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How to choose manufacturing software for business intelligence

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Get detailed when preparing RFPs for mobile ERP and BI

A clear mobile strategy will determine the right questions to ask hardware vendors, software developers and service providers, consultants say.

Once IT managers understand mobile ERP market trends, infrastructure requirements and devices, the next step is to develop requests for proposals (RFPs) for hardware, software and cellular service. The foundation for effective RFPs is a strategic plan that provides a clear picture of business needs and how mobile ERP and BI can serve these requirements, consultants say.

Mobile plans require direct input from IT and representatives across the enterprise, including senior executives, production managers and sales staff. The key is to look at the needs of each group and the pain points that could be addressed with mobile computing. “Understand the business needs of the organization -- from the shop floor to the executive suite -- and what each group means when it talks about mobile applications,” said Eric Kimberling, president of Panorama Consulting Solutions, based in Centennial, Colo. “Then ask vendors how they will support your mobile ERP and BI efforts.”

Determining mobile BI use cases

When questioning vendors, drill down into specific categories. RFPs for mobile hardware should include questions about how device makers will support specific enterprise applications. Don’t just specify mobile ERP and BI as the intended use cases, Kimberling advises; list the actual software brands and modules the tablets and smartphones will need to run. Certain applications may have unique requirements that may cause manufacturers to reach different conclusions about the best hardware, he added.

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Hardware RFPs for mobile ERP should also probe each vendor’s technology refresh strategy, which IT managers should then relate to their organization’s overall mobile plan. Areas to key in on include how quickly vendors will introduce new devices, faster processors -- an important component for ERP reports and BI number crunching -- and operating system updates. For example, while the Apple iPhone’s iOS is not open for customization, analysts say some hardware vendors tweak Google’s Android operating system with unique user-interface designs that can impact hardware requirements.

Asking the right service questions

Choices about hardware are closely tied to cellular service options, since bundling deals remain common. Experts recommend using separate RFPs to probe 3G and 4G wireless coverage capabilities for main headquarters locations as well as subsidiary facilities, customer sites and partner locations. Request more than just high-level charts and color-coded coverage maps.

For example, IT managers should seek commitments for when faster 4G services will be rolled out to all regions that are relevant to the organization, according to experts. Also ask the service providers to describe data-volume limits in detail. Consultants say the questions to ask include, Does the provider charge business customers when its data volumes surpass preset limits, and if so, at what rates? Will data-throughput speeds drop once a customer reaches a volume limit? What options are available to keep costs low and data rates high?

Service providers can also play a role in security. Experts recommend determining if a potential candidate offers data encryption, virtual private networks and other technologies for protecting sensitive information.

Finally, ask service providers to explain their post-4G rollout plans and schedules.

The future of mobile ERP in the cloud

Next, IT managers should distribute RFPs to ERP and BI vendors to determine how well the software companies can serve the manufacturer’s mobile strategy. “A software vendor may offer mobile apps, but they may not be directly connected back to enterprise data systems,” noted Cindy Jutras, principal at Mint Jutras, a research firm based in Windham, N.H. That could require manufacturers to develop custom programming for data integration and synchronization. “You might as well help your vendors set their priorities according to what you want and need,” Jutras added.

Also inquire about the cloud strategies of ERP and BI vendors, said Kimberly Knickle, practice director at IDC Manufacturing Insights, which is based in Framingham, Mass. “One of the predictions we have for mobile applications is it’s a given that companies will expect to use those applications via the cloud,” Knickle explained.

Mobile computing management considerations

Finally, IT managers should distribute RFPs to cellular service providers and independent software companies to determine device- and application-management options, according to consultants.

One challenge is controlling and protecting the company data housed on mobile devices. Find out how device-management options enable organizations to remotely wipe data from missing devices and whether it’s possible to set up technology boundaries and create distinct areas for enterprise and personal data, advised Andrew Braunberg, research director for business technology and software at Current Analysis, a consultancy based in Washington, D.C.

Questions like these will only grow in importance as mobile ERP and BI encompass higher volumes of information that is proprietary to the business. As a result, “mobile management is going to be huge in 2012,” Braunberg predicted.  

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Essential Guide

How to choose manufacturing software for business intelligence

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