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SAP plans to follow up the ERP enhancement package it released this week with another one at the end of the year focusing on helping enterprises set up internal service bureaus that support multiple business units.

The German software giant started on a new approach to creating new versions of its flagship enterprise resource planning system last year by offering a set of improvements that customers can download on a feature-by-feature basis. That means they don’t have to go through a massive replacement upgrade every couple of years.

The second of these packages, which is available now, includes a new bank relationship management interface, talent management tools to perform a series of HR functions and an upgraded Operations Centre that allows sales people to access customer data.

Philip Say, vice-president of ERP solution marketing at SAP, said the third package could be available as early as November, and will be geared towards what he called a whole new class of ERP user: one that handles primarily internal transactions between various departments, sometimes referred to as a service bureau.

“When you look into requirements, there are a lot of inter-company style transactions that happen within a company. Classic ERP systems weren’t really geared for that,” he said. “What we’ll be enabling is more of a customer-to-supplier style relationship.”

Part of that process involves creating ERP interfaces that are more straightforward for business users. SAP has already started down that path with this week’s upgrade package, Say said.

Many of the features are designed according to roles within an enterprise such as purchasing agent, sales agent or support agent. “We’re really talking about the personas inside an organization,” Say said.

The next upgrade package will carry that user-friendliness a step further, he added, by tying more of SAP’s ERP functionality into familiar systems such as Microsoft Office, which is the cornerstone of the two firms’ Duet project.

The idea of service bureaus is starting to pick up in Canada, but primarily within the public sector, such as the federal Service Canada organization that was set up a few years ago.

However, Nir Orbach, CEO of Toronto-based SAP consulting firm the Illumiti Group, said there are some global multinationals that have a centre of expertise in one area of the world that deliver IT and other related services to other locations.

“We’re seeing that with at least two of our big customers,” he said. “There’s Sony BMG, and (mining firm) Xstrata has a team in Spain that provides services to projects in Canada.”

SAP is changing its ERP upgrade model at a time when nimble competitors such as Infor are trying to make headway in the market by acquiring many small firms.

Mike Frichol, Infor’s vice-president of global industry and product marketing, recently told ComputerWorld Canada that the company is also eager to avoid forcing customers to switch over to another large system. Instead, it has chosen to keep the various products it has acquired separate but interoperable.

“They can take whatever they need out of whatever core ERP they are using to set up basically their own ecosystem of solutions from Infor and/or anyone else, or even something homegrown,” he said.

SAP is trying to help IT managers ease the adoption of features in its enhancement packages by offering them a checklist on its online Service Marketplace, according to Say.

The checklist includes short descriptions of each feature, any dependencies they might have, a clean process diagram to show how it would be deployed and a testing script they can experiment with before downloading anything.

“What we’re doing is allowing them to make a much more informed decision,” he said, adding that the delivery method may change the way customers think about ERP. “There has been this notion that there are these scheduled, periodic projects you have to do every five to seven years. With our best customers, though, they understand that it’s a continual process.”

Orbach said the periodic updates aren’t a bad strategy for organizations that have individual needs.

“They may sometimes be waiting for a specific function,” he said. “We’ll help them evaluate a business need that they have and decide whether it’s worthwhile.”

Other modules in SAP’s second enhancement package include an e-learning tool co-developed with Adobe Systems that allows companies to host training sessions online.

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