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ERP on IBM i: Eight Modernization Trends for 2024

Infor’s Ross Freeman explores how general ERP industry trends match up with IBM i ERP industry needs—and where they differ

Many enterprises use ERP products that run on the IBM i platform. IBM i is the best platform for business applications, and ERP is usually one of the largest applications in that enterprise. But like any industry, the ERP market has to grow and evolve to meet current challenges and address future requirements. After all, that is what the ERP customer wants—a partner that can help meet those challenges.

For 2024 we are seeing eight high-level challenges that most IBM i ERP customers should consider as priorities:

  • Modernizing user experience
  • Enhancing reporting and analytics at the user level
  • Output management
  • Mobility
  • Improving security
  • Extending applications tailored to your environment
  • Integrating to leverage modern tools
  • Streamlining routine tasks

1. Modernizing the User Experience

Modernization is a big topic in the IBM i space. Lots of homegrown green screen applications are being “modernized” in various ways, from screen scraping to more fundamental refactoring of green screen applications. However, in the ERP world, that should be a job for your ERP partner. Any significant refactoring of your mission-critical ERP is a massive undertaking fraught with risks. The point of an ERP is to share that cost and risk with hundreds of other customers on the same ERP.

Any such refactoring should provide extensive personalization capabilities at the user level to support tailored business processes and data access without IT involvement. Any personalization should not affect upgrades; your system should be release transparent to the highest extent possible. A primary value of an ERP is upgrades, so you want to be able to adopt them easily and quickly without losing the personalization to make the system function according your business needs.

This applies to any custom applications you develop. Provided tooling should allow the custom applications to work easily with the core ERP and other applications, without causing upgrade issues or requiring several confusing, disparate user interfaces.

2. Enhanced Reporting and Analytics at the User Level

When customers upgrade their ERP, they often believe their ERP is heavily modified, only to discover that a large percentage of “modifications” are done to provide access to data via queries or modified screens to enable a business process.

Let’s stop that. Users should be able to personalize their views to get the information they need and build the custom process templates they need without going on an IT development queue or making a mess of the next upgrade.

One issue with all packaged software products is that there is no perfect user interface. Only the key users know what that is, and it might be different next week or next year. Your IBM i ERP should allow those key users to take what they know and make the system do it their way.

3. Output Management

Still using spool files? Yes, they work. They are also inflexible and require IT intervention to make changes, no matter how small. Modern output management tools can’t do much with spool files except make them look prettier and store and distribute results in a static format.

Conceptually, if the user can make the user interface be what they need it to be, why can’t they do the same with the various outputs stuck on spool files? If system outputs are in a flexible format like XML, the options on how to format, store and distribute become nearly unlimited.

4. Mobility

Mobility was hot before it was not in the ERP space. Mobility can mean many things, but let’s face it—taking a complex customer order on your phone is a non-starter. Not enough real estate. Mobility is a matter of the various use cases.

Remote workforce using full-size devices? Yes.

Workflow and alerting with review and approvals using any device? Yes.

Messaging on any device? Yes.

Customizing ERP inputs and outputs to various device formats? Sometimes.

Doing hard core ERP transaction and data work on small format devices? No.

This area is still evolving to understand where mobility fits best, but one thing is crystal clear—you need remote access without a lot of extra work. Delivering full ERP functionality on full-screen devices remotely needs to be job one. Other use cases are more dependent on your specific needs, but it is crystal clear that all ERP vendors need to be working on a mobility strategy that can suit your needs.

5. Improving Security

Nah, the IBM i is totally secure. We don’t need to worry about it…

That is somewhat true, but not entirely. The recent log4j issue is one example of a vulnerability that IBM i ERP vendors needed to fix.  As the various modernizations discussed above and below are deployed, the security picture gets more complex and ERP vendors need a high level of expertise to ensure a secure system.

Another issue is that while the IBM i is very secure, it ships with more than a few doors hanging open. Industry security experts make it clear that some customer live dangerously because there is a lot to know in this area that most customers don’t know. Hackers often don’t know either, but that can change in a heartbeat.

Some vendors also address this by offering a cloud version of the ERP where security becomes the vendor’s problem, not yours. Any cloud application will have service level agreements covering security guarantees, among other things.

6. Extending Applications Tailored To Your Environment

ERP is all very nice, but customers have seen the need to add functionality around the ERP—business analytics, product configurator, Product Lifecycle Management, Field Service—the list goes on. Each customer has various needs and priorities. Just like the user interface, there is no perfect set of applications that fits every customer or industry.

In the past, IT had to hack all of that together and keep it running. ERP vendors took note and acquired best-of-breed solutions to deliver a complete solution to their customers. “Deliver” also means that the vendor needs to produce and maintain robust interfaces to the new products back and forth from the core ERP. Similar to the cloud ERP conversation, the vendor needs to be able to support you as your application suite becomes increasingly complex and hard to manage and upgrade. That goes double if you are in the vendor’s cloud.

7. Integrating to Leverage Modern Tools

Speaking of integrations, old-school direct integrations are not the way to go. Various vendors have standard integration tools that standardize and simplify integrations via a central bus architecture. This makes upgrades and maintenance much easier and faster.  Additional services like workflow, alerting and messaging are default capabilities. Standardized security makes the whole application footprint much easier and safer for users to navigate.

This also makes it easier to add applications not provided by your vendor or your own custom applications without building a future headache. No vendor can always provide everything you want the way you want it, making it easy for you to build a maintainable hybrid suite is essential.

8. Streamlining Routine Tasks

Letting the user tailor the user interface and outputs to optimize their processes goes a long way towards streamlining the system. Letting the user access all the information they need for their job in easily digestible form also improves things. At some point, transactions have to be processed and routine tasks need to be executed by someone.

Or something. If you can define the standard process (workflow) and the criteria for routine execution of the task, why not let the machine do it? If you have a standard integration architecture that allows definition of tasks across multiple applications, why not let the machine do it?

Artificial intelligence is all very fashionable these days, but we see customers needing a ground level, practical form of artificial intelligence. Why pay a human to match invoices for the 95% that process cleanly with no issues?  Pay the human to deal with the head scratchers, the missing data—the exceptions. Let the machine toss up the exceptions and get everything else done in record time.

In a more advanced but still practical scenario, let the machine loose in your data looking for answers to questions you suddenly need to ask. ERP data is great for answering the questions you always ask, but not always great at answering questions you just had forced upon you. It is possible to let the machine snoop around your data and see what it comes up with. Some of it won’t be helpful, but the machine can come up with a lot of possibilities very quickly. The hard part is done once the machine hits on something useful.

8 Ways to Modernize

In the IBM i market, modernization is top priority. “Modernization” is a very broad topic, and your ERP partner must make the continuing investments to address the many aspects of modernization. Just as you need to consider investments to meet these challenges. Like any good partnership, your ERP vendor is working to address these challenges together with initiatives you undertake yourself.