When travelling overseas to low cost economies in Asia or the Middle East, the average Australian will notice that staff numbers in customer facing roles are quite different. Restaurants, retail outlets, cinemas and hotels are just a few examples where staff are more plentiful than in Australia. Australian businesses, faced with higher labour costs, operate with less staff and have to invest in technology to deliver similar services. Examples of this are everywhere.
This scenario is no different in the administration offices of most businesses in Australia. Back office and administrative staff face the same challenges, to perform functions that overseas counterparts could have a handful of people filling the role. It is amazing that in 2016 when visiting these Australian organisations and talking to them about their problems, similar themes prevail – lack of real-time information, duplication of data entry in different systems and information that takes too long to compile – delaying key information delivery to key stakeholders. For staff to “do more with less” businesses have to look at tools which can reduce the amount of manual work an employee has to perform.
To these back office and administrative staff – elegant and effective solutions are available and one of the most basic but powerful elements is a dashboard. What is a dashboard? Most people think of a dashboard as the display inside of your car. Your car dashboard is critical; how would life be without a fuel gauge or speedometer – this information is absolutely necessary.
In similar fashion modern computerised accounting systems, often referred to as Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software should provide key users with real time tailored information “dashboards” to streamline what they do as well as have access to their key functions. Gone are the days of printing out paper reports and looking through them for pertinent trends, issues or problems – today a user should expect to walk into the office in the morning and be able to get real time directions and information to guide them on their way.
If your systems are not constantly delivering real time guidance and information – the amount of additional work for a typical employee to compile this information becomes prohibitive. Often the result is that it does not get done, people become “fire fighters” just reacting to problems as they occur. The ability to manage proactively and take decisions based on information and trends is then done haphazardly, poorly or not at all.
Recent research by the Harvard Business Review* concluded that using key operating data for day-to-day decision making was a driver for improvements in business performance. Furthermore, the research contended that companies with a culture of evidence-based decision making tended to be more profitable. It can be argued that one of the most effective mechanisms that are available to businesses today are dashboards. Well designed and well thought out real time dashboards provide evidence for businesses to make decisions.
These days many ERP systems claim they have dashboards – but not all “dashboards” are created equal. Following are some features that best practice dashboards will have and how those features can improve how employees function in an organisation – and save time.
There has been a lot of research on visual presentation of data that has confirmed what most of us would have already known – visual presentation tools are significantly more effective at conveying information than standard text or numbers. For time-poor staff, colour and graphics should be able to quickly point out trends and/or problems that need to be addressed.
The most basic visualisations are charts and graphs. The example below is a graph of open cases of a wholesaler of physical products. “Cases” are raised when a customer contacts them to return the goods due to fault or other issue. The graphic below immediately conveys that there is a steady increase in the number of cases which may point to reductions in quality control, issues with shipping or similar problems and would indicate to a user that further investigation is required.
Looking at another example below, a simple traffic light system combined with coloured fonts communicates to a user which items are first priority.
Every employee at an organisation who has to interact with the ERP system has at least one role to perform. Classic examples of a role are that of a purchasing officer, a warehouse manager or an accounts payable clerk. In the modern organisation people are interested in the information related to their role. In today’s high cost environment, we are often required to perform a number of different roles. Role base dashboards are dashboards which have a context to match the role you are performing.
To illustrate an example; below we have a dashboard for a Sales Rep. Using the numbered items, we can see (1) Reminders for sales opportunities to be closed, (2) All of the key sales related KPI’s for that sales rep, (3) Lists of open opportunities and (4) Phone calls the sales rep needs to make. The below example whilst useful for a sales rep, would be inappropriate for an accounts payable clerk. Having a tailored dashboard for each role is a must.
It is also worth mentioning that modern enterprise systems should allow you to easily switch between different roles with their own separate sets of dashboards. In many smaller organisations you will have some users who split their attention over different roles during a day or week (e.g. moving from Accounts Receivable to Payables). Another common example we see is that senior managers can also benefit by viewing dashboards that their subordinates are using and to see exactly what is going on.
Modern dashboards are not just about conveying information – they should be a guide to the user on what tasks need to be completed. Ideally the reminders presented should allow a user to drill down to the actual application or function related to the reminder. Historically users would have a checklist of things to do or piles of paper to process. Today a modern ERP system should present the user with a list of actions to perform as soon as they login and be continually refreshed during the day.
Below is a good example for a finance staff member’s role. As soon as they commence work they need only click on each item to be taken to a processing screen to start performing the task. Legacy systems typically have lengthy menus where the user must go in and out of functions looking for the next task they need to perform. A dashboard such as this one reduces time wasted and improves efficiency for busy staff.
No one organisation is the same as another. Whilst successful organisations in similar industries do a lot of the same sort of things there are always distinct differences in how they operate, what they measure and what unique intellectual property they have that makes them successful. So if similar competing organisations are not the same, why would anyone assume their information requirements are? Each organisation requires the ability to adapt standard dashboards to the specifics of their organisation. Importantly, for the multitude of organisations that do not have a spare software developer on their payroll, the ability to make these changes should be easy enough for most competent users to perform.
To demonstrate the kinds of things to look for in a modern ERP system, the below image shows a dashboard portlet with some key performance indicators. To modify this the user can click on a setup button and then be presented with the ability to edit and amend the standard view.
The below screen shows the setup behind the portlet which can be tweaked to the user’s own preference. What you definitely want to avoid are tools that require access to a back-end database. Dashboard editing and creation functionality should be in the core system interface such as the example shown.
In the last decade the advent of the smart phone and tablet have transformed how we consume information and communicate. Technology has created new ways to access information. One common example is your mobile sales rep (being able to give customers real-time information on stock holdings, pricing or other information) straight from their phone.
People are working from home, answering emails in an airport lounge or even checking up on work whilst on annual leave – in general we are more connected to our workplaces than ever. Modern ERP systems should be able to provide access to the same information a user would see in the office on your mobile device.
In the example screenshot we can see a role based dashboard on a mobile device. Reminders, KPIs and reports are all rendered in the format of the device streaming real-time information from your ERP system.
When looking at smart phones almost every employee or potential employee owns a smart phone (typically on iPhone or Android) which provides a cost effective tool to connect to the ERP system without needing to go out and procure specialised phones and tablets specifically for staff.
For field staff where more robust devices are needed, again look for ERP systems which provide support for popular platforms such as Android and iOS as purchasing off the shelf tablets or smart phones and adding a ruggedised case provides a cost effective option for getting your staff equipped.
These days modern ERP systems can manage more than just the accounting function, they can aid in controlling other areas such as sales, procurement, warehouse, quality control, HR, payroll and the list goes on. There can however still be areas that companies are managing in spreadsheets or on checklists outside of a core system. This type of non-financial information can include examples such as license and certificate expiries on large assets, maintenance work and training renewals for certifications. Modern ERP systems can perform all of these tasks in dedicated modules, but for smaller organisations the ability to have simple configurable checklists in your dashboard removes paper and spreadsheet lists from the organisation.
A common trend with older ERP systems is to plug in a third party dashboard application to make up for old technology in the main system. Whilst some of these add-ons can be very appealing and effective, they tend to be expensive to install, configure and maintain and add another level of complexity. In the end there is never one single source of truth. Issues can also crop up on how often an integration is run and it is not uncommon to encounter integration issues when an upgrade of a related system is performed.
Modern ERP systems with fully in-built modules and applications typically allow for user dashboards to display the complete picture for a role and avoid the need for the user to jump between systems to see 3rd party dashboards and reports.
The modern worker is expected to do more with less while keeping on top of what’s going on in their area. Dashboards are one of those tools, simple in concept but powerful in outcome that can deliver long term benefits to an organisation by streamlining what needs to be done, allowing businesses to make decisions proactively and giving real-time information as opposed to historical out of date information. Adopting “evidence based decision making”, which top performing companies do, requires tools such as real time dashboards to display information trends.
If you are not using a modern system with modern and flexible dashboards, it may be worthwhile to shop around.
* Harvard Business Review, Dec. 2013, ‘You May Not Need Big Data After All’, by Jeanne W. Ross, Cynthia M. Beath and Anne Quaadgras. https://hbr.org/2013/12/you-may-not-need-big-data-after-all
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Modern ERP dashboards in a busy workplace whitepaper
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Solutions Engineer at Precise Business Solutions
Qualified accountant (CPA) that has worked extensively with Australian based organisations focused on business improvement and cost reduction. A 15-year ERP software veteran Senad has worked with organisations in manufacturing, retail, supply chain, not for profit and contract services. He believes ERP software is about delivering tangible benefits and improving the productivity and well-being of staff.
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