Securing technological finesse

The Al Madani Group has successfully managed to reduce inventory costs and streamline day-to-day operations across its various branches in the Middle East with Microsoft’s Great Plains solution.

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By  Sarah Gain Published  April 25, 2005

Fashion retailer, the Al Madani Group has overhauled its IT infrastructure with Microsoft’s Great Plains enterprise resource planning (ERP) solution, in a bid to gain greater control over business processes across its outlets in the region. As a master licensee for brands such as Hang Ten and the sole distributor for Levi’s, Dockers and GAS in the UAE and Oman, the company has been experiencing a business boom that necessitated the improvement of internal communication. Prior to deploying the new solution, Al Madani was using an inhouse software system called Visacc, which was failing to cope with its data demands and could not provide the required level of communication between the stores and the back end systems. It was also proving impossible for the retailer to map its product hierarchy onto the old system, which meant that it was unable to create and manipulate the necessary categorised reports. There was growing pressure to modernise and streamline the resource planning, according to the Al Madani Group’s IT manager, Mohammed Ahmadi. “We had out-grown our previous system, and therefore needed a solution that could handle our operations across the region.” A team of six IT professionals managed the deployment, which was carried out in conjunction with Microsoft partner Jumbo Electronics. The implementation comprises a range of different Great Plains modules that meet the various operational requirements of Al Madani Group, including a multi-currency management facility to handle international operations. The project also uses Microsoft retail management solution, a point-of-sale apps that is integrated with Great Plains to link the front-end operations of 36 Al Madani stores with the retailer’s head office. The new solution has also helped the company automate its warehouses. The original plan for the deployment was the implementation of the Great Plains solution across 19 Al Madani stores within six months. However, due to the rapid growth in business, the organisation opened a number of new stores across the region. As a result, more time was needed to stabilise the system and to complete the rollout across the group. After signing the contract with Jumbo, Al Madani’s inhouse team began to study the existing procedures and re-engineer the process to eliminate some of the errors in that software so that it could be more easily mapped onto the new system. A direct implementation of the management chain proficiency was carried out and migration got under way with the transfer of vital data. Software testing was conducted and a trial implementation allowed the Jumbo and Al Madani teams to investigate the solution in a live environment. The test run highlighted some compatibility issues with the IBM hardware, giving the project managers the chance to update the platforms before major setbacks could arise. Simultaneously, a brand-wise implementation was carried out at the Al Madani warehouses, enabling three-way communication between the company’s end points. The deployment schedule allowed three days for the complete installation of the new solution and the execution of staff training in each shop. The project did not run according to plan in all branches and unexpected delays meant that the implementation process was slowed down. However, this was not a major concern for the company. “There were some minor, unexplained software malfunctions that had to be corrected as we went along but this was not a great surprise — you cannot expect completely plain sailing with an implementation of this size, on this scale,” says Ahmadi. Migration was one area of difficulty for the implementation team as the data from approximately 75,000 reports, all containing attributable information about every Al Madani product, had to be filtered and reformatted for the new system. To begin with, Al Madani used a populated system to filter the data and split it into the various relevant fields. Because time was short, it was then necessary to start running all the stores on the new ERP system while the last stages of data filtering, cleansing, manual checking and correction were performed. As all Al Madani’s retail assistants use the software at the point of sales, training was another important obstacle for the organisation to overcome. The group trained key staff inhouse. These employees were then sent out into the stores to conduct general staff training and provide support. According to Ahmadi, there was some resistance to the new software from the shop floor staff to begin with, as the users at Al Madani did not initially feel comfortable with the new set-up. “Exra training had to be provided to some staff in some procedures. For those familiar with a Windows system, the new arrangement held few challenges, but for others the difference between the old and new software was difficult to adjust to at first. There are no problems now, however — everyone is very happy with the improvements,” he adds. The new solution runs on a combination of hardware, primarily supplied by IBM, while Cisco products are used for networking. There is also an extensive back up system of databases at the headquarters to store all the new data that is being generated. Every shop has a new set of the Microsoft retail management software to process sales and manage inventory systems, while at the backend a different module of the software communicates with the other apps to generate reports. “Our objective was to have a 3-level solution combining data input, improved process flow and output of reports,” says Ahmadi. Now that Al Madani has the technological finesse, distribution operations have improved and efficiency has been enhanced. The company is pleased with the improvements it has seen in the communication throughout the group. With Great Plains, the retailers are able to tie different systems together from the front to the back end of its business. It also has a better control over the flow of goods, according to MNC Ray, general manager of the IT group at Jumbo Electronics. “Tight management of business processes is essential for any retailer with operations spread across different countries.” The new solution offers all the functionality Al Madani needs, as well as giving greater insight into business processes. At the head office, Al Madani executives have access to the reports generated by the ERP system. “From the headquarters it is possible to see what is happening in the stores in Dubai or any other country specifically, or across the UAE as a whole,” Ahmadi explains. Based on the improved reports, it is possible to make more accurate orders using data detailing the previous season’s sales. By identifying the best-selling products the group now generates less stock wastage and is also able to cater more accurately to the needs of its customers. “This has not just increased our efficiency, but also allowed us to make savings through leaner inventory and other improvements,” Ahmadi notes. Furthermore, he believes the ERP solution is providing a high level of integration with other business apps. This enables the retailer to match its business growth plans, offering an IT infrastructure upon which it can deploy other systems or build solutions with more functionality as required. While Ahmadi can see the value of the Microsoft solution, he believes that now the system is stable, it is necessary to continue to explore its functionalities and add more features at the reporting level in order to fully leverage the ERP system. Although the solution is generating more detailed and accurate reports, in order to get the maximum accessibility out of the available technology, he feels that the group must continue to update and make improvements. To this end, the company plans to implement a further Microsoft customer relationship management (CRM) module, as well as business intelligence (BI) tools, later this year. “For people who are not particularly computer technical, such as CEOs, general managers or marketing and business development managers, it is important that reports and data that are generated by the IT solutions is as simple as possible to access and manipulate. They want to be able to operate the system and make changes to the information just by using the mouse, without having to type anything, and this is what we are aiming to provide,” says Ahmadi.

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