Guest Column | February 20, 2014

ERP, WFM, And Time Clocks: Critical Integration

Larry Dawson Accu-Time Systems

By Larry Dawson, Accu-Time Systems

Retailers are increasingly searching for single platform applications that incorporate their enterprise resource planning (ERP) and human capital management (HCM) requirements into a unified environment. Many retailers grapple with separate application suites that don’t talk to each other. Their accounting, supply chain, inventory, and POS management functions are isolated from their talent, compensation, scheduling, employee benefits, and workforce management systems. These disparate silos are now being unified through corporate acquisitions, partnerships, new software development, and aftermarket middleware. However, one piece of the puzzle is frequently overlooked by both provider sales staff and software end-users: time clocks.

The integration of time clocks is often an afterthought that materializes as platform deployment begins and end-user managers, IT, and HR professionals start to question how employee time data will be collected.  As SAP, Oracle, Workday, Microsoft, Netsuite, Epicor and other retail ERP system providers accelerate their functional reach into human capital management they’ve also, presciently, considered how to weave in time clock management and time data collection. Some have even brought in companies like Accu-Time Systems to create custom certified integration solutions that allow time clocks and other data collection devices like smartphones and tablets to communicate with their software.

These integration solutions usually consist of a configured time clock, an application running on the time clock, and a cloud-based or on-premise middleware terminal management program. The middleware program manages the data flow between time clocks and the host program, sending it in a format required by the ERP software’s time & attendance module. Time clock manufacturers, like Accu-Time Systems, have gone a step further and enhanced these middleware programs with the ability to monitor the health of terminals, create groups of time clocks and employees, configure messages, send alerts, and even control the downloading of flash firmware and application updates to the hardware.

Punch data coming from mobile devices and point-of-sale systems can also be streamed through the middleware, providing a single channel for the management of time data being collected from a multiplicity of devices. This capability is very important in a world where many corporations have a “bring your own device” policy that allows employees to use their personal mobile devices for work-related tasks, like punching in and out, requesting schedule changes, and submitting time-off requests. Now, an administrator can watch the time & attendance activity occurring across devices.

This convergence and integration of ERP with HCM is giving ERP users, for the first time, an uninterrupted view of employee activity at the terminal, through several processing steps, to the processing of their paychecks. Soon, companies will not have human resource information system (HRIS) administrators and ERP administrators working separately and independently. This convergence is also demonstrative of the awakening of organizations to an understanding of the value and impact of employee activity on an enterprise. By demanding that workforce management be brought into the larger purview of enterprise resource planning, executives are stating loudly and clearly that managing people is as critical as managing money, capital equipment, and supply chain activities.

In order to have a successful integration of time clocks with an ERP system several factors must be considered. The utility of the integration middleware is paramount. IT personnel need to understand the features and functions that a vendor offers besides just allowing communication with terminals. That can happen almost blindly with little to no intervention. But most administrators want greater control over installed terminals than just idly watching them talk with a host. They want to receive an alert if a terminal stops functioning. They want to send software updates to all or selected terminals. They want to send a terminal screen message to an employee, department, or region when appropriate. And they want to group terminals or employees based on location, shift, or some other commonality.

If biometric devices are being deployed then system administrators must be able to distribute or remove employee biometric templates across their spectrum of installed time clocks with just a few clicks. And the middleware must be able to handle large amounts of data since biometric templates can consume large amounts of memory, particularly in a one-to-many identification mode environment. The ability of a middleware program to handle templates quickly, efficiently, and without error is significant, especially in large enterprises with thousands of employees queuing at time clocks.

System administrators must also decide whether to deploy time clock integration solutions via a cloud-based SaaS model or on-premise installation. A SaaS model will generally require XML communication between the time clock, the middleware, and the host and must be encrypted and secure. Within a SaaS model, a vendor like Accu-Time Systems can perform the monitoring, maintenance, and configuration of terminals and data for the client, saving them time and expense. In an on-premise environment, the client will typically assume those responsibilities and costs.

The convergence of ERP and HCM is underway. Nearly all of the major retail ERP solution providers offer HCM functionality of varying degrees of sophistication. Some are only offering basic punch-in/punch-out time & attendance modules while others are offering complete workforce management suites. By making the “last mile” connection to employee time data collection devices through integrated middleware they are getting much closer to a comprehensive engine with which to run a client’s entire operation. Time clock integration vendor selection then becomes crucial in achieving that goal.