate systems will never enable agility.

This is why ERP is becoming fundamental to business transformation and growth. When a single solution can integrate the many business functions, automate the menial or repetitive accounting tasks that plague all organisations, and provide instant business information based on real-time data, it can provide a real ‘eureka’ moment for business owners and pave the way for growth.

Many cloud-based solutions employ AI to make automation intuitive and business decision making more informed – through combining learnings and historical data – so opportunities can be capitalised on quickly. User-friendly dashboards and reporting tools give instant updates at the click of a button, which is what is needed in competitive, fast-paced industries. From running a wholesale distribution operation that needs fast access to inventory data to fulfil orders, to trying to grow a tech business grappling with duplicative processes or unscalable systems – ERP is the answer

Adopting early saves money and accelerates expansion

While adoption of ERP systems may have once meant a hefty investment in on-premise servers, the wide availability of cloud-based solutions now makes it a more affordable investment for small businesses. What’s more, it’s never too early to adopt: ERP solution provider Oracle NetSuite says 63 per cent of its early adopters have reported benefits derived from cost-saving elements only possible from the outset. Waiting until disparate processes become unmanageable isn’t a great approach. By taking steps to futureproofing key operations as soon as possible, the business will save time and money. Furthermore, the smaller the business, the more rapid the implementation process and minimised disruption.

Business time and money can be saved by negating resource-sapping manual tasks, and instant access to real-time data such as supply chain visibility or performance monitoring means faster decision making for further efficiency. For SMEs worried about cost, many solution providers offer licenses with access to only the features and number of logins needed. With less internal IT resource required – as cloud-based systems perform automatic functionality and security updates – the total cost of ownership of a cloud system is a huge 77 per cent less.

Putting customer expectations front and centre

The phrase ‘the customer is king’ is an age-old business fundamental that remains as true in today’s business landscape as it ever was. In many industries, competition is fierce, customer expectations are ever-growing, and the meaning of value is all-encompassing – with factors going beyond price to include quality, service, communication, personalisation and speed. Customers can be a tough crowd, so having the right solutions to help you communicate your offering, up-sell and cross-sell, and facilitate orders and sales quickly is a necessity.

This is where AI is becoming a vital tool for businesses trying to meet customer expectations, by helping to predict their behaviour and providing more of an understanding of their buying patterns and habits – which can help with stock level planning. In CRM, AI is helping firms to shape personalisation in engagement and seamless buying journeys for customers. Creating marketing content that resonates with the customer and reaches them via the channel that they’re likely to best receive it is now an activity that can be almost wholly automated within ERP solutions.

And for a wholesale distribution business needing to fulfil a customer order quickly, ensuring stock levels will meet demand is a crucial part of business success. ERP solutions for this arena provide a variety of inventory management features that enable a business to plan for demand based on AI learnings, and navigate the many challenges that can arise, from demand fluctuations through to supply chain disruption. They can provide full visibility of stock levels at any given time, and across multiple locations for those businesses running multi-site or omni-channel operations. Tracking the process from order through to picking, packing and despatch is essential not only for smooth running of any whole distribution operation, but in having the right information to inform the customer at every stage, as the customer expectation for updates grows. 

There isn’t a sector untouched by the many significant factors that have changed the business landscape in the last few years, and those who continue to survive and thrive are those who are willing to embrace change and adapt – for which technology is a great aid. The remote working new normal that has emerged from the pandemic, volatile global economic factors and a seismic shift in consumer behaviour may all be seen as business challenges. But the adoption of the right technology solutions will not only help business owners navigate them, but also turn these perceived challenges into opportunities.

Ian Robertson is the Sales and Marketing Director of BrightBridge, a UK-based technology consultancy offering Oracle NetSuite and Microsoft Dynamics 365 solutions. Ian has over 30 years of experience in ERP and CRM implementations. Prior to forming BrightBridge, Ian worked for a major US IT corporation, where he acquired a depth of knowledge around time saving efficiencies through technological integration and automation.