Enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems manage a wide range of information needed for business operations, including financial, human resources, manufacturing and transportation data. Despite their extensive capabilities, they are relatively weak when it comes to consuming or producing transaction-related documents. Developing such capabilities can require expensive custom coding or time-consuming manual steps.
The James M. Pleasants Company (JMP) is a manufacturers’ representative for commercial heating and cooling systems. In addition, it builds custom systems using manufactured components. The company migrated from a legacy mainframe to a business suite based on offerings from Microsoft to accommodate its growing business, which includes an increasing number of alternative products such as geothermal systems for apartment complexes.
The right match
JMP found a good match for its ERP needs in Microsoft Dynamics AX, but discovered that automating the creation of transaction-related documents was difficult.
"The basic documents that came out of Dynamics AX were very plain, and it was difficult to format them," says Joe Claxton, IT manager at JMP. At the Dynamics AX Convergence conference, JMP discovered Bottomline Technologies, which has a software product for document process automation.
"It was clear right away that this solution was right for us," Claxton says. "The software already had code that would plug into our system, and it had the right workflow processes for us."
A typical transaction involves the receipt of a sales order, which is followed by sending a quote or order acknowledgement to the customer. If the order involves an engineered product, a "project picking list" of components is required. That information is derived from Dynamics AX, but the ability to format the list was limited. Invoices then need to be created and sent to the customer. Invoicing addresses are not always the same as shipping addresses, so business rules must be developed to indicate the correct one. Also, the JMP return address may vary, depending on the office that generated the original quote, and the system can be set up to accommodate those variations.
Prior to using Bottomline’s solution, each document had to be created manually. Now, a workflow has been set up and customer quotes, material lists and invoices are created automatically. Bottomline has its roots in transaction-related activities such as electronic payments and invoice automation.
"Several years ago, we started to look at the type of documents that need to come out of ERPs after we realized that these systems did not manage their document output well," says Gareth Priest, VP of global product management at Bottomline. "Since attaining a leadership position in the document composition and output market, our solutions have expanded to encompass capabilities for content management, scanning and optical character recognition (OCR), document presentation and automated workflow, which we combine to offer as a business process package."
Once the document is created, it can be sent electronically or in hard copy through a variety of communication channels, and also can be stored using Bottomline’s electronic document archive capabilities to create a holistic view of a client’s history.
"Many document-related processes are linked together," says Priest. "For example, a sales order will eventually need an invoice. Automating creation of each of these documents helps drive efficiencies in the finance department."
National Office Furniture, a division of Kimball International, manufactures high-quality furniture and has a commitment to efficient, personalized service. Until recently, furniture orders received at National via mail and fax were routed to customer service staff and entered manually into an order processing system, SAP.
"These manual processes were straining resources and our ability to provide the best customer service possible," says Tony Clark, senior applications developer at National.
Clark discovered Esker DeliveryWare on his way to an SAP conference. "We knew we needed to improve the order process, so we began investigating and researching solutions to move to an electronic document management system," he recalls. After reviewing a variety of options, National decided that Esker DeliveryWare provided the best alternative for its needs.
The new system was implemented in two phases. In phase one, orders that came in via fax were digitized and routed using DeliveryWare. Any orders that came in via mail were scanned and placed in the queue as well. That change eliminated the manual steps of loading the fax machine with paper and distributing hard copies of orders. Customer service staff viewed the images on screen and entered data into SAP. After the first phase was implemented and routinely executed successfully, National moved on to phase two, in which DeliveryWare was used to extract data from the scanned orders through OCR and then enter it automatically into SAP.
An important feature of the new system was its ability to execute business rules that prioritized orders in the queue, depending on the type of product and other variables. In addition, it allowed staff to balance the workload and help each other more effectively, because the entire queue became visible.
Customers use a variety of different formats for their orders, and DeliveryWare can be trained to recognize the data to extract from each one. With orders now stored electronically in an archive, information is readily available to answer customer inquiries, and the status of each order can be determined quickly.