Microsoft's Mid-Market ERP Array

New releases of Microsoft's ERP products come just in time for mid-market sensibilities.


Better than half of the sales for enterprise resource planning (ERP) these days are from small- and medium-sized companies. These are companies that have grown to multi-site operations or have been making do with ERP systems last overhauled for the Year-2000 bug. These companies are prime prospects for Microsoft Dynamics products. The software giant has four ERP products: Microsoft Dynamics AX, GP, NAV, and SL. Generally, NAV and AX are for companies requiring highly customized ERP. GP is for small companies wanting out-of-the-box functionality. SL is for service- or project-based companies.

One big appeal of these products is price: they're about 30% less expensive than some competitors (particularly primary competitors Oracle and SAP). Another cachet: Users already familiar with Microsoft Office Suite already know how to navigate throughout the ERP programs. Plus, knowing Office helps make data analysis and reporting easy and convenient. Add to this, new releases bring new features.
Integrating with other data sources
Not surprisingly, the four ERP products play nicely with other Microsoft products. These products include Office (personal productivity), SharePoint (Web services, collaboration, portal interface, workflow and document management capabilities), Office Communications Server (Web 2.0 features such as blogs and instant messaging, and voice over IP), Content Management Server, and MapPoint. Users can, for instance, check supplier addresses in Outlook, work with colleagues at remote sites to simulate material requirements based on different production schedules in Excel, and modify user-defined sales fulfillment workflows in SharePoint.
A Microsoft technology called "Dynamic Snap" lets users get data in and out of Microsoft Dynamics applications without leaving Office. Specific Snap applications include searching for business data in AX and SharePoint portals from within Outlook, and a utility that pushes Outlook calendar entries into a timesheet database within AX. AX also includes links to on-line services such as eBay and PayPal, credit card processors, and logistics companies (e.g., DHL, FedEx, and UPS).
Matching ERP to users
GP now sports the "ribbon" user interface in Office 2007 that replaced the drop-down menus of old. Called "Action Panes," this command bar lets users preview and filter data on multiple records without having to open multiple windows in GP or Office. The Action Panes are also aware of job functions, a feature found in some competitive ERP systems. Think of these as pre-packaged user interfaces and templates configured for an employee's job. Each role has its own home page populated with key performance indicators (KPIs), reports, incoming messages, and links to applications and business intelligence (BI) tools relevant to that job (such as finance, materials management, production, warehousing, and purchasing).. Role-aware programs ultimately save time. For instance, a warehouse employee will often, upon picking an item from the warehouse, want to pack and then ship that item. Rather than open three windows (i.e., to pick, pack and ship), GP displays one window for performing the entire process.
Broadening ERP with new features
The latest version of AX includes new multisite capabilities, including support for multiple languages, currencies, and time zones. (The new ERP releases generally aim up-market. AX 2009, for example, is well-suited to mid-sized and larger enterprises-companies with 200 to 7,500 employees.) Users can, for example, run multiple legal entities from a single instance of AX 2009. This provides two major benefits. First, it reduces the capital expense and ongoing maintenance costs for software. Second, it provides a single, integrated view of financial and supply chain information about a company's facilities worldwide. That single view is reinforced by other software tools, like the AX 2009 Compliance Center, which displays a single view of internal controls, KPIs, and other compliance data.
Country-specific features in AX 2009 help companies comply with local regulations in 36 countries. By using the BI services in the Microsoft SQL Server, employees can generate graphs of the data they choose, schedule reports based on those data, and even include data from external sources.
From within GP, with SharePoint, users can define what is searchable and then initiate searches in GP, SharePoint, or on the desktop. The results can include both structured GP data and unstructured information, such as Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, and Outlook email messages.
SL also got a major revision. In the past, SL let users view-but not change-project elements, such as orders and budgets. The latest version lets users make changes, even add project elements as required.
Monitoring & managing energy emissions
The Microsoft Environmental Sustainability Dashboard, an add-on for AX, is a first step at monitoring the effects-and related costs-of a company's operations on the environment. To date, ERP systems generally relate energy consumption to what the company pays for that energy. This dashboard goes further. Using data entered manually or captured automatically from meters and electronic utility bills, the dashboard gives insight into energy consumption, fossil fuel usage, emissions, sustainable sourcing, and carbon footprint. The dashboard does this by tracking the energy used on site ("direct" energy consumption); the energy purchased from third parties ("indirect" energy consumption); these totals converted into greenhouse gas emissions; and an estimate of greenhouse gas emissions from standard business practices, such as logistics, commuting, and business travel (based on known variables, such as distance traveled and vehicle fuel consumption). The dashboard also calculates carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalence for the energy consumption. Management can then view graphs of energy consumption, mix, and costs, as well as CO2 footprint, when considering changes to energy use and costs.