Non-IT experts should be able to program smaller business applications in the future, rather than relying on colleagues from IT. They simply click various building blocks and logics together via an intuitive graphical user interface, and the app is ready – at least that’s the idea behind low-code or no-code platforms. But are such systems really that easy? And what forms can be found in practice?
Low-code or no-code platforms are not a new idea. The topic has been circulating in the industry for almost ten years, but is currently gaining momentum again in the context of the shortage of skilled IT workers. According to the Trovarit study “ERP in Practice 2022/2023,” almost 30 percent of larger companies now classify development platforms as a highly revelant trend. For small companies (under 100 employees), it is still around 16 percent.
The idea that IT experts are no longer needed for expanding an ERP system in the future is tempting. Not only would IT departments be relieved, but also, it would be much faster if the specialist departments could “just click together” their apps themselves instead of going through IT. But despite all the euphoria: the programming platforms are not (yet) quite as intuitive in practice. You still have to deal with the development platform a bit, and it’s not possible without IT knowledge. Similar to the smart home application at home, the user will benefit of they have at least some knowledge of tech or willingness to “tinker”.
Nevertheless, this modular approach to programming certainly has potential. Therefore, we have taken a closer look at the different manifestations.
Customizing or new development?
In general, three different approaches can be distinguished:
- Low-code ERP customizing describes the extension or adaptation of an ERP system in which the programming platform is already integrated. Some ERP manufacturers already consider this to be standard today. The GUS-OS Suite has a particularly powerful low-code framework. It offers the possibility of relatively easily adapting existing business processes to new requirements. These can be simple field extensions, such as customer-specific classifications. But changes to existing processes are also possible. For example, additional check steps, such as for sanction lists, can be added to order creation.
- A variant of low-code ERP customizing is low-code ERP development. Here too, the development platform is part of the existing ERP system. However, it is used to digitize business processes outside the ERP core. Such extensions are also possible with the GUS-OS framework. Examples include checklists and workflows for compliance checks and audits. The core of GUS-OS is an integrated tool for data modeling, a workflow engine, and a user interface kit that allows dialogs and applications to be assembled from existing components. These have full access to the business logic and data of the GUS-OS ERP suite.
- Low-code ERP extension is interesting for companies that have an older and relatively inflexible (legacy) system in use. Their own low-code apps can also be developed quickly and easily via an external platform. The data is exchanged with the back-end system via interfaces. Almost all classic low-code providers pursue this approach, such as Mendix or the Microsoft Power Platform.
Finally, it is also possible to develop or port a complete ERP solution using a low-code platform (“low-code ERP”). However, these platforms are currently rather exotic among low-code models and this is unlikely to change. Providers such as Thinkwise or Scopeland Technology import data models from legacy applications to simplify and speed up new development. The low-code ERP approach is less suitable for porting a standard ERP product than for replacing individually grown customer systems with a more modern system.
Integrated or External Low-Code Platform?
Comparing integrated with external low-code platforms, both variants have advantages and disadvantages. With an integrated low-code framework, essential functions such as master data management or business logic modules are already present in the system, so users can access them easily through the platform. Furthermore, the interaction between self-programmed apps and existing ERP applications usually works smoothly with this “customizing” approach. Another significant advantage is that companies can build on existing release management processes with an integrated low-code platform. Finally, there are also cost differences: for existing ERP users, there are usually no additional license or usage costs for integrated low-code platforms – at least as long as they stay within the ERP core. However, if you want to digitize new ERP processes that are not part of the core, these new users are relatively expensive because they require additional user licenses.
External low-code platforms have a generic approach. They are often already cloud-native, but an interface to the existing ERP system must be set up and maintained. Although the costs for user licenses (compared to an ERP user) are significantly cheaper, additional fees must be included in the existing ERP usage fees. The most critical point with external platforms is release management. If the so-called “departmental developer” is able to program small apps independently and without the control of the IT department on an external platform, a proliferation will quickly arise that is difficult to control. Therefore, IT departments should focus on this early on and set necessary guidelines.
No IT knowledge, no way forward
In a world where IT experts are becoming increasingly difficult to find, low-code platforms offer companies the chance to partially shift application development or customization of standard ERP solutions to the departments. The employees there know the business processes in detail, so they can tailor the apps very specifically to their needs and drive the digitization of business processes themselves. However, developing on low-code platforms currently means more than just clicking together colorful program modules. In reality, IT novices must be accompanied by an IT expert in most cases. In addition, especially with external platforms, tight control and professional release management by the IT department are essential.