ERP - Enterprise Resource Planning - is a widely used collection of business software systems and strategies that are implemented across an array of industries and organizations. ERP's main goal is to streamline a company's business processes into a single system that serves the many departments and functions within an organization.

In essence, ERP runs on a central database so that different departments within an organization can share information and better communicate with each other. Components of an ERP implementation might include software modules that handle manufacturing, supply-chain management, financials, project management, human resources, customer-relationship management, resource planning, product planning, inventory control, order tracking, and distribution. The major benefits of ERP are improved coordination across departments and increased efficiencies of doing business overall. It also facilitating better day-to-day management.

The ERP landscape is as specific as it is vast. Without question, the major vendors in the field are SAP and Oracle. Of course, there are other players, and today something of a sea change is taking place as SAP and Oracle, traditionally focused on the large enterprise market, move to serve mid-size and smaller customers even while Microsoft makes a play to move to serve those same customers with ERP applications of its own. Additionally, specialists in the field are hearing rumblings about "ERP as a service," cloud implementations, and even as open source software. In other words, innovation and change is on the horizon.

Roles and Career Paths

By all accounts, ERP professionals remain in high demand. As more companies recognize the value of automating business processes with some form of ERP applications - especially in the current economic climate - the field continues to grow. This is good news for those thinking about working in the ERP world, with this proviso: It¿s not an easy area to break into.

The best way to break into the field is to have a strong and passionate interest in ERP technology and/or business processes, together with a proven background in IT and knowledge of one of the major vendor¿s products. Most offer formal training and, by taking these courses, it¿s possible to become "certified" in one or another ERP application or module. At the same time, remember certification doesn¿t guarantee a position in ERP.

Ultimately, ERP offers many and varied opportunities with some clear paths that can be followed: You can work for the vendor, for the user, or as a consultant.

Working for an ERP vendor offer roles in such areas as program management, research, software development, sales, and consulting. Any number of opportunities involve development, implementation and deployment of ERP tools. The majority of opportunities, however, are at user companies  - those implementing ERP - or working as a consultant.

In many ways, which path to pursue can be a lifestyle choice: the difference between living out of a suitcase for some number of years as a consultant versus staying in one place working for one company. The consulting path affords the opportunity to see a variety of installations and instances of ERP implementations - something that can be very valuable down the line.

The next career choice is from among three different avenues: Do you want to practice ERP from the business side, the development side, or the technical (systems administration) side? All are important aspects of any ERP operation. Of course, within these areas are hundreds of permutations, and the direction you choose here must be made based on your overriding interests.

Those interested in ERP's business side have a great many choices to make: There can be careers in Human Resources, Payroll, Benefits, Workforce Management, and Succession Planning, among other areas. If you¿re interested in the tech side, especially programming, the trends are toward object-oriented programming - the building-blocks type of code - Internet scripting (XML) and Java. On the sys admin side, it¿s key to understand networked environments and virtual environments. Companies are looking more and more to host ERP applications on virtual servers and in the cloud, so connectivity and systems-architecture knowledge is extremely important. And because users want to be able to share information with suppliers and customers, a keen understanding of enterprise architecture is imperative, along with skills in security and authorization.

In the end, it's imperative to choose an area and become an expert in it - be that a vendor package or a functional discipline within ERP. In any event, you must have a real appetite for it, because moving forward in this industry takes time. No aspect of ERP can be mastered in six months. But the benefit is that it's going to remain intellectually challenging and exciting for many years to come.

In the ERP world, you create stability by making forward-thinking choices about your skills. Because it can be a hard career to break into, flexibility early on is important. Go where the opportunities are - don't restrict yourself to one vendor or another. If a chance to acquire skills is available externally, fine; but exploring internally for such opportunities at your current company is fine, too. The bottom line: The more direct ERP experience you have, the better.

Skills and Qualities

  • A long-term view
  • An understanding of business issues
  • Flexibility