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Shouldn’t services firms have their own ERP?

I caught up this week with Morris Panner, CEO of OpenAir (now part of NetSuite). One aspect of our wide-ranging conversation concerned the continuing evolution of businesses, the economy, etc.

I caught up this week with Morris Panner, CEO of OpenAir (now part of NetSuite). One aspect of our wide-ranging conversation concerned the continuing evolution of businesses, the economy, etc. towards a greater services orientation. Drawing on that, we discussed how services firms need their own version of ERP.

Here are just some of the ways I believe a Services ERP would differ from a traditional ERP:

1) Services firms need visibility in their ‘resources’ so that the best/optimal staffing decisions can be made. If the best resource (as measured by value delivered) is available in one country but the work is sold in another and eventually delivered in a third, can these resources be optimally scheduled? ERP/MRP solutions optimize capital resources (e.g., stamping machines, extruders, CNC machines, etc.), customer orders, inventory and other assets. But, in services firms, the optimization software is still in its infancy or non-existent. Sadly, this staffing is often controlled (not optimized) by individuals whose allegiance is to a local sales or operations person and not to the service firm or its shareholders.

2) The CRM component of ERP is also structured to serve Industrial Age firms. Service firms need information about people, availability, real-time pricing data about people, etc. and this is different from products. For example, if your service firm knows it will soon offload a very large number of SAP implementers from a big project, would you want to offer some discounted pricing to prospects to soak up all of that upcoming bench time? And, would you want to be selective in offering these discounts for only some personnel while actually boosting the rates of others who have distinguished themselves as real experts in this subject matter? ERP solutions don’t do that.

3) Sales commission calculations are/should be different in services firms. Some sales people would prefer to sell only domestic work as they are paid a percent of total revenues. Selling a mixed mode project (i.e., where some work is performed offshore and some on shore) results in a lower total fee estimate and lower sales commissions for the sales person. Shouldn’t the sales commissions be driven on which projects drive the greatest margin for the employer or greatest value to the client (and not greatest income to the sales person)? Do ERP systems address this? Do ERP systems show a local sales person the staff availability of personnel in another country? Do ERP systems recommend the best value people for a project regardless of location?

4) ERP systems (still) don’t integrate non-accounting data into their software well. Service firms need to capture, reuse, modify and expand prior work plans, intellectual property, ideas, etc. into their projects, deliverables, work plans, etc. They need a flood of information about people so they know who to staff and where. That sort of information changes daily and is rarely found in the standard HR system. This is why resource managers exist in service firms and knowledge management components are essential in service firms’ IT solutions. ERP providers have tried to bolt on project tracking and some PPM capabilities to their ERP offerings but it doesn’t work well. ERP was designed first for accounting transaction data and then updated for Industrial Age firms. Overlaying ERP on service firms is an unnatural act and not optimal for these firms.

PSA (professional services automation) firms did some great things to get services firms more productive and efficient. We all owe them a big thank you just for making time entry a one-time event and eliminating all the reconciliation work (between the project tracking module, payroll and budget/estimating systems). PSA vendors also made billing, collaboration and other project work easier, too.

The initial focus of PSA has been to stitch together a number of service functional needs into a smaller collection of better integrated solutions. Service firms now have better, larger, more robust and more efficient systems. They still have islands of service automation software and data that include: PSA, spreadsheets, accounting software, HR/Payroll software and BI/Analytics. It’s time for that to come together as a more unified solution set.

These larger solutions will likely form the nucleus of a SRP (services resource planning) offering but won’t initially deliver the full capability of SRP until someone adds the unique business functionality that only service firms have and need. Functionality like support for global service delivery models, billing and currency reconciliation for global projects with globally sourced team members, resource staffing optimization models, etc. That may be a few years off but it’s what will eventually come. The question is which vendors will deliver it?

I’m pleased NetSuite kept Morris after they acquired OpenAir. It speaks volumes to their support for the service industry. The question now is will NetSuite create a full, robust SRP for the services space?