Today’s ERP environments are at the centre of many enterprise IT infrastructures, from managing employee or customer related information through to delivering information required to run complex production systems. Many people often regard an ERP system as being internally focused, however without reliable connections to outside trading partners, for example banks, suppliers or logistics partners, it can be very difficult to run an ERP system at 100% operational efficiency.
In 2009 GXS sponsored a research study that showed that on average 34% of data entering an ERP system came from outside the enterprise. Now considering that many CIOs focus on the internal infrastructure to support an ERP platform, very little effort seems to be applied to ensuring that externally sourced information can just as easily enter the ERP platform. If you have unreliable connectivity between your ERP platform and external trading partners and a network outage occurs then potentially a third of information feeding your ERP system will be lost. This could in turn lead to downstream business or production systems not receiving information from the ERP system. So the importance of external connectivity to trading partners should not be under estimated.
So how do you go about connecting ERP and B2B systems together?, what should you prioritise first?, what do you need to take into consideration when trying to connect trading partners located in different parts of the world. (In my previous blog I started to discuss the considerations for onboarding trading partners in an emerging market). The remainder of this blog will discuss some of the key things to consider when embarking on an ERP/B2B integration project.
- Make sure you have the correct resources in place – One of the challenges with running an ERP/B2B integration project is ensuring that you have the correct resources available to design, implement and manage the integrated platform from beginning to end. When undertaking such a project you need to find out if you have any internal skills to undertake the integration work itself, you will need a project manager who can reach out to all users, both internal and external, so that their B2B connections can be tested and any document maps that are required can be created. Finally you will need to ensure that you have a support function that can resolve any issues and help to manage the integrated platform on a day to day basis. If you do not have the resources or you find that B2B/EDI resources are being redeployed on other projects (leaving your B2B platform exposed) then it could be an opportunity to outsource the integrated platform to an outside vendor as a way to overcome many of these issues.
- Decide on the options for integrating between ERP and B2B systems – When integrating between ERP and B2B systems there are a number of communication and document exchange related standards that need to be reviewed. For example in the case of SAP, should users connect via SAP ALE, via VPN or across a secure internet connection, should IDOCs be transmitted across AS2 or SFTP? What about integrating via web services?, do you need to support SAP PI based integration? How do you know when your ERP documents have been processed across the integration platform?, will you need status alerts to be implemented to provide automatic notification of when documents have been successfully converted from one format into another?
- Make sure your ERP/B2B integration platform is highly available – Ensuring that your trading partners can connect and send information to your integration platform is crucial to the smooth operation of your ERP system. If you lose B2B connectivity for some reason and external information from trading partners is prevented from reaching your ERP system then there is a chance that this could impact other back office systems and downstream production processes. Your external trading partners should ideally be connected to your ERP system across a highly available B2B integration platform. Choosing the right B2B vendor to work with can make or break the success of deploying an ERP/B2B integration platform.
- Check the quality of externally sourced information – As highlighted earlier in this blog entry, a high proportion of data entering your ERP system comes from outside the enterprise. What happens if a supplier sends through information that has an incorrect address or part number included? The document would have to be intercepted before it enters your ERP system, it would need to be reworked to correct the information and then resubmitted in the queue to get processed by the ERP application. By checking the quality of the information before it enters your ERP platform will allow you to minimise any downtime caused by having to rework data. Given that ERP systems are at the heart of many companies it is important to try and implement what can best be described as an ERP firewall around your ERP applications. This firewall would continuously monitor all inbound business documents and identify any documents that do not contain a complete or correct set of data before entering your ERP system.
- Provide a fully scalable integration platform – When designing an integrated ERP/B2B platform it is important to plan for future expansion or growth of the platform. For example your company could acquire a business running legacy SAP or Oracle applications, you may have a need to support a different ERP module or different types of ERP documents. You also need to ensure that the platform is scalable and that you can deploy the platform across any business unit or manufacturing plant located anywhere in the world. The easiest way to achieve this would be to build your integrated platform in a cloud based environment. This helps with the way in which users get access to the platform, it helps to minimise time spent integrating to new ERP modules and most importantly of all, integration in the cloud shields the users from the complexities of trying to develop the integration platform themselves.
Now having read these tips you might be thinking, where do I start? There is a high chance that you may not have the internal integration expertise to undertake such an integration project or that your existing IT and support infrastructure is unable to support such an integration project. More importantly of all you need to maintain continuity of your existing IT projects, production facilities and customer service environments.
The simplest solution to address these concerns would be to place the integration project in a cloud based environment. GXS Trading Grid is the world’s largest integration cloud platform and we have undertaken many such integration projects for hundreds of companies across different industry sectors around the world. To find out how GXS can help move your ERP/B2B integration project to the cloud, please click here >>>