ERP transactions from anywhere: Page 2

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Building a bi-directional link between PDAs, smart cellular telephones, and other handheld devices and your ERP system involves the following challenges:

  • Messy GUIs. The IT department has to master several new graphical user interfaces--you should get to know the Palm and Windows CE, as well as the Nokia high-end smart telephone lines;
  • Squeeze play. The ERP application and the database must be able to partition the application into objects small enough to fit into the 4MB of storage in a Palm VII;
  • Synchronization. Keeping scores of laptop applications and files updated is a major pain for large companies. But it's a walk in the park compared to maintaining thousands of handhelds that lack even a rudimentary keyboard; and,
  • Systems management to the max. If you don't already have a systems/network management package helping you maintain your ERP system, the invasion of thousands of PDAs linked to ERP apps will drive you to an asylum.

    Don't bother trying to put your finger in the dike you've erected to keep out PDAs. Instead, focus on how to make this happen.
    Here's an architectural and implementation approach to solve the problem. Don't try a top-down approach to repartitioning your ERP system to fit thousands of different PDA user needs. Instead, take advantage of the componentization of leading ERP packages, and offer your users a menu of ERP modules that could be stuffed into a PDA via their desktop.

    Since all of your PDA users also will have a desktop back at the office, that device becomes the configurator for each PDA profile. Linked to the server, the desktop can present a series of PDA functionality choices. Based on the existing policy management provisions in your ERP system, each user can select from a series of functions that can be downloaded to the PDA. These include: inventory status and in-process forecasts for the warehouse managers and logistics teams; and pricing, production schedules, and raw materials inventories for the sales team who need to do available-to-promise discussions with clients.

    After the user has selected the desired functions, the desktop can then determine if the already registered PDA can handle the volume of data and applets. If it can, the desktop uploads the PDA and alerts the server to support future data exchanges via whatever type of link is embedded into the PDA. If the user wants the PDA to hold more than is possible, the desktop can direct the user on how to reduce the wish list to the practical.

    Sounds simple, right? Sure. Based on what I've heard and read about this, it won't be easy or cheap to link PDAs to ERP systems. But you better start thinking about this now and checking in with your ERP vendor on what it is going to do to help you. //

    Larry Marion is an editor and consultant with more than 20 years of experience in the use of computer technology in manufacturing and finance. He is the former editor of Datamation, Electronic Business, and LOTUS magazines. He can be reached at lmarion@mediaone.net.


    Remote access advice

    Some comments from vendors and a user about linking PDAs to ERP:

    "Practically every company we talk to is considering how to best utilize the handhelds within its environment," notes Allyson Fryhoff, director new business initiatives, mobile and embedded products division of Oracle Corp., of Redwood Shores, Calif.

    "The interest among our customers is across a number of applications: service management, plant maintenance, time entry, salesforce automation, and shop floor data collection devices," says Kim Hutchings, product manager for pervasive computing at SAP Labs Inc., in Palo Alto, Calif. "We're focusing on developing applications for specific users for specific transactions. We're not just shrinking R/3."

    "Cell phones are on our list, too," adds Hutchings. "The challenge with cellular is the communications infrastructure. It isn't quite ready yet.... Some people in Silicon Valley think PDAs will replace phones one day," she says, with only a slight bit of irony in her voice.

    "I feel SFA [sales force automation] is the only area where this type of integration makes sense," contends Jorge Taborga, CIO of the Bay Networks unit of Nortel Networks Corp., the Ontario-based data communications equipment company. Bay was an early implementer of R/3. "However, the synchronization technology between PDAs and back-office systems is very primitive at this time."

    "We've already modeled and prototyped PDA links to OneWorld," Paul Barker, head of technology marketing at J.D. Edwards & Co., in Denver, told me at the company's recent user meeting. "We're working on various form factors--Windows CE, Nokia, PalmPilot."

    "IT managers' roles should focus on the user interfaces and design tools. IT should look to the ERP provider for the architecture and structure of the product to accommodate remote access via an info appliance," Barker adds.

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