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ERP reporting tools effective first step in exploiting data

Here's how ERP's built-in reporting and SQL tools can be effective at exploiting company data without full-blown analytics -- within limits.

In this age of the industrial internet of things (IIoT) and big data, with ever more sensors and smart devices feeding real-time status and activity from the plant and throughout the supply chain, the biggest problem is finding ways to make productive use of this sea of data.

Technology generates this abundance of data and also provides analytics and data visualization tools to help us understand what the data is trying to tell us. But many companies struggle to exploit new data because of lack of ability, technology or understanding. Ironically, most of these companies have not really made full use of the ERP reporting tools that have been a part of their enterprise system software suite for many years.

Most ERP systems now offer analytics as embedded or add-on applications and a number of third-party analytics software applications are available for those who want to more fully exploit their enterprise database including data in their ERP, CRM, manufacturing execution system (MES) and others.

While analytics software provides the ultimate ability to slice and dice raw data, turning it into actionable intelligence, these applications tend to be complex and difficult to use effectively. They can also be costly, especially if you need high-priced talent like data scientists to help you put it to use. Granted, analytics tools are becoming more usable by mere mortals as these capabilities are finding their way into ERP systems' executive information system or business intelligence applications, but simplification necessarily places limitations on the extent and proficiency of the analytical capabilities. Nevertheless, big data will continue to grow and everyday applications in our ERP systems will incorporate information from IIoT as the technology matures.

While not considered analytics by today's definition, built-in ERP reporting tools and general purpose database query tools provide a great first step to exploiting your company's data.

What ERP reporting tools can do

Every ERP system comes with standard reporting functions that have prepackaged compilations tied to specific tasks and functions, such as inventory analysis reports, financial reports, production schedules and priorities, purchase order status, open payables and receivables aging. Most of these reports can be tailored to fit your company's departmental organization, product groupings and sales regions to focus on specific parts of the business or particular needs. Many ERP systems also include flexible report generation that makes it easy to develop unique reports that you view, print or save.

These analyses are generally limited to certain segments of the ERP database and to a range of formats and capabilities intended to support the general needs of a particular audience like material management or accounting. You may be surprised at the flexibility of these report writers and how easy it is to create new views that provide added insight for better decision-making. You can load the data from these report writers into a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet for additional manipulation, sorting, linking or calculations. In fact, some ERP applications use Excel to bring basic data, culled from the database by the report-generation process, to life as actionable intelligence.

SQL tools seek answers in data 

General purpose SQL database tools rely on the internal organization and structure of a relational database to allow users to access database content without having to know the details of the database structure or how to write programs. Users can ask questions in understandable terms to create an ad-hoc report that, for example, lists all the items in the main warehouse that have not been used in the last six months. You can create SQL queries for any data in a given database -- the ERP database for example -- and link them across multiple databases. Some technical expertise is required to set up the SQL tool and the connections between databases but once that's done, the world of data is open to the SQL user.

SQL outputs display on a screen and can be formatted for printing or saved. Saved output files are reusable in subsequent analyses for additional explorations. Taking the above example, items not used recently might be linked to products, customers, suppliers or prior sales to see who or what might be affected if these items were eliminated.

Emerging big-data capabilities still limited by analytics

Both of these kinds of tools will grow in their ability to handle big data as ERP and other applications incorporate IIoT data. In the meantime, database tools like SQL can provide basic analytics through their ability to link multiple databases -- ERP and sensor-based data. Analytical capabilities will be somewhat limited, however, as these are just general-purpose tools and it is up to the user to fully define what data is included and what is done with it.

Packaged analytics applications contain predefined reports, summarization and visualization methods and templates, as well as sophisticated analytics capabilities that SQL tools lack. Nevertheless, built-in report generation functions and SQL tools can provide significant analytical capabilities that are not commonly recognized or used very effectively. While you're waiting for industrial-strength analytics to become more affordable or user-friendly, why not dig into the data you already have with the ERP reporting tools and database query capabilities you already own and see what gems of intelligence are lying hidden in your ERP, CRM and MES databases?

Next Steps

Advantages and disadvantages of ERP reporting tools

How ERP can be integrated with other software

Why manufactures need to adopt analytics in the process

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