Microsoft Axapta: Design Factors Shape System Usage Part One: User Interface and Customization

  • Written By: Dr. Scott Hamilton
  • Published On: February 10 2005



This note is a reprint of Chapter 12 of Managing Your Supply Chain using Microsoft Axapta by Dr. Scott Hamilton


Introduction

The starting point of this book* is that supply chain management (SCM) requires effective use of an integrated enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. Its central theme focuses on using Microsoft Axapta for managing supply chain activities in manufacturing and distribution firms. Its target audience includes those individuals implementing or considering Microsoft Axapta as their ERP system as well as those providing Axapta-related services. The explanations address an overall understanding of how the system fits together to run a business, expressed in generally accepted terminology. This mental framework—in combination with hands-on experience and training courseware—can accelerate the learning process, and an overall understanding leads to more effective system usage.

Usage of any ERP system—including Microsoft Axapta—is shaped by many design factors that make it easier (or harder) to learn and use. Many of the design factors related to Microsoft Axapta have been covered in previous chapters. This final chapter summarizes the design factors shaping system usage. They are segmented into design factors related to the user interface, customization, system usage in distribution and manufacturing, and integration with other applications.

*This note is a reprint of Chapter 12 of Managing Your Supply Chain using Microsoft Axapta by Dr. Scott Hamilton, available at Amazon.com and book stores.

This is Part One of a three-part note.

Part Two will detail the design factors related to system usage in distribution.

Part Three will detail the design factors related to system usage in manufacturing and integration with other applications.

Design Factors Related to the User Interface

Axapta's user interface reflects a certified Windows application. It provides consistency across all screens that assist ease-of-learning and ease-of-use. A few illustrations are provided below.

Navigation. Menus provide one means to navigate through Axapta, and menus can be tailored. The system supports navigation via the mouse and short-cut keys. The user can also directly access information in other parts of the system (without using the menus) via the "go to main table" functionality.

Direct Access to Main Table Information. Directly accessing the main table for a given field eliminates the need to navigate through the menus. During item master maintenance, for example, the user could access the main table for the Item Group field to create a new value. During purchase order entry, for example, the user can access the vendor master information.

Find and Filter. Find capabilities can be based on any string of embedded text in a record identifier or its attributes. A filter limits the displayed records based on values in one or more fields, with sorting based on any field. The user can browse forward and backward through the subset. Filtering logic includes equal to, different from, greater than, less than, intervals, and wild cards.

Design Factors Related to Customization

Many firms need to tailor standardized functionality to model their distinctive business processes. Axapta's foundation technology makes customizations easier. For example, it integrates with anything that works in the Microsoft environment, such as Word, Excel, Outlook, telephony, and bar-code scanner applications. Its object-oriented technology provides a framework that significantly reduces the cost and complexity associated with custom programming and development. Axapta includes an out-of-the-box Web portal interface. These represent unique capabilities that minimize customization efforts.

A critical issue with customization involves the ability to stay within the upgrade path for new releases of the ERP package. With other ERP packages, upgrading the customizations often becomes prohibitively expensive (or even impossible) so that the firm cannot take advantage of the new releases. There are many benefits to staying up-to-date with software releases. These benefits include staying abreast of technology developments, functionality enhancements, and leveraging the R&D expenditures by the software vendor and independent vendors. Axapta provides several tools that simplify the upgrade process for customizations so that firms can stay within the upgrade path at minimal incremental cost. The following describes some of the tools for customizing Axapta and for upgrading customizations to new releases.

Isolating the Impact of Customizations via Version Layer Technology. The version layers isolate the impact of customizations, making upgrades much easier and less costly. The layers correspond to the responsibility for code maintenance. For example, the first layer reflects core system development for the standard version maintained by Microsoft. Another layer reflects value-added reseller (VAR) customizations with responsibility by the VAR for code maintenance.

The significance of layer technology can be more easily understood in the context of an example. In this example, the company implementing Axapta as its ERP system also installed a certified solution (the second layer) developed by an independent software vendor. The Microsoft partner providing implementation assistance modified this certified solution (via the sixth layer) and performed other customer-specific modifications (via the seventh layer). When upgrading Axapta to a new release, the system identifies the differences between the current and new releases (at each layer). It isolates only those customizations requiring an upgrade, and each layer can be upgraded separately. This layered approach to program separation helps minimize the effort and costs for upgrading customizations.

Customizing Field Size via Extended Data Types. The size of a field—such as the length of the item number or customer number—can be easily changed via extended data type functionality, and automatically updated throughout the system.

Customizations via an Integrated Development Environment. The application software and development tools are tightly coupled together in an integrated development environment called MorphX. This approach eliminates the need (and costs) for additional development tools. It provides the advantages of a centralized code repository with the advantages of distributed applications using client server computing. For example, it eliminates the porting requirement to roll out synchronized changes to all production servers or client workstations. It also avoids integration issues such as conflicting software settings at individual workstations. By making changes easy, it can help improve the agility and flexibility of deploying IT applications.

Customizing Forms. An end user can tailor screen layout by selectively hiding, showing, and sorting fields, especially the display of applicable item and inventory dimensions. This provides a simple approach to customizing screen layout and the system remembers each end user's preferences.

An end user can also easily tailor printed documents such as a sales order confirmation using the form setup policies. The form setup policies for a sales order invoice, for example, can indicate printing of the customer item information, batch/serial numbers, document notes, and language-specific descriptions, and the system supports a separate invoice numbering sequence for each customer.

A Forms Designer supports the customization of forms (screens), such as changing field labels, rearranging fields on tabs, cursor movement between fields, and additional fields. The additional fields can represent changes to the Axapta database or an auxiliary database. A Menu Designer supports the customization of menus.

Customizing Reports and OLAP. The development of customized reports typically represents a significant proportion of the initial and ongoing implementation efforts. In addition, decision makers often require flexible ad hoc access to management information—preferably without the need for IT expertise and without the delays typically associated with IT's involvement in customized reports. The built-in report writer capabilities can simplify the development of customized reports, especially by anyone with skills analogous to an Excel power user. It includes a report writer wizard to help construct a customized report. The built-in on-line analytical processing (OLAP) capabilities can often eliminate the need for fixed reports, since they provide a data warehouse for supporting interactive information analysis.

Inherent Thin Client and the Application Object Server. The Application Object Server (AOS) within Axapta provides inherent thin client functionality. A thin client engine eliminates the need for terminal emulation software and the associated hardware. It supports selective execution between the server and client workstation, and embedded data caching techniques to minimize bandwidth utilization for the telecommunication link. A workstation only requires one client software installation, and can be configured to operate as a thin client (via an AOS connection) or a fat client directly connected to the database. In addition, the AOS can operate as a clustered server to support redundancy without requiring extensive hardware infrastructure.

This concludes Part One of a three-part note.

Part Two will detail the design factors related to system usage in distribution.

Part Three will detail the design factors related to system usage in manufacturing and integration with other applications.

About the Author

Dr. Scott Hamilton has specialized in information systems for manufacturing and distribution for three decades as a consultant, developer, user, and researcher. Scott has consulted worldwide with over a thousand firms, conducted several hundred executive seminars, and helped design several influential ERP packages. He previously co-authored the APICS CIRM textbook on How Information Systems Impact Organizational Strategy and recently authored Maximizing Your ERP System and Managing Your Supply Chain Using Microsoft Navision. Scott can be reached at ScottHamiltonPhD@aol.com or 612-963-1163.

 
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