Painless points

Al Tayer upgraded its ERP without hassle, thanks to its own point solutions. Eliot Beer looks at how this different approach benefits the widespread group.

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By  Eliot Beer Published  December 18, 2005

|~|evanpowell200.jpg|~|Powell: We’ve got some very exciting developments coming up in our IT department, especially with our point solutions.|~|When the UAE’s Al Tayer Group recently upgraded its JD Edwards enterprise resource planning (ERP) solution, its IT department was noticeably short of one major challenge which enterprises often face in such situations: customisations. The group’s ERP solution contained only five customisations, which were more bug fixes than anything else, according to Evan Powell, group general manager for information technology at Al Tayer. “We had no big customisations within JD Edwards to deal with, so it was extremely easy to upgrade the system — it worked more or less out of the box,” says Powell. “One key reason for this was the strategic decision we made some years ago not to use ERP customisations, but to build point solutions to deal with particular business issues. This was against the grain of what a lot of enterprises do as it involved building, rather than buying, a solution.” Al Tayer now has five point solutions operating throughout the group, of which its point of sale (POS) system is the largest and most sophisticated. This solution took around six months to design and implement, but the experience allowed the company to create new point solutions much more easily from then on, according to Powell. He says the latest solution was a handheld time and attendance programme, which was completed in just a few weeks. “Having gone through the process once, especially with something as demanding as a complex POS solution, we now have the skills to implement similar solutions very quickly if necessary,” Powell says. “We have solutions covering fashion buying, and logistics and stock management, as well as the POS and human resources systems. We’re also bringing in a solution for our motor sales division at the moment.” Each point system connects to JD Edwards directly, which acts as the central core for all the interactions. Through the ERP system the solutions can also interact with each other; for example the fashion-buying system can link back into the POS and logistics systems, and Al Tayer’s IT department is looking at increasing this interaction. Powell says this flexibility is one of the key benefits of the solutions. The point solutions offer this flexibility thanks to the way they interact with the JD Edwards ERP application, which sits at the heart of Al Tayer’s IT infrastructure. Each solution sits completely independently of the application and communicates with it using standard protocols. The upshot of this is that although the ERP system may change in the way it works internally, its external protocols are largely unaffected. This also means the solutions can be entirely appropriate to the situation for which they are deployed, such as the retail environments for the POS. Instead of having several different screens to navigate, all the pertinent information can be displayed in one, making it easier and more efficient for retail staff to use. Powell says, “All the solutions are either developed internally or outsourced to our exact specifications, but we always make sure Al Tayer owns the source code, so we know exactly what is going on within each system. This allows us to be very precise and very sophisticated with the solutions, to the point where we can do some pretty detailed analytical work — the communication with the ERP suite is not just basic data. “This also means when it comes to upgrades we’re in a very good position to predict exactly how the point solutions will be affected. The reason we brought in the solutions was for competitive advantage rather than the ease of upgrade, but it is an advantage.” The IT general manager says the other side of making sure the upgrade went smoothly was a very detailed planning stage. Al Tayer’s IT staff looked in great detail at all of the upgrade information from Oracle JD Edwards and worked through exactly how the new version would work compared to their existing system. According to Powell, this planning combined with the detailed knowledge of the external point systems meant much of the potential pain was taken out of the upgrade procedure. “Only about 10% of the work we put into the upgrade was on the point systems, whereas with a customised ERP application it would probably have been a lot more,” says Powell. “When we designed the point solutions, we put effort in to make sure that we could unplug them from the old system and plug them in to the new one and have them work. This is what happened, with only minor changes needed as a result of the major alterations in JD Edwards internally.” The other main element of the upgrade was bringing in the new hardware architecture for the new system to run on. Al Tayer’s IT department brought in a brand new web server and application server to service the upgraded ERP suite, although again the point solutions needed no new hardware at all. Powell’s strategy, while unorthodox according to the mainstream method of customising IT solutions, has certainly paid dividends in the long term. With such a varied business as Al Tayer, to bring in customisations to an ERP suite could potentially have caused major problems in the future, as with upgrades or similar changes to the central application. Al Tayer plans to keep expanding its use of these point solutions, according to Powell, with a new system based around a highly-topical technology soon to be announced and rolled out. He says the key to making these solutions successful is to be very realistic about what the business aims should be, and to enforce these to stop unrealistic projects going ahead if necessary. “We’ve got some very exciting developments coming up in our IT department, especially with our point solutions,” he says. “The whole point about these solutions is to give Al Tayer a competitive advantage, so I’m not able to give details at the moment, but we’re very close to bringing out some extremely interesting projects.” ||**||

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