COMPUTER FORUM: The Evolution of Your Information System - Part I
Thank you for your informative response to the survey in last issue's Computer Forum column. According to your response, the question posed in that column is worth pursuing. That question was; what is the best way for a plastics industry business to incorporate additional information management? According to business analysts, at any stage in your organization's development, if your business isn't ready to grow and adapt to the constantly evolving technologies, your enterprise may not survive in today's changing world. From your response to the survey, it is clear that you are interested in staying on top of and taking advantage of these developments. .
In the last issue, I said that a popular home or small business accounting system seems to be the starting point for many startup businesses. Besides accounting, however, there are many ways that your computer can help you organize your processes and speed up operations. You should begin thinking about these additional capabilities very soon after your accounting software becomes familiar, and begin planning how to integrate them into you operation. In a series of four columns, I will discuss how each of these resources can be brought into your operation and examine the best way for you to do that.
All operations have certain principle resources in common; customers, products, vendors, inventory and operations. The question now is, which of these resources should I bring in first and how do I plan for the later addition of the others. This is where your specific operation becomes important and should be decided by your individual needs and priorities. However, because I have to start somewhere, I will take these resources in the order stated above and wrap up the series with a discussion of the integration of these resources.
If keeping a list of your customers (a computerized rolodex file, if you will) is critical to your business, read on. Otherwise, skip to the "Products" section. This may sound like a strange statement to some of you, but is quite simply the case in a strictly over-the-counter operation where, except as a statistic for future product purchase or manufacture, the customer is an unknown commodity.
This customer list may be critical to you, but is only minimally helpful to your process, since this list will not tell you anything about them. It is very useful to add an order taking capability that keeps track of the products your customer orders. That means a list of your products as well and, since these two resources can be tied together in one integration step very handily, I'll discuss them together in this issue.
Many of the pre-constructed, modular business management software systems available today already have these two resources tied together in an accounts receivable module. In the accounts receivable module there will be an order writing page that should be adjustable to your particular business. If it is not, a programmer licensed by the software maker should be able to adjust or custom build one for you, for a fee.
Accounts receivable sounds like an accounting function, doesn't it. That's because it is, but don't be afraid that this means the basic home or small business accounting software that you bought when you first set up your business is not of use any more. It still operates just fine, and may even, depending on how it was built, be able to share information with the new accounts receivable software.
This is, however, one of those points in the evolution of your information system at when you should examine where you are and where you are headed. It just may be that an investment of a little more in software in the short run could save you a lot of labor in the long run. If these systems aren't compatible (meaning they can't share information) it means some double entry of information: once when the order is entered, and again when you do your bookkeeping in your original accounting software. Check the manuals (or the on-screen help) with your original accounting software and with the new accounts receivable module to see if they are ODBC compatible. If they are, they will likely be able to share information, but further checking with the software makers may still be necessary to confirm that they are set to do this.
One more thing that is necessary for the newly added order taking capability to work properly is the product list mentioned earlier. This list should accompany the accounts receivable module when evolving your system because most of the information that you will want to collect about your customers has to do with what they order. At first it seem that a product list is a product list: what could be complicated about that. However, there are some important aspects of the product list that bear further examination.
One thing that is very important when considering the product list is its completeness. Does it include all of necessary information that may impact the sale to the customer. If, for instance, you are entering an order on the computer and the customer asks if the product is in stock, or does it come in a different color or size, you should have instant access to that information. So, not only should the listing in front of you be there, but related information should be accessible as well. Think about all the questions your customers have asked and then assume there are some they haven't even asked yet.
Finally, does the product pricing on your product list truly reflects the costs and profits needed to make this product worth selling. This is known as job costing, or product costing management. It is tied to the remaining resources that will be considered in the next column.
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