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It’s time ERP systems got a facelift

I have been around the ERP circuit for more than 2 decades now (remember SAP/R1?) and love it or hate it they are gonna be around for a while. I have seen the gamut of tools, features, functionalities across numerous solutions and have found there has always been one common failing — crappy user interface.

I studied Business Systems at Monash University here in Melbourne and I remember sitting in a lecture where the lecturer walked us through creating a new sales order in SAP. He excitedly showed us how to bring up the new sales order screen using transaction code VA01. All I could think of whilst he feverishly input data on this blue form was “this must have been designed by engineers.” (No offence to all the amazing engineers out there).

I mean I get it. ERP systems are the backbone for a lot of large companies who can afford the high dollar tag of an Accenture or Deloitte to implement one for them. But come on, for such a cost you would at least expect people would enjoy using it. Moreover, the mere mention of ERP to smaller organisations is enough to send most packing and ending up with a plethora of SaaS products instead.

In any case, I am not here to discuss the numerous reasons why the ERP experience leave people with a sense of dread or loathsomeness. Medium has a lot of articles on that. I decided that my very first article on Medium is to talk about what I think the future of ERP interfaces should/will/possibly be. And that my Medium friends (Mediumnites?) is Natural Language Processing (NLP) and AI powered Chatbots.

Can you imagine a future where we could talk to a chatbot who could respond with useful and relevant informa… wait a minute! Don’t we already have that?!? Yes AI and ML technology is so good now, robots can call a hair salon and schedule an appointment and the human on the other side is none the wiser.

Source: https://capacity.com/chatbots/evolution-of-chatbots/

This technology will only get better so it just makes sense that human-to-system interfaces will all gravitate towards natural language and humanized interactions. If you look at the statistics on the number of users on chat platforms it is pretty clear which user interface the world has already chosen.

Chatbots are now almost mainstream. Jump onto any website and you will be greeted with that sometimes repetitive message “How can I help you today?” They’ve become the new frontline of customer service. The KLM Chatbot on FB Messenger has enabled them to speed up customer interaction by 50%, freeing up the customer service team to provide help where needed.

So circling back to ERP, improving the user experience with cleverly built chatbots would make a much better interface for ERP systems. This isn’t a wildly new idea. There are many software companies out there developing chatbots or platforms where you can build your own chatbot. However very few intentionally integrate NLP and AI powered chatbots with ERP systems.

I think the main reason for this is the complexity of translating business processes into conversational dialogue. It will be quite a monumental task to build a catalogue of Dialogflow flows for different businesses across different industries. Another is where to start? Finance? HR? Supply Chain? Maybe target administrative tasks that require multiple data inputs and done frequently. For example, expense claims, leave approvals, timesheets etc.

For software developers this will become a paradigm shift in application development. Instead of designing for point and click on a screen, it will be designing conversations on a mobile device in FB Messenger, WhatsApp, Telegram or whatever your poison is for chatting. There will also be the need to consider spelling and grammatical mistakes, multiple languages and colloquialisms. This in turn will inevitably define the ‘personality’ of the chatbot. Software engineers designing a personality. Imagine that!

The paradigm shift will be for end users as well. Work just got social?!

With chatbots as the interface ERP systems can be built for the end user in mind instead of the person several pay grades higher who will probably never even login to the system. I don’t believe ERP deserves the not so nice labels it currently has. There is a lot of value for any business of any size with a well designed and supported ERP system. All it needs is a facelift to humanize the end user experience.

photo from unsplash

I will leave you with this. Today we’re more likely to interact with a chatbot than a person. Soon we will not know the difference. #chatbotworld

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