A development platform for non-programmers?
A development that stands out even in the fast-moving IT sector: low-code/no-code platforms in combination with artificial intelligence (AI) take Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) to the next level. We at proALPHA are observing this development very closely, which is why we're able to connect the relevant tools via programming interfaces.
Low-code or no-code platforms have entered the stage as development environment for cloud and on-premises applications. They can be operated by persons without programming skills as visual and declarative methods can be used instead of code. They are considered a promising technology to effectively counteract the shortage of IT specialists. This is quite a tempting prospect considering that Germany lacks 137,000 specialists in the IT sector alone.
According to a Trovarit survey ("ERP in der Praxis 2022/2023"), one third of all companies with more than 500 employees consider low-code or no-code platforms highly relevant. And at least 16 percent of the small and mid-sized enterprises with a workforce of 20 to 99 people agree. This percentage is likely to increase a lot in the near future as the low-code/no-code phenomenon offers huge potential for the ERP development. What will the future of ERP look like when development tools for non-programmers are used?
Low-code/no-code platforms as internal or external features
Low-code/no-code platforms enable employees with less pronounced technical skills to develop cloud and on-premises apps for specialist departments – at least that's the theory. The development itself might seem trivial but it takes place in an environment of complex business applications. In practice, service providers or the platform providers often take care of the development for the customer. The various modules of ERP systems – for example for warehouse, document or project management – are located at a central database and interact with each other. They have to be adapted to satisfy the respective requirements and needs of a company's specialist departments. This usually requires expert knowledge and, depending on the type of development, might ask for a lot of programming. For example, it makes a difference whether entire processes or only the access to a data source are to be designed.
Low-code/no-code platforms allow us to hope that it will be possible to have workflows, extensions and new developments created by expert users within the specialist departments without the involvement of IT specialists. Theoretically, it's even possible to develop complete ERP systems on a low-code console. There are two types of low-code/no-code approaches: On the one hand, the development platform can be an integral part of the ERP system that is primarily used to tailor the modules to the process landscape and digitalize certain processes in the company. They system already features all necessary interfaces and connectors, facilitating the operation for untrained staff; but you still shouldn't underestimate the complexity.
On the other hand, low-code/no-code platforms can be offered as external supplement to legacy systems to create applications that extend the functional scope. This approach is pursued by the leading low-code/no-code providers, but it has the disadvantage that adapting to a company's situation is difficult as the users have to organize and configure connections and interfaces themselves, even if the platforms have already automated many steps.
What they have in common is that both variants bear the risk of uncontrolled growth: you quickly have a vast amount of applications developed beyond the IT department's control and thus potential risks for the company network. However, this uncontrolled growth can be contained by means of monitored governance rules. But there's a much more pressing question:
Low-code programming – between expectation and experience
Can untrained expert users, also referred to as citizen developers, actually develop proper applications using low-code/no-code development environments? And can these be used to define workflows?
As far as our experience goes, there's still a long way to go. This is also confirmed by the survey mentioned at the beginning. The operation of low-code/no-code platforms is still far from being foolproof and goes beyond simply dragging and dropping code snippets. IT amateurs often still need the help of IT specialists in order to (re)define workflows, especially if an external development platform is being used. In any case, you have to introduce and implement a company-wide set of rules in order to avoid damaging the company's security framework due to uncontrolled app growth. This is why these developments are often taken care of by providers of low-code/no-code platforms or external service providers.
And there's another trend that is very likely to massively change low-code programming: generative AI, most recently presented to us by ChatGPT in the most amazing way, knows ever more development languages and generates code in the blink of an eye. It's only a matter of time before artificially intelligent low-code/no-code platforms take a company's ERP to the next level. It's possible to connect them to the ERP system and other business applications using a standard interface, untying significant and valuable IT resources in the process. In addition, the specialist departments become a lot more flexible as they can implement specific process requirements with functional extensions and customizations largely on their own. As already mentioned above, the risks of uncontrolled app growth must not be neglected.
ERP providers like proALPHA consider such complementary platforms one of the most exciting trends of the industry. They are well under way to connect a low-code/no-code platform to their ERP system as soon as their development progress allows users to design forms, customize reports, set up intercompany processes or replicate master files practically without help.
Finally, we'd like to quote the Bitkom ERP Research Group which most recently came to the following conclusion in a discussion paper: "Low-code is certainly not the end of the classical ERP world. It's rather a redistribution of tasks."