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Walk for Charity at P21WWUG CONNECT in San Antonio

Walk for Charity at P21WWUG CONNECT in San Antonio

Technology is on the move. Chase it down at P21WWUG CONNECT in San Antonio this August. Cloud options, web client deployments, integrations, middleware installations: the road ahead is replete with opportunities and obstacles, with shortcuts and fast lanes — not to mention the occasional blind alley. 

P21WWUG CONNECT in San Antonio Charity Walk

EstesGroup is excited to be the Platinum Sponsor for the Epicor Prophet 21® event of the year! We will begin the show with a cause dear to our hearts. In the spirit of meaningful motion, DCKAP & EstesGroup teams have banded together to walk for charity at P21WWUG CONNECT in San Antonio.

Are you attending the annual P21WWUG CONNECT event?

CONNECT is a great opportunity to learn more about Epicor’s P21® application — what it can do, how it can be used and, most importantly, where it’s headed. Applications are always on the run. Events like P21WWUG CONNECT are a great opportunity to catch up and head them off at the proverbial pass.

Run Your Business With Prophet 21®, Walk for Charity with EstesGroup ERP Experts

WHO: EstesGroup, DCKAP, and YOU!

WHAT: A charity walk that will benefit the Save the Children Foundation (FREE to attend, as donations are optional, with FREE breakfast following the walk)

WHEN: August 29th from 7 AM to 10 AM (CST)

WHERE: At P21WWUG CONNECT in San Antonio at the JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort

WHY: Find community with ERP, technology, cloud, and commerce experts while supporting a good cause!

This is a great opportunity to clear your head, and meet some great people while helping the world, before the P21WWUG CONNECT event activities and festivities commence.

Walk With EstesGroup and DCKAP this August

Get some exercise and enjoy a good meal afterwards! We’ll meet at a designated area on the grounds prior to the P21WWUG Connect event, where we’ll start the day with coffee and refreshments before heading out on the walking path. Then, we’ll provide attendees with a hearty breakfast and grab-and-go goodies, too.

Low Code or No Code: Citizen Developers on the High Road

Low Code or No Code: Citizen Developers on the High Road

I’m a project manager. So I was looking at some Project Management information on the web. And something caught my attention. I noticed that there is a new certification for a “Citizen Developer”.

Hmmm. What’s that about, I wondered. I found that this is a new persona that is being recognized in many organizations. And it ties neatly into something I recently blogged about. In my last blog entry, I discussed the trend of offering “low-code / no-code” options. These support creating reports, forms, workflow, adding new data tables, and application connections. But they don’t require knowing a coding language.

Low Code Platform Citizen Developers

Instead, application users can use them to directly customize the application to simplify processes and improve their productivity. And they are supported by the IT department at the same time.

Consider this common application life cycle.

Your organization implements a new business application (Epicor, Prophet 21). There are lots of customizations to fit the business need. Everyone is excited when it happens. Fast forward several years. Customizations are slow to appear, yet the organization processes continue to change. The screens and reports work but there are many changes needed. And there is a backlog of work for the IT developers to complete. Frustrated users look for options.

They begin creating custom systems outside the application to get their work done. Excel spreadsheets are everywhere. Users rely on tools like Microsoft Access to get their work done. Everyone works with multiple tools to do their job.

Then someone decides it’s time for a change. Let’s do a new business application! So, the cycle repeats itself. Ugh. This isn’t very efficient, is it?

But what if the customizations were faster and easier to do because more users knew how?

And the application evolved along with the business changes, not behind them? 

And there was less frustration and more productivity?

In the past there was always this “Superuser” who showed up in most organizations. They were the person in the organization that learned how to tweak things that were frustrating and repetitive. They weren’t IT staff. But they were quick to see things that could be improved and were willing to invest extra time to figure out a better way. You may be this person or know one because they are in every organization. 

But there was a downside. Often their work would be discouraged by the IT department. Why? Because the changes were not documented, or the data wasn’t included in backups. Or worse case, that person would leave the company, and no one knew how to maintain their changes.

What was initially a great solution would slowly become unsupportable and out-of-date. It was a natural process. The organization was always changing. And there were only a limited number of people who could customize things. So, the problem continued.   

We should all agree that business applications need to change so we can stop this wasteful cycle. We need business applications to:

  • Be simpler to customize/adapt to meet changing business needs
  • Be customized in small ways all the time, not only during initial implementation
  • Not need more and more IT staff to do all the changes
  • Allow those persons closest to the problem to have more input on the solution
  • Ensure that customizations are documented and integrated into the application for future-proofing
  • Allow users the greatest freedom to adapt, without damaging the integrity of the application data (security, quality, access)

And that’s where the role of Citizen Developers might contribute to a better future. But what is a Citizen Developer?

A good definition would be the right start. Here’s one I found on Gartner: “A citizen developer is an employee who creates application capabilities for consumption by themselves or others, using tools that are not actively forbidden by IT or business units. A citizen developer is a persona, not a title or targeted role. They report to a business unit or function other than IT.”

So, let’s visualize this persona in your organization.

There is this employee who likes new challenges and knows the business process well. This employee is willing to learn how to customize the application. They get started by watching some videos and learning about a new development tool. 

The development tool doesn’t require a coding language or week-long classes. It supports drag and drop changes which focus on what is to be done, not how it is done. The tool supports validating that information before it goes into the system.  

And just as importantly, the customization works when new releases of the application are installed.

This user can always experiment with this new tool and try things in a testing environment.  They can show other users the results, using their feedback to fine-tune the change.

And when it is time, they can coordinate with everyone to release the new functionality to other users who immediately benefit. 

The result is that certain processes are now simpler and faster. Users do less manual work and communication (Trackers / Reports) is improved.

This is the future we are looking at. And it’s not that far away. In fact, some of these features are now available in Epicor Kinetic and Prophet 21. But we aren’t yet recognizing the persona of Citizen Developer and encouraging it because we are stuck in the past ways of working.

For example, in Epicor Kinetic, users can adjust column layouts on and save them according to their preferences. That’s a start.

And those who want to delve deeper can explore Business Activity Queries, Dashboards and BPM’s. These take some time to learn but are powerful and flexible. Plus, they are part of Epicor and upgrade with it. And the learning process is becoming simpler because of videos and support sites.

There are a growing number of examples on YouTube of how users can do customizations. And a growing community of users that are willing to share their questions, knowledge and examples.

So, what do you think is needed for your situation, to increase the Citizen Developer persona? How could the concept help in your organization? Let me know your thoughts!

Rob Mcmillen ERP Consultant

Rob McMillen is a Senior Project Manager and Principal Consultant with EstesGroup, the premiere cloud provider for manufacturers and distributors. He has worked in the manufacturing industry for over 30 years supporting multiple implementations of new ERP systems and leading projects. Because his mom was an English teacher, he grew up with a love of writing. Combined with his working experience, he has written articles for LinkedIn and User Groups, and has published numerous blog posts. He is also a co-author of a book on technology and working collaboratively. He currently lives in the DFW area.

Are you still wondering “what is a citizen developer?” or have other questions about new low-code or no-code platforms? Talk to us now about citizen developers (or any other topic on your mind)!

Introducing Epicor Automation Studio

Introducing Epicor Automation Studio

There’s always something new with Epicor Kinetic and P21. And here’s something new that is coming!

At the annual Epicor Insights conference, in Nashville, there was an announcement about “Epicor Automation Studio”. The word “Automation” caught my attention because it is a popular term right now. It can describe everything from complex machinery in the factory or warehouse to event-driven even software that runs on the desktop (like the inbox rules in Microsoft Outlook). 

Epicor Automation Studio

All these automations are designed to reduce the mindless tasks that we humans often do, so we can ideally spend more time on Facebook work and being more creative/human! For hundreds of years we’ve automated the physical world (washing machines). Now we see increased automation of our digital worlds to better fit our personal needs.

So, how does Epicor Automation Studio help? 

Here’s what we heard.

  • It is a low-code/no-code toolset for P21 and Kinetic
  • It will support integrations between Epicor and other applications

This sounds interesting. We all know that there are significant needs for “integrating” various applications. I discuss this topic of “integration” with Epicor Kinetic and Prophet 21 clients weekly.  

Often the need is to integrate EDI, e-Commerce, scanners, shipping packages, factory floor vending, or third-party applications so that they work seamlessly with Epicor and P21. So, anything that would simplify that effort would be great!

A quick “google” check helped me find an Epicor article about Epicor Automation Studio, here. It is just an introduction and discusses, in a video, how “Citizen Developers” will be able to use this new tool (I will discuss these Citizen Developers terminology in another article!).

This Epicor article adds more information about what Automation Studio does.

  • Helps bridge the business / IT gap
  • Connects Epicor / P21 to thousands of applications
  • Allows Epicor users to share and store automation “recipes”  

What is Epicor Automation Studio?

At first glance it sounds like an Epicor version of Zapier. Zapier has been around for many years. It’s a subscription cloud service with pre-built connectors that allow a non-developer to link applications, so they share information. This involves picking two software products from a list on the screen, determining what actions you would like them to do and selecting it.  

The beauty is that it focuses on “what” you want to do without requiring you to know “how” it is done.

Each Zapier process starts with a Trigger and is then followed by multiple steps to complete it. As a user you just click on options to define the one or more steps. It’s intuitive and flexible.

I’ve seen Zapier used to send texts every time you get an email in your Inbox from a key customer or open a help desk ticket if a message has certain words in it or send updates from your Contacts to Salesforce or load new information onto a website page. 

However, Epicor Automation Studio will need to handle more complex situations that involve Orders, Customers, Parts, User ID’s, Jobs, Vendors, and Purchase Orders. And to do all of that, there will have to be underlying processes that likely use Application Programming Interfaces (API’s).

Today, it would take a good C# developer to integrate an application with Epicor using API logic. That skill involves knowledge about the plumbing between the two applications and also the time to fully test it. 

And that’s why Epicor is moving this direction. They realize that automation is a growing trend. Particularly the trend to involve Epicor users in more of the work that has traditionally been an IT function.

We’ve already seen some of this where Epicor allows users to customize their menus, favorites and screens in Kinetic and P21. For example, in Kinetic, users can rearrange data columns when displaying information. Then they can save the format for future use. Every time they access this data, it appears in their preferred column sequence.  

Another area, we see, is the use of Business Activity Queries (BAQ’s) in Epicor products. BAQ’s do require more technical knowledge than a screen customization but have opened the door to some end users creating custom dashboards and reports (SSRS). For those who are not developers they offer a simpler way (point and click) to display information and improve productivity.

What is interesting is how widespread this is. In almost every organization there is at least one non-IT person, that has decided to invest time learning how to create BAQ’s, Reports, Dashboards and even BPM’s. I’m always amazed and grateful for their skills because they are the real changemakers! 

With Epicor Automation Studio, the trend continues where we see several business changes that are merging.  

  • The first change is the widespread use of point and click interfaces (who doesn’t have a cell phone?).
  • The second change is the introduction of low-code/no-code tools to automate and accomplish more without having to know the details of the system.  
  • The third change is the sharing of information (“recipes”) with others, so they don’t have to start from scratch.

While there will always be work for those who are highly technical you should expect to see more of the application customization shifting to tech-savvy end users who know what the business needs and have better tools to implement those changes. So get ready.

Who knows? Maybe someday you will start a new job and use a “studio” to design your digital workspace to your personal preferences. That would be interesting, right?

Ask the Author About Epicor

Rob McMillen is a Senior Project Manager and Principal Consultant with EstesGroup, the premiere cloud provider for manufacturers and distributors. He has worked in the manufacturing industry for over 30 years supporting multiple implementations of new ERP systems and leading projects. Because his mom was an English teacher, he grew up with a love of writing. Combined with his working experience, he has written articles for LinkedIn and User Groups, and has published numerous blog posts. He is also a co-author of a book on technology and working collaboratively. He currently lives in the DFW area.

Rob Mcmillen ERP Consultant

Rob McMillen
Principal Consultant / Project Manager at EstesGroup

Ready for digital transformation? Talk to us using the chat, or fill out the form below, to begin a conversation with our Epicor Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) consultants!

Taming Your ERP System With Hybrid Cloud Infrastructure

Taming Your ERP System With Hybrid Cloud Infrastructure

Cloud ERP: Confused as a mollusk and dumber than a brick wall?

In discussing integrated application ecosystems, metaphors are often helpful in understanding the challenges associated with cloud migrations and the implications associated with the options selected when migrating an integrated ERP platform. Sometimes conceptualized as a “hybrid cloud,” any time an ERP system integrates with application extensions, homegrown solutions, or third-party applications, we move beyond a simple cloud platform into a hybrid ecosystem. Read on to learn more about hybrid cloud infrastructure.

Hybrid Cloud Infrastructure

Cloud migrations can be complex, especially when a migration includes more than simply an ERP system. A stand-alone ERP system can be assessed at face value: depending on the needs of the business, the functionality of the various versions of the software, and the resources available, a company can come to a relatively clear deployment decision. But when we begin to discuss the company’s hybrid cloud architecture — the ERP application and its integrated extensions — the waters get inky-dark and murky in a hurry.

Enter the confused octopus. One helpful metaphor in understanding cloud migrations is to liken an application’s ecosystem to a confused octopus.

Hybrid Cloud ERP Integrations

An ERP hybrid cloud is a body with many tentacles. And the tentacles don’t always get along with the head — or with each other, for that matter. While each tentacle is joined in some manner with the head, the lifecycle of each tentacle is independent of the parent ERP system. While an ERP system may move from an on-premise architecture to a Software-as-a-Service model (SaaS), a given extension may be designed to only interact at the database server level and may no longer be receiving updates. Simply put, the tentacles advance at their own pace — some may advance more rapidly or more slowly than the main ERP system.

As such, if we were to view a private cloud migration as the movement of an octopus though the ocean, you’d discover that some tentacles keep up with the head, while others may actually surpass the head, while others still stand in place, slowly stretching and extending their ever-thinning connection as the head moves further and further away.  And in some cases, a tentacle may stretch so far as to snap off entirely. For instance, if the head of the mollusk slithers into SaaS and one of the tentacles still languishes in the deep trenches of SQL stored procedures, we might be in deep… water!

So why is it that the movement of the ERP animal’s head might estrange one of its third-party tentacles?  

Perhaps another metaphor would help clarify our conundrum. Let’s talk about brick walls. The truth is, there’s a hidden brick wall hovering in the cloud, as it relates to access and control. When it comes to the level of access and control required to integrate with third-party extensions, the differences between Software-as-a-Service and private cloud architectures are monumental. 

On the SaaS side of the wall, interactions are only allowed at the API-level of the parent application. Conversely, a private cloud platform can allow interactions at any level, whether the API, the business logic level, or even at the database, if necessary.

As such, understanding the necessary level of access and control to support hybrid cloud integrations is fundamental to a successful cloud migration. If you move your base ERP system onto a platform that the third-party applications cannot successfully interact with, you might discover that you’ve left several applications behind, no longer able to leverage them as part of your hybrid cloud ecosystem. I have seen cases where customers moved their ERP systems to a Software-as-a-Service deployments, only to realize that they had to essentially re-write their third-party integrations, and even some of their third-party applications entirely, to be able to interact with their new SaaS platform. They ran head first into the cloud’s hidden brick wall and spent six months of development and integration time and expense for their troubles.

While the explanations are metaphorical, the implications are as real as it gets. Are you considering a migration to the cloud? Carefully consider the implications. Take a thorough audit of the third-party extensions that comprise your hybrid ecosystem, and understand how they are constructed.

Hybrid Cloud Infrastructure Integrations

 Then understand how they might also migrate in order to be able to interact with the parent ERP system in each deployment scenario, be it in a SaaS environment or as part of a private cloud. These considerations can help save a lot of grief and trauma during implementation, so make them before you bind yourself to a given path.

Mixed metaphors, even in hybrid cloud infrastructure, are rarely a good thing, so I doubt I’ll run into many mushy mollusks swimming though the ether and squishing themselves up against hidden walls in my future cloud adventures. Until then, I will have my eyes set on both the sky and the sea.

Watch a “Cloud Stories” Webinar on Hybrid Cloud Infrastructure for ERP Systems

Out-of-the-Box vs. Best-in-Breed Credit Card Processing

Out-of-the-Box vs. Best-in-Breed Credit Card Processing

The (ERP) Credits Are Rolling

ERP was once a battle between “comprehensive” and “best-of-breed” solutions. While the “comprehensive” solution providers claimed to offer a one-stop-shop of business functionality, providers working under a “best-of-breed” model constructed simpler overall ERP systems that were easier to integrate with third-party solutions. 

The debate has morphed over time, as “best-of-breed” providers try to progressively dress themselves as comprehensive ERP solutions, while the old dinosaurs are working to make their systems more interoperable.  

Credit Card Processing in Enterprise Resource Planning

For customers, this has served to muddy the waters. At a macro level, it seems safe to say that ERP has increasingly moved to a best-of-breed model, where customers are willing to manage an increasing number of third-party solutions, provided that they provide “best-in-class” functionality. 

Credit card capabilities find their place among this morass of functionality, with third-party solutions competing with the integrations provided directly by vendors. Let’s look at some of the challenges that companies normally face when implementing the out-of-the-box solutions that ERP vendors provide.

Configuration Issues

We see customers frequently complain to us of the challenges in configuring their credit card modules. A customer purchases an integrated module from an ERP vendor’s feature card and expect that it should be as easy to implement as the rest of the application. Normally, we only hear from them after those hopes have been dashed. 

It’s worth noting that these “modules” are modules in name only—in truth, they are loosely integrated third parties, sold as a comprehensive, out-of-the-box solution. Some ERP vendors even offer multiple versions of credit card integration, which further complicates the situation. As such, a consultant may become savvy in configuring one payment model in one licensed module, only to stumble at the next implementation. 

Testing

Testing credit card solutions is always a daunting task—there is private information and money involved, after all. But a clumsy integration can exacerbate the problem. When vendors integrate with third-party solutions, but the third-party solutions themselves do not “own” the functionality and the integration, a situation where a diffusion of responsibility is likely to occur.  

 

In such a situation, neither side of the functionally can adjudicate the outcome of testing, and provide guidance to the causes for errant outcomes. In an ERP system, the customer invariably wants a single throat to choke—a party who can assume responsibility for the functionality in question. 

I’ve seen too many cases where vendor integrations leads to situations where the customer ends up paying a consultant to determine that there are bugs or unknown limitations to the integration that will hamper the use of the advertised functionality. 

Functionality Limitations

It’s not uncommon that a company’s needs exceed the capabilities of the solutions that the vendor’s out-of-the-box integrations provide. Because of the specialized functionality and capabilities involved, it is often the case that the credit card capabilities provided by a vendor are a “minimal acceptable solution” variety—a solution that barely meets the base requirements, but offers very little “wiggle room” for customers whose requirements step over the vendor’s proverbial line. Such is often the problem with vendor-supplier solutions, and one of the reasons customers leverage best-of-breed solutions in their place.

“Comprehensive” Credit Card Processing or Best-in-Breed?

With all the challenges to credit card processing, we’ve found the best-of-breed solutions to be generally preferable to the comprehensive but underpowered solutions provided out-of-the box by the ERP vendor community. In that light, our work with Century Business Solutions and their EBizCharge payment platform has proven to help customers handle complex payment requirements, helping them extend their operations and shorten their order to cash cycles.

Interested in e-commerce, cloud, backup and disaster recovery, and other services and solutions that complement your ERP system? Watch our videos to learn more!

P21 Integrations: Best Practices & Lessons Learned

P21 Integrations: Best Practices & Lessons Learned

Epicor Prophet 21 System Software Integrations

The most challenging part of a Prophet 21 migration are the P21 integrations. For many companies, third-party integrations are a necessary component of their P21 ecosystem. Compared to many ERP applications, Prophet 21 has been highly reliant on third-party software to round out the functionality necessary to support the needs of many Epicor customers. 

With this necessity comes the challenge of integration. Third-party solutions differ in their integration strategies, and depending on the P21 version and the architecture of the bolt-on, one of many integration strategies may be employed.

P21 Software Integrations Futuristic Technology Retail Warehouse: Worker Doing Inventory Walks when Digitalization Process Analyzes Goods, Cardboard Boxes, Products with Delivery Infographics in Logistics, Distribution Center

Seamless Integrations 

Speaking of architecture, historically speaking, the P21 application traditionally possessed a two-tier architecture, with the P21 desktop application acting as a fat client, talking directly to the P21 database layer. In the absence of a Prophet 21 middleware or application server layer, third-party applications, out of necessity, interacted with the P21 application at the database level. 

Logical Business Logic

Only over the past several years has the Prophet 21 ERP expanded to include an application server layer, known as the P21 middleware server. This allows for a new layer of P21 integrations. These integrations can speak to the P21 application at the application server level, or even at the API level over the web. But for customers yet to migrate to P21’s three-tier architecture, or customers with legacy integrations that are not yet API-compliant, these new opportunities are still a work in progress.

The combination of a two-tier architecture and a “best-of-breed” approach to functionality resulted in a significant number of integrations speaking to the database directly. This was the case whether the applications in question were external applications conversing over a given communication protocol, installed applications functioning through Windows scheduled tasks or ongoing services, or installed directly into the Prophet 21 database, through a combination of SQL Server stored procedures and scheduled jobs. Add the middleware server, the web-based and hybrid clients, and the expiring legacy desktop application to this already-complicated situation, and the plot thickens.

Custom Development, Access, Control

Not surprisingly, access and control are critical to a Prophet 21 installation, if you intend to integrate your P21 ERP with a family of third-party applications. That is why our private cloud hosted architecture has been such a great fit for P21 customers, removing the challenges of on-premise installations while retaining the full functionality of the P21 application, and a hybrid cloud integration platform that can support third-party integrations at any level. 

P21 Software Integration Worries, Care

All said, customers come to us with many questions regarding their Prophet 21 software and its integration environment:

  • What is the best way to integrate an application with the P21 environment? 
  • How much programming is required? 
  • If my third-party vendor only integrates over the REST API layer, what do I need to do to make this work? 
  • If I’m implementing a solution that has multiple integration layer options, which layer should I choose? 
  • What about home-grown apps? 
  • Are there security concerns? 
  • How many holes do I need to punch in my firewall? 
  • With all these options, what are my best options for Prophet 21 server care? 
  • How bolted-on should a bolt-on be?

How EstesGroup Can Help

As a company whose specialty is the migration of the P21 customers into private cloud environments, and integrating their entire P21 ecosystems, we’ve learned many lessons in the trenches. On May 11th, at the P21 Midwest User Group meeting, EstesGroup’s Daryl Sirota and Chris Koplar will be discussing Prophet 21 integrations, and some of the best practices and lessons learned, as they relate to Prophet 21 integrations. Bring your integration questions and we’ll tell you everything we know when it comes to creating a seamless hybrid cloud environment.

Prophet 21 Midwest User Group Meeting – May 11th

The P21 Midwest User Group meeting starts on May 11th, at 9:00. The event will be held at the following location:

Lee Mathews, a Cogent company

4525 NW 41st St, Suite 400

Riverside, MO 64150

 Are you a member of the P21 Midwest User Group and interested in attending? If so, contact Joseph Babbit ([email protected]) and spread the word!

Need help with Epicor Prophet 21 or general ERP system management, business processes, supply chain management, customer relationship management, or other key P21 challenges? Chat with us now to get real-time help with your P21 system, or fill out the form below, and our ERP experts will be in touch with you soon.