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Why are “web services” an important part of ERP?

We have come a long way since the 90’s, when everybody wanted a company website but few knew what it could do beyond being a leaflet on a PC screen. Fast forward to 2013 and smartphones outnumber regular phones, as more and more people actually use the devices for their internet and social media capabilities rather than as telephones. With this change in technology and society, as of 2013 there is already a whole generation of consumers and customers whose expectations about companies and social media impact how goods and services are sold and supplied to them.

Looking back into recent history, as Thomas Friedman wrote in The World is Flat (2005), when airlines asked their passengers to book and print tickets at home, they didn’t just save on printer supplies. They got some of their work done for free by customers. All airlines take people and luggage from A to B, but some require more staff and other resources to do so, and this is reflected on the sale price.

Much in the same way as airlines did it, there are common aspects as to how business structures are optimised:

  1. They aim to have lower staff costs to achieve the same or higher output
  2. They get the customer to do work that previously was done by employees
  3. IT systems are used to count and measure resources, products, and workflow statuses
  4. Web front-end systems provide self-service areas with low fixed costs

This is where web services enter the scene. As defined in the Wikipedia:

A web service is a method of communication between two electronic devices over the World Wide Web. A web service is a software function provided at a network address over the web or the cloud, it is a service that is “always on” as in the concept of utility computing.

It is this connection between interactions with the public (companies and consumers) and the allocation of resources needed to generate the company output (goods and services) that makes it a necessity to have web services as a key component in a ERP system. More than a technical function, web services should be seen as enablers of workflows involving participants from within and from outside the company.

Example: at the end of a transaction on eBay, the seller can buy postage from Royal Mail without leaving the eBay website. The order weight and dimensions were passed on as part of a query to Royal Mail, which in turn had a result shown on eBay’s pages. That’s web services in action.

Example 2: When the parcel is in transit, the delivery status is visible from the eBay site rather than only through the site of the logistics company. That’s web services in action to do part of the work needed for a highly automated value chain.

The same can and should happen with companies that have smaller sales volume than eBay (ie: most of us mere mortals).

It is nearly 10 years since the analysis on sales vs unique SKUs resulted in the famous Long Tail chart. We know that the “fat” part of the chart is taken by only the largest companies, and that the end of the long tail is a starting point for growing rather than a comfortable place to be in the long term.

As a whole generation of ultra-informed consumers becomes the majority,  building up from a low volume specialist business to one that scales well with many customised and specialist items is a necessity. In that context, only a higher degree of automation can help companies dodge obsolescence and extinction. The key is to find how to do this in a services work environment?

I would think that for every occasion someone needs to phone someone at a services company just to check on the status of a transaction or project, that signals that a self-service channel might have been of value. In practice, waiting for the one person who is able to give answers about a specific project or transaction is similar to standing in a queue, only worse due to lack of visibility on the size or speed of the queue.

Let’s face it:  In comparison with what the buyer experiences with eBay, with Royal Mail, with TFL and countless online retailers and service providers, this kind of customer experience is opaque, slow and ineffective.

How customer experience can be different if the workflows are shared and visible for each customer:

  • Every time there was a change of status, this can be a trigger for a notification. (Example: Your tailored suit is ready for pickup)
  • If there is a deviation from the standard workflow, this can trigger a warning. (Example: We tried delivering your parcel at 16h00 but nobody was home. Please log on to reschedule)
  • Whenever a new task is needed from either party, this can be assigned via a secure customer portal rather than via phone or snail mail. (Example: the contracts arrived from other party’s solicitor, please log on to customer portal to review them)

Much in the same way that individuals working in an office will probably use a “to-do list”, the improvement that Dynamics NAV projects and web services can provide is to allow publishing of part of the to-do list, with only as much details as is useful to share between the parties.

When self-service web applications provide suitable answers, then customers’ calls can be the exception rather than the rule for day to day interaction, meaning that there are smaller queues and there’s more work being completed by fewer people.

In a highly competitive business environment, sooner or later someone will act like low cost airlines and find ways to transfer tasks to customers and make savings that will impact the sales price. Forward thinking managers are needed to take that step, or face the risk of becoming the traditional operator that saw customers move en masse to competitors that are perceived as being more efficient and easier to do business.

The key building blocks for this kind of business optimisation are likely to be already available in your IT infrastructure:

  • SharePoint server handles publishing of documents and forms for intranet and extranet;
  • Dynamics NAV handles workflows and resources per project;
  • Microsoft Office 365 is used for producing documents, forms and templates;

More detail on how Microsoft Dynamics NAV works with SharePoint client and portal framework can be reviewed at MSDN. How Dynamics NAV and Advantage can help you overhaul your business processes – start here.

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