“How did this happen? We have two ERPs with data we can’t relate to!” It’s the age-old problem. One vendor solves (some of) the data access issues for their application but what about the other applications you own?
The companion to that problem: vendors pop up looking to show how easy it is to build a narrow way of consuming data, plus ERP and CRM are complicated and challenging worlds to navigate to bring forward the data which is most meaningful to leaders on all levels. Often, if you succeed at navigating your ERP data, there is still a need to present it in a consumable way.
For these reasons, in this blog explore how you might consider making data management for your ERP/CRM data compelling and approachable.
First, let’s think about the end-users
First things first, let’s consider the end users…. REALLY! There are many awesome tools for supporting the visual aspects of the data journey. Often, the end users across both small and large organizations are using different tools. The finance team may really like Excel whereas the sales team might be great with a Power BI dashboard; somewhere in the middle are people trying to drive operational functions at multiple levels of detail which might be a combination of reports, personal dashboards and performance metrics using the afore-mentioned products or other tools like Tableau or SQL Server Reporting Services.
If part of an organization’s data management strategy is to get to the point where information is consistently yet voraciously consumed, you’ve got to help users optimize the visualization tools they are most familiar with, and give them a robust underlying data platform to get there.
While you are thinking about the end users, don’t forget about the data management platform owners, too. There are no “ownerless” data management technologies, especially with multiple data sources. Knowing who’s going to own it goes a long way to making the right (not hype-driven) decisions.
BYOD (Bring Your Own Database)
Well, if your vendor’s answer to supporting analyses or reporting with a data platform is to suggest you should Bring Your Own Database (BYOD), that might feel as lame as a Bring Your Own Beer/Bottle (BYOB) party invite. The acronyms are similar and have similar implications. IE the vendor isn’t going to take much responsibility for the outcome. They’ll provide aspects of the infrastructure, but that’s it.
The larger challenge with a BYOD option is you’re having to, in a very “up to your elbows” way, get technically dirty prescribing what gets exported from the application into your database. Yes, you’re starting with some very purposeful administrative ERP/CRM UI the vendor provides and choosing what data gets delivered to the database you brought.
Sadly, the result of this push isn’t a metadata-rich, reflection of what was exported but more like the underlying table names and fields, which can be harder to understand. Ever opened a CSV in Notepad or an Excel spreadsheet without column headers? Yep. That’s pretty much how it feels.
Some questions to consider with a vendor providing an export mechanism from their ERP/CRM platform:
- How are you staffed to maintain a “Bring Your Own” data extraction environment?
Is the ERP platform new and what is your learning curve for understanding what data you want to actually export from that platform?
Can the business afford to lose metadata richness in favor of being in a new database?
- Nothing I’ve observed over the years has ever shown the use of BYOD-like tools to be “easy.” Beyond the architectural implications of being narrowly focused on the single dataset available within the application(s), the most compelling reason for separate data is the ability to interact with it independently of the application. Using the ability to directly query these single data sets really makes the end user tools much more powerful. That is assuming the information needed is integrated, accessible and structured in a compelling way.
Everyone, get on the bus…
The monolithic (and increasingly dated) view of data integration with a newly-acquired ERP platform is to bring all the data you need with you from your past applications and put them into the new ERP platform.
It reminds me a bit of the difference between a bus on a school bus route versus a shuttle bus picking up at a popular stop. On a school bus route, passengers (or, in our case, data) is acquired over the journey, and there’s a reasonable assurance there is a place for everyone on the bus. The driver knows about everyone (or the data) and, despite personality differences (or data issues), journeys successfully to the destination.
In the case of your old ERP and ensuring the vitality of its data as your new ERP goes live, doing so is a great deal like making the shuttle bus stop at a convention center. At the shuttle bus stop, you likely have more passengers than you have places for them, so you order more buses and try to coerce people into positions they don’t want (standing, tight seating, etc..). No consideration for the uniqueness of the rider/data, just pegs (whether they are round or square) in holes.
The better data management approaches support acquiring data, blending the information to support contiguous (historical and current) views of business processes but allowing for a sustained view of the data in its original form.
“You can have whatever color and shape you want, as long as it is a black box.”
One solution that has been bandied about by vendors to solve blending data from multiple ERPs (i.e. your old one and your new one) is a Common Data Model to provide the “it doesn’t matter where it came from” answer or the “Look, our apps are integrated!” message.
It is inherently good when vendors take steps to integrate their applications, most notably Dynamics 365. The delivery of a Common Data Model and Common Data Service engenders the use of the application and its processes as a means of integration. Not domain to this post, Microsoft is doing some very compelling things beyond products like Power BI to drive complex workflows.
However, the extensibility of the model (particularly loading of data into custom entities) is in no way technically complete or non-trivial. In my view, this leaves data from other systems at risk and waters down where the actual true data lies.
So, I am not saying anything done in a Dynamics 365 only context is wrong, but these technologies don’t accommodate the variety of shaped/sized data from multiple sources the organization often needs. One look at the technical investments you’d make and the shortcomings you might still find, and you’ll possibly be considering moving on from the color “black” and the shape of a “box”…
“We’re not going to take it!”
One last thought, another movement I’ve encountered is the “I don’t want a graph/dashboard/visual” movement. Somewhat surprisingly, some vendors think the answer to solving this is to provide a new platform for delivering data management PLUS a toolset for consuming lists of data. It sure feels like a very narrow sweet spot and reminds me of an all-out revolution against all other tools and technologies.
A proper data management platform provides ALL the facilities for summary data supporting senior decision making AND operational insights at a much more granular level.
All without having to contemplate acquiring another tool which acquires data in its own way and makes lists appear on a hand-held device in a warehouse, on a sales call or anywhere in between.
About the Author
Trey Johnson is ZAP’s Chief Evangelist. Based out of Jacksonville, Florida, he joined the company in 2008 bringing experience from leading various boutique BI software and national consulting companies. A published author, speaker, and consultant, Trey sat on the PASS Board of Directors over multiple terms, concluding as their Executive Vice President. He was a long-term member of Microsoft’s BI Partner Advisory Council and has spent the last 25 years delivering business intelligence, data warehousing, and data management solutions to businesses of all shapes, sizes and “data challenges.”
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