Made in SA

Eager-to-please ERP

A researcher progresses towards proof that ERP systems can learn individual human preferences.

1 November 2010
Photo by Karolina KomenderaAkash Singh, SAP Research Center Pretoria, experiments with making ERP for small enterprises friendlier towards people.

Some small manufacturers in South Africa switch to ERP systems to get an integrated view of how their business operates. The result is often mixed - the relief of a real business overview and the pain of using that ERP system daily.

A local experiment in guiding people through ERP transactions (which resemble gigantic forms) may soon point one product for small enterprises in a new direction.

Once a plug-in Adaptive User Interface (AUI) has been added to the system centrally, an ERP user can show the system his/her way of filling in a particular form. The AUI observes what the user does and how. The ERP system then serves up the form according to the person's preferences the next time, and keeps learning how the person goes about their work. Screens and fields not used on a form are disabled by the AUI the next time the person accesses the form, while regularly used fields are highlighted and moved towards the top of each screen.

“Small enterprises with up to 200 employees just want to concentrate on their core business, because they're so flexible and they work in a very dynamic business landscape,” says Akash Singh, research associate at the SAP Research Centre Pretoria, partnered by the Meraka Institute, at the CSIR.

“They want to see who their debtors are. They want to see where the money is going, what is happening with their materials. Not all the small-scale systems out there offer this functionality to them. When you move over to an ERP system, it really provides all of this in a nice, neat bundle.”

We personalise the way you interact with the system, but we do not interfere with the business logic.
Akash Singh, SAP Research Centre, Pretoria.
To get the neat bundle, people have to learn the ERP system, though.

Singh interviewed small manufacturers and asked how they get along with their ERP systems. “There are so many fields on the screen, I don't even use half of them. I need to use the one field on that screen, so I have to take my eyes all the way to the middle of the screen just to look at that field. Why can't it be at the top of the screen instead?”, is a response Singh has had.

New ERP system users have other difficulties besides long, confusing forms with no guidance.

“In small enterprises, people have to multi-task, they have to fulfill multiple business roles,” says Prof. Janet Wesson from Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University. People in small enterprises really need to learn ERP systems quickly and easily, says Wesson, but training budgets are often limited.

Adaptive User Interfaces are new for ERP systems, but on the internet,  recommendor systems, an example of AUI, learn from people ordering books, and suggest other products they may be interested in.

Wesson's department researches AUIs for both mobile phones and ERP systems, and has included an adaptive mobile phone tourist guide that suggests hotel accommodation and restaurants based on the types of hotels and restaurants the user has queried before.

Open to learning

Singh searched for a small-enterprise ERP system, sold in South Africa, for which he could build an experimental AUI.

“Is your system open for extensibility, right down to a code level?” he asked ERP sellers. SAP's small enterprise system, Business One, allows add-on extensions for both the user interfaces and the business logic. “We could extend SAP Business One,” says Singh, “without interrupting the core ERP and business logic.”

Having selected Business One for his AUI experiment, Singh then asked a small group of Business One clients which parts of Business One they used the most. Based on that, he built an AUI layer between the logical and presentation layers and evaluated it for the sales order and customer information forms. The AUI layer tells the presentation layer how to re-render the screen for a form, based on user preferences.

“We split the ERP system logic from the user interface logic. We personalise the way you interact with the system, but we do not interfere with the business logic for the actual ERP system. We separate the two completely,” says Singh.

Learning from a sales clerk

The AUI learns how people like to work with forms and what they fill in. When sales clerks, sales managers or other staff use the AUI-enabled forms for the first time, the AUI creates a unique user profile for each person.

Singh's proof-of-concept for SAP Business One, on two distinct functional areas, proving that AUI is possible for ERP systems too, is at the design stage. He is working towards a functional AUI for sales forms on SAP Business One. He designed the AUI as an optional add-on systems layer, which can be plugged into an existing SAP Business One implementation.

Singh plans to evaluate the academic proof-of-concept AUI, by asking Business One clients he originally interviewed to try it out and tell him if such an AUI could distinctly improve the way they work every day.

“Do they feel like it's now working for them?” says Singh, “Or, as we all feel as users of ERP systems, that we have to work for the ERP?”