Monthly Archives: June 2017

Unit4: Delivering Not Only What People Need, But Also What They Want

The ‘People Platform’ is The Secret Sauce

Is there a difference between what people in people-centric businesses need and what they want? You betcha! They need applications like finance, human resource information systems (HRIS), procurement and all the different pieces needed to maintain the system of record of their businesses. In other words, virtually everyone needs basic Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP). But ERP isn’t new and exciting. What they really want are the cool features, functions and applications that help them clearly differentiate themselves and make them stand out from the pack. They need those routine back office processes to run smoothly, but they also need the agility to respond to change and embrace new ideas and new technologies.

A recent Mint Jutras report asked the question: Is “Agile ERP” an Oxymoron? For decades using “agile” to describe ERP was indeed the conjunction of incongruous and even contradictory terms – the very definition of an oxymoron. Unit4, a software solution provider that specializes in people-centric businesses, has always prided itself in its agility. For many years the goal of Business World (its flagship ERP solution) was to effectively and efficiently meet the needs of businesses living in change (BLINC). Yet over those years Unit4’s product portfolio has also been extended to include additional solutions that can address more specific vertical needs and provide a level of differentiation. These additions came, not only through both its own development efforts, but also through acquisition.

Most notably Unit4 has acquired a Student Information System (SIS) for higher education, a Professional Services Automation (PSA) solution for professional services organizations and Corporate Performance Management (CPM) for all types of people businesses. While these might fall into the category of “the cool stuff,” Unit4 isn’t stopping there. At the same time, it has been developing a range of microservices that will help all these and its Business World ERP take advantage of new and disruptive technologies in order to unleash their full potential. At the core of these innovative services is the Unit4 People Platform.

Business Applications of the Future

Business applications of the future are more flexible, configurable and (perhaps most importantly) more extensible. In Is “Agile ERP” an Oxymoron? we talked about the importance of components-based architectures and the ability to extend the foundational solution that runs your business. We also talked about the importance of the underlying development platform. The speed of innovation and the ease of consuming it are largely dependent on the platform on which your ERP solution is built. A development platform can provide “application services” for things like file handling, security, searches and access from mobile devices. The value of the development platform is derived largely from developing a service once and re-using it throughout a product or suite of modules.

But with a diverse portfolio of products, Unit4 also deals with different development platforms. For example, Unit4 Business World is based on an architecture previously branded as Vita. But its newly acquired PSA solution is based on Microsoft Dynamics 365. How can Unit4 develop a service once and leverage it throughout its growing portfolio of products? The answer lies in its People Platform. While its different products may be based on different development platforms, the People Platform is a different kind of platform.

The Unit4 People Platform

Technically not a development platform, think of the Unit4 People Platform more as a collection of innovative services, beyond the typical file handling and security.

Figure 1: Unit4’s Platform for Innovation

Source: Unit4

These innovative services are meant to open doors to the growing number of digital technologies just coming of age. These are the type of services the People Platform is putting within the reach of Unit4 customers. Most notable are alerts and a virtual assistant (Wanda) that takes advantage of both natural language processing (think Siri or Alexa for enterprise applications) and machine learning (the more you use it, the smarter it gets). And also the business intelligence delivered with it CPM solution, including predictive analytics.

Unit4 is being proactive in making use of these new and potentially disruptive technologies. The 2017 Mint Jutras Enterprise Solution Study found a large percentage of our survey population in services types of businesses lacked familiarity with these technologies, and/or saw little value to their businesses (Table 1).

Table 1: How familiar are you with these technologies as they relate (or not) to your business?

Source: Mint Jutras 2017 Enterprise Solution Study

We point this out, not to imply there is little value – quite the contrary. We recognize enormous value and applaud Unit4 for playing a role in educating its customers and getting out ahead of the demand. Let’s take a look at an example.

Who (or What) is Wanda?

Unit4’s Wanda is the perfect example of the kind of value delivered using the People Platform. It is currently available for Unit4 Business World customers, but Unit4 is working hard on bringing it to its PSA and SIS constituents as well.

Wanda is a new way of interacting with Unit4’s enterprise applications. She makes use of natural language processing (yes, you can talk to her) and machine learning to help people automate, prioritize and complete repetitive tasks in a fraction of the time it has always taken. As a virtual assistant, Wanda is embedded in the user interface and accessed through Skype, Slack or Facebook messenger. This allows users to communicate and interact with the solution through a “chat,” much like they would with a colleague. And Wanda is smart enough to understand when multiple topics might be mixed in a single conversation, so no need to artificially compartmentalize. All of this is possible without formally logging into the application.

And in fact if you are already comfortable communicating with Alexa in your home setting, you have a head start in using Wanda. That is because Alexa has already met Wanda and in the not too distant future you can use her to ask Wanda questions. Click here to see and hear a live demonstration.

This is made possible through the use of Microsoft’s Language Understanding Intelligent Service (LUIS). This is the underlying technology that gives Wanda the ability to understand what a person wants through the spoken word, not codes or clicks.

Why Are These Innovative Services important?

While delivering what people want, instead of or in addition to what they need, sounds very appealing, there is more than just a wish list involved here. Agility and the ability to extend current solutions to do more, including providing differentiation, is becoming a “must have” today. Why? We live in disruptive times. The 2016 Mint Jutras Enterprise Solution Study found 88% of companies believe they face some level of risk in their businesses and/or industries being disrupted by new innovative products, new ways of selling or pricing existing products or services, entirely new business models, or some combination of all of the above. And then of course there are still the more traditional disruptive factors like expansion and growth, organizational restructuring and regulatory changes, just to name a few.

All this disruption can have a cascading impact on business application requirements, making agility – the ability to easily innovate, evolve and change – even more important than current functionality.

While only 10% of our 2016 survey participants felt that risk was high and/or imminent, most do understand the risk is real. While about one in three (34%) feel the risk is low, we have to ask: How do you think the taxi industry might have answered this question on the eve of the launch of Uber? Do you think the hotel industry anticipated Airbnb? Did Block Buster foresee the devastating impact Netflix would have on its business? What kind of disruption is lurking out there for you?

The Internet and the digital economy made all of these disruptions possible and none were decades in the making. Compared to slow, evolutionary changes of the past, they literally happened almost overnight. The Internet has leveled the playing field, allowing any company, even small ones, to establish a global presence. This creates new competition, along with new opportunity. While new windows of opportunity open every day, they can also close as fast as they open.

Change is inevitable, bringing about new requirements. As your business changes, along with the world around you, the speed with which new features and functions can be developed, delivered and consumed will clearly impact your agility.

Key Takeaways and Recommendations

Agile ERP is no longer the oxymoron it once was, and yet many of the solutions installed today remain rigid and require extensive modifications to meet the changing needs of enterprises today. And the pace of change does not appear to slowing down. Even traditional types of business change resulting from growth, expansion, organizational restructuring, and/or regulatory changes are accelerating along with the pace of business itself. Add to that the threat of disruption made possible by the digital economy. A stagnant solution may just put you ahead in the race to the bottom.

Unit4’s People Platform and the company’s drive to deliver innovative services that can complement and extend your solution to put you back in the race to the top of your game. Unit4 is in business for people. Whether you operate in a professional services organization, higher education or in one of a growing number of people-centric businesses, Unit4’s People Platform, together with one (or more) of its purpose-built applications, could very well be your secret sauce in getting you what you want while satisfying what you need.

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Meet SAP Leonardo

A Digital System of Innovation

The current version of SAP Leonardo made its debut at SapphireNow 2017. On the main stage, SAP CEO Bill McDermott called it a “digital system of innovation” – a catchy description which doesn’t really tell you what it is. In all fairness to Mr. McDermott, this is technically a relaunch, so perhaps he assumed a level of knowledge that proved not to be universal. Previously Leonardo was SAP’s brand for IoT, but the re-launch positions it much more broadly.

So what is SAP Leonardo? It is essentially a toolbox of digital technologies, including machine learning, block chain, big data, data intelligence, IoT, analytics, and more. SAP will not only market and sell these tools individually and collectively but it will also package them with design thinking and services to deliver innovation to solve specific business problems. Yes, it is a brand, but it is not a suite. A suite implies integrated components working towards a single (perhaps broad) purpose. Yes the different components can and do work together, but they also can stand alone. Even calling it a “system” is a bit misleading. Think of it more as a set or a collection.

Once you understand that these are digital tools that will essentially deliver innovation, referring to SAP Leonardo as a digital system of innovation actually makes a lot of sense.

Appropriately Named?

SAP Leonardo is apparently named after the Italian Renaissance man, Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci, more commonly known as Leonardo da Vinci or simply Leonardo. Leonardo was an Italian polymath. A polymath (Greek: πολυμαθής, polymathēs, “having learned much”) is a person whose expertise spans a wide variety of different subject areas, enabling him or her to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems. According to art historian Helen Gardner, the scope and depth of Leonardo’s interests were without precedent in history, and “his mind and personality seem to us superhuman, while the man himself mysterious and remote.”[1]

The digital technologies included under the SAP Leonardo brand also span a wide range of subject areas, and can indeed solve specific problems. And when technologies such as machine learning and artificial intelligence are combined with data, big and small, the result could be viewed as remarkable – almost superhuman. To all but the true technologist, they do appear to be mysterious.

Our research shows these types of technologies are indeed not widely used or understood. In fact our 2017 Mint Jutras Enterprise Solution Study asked survey participants to rate their level of understanding of some of the technologies included/referenced in SAP Leonardo (Table 1).

Table 1: What level of familiarity do you have with these digital technologies?

Source: Mint Jutras 2017 Enterprise Solution Study

Predictive analytics, which is an important element, particularly when used in conjunction with these other technologies, is the most widely valued and used. Otherwise, fewer than 20% of our survey participants have deployed or are in the midst of deploying the remainder. While another 15% to 32% understand the technologies well and perceive value, this leaves more than half either lacking familiarity or feeling they have no applicability to their business. So SAP must help take some of the mystery out.

That’s what makes the services side of SAP Leonardo so important – this and the fact that digital transformation isn’t necessarily the goal, even though it is often presented as such. The goal is to enable growth, interoperability, communication and collaboration. The goal is to innovate. To this end, SAP intends to marry design thinking with these technologies. Design thinking is an iterative approach that identifies real issues and problems to solve. It avoids the trap of inventing and implementing elegant technology in search of a problem.

SAP Industry Accelerators

In addition, building on experience implementing solutions for other customers, SAP has packaged SAP Leonardo with “Industry Accelerators.” Industries might include retail, consumer goods, manufacturing, sports and entertainment, or any other industry that requires innovation services. These are fixed price bundles of expertise, data and software integrated to solve a specific and common business problem. Plus they include services to get started and deliver business value quickly, helping to jumpstart a digital transformation journey.

There is a design thinking component included, which is intended to validate that the package will address the customer’s business problem. They also include a fixed amount of services to implement a working prototype. SAP envisions the Industry Accelerators to be priced to be accessible to a wide range of companies, not just very large enterprises with large and highly skilled IT staffs.

These fixed price Industry Accelerators can be implemented with SAP technology, but SAP technology is not required. SAP Leonardo can ingest data from any source and combine it with data from applications like ERP, both SAP and non-SAP. So customers do not have to make a significant investment in new applications, database or other infrastructure in order to address a business challenge.

Of course, if a customer’s business challenge is unique or not a good fit for the Industry Accelerators then customers can leverage the components of SAP Leonardo for a custom implementation.

While SAP Leonardo targets a wide range of companies, many smaller companies operate with minimal IT staffs. Any kind of separate price tag for a tool set may make these technologies remote (like Leonardo himself) – out of reach for small companies. So it would behoove SAP to look for ways to connect, or even embed these technologies in the enterprise solutions that target smaller companies. These include SAP Business ByDesign and SAP Business One (in addition to SAP S/4HANA) and some of the surrounding “line of business” applications that extend these solutions.

To this end, SAP has been working hard on refactoring the underlying code of its products to take better advantage of new digital tools and technologies. Mint Jutras recently outlined this platform approach in a report, SAP Business One: The Next 20 Years.

From Systems of Record to Systems of Intelligence

The ultimate goal is to transform all these systems of record into systems of intelligence. Whether addressing the needs of large enterprise, small companies, or anything in between, it has always been a lot easier to get data into a system of record than it is to get information and insights out. SAP Leonardo, the digital system of innovation, tackles this problem directly with the goal of transforming business transactions into intelligent insights, in a never-ending continuum, thus enabling digital transformation and innovation.

[1] Gardner, Helen (1970). Art through the Ages. pp. 450–456.

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