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IFS: Empowering the World’s Challengers

Challenging the Status Quo, In Pursuit of the Extraordinary

IFS is in hot pursuit of the “challenger.” Being a challenger isn’t about market position or size, but more of a mindset. It’s about challenging the status quo, in pursuit of the extraordinary. Challengers have an appetite for something new. They aim to stand out, to transform their businesses. And while IFS is committed to empowering the world’s challengers in five select industries, it is also intent on being a challenger itself in the world of enterprise applications.

In the eighteen months since Darren Roos took the helm as Chief Executive Officer (CEO), he has sharpened the focus and brought consistency, collaboration and authenticity to its global operations, without damaging a corporate culture built on trust. Already a strong solution provider, IFS has developed products with deep industry functionality by listening to and working closely with its customers. That depth is now complemented with embedded, enabling technology that brings agility, usability, extensibility and more innovation. Under Darren’s leadership IFS challenges the status quo by being a software solution provider that prides itself on “Saying what we [will] do, and doing what we say.”

Here we take a look at what IFS has done to enable it to empower the world’s challengers.

Sharp Industry and Solution Focus

IFS has always focused on asset-intensive and product-centric businesses, but it has sharpened that focus to five industries:

  • Aerospace & Defense
  • Energy, Utilities & Resources
  • Engineering, Construction and Infrastructure
  • Manufacturing
  • Installation, Repair and Maintenance Service

While sometimes prospects might pull it into some related, under-served markets that share some common characteristics (like mining and oil & gas), these five are the segments it will use to provide direction to its product roadmaps and its go-to-market strategy. Unlike some of its competitors, interested only in grabbing market share, IFS is sticking to the industries it knows best, and for which its solutions have been designed and tuned. Rather than offering a general-purpose, one size fits all solution, it develops one that is purpose-built.

And while some of those same competitors are also trying to be one-stop shops for all enterprise applications, IFS focuses on three specific solutions that are individually deployable, yet inherently integrated. They are:

  • Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP)
  • Enterprise Asset Management (EAM)
  • Field Service Management (FSM)

However, when combined, these three cover a very broad footprint. Indeed, many ERP solution providers today claim to provide a complete “end-to-end” solution, to the extent that it is often hard to tell where ERP ends and other applications begin. But is this really what companies want today or is it just another land grab?

We asked our 2019 Enterprise Solution Study participants to choose between a “Suite in a Box” – a complete end-to-end solution that is pre-integrated and ready right “out of the box,” or a more “Best of Breed” approach with a strong core, coupled with the ability to purchase or develop additional functionality and easily connect it back to the core. We recognize the choice is not always so cut and dried, and therefore added some options that are more of a mix but leaning in one direction or the other. Where one approach was clearly preferred (i.e. not a mix), we found the “Best of Breed” approach preferred 2:1 over a “Suite in a Box” (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Which approach is most appealing to you?

Source: Mint Jutras 2019 Enterprise Solution Study

This may seem like the integrated suite versus “Best of Breed” arguments that have waged throughout the world of enterprise applications for decades. That debate was always about the tradeoff between sacrificing “best of breed’ functionality for ease of integration. But there are some subtle and not so subtle differences. Nobody today is willing to sacrifice features and functions. And everyone wants an integrated solution. But they also want it “their way” and at their own pace. And they don’t necessarily like to be locked in with a single solution or vendor.

ERP itself is an integrated suite. Mint Jutras defines ERP as an integrated suite of modules that provides the operational and transactional system of record of your business. As such, it is comprised of modules, some of which are core to any business (e.g. general ledger, accounts payable, accounts receivable, purchasing, order management, etc.) and some specific to a type of business. Product-centric businesses, particularly manufacturers, also need logistics and production capabilities. But ERP doesn’t necessarily address the needs of sales, service or marketing. And seldom does it address all the special needs for asset maintenance and management or field service.

For these asset-intensive industries, IFS has chosen to address the special needs of field service (FSM) and enterprise asset management (EAM), but don’t expect it to acquire or develop a CRM system any time soon.  It will leave sales and marketing to the likes of Salesforce and Marketo, and payroll to the likes of ADP, Paychx and CloudPay. And it is not afraid to use technology from partners like Microsoft to address industry-specific needs like ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations) compliance in the United States. 

Of course, a lot of development effort internally goes into developing and innovating these solutions. But IFS has also invested in acquisitions, including the acquisition of Workwave in 2017, and the most recent announcement of a definitive agreement to acquire Astea Technologies, a well-recognized player in the FSM arena. According to the announcement, “The combined company will have strengthened leadership position in Field Service Management (FSM) by integrating two of the most established and well recognized players in the market.”

It is clear, IFS will stick with what it knows best, leveraging its deep domain expertise, but also provide strong integration capabilities. This is not only possible today, but is also the key attraction to the most popular option in Figure 1 – the ability to assemble exactly what is needed, with the caveat that it must be easily connected back to the core… which brings us to the product(s).

Delivering on its Promises

IFS prides itself on the philosophy of transparency: We say what we do and do what we say. But the cadence and volume of innovation is also important. IFS has a spring and fall release each year. But it is also establishing an ‘evergreen’ approach, which gives customers the option to always be on the latest version of their applications without the disruptions that come with full-scale upgrades. The applications are continuously updated, and new features are optional.

This re-imagined application life-cycle experience does not require the customer to be running in the cloud. Unlike other vendors that seem more intent on being the biggest (in the cloud) than on delivering what customers really want, IFS offers the choice between cloud and on-premise, with the same software available regardless of which deployment option is chosen. While there are some obvious advantages to the cloud, including this ‘evergreen’ approach, IFS offers no incentives to move to the cloud, leaving the choice entirely up to the customer.

Architecture is Key

The secret behind IFS’ ability to keep a steady cadence of both features and technology improvements is the attention it has paid to laying the proper foundation. Oftentimes today, in selecting a new ERP (or FSM or EAM), there is a tradeoff between a solution that has matured over years or even decades, and one that has been developed more recently, based on the latest and greatest technology. IFS is one of the very few solution providers today that has survived the evolution from mainframes to component-based, cloud native architectures, without abandoning its original solutions or leaving them behind to ride out their final years on old and outdated technology.

“IFS has been evolving its technology foundations over an intensive and sustained period of engineering development.”

This statement was included in its recent announcement of what it calls its “evolved industry-focused architecture.” Scheduled for availability in 2020, this new architecture will lay the foundation for IFS’s entire portfolio of products.

“In essence, this new approach will allow customers to integrate enabling technologies such as internet of things (IoT), augmented and mixed reality (AR/MR), artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) in pragmatic and focused ways so they can optimize, automate, predict and interact better across their business.”

But IFS customers don’t have to wait until next year to reap some benefits. The current underlying architecture is already component-based and this is, in fact, how IFS has been successful in delivering last mile functionality, not only to its declared focus industries, but also to individual verticals within those segments. Process manufacturing industries, like food and beverage, provide the perfect example. Keeping up with different regulatory requirements across the globe has always been a challenge, but one IFS has readily accepted. But it has not burdened other industries with the specific requirements needed for compliance. Instead, it has developed a series of components that can be assembled and integrated seamlessly into the core ERP product.

How does this work and how does it set IFS apart from rivals that have similar maturity of feature/function, but perhaps not the technology enablement to meet rising expectations today?

In the past legacy solutions were developed as monolithic structures. Adding very narrowly focused features and functions added to the complexity of the solution and also made it rigid, hard to maintain and innovate. IFS was among the early pioneers in moving away from this monolithic approach. Its journey to a component-based architecture began in 1994 when it introduced its Services Oriented Architecture (SOA). Today it is moving steadily towards a microservices architecture, with specific mention of container technology and Kubernetes, but that is a more technical discussion than most business leaders care to dive into.

Every technologist in our audience knows a microservices architecture is defined as an architectural style that structures an application as a collection of loosely coupled services. For those nontechnical readers, think of it as constructing a solution from a set of Lego building blocks. Purists hate this analogy, and yes, it is an over-simplification. But it is an effective analogy that resonates with most business users that don’t have the interest or inclination to dive deep into technical jargon.

Think about how you build a structure from Legos. Each Lego block is made of the same kind of material and is attached (connected) to the other Lego blocks the same way. In many ways they are interchangeable. But by choosing different colors and sizes, and connecting them with a different design, you can make a structure that is very unique. And once constructed, if you want to change it, decoupling some of the blocks and replacing them doesn’t destroy the parts that are not affected. There is far less disruption introduced than if you had constructed it with a hammer, timber and nails.

IFS has already evolved from the era of the mainframe, through the client/server era where the graphical user interface (GUI) dominated, followed by web-enablement and the cloud era. IFS has declared the next era to be the era of intelligent and autonomous enterprise solutions. In a world where self-driving cars are a reality, why shouldn’t enterprise applications be smart enough to automate processes and help you make intelligent, data-driven decisions? So how is this transition coming along?

Tracking IFS Progress

When the latest IFS Applications 10 was announced last year at its 2018 World Conference, it included new features and functions, but also introduced some key areas that show IFS moving in this general direction. Let’s take a look back on each and get an update.

A New User Experience (UX)

IFS Applications 10 introduced a brand new, intuitive user experience, called IFS Aurena. The new UX was well received when initially launched. It has now been extended across all IFS solutions (FSM, ERP, and EAM), and  (impressively) it was delivered ahead of schedule. Aurena provides customers with a truly responsive design. This means it responds to the environment on which it is used, based on screen size, platform and orientation. Whether you use it on iOS, Android or Windows, the applications take advantage of the native capabilities of the device, giving them a familiar look and feel, with support for offline scenarios and device-specific capabilities such as GPS and camera. In addition, IFS Aurena BOT is now generally available. This is essentially a virtual assistant that allows the user to interact with the system via voice or text. It can connect to any of the popular messenger apps (Skype, Skype for Business, Facebook Messenger, etc.) and is making use of artificial intelligence (AI) to make it an intelligent bot.

Application Programming Interfaces (APIs)

Last year IFS started adding APIs to open its applications to new paths to extensibility and integration. Whether you prefer a Suite in a Box or a Best of Breed approach, nobody runs a single application today. And no application can afford to be an island. IFS has now developed over 15,000 APIs, which means connecting, extending or integrating into the IFS core is quick and easy. As a new member of the OpenAPI Initiative (OAI), IFS promotes open applications in order to give customers and partners total freedom to develop and connect data sources to drive value in a way that is meaningful to them. IFS Aurena uses the same set of APIs which are now generally available for every function in every IFS application.

Connecting Smart Devices

IFS is constantly evaluating the potential new digital technologies have in providing real value to its customers. Projects are led by a small development group called IFS Labs. IFS Labs is focused on solving the problems of tomorrow – or perhaps the problems and opportunities customers don’t (yet) realize they already have. With this approach, IFS Labs hopes to provide guidance and inspiration to influence customers to disrupt, rather than be disrupted.

But this is not technology for technology sake. These endeavors are essentially “proof of concept” projects, often conducted with real, live customers in order to solve real problems. IFS Labs keeps the projects small because, with the requisite license to fail, it must decide to pursue the concept and apply it universally or fail fast in order to move on to the next potentially disruptive project.

Much of this pioneering, experimental work is done quietly in the Lab and yet the results of several of these projects were demonstrated at the most recent IFS World Conference.

On stage and on the Exhibition floor at the 2019 World Conference, attendees watched as Marvin, a small, self-driving, robotic forklift delivered materials to the shop floor. Marvin is very real and working at Cheer Pack, a US manufacturer of spouted pouches used in the packaging of baby food, children’s snacks, yogurts, pet foods, dressings, condiments and other food & non-food items… and an IFS customer.

While humans are still loading and unloading the materials, CheerPack intends to connect it directly to material handling equipment in the future to further automate the process.  In the meantime, no human is involved in guiding the little robot to its pickup and drop off locations. ERP drives what it carries and where it goes.

The audience also watched as remote technicians guided the diagnosis and repair of Marvin. Think of it as Facetime for the enterprise. An operator on stage was able to share a live view of Marvin with a remote technician, who was able to guide her through the diagnosis and resolution of the problem. Think of the possibilities this might present to asset-intensive companies running a 24/7 operation, but with technicians only on site one shift. Or those operating in remote parts of the world where it makes no economic sense to have technicians remain on site constantly when they are seldom needed.

Attendees of the conference could also don a HoloLens and be guided through the replacement of an integrated circuit board. While this type of augmented reality has been available for a while, in the past it was hard to operate and required far too much skill and use of the wearer’s hands, when in fact the biggest benefit should be for hands-free operation.  This technology has now reached the level of maturity where a novice (like the author) can pick up the device and use it with little or no instruction.

While some might call them “next gen” capabilities, these are among those IFS has deemed to be “now gen,” ready for prime time. But these efforts continue.

Look for the introduction of a new Machine Learning (ML) Service coming in 2020. While asset-intensive industries are ripe with possibilities for accelerating the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in practical ways and connecting applications to devices and the Internet of Things (IoT), there are also challenges. It is very difficult to prepare the right data, often requiring a data scientist and competency in machine learning technologies. There is always the risk of a communication breakdown between those data scientists and technologists and business leaders with business goals.

The new ML Service is being designed to be easy to use, enabling business users to solve specific business problems with the automated selection of ML algorithms, based on their own data. These new services will be “explainable.” In order to build trust in the data and the algorithms, ML can’t be a black box. The user should be able to understand why an algorithm is being used. IFS agrees.

Expanding and Strengthening the Ecosystem

In conjunction with opening up its architecture with APISs and modern component architectures, IFS is also investing in its partners. Its mission is to triple the resources, but also create one IFS team, while providing its customers more choice. Many customers prefer to work directly with a more local partner, but since IFS requires all to be 100% certified on the applications, customers should see no difference in quality in working with IFS or a partner.

While in the past partners were very likely to build customizations for customers, we see a huge potential for them to transition to building extensions. As IFS opens up its platform to partners, this presents an opportunity for them to package up potential modifications, providing themselves further revenue sources while also extending the IFS applications deeper into the vertical and even micro-vertical segments within the sectors in which IFS plays well. This removes barriers to consuming IFS innovation that customizations create, while also creating opportunity for IFS, its partners, and its customers.

Summary and Key Takeaways

IFS customers don’t necessarily hold the top spots in their chosen fields. As a result, the old advertising slogan, “We’re number two. We try harder” might very well apply.

To IFS “For the challengers” means:

  • Helping customers differentiate
  • Focusing on industries and solution sets
  • Providing agility and better time to value
  • Value and results for the customer
  • Choice – how licenses are consumed, and software is deployed and who delivers (partners, IFS, both)

IFS clearly believes in the world’s challengers, encouraging and enabling then to gain a competitive advantage and create value through innovation. In support of these beliefs, it is focused on providing its customers value by delivering on three key enablement points:

  • The software used to run the business in select asset-intensive, product-centric industries, namely ERP, EAM and FSM
  • Enabling technology that helps its customers keep pace with our rapidly changing world
  • Data needed to drive effective decision-making

And at the same time, IFS sees itself as one of those challengers. It’s not the biggest enterprise solution provider, but still it strives to disrupt, rather than be disrupted. In reaching for this objective, it has sharpened its focus on five industries, with three solution categories. With functionality that is broad, deep and industry-specific, it also continues to take advantage of new and enabling technologies. It chooses to embed these technologies rather than use them to milk the cash cow of their installed base.

Whether you are a challenger in one of IFS’ chosen industries, or whether you aspire to be, you might want to take a closer look at IFS.

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Acumatica Customers, Prospects and Partners: See You in Vegas?

Top 7 Reasons to Attend Acumatica Summit 2020

Acumatica Summit 2020 will be at the Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas, NV January 27 – 28, 2020. Those who are proud to be called “techies” can come a day early for a Hackathon, and any and all can stay longer to attend two more days of training.  As an industry analyst I have attended more conferences than I can count. Many are over-hyped and just plain boring. But I have to admit, this is one I actually look forward to each year. Here’s why.

Timing

First of all, the timing is right. Most of these events are held in the spring or fall, which means I am (usually) on the road eight or nine out of nine or ten weeks at a time, sometimes attending one or two events a week – once in a while hitting three in a single week. No wonder most just tend to blur together. And it’s not just me. Attendees are juggling their kids’ school and sports activities, and maybe even school vacations. But by the end of January, I will have mostly been off the circuit for a couple of months. For other attendees… while nobody is taking a long winter nap, schedules aren’t quite so packed. And if you live up north, like I do, you might just be ready to go someplace warm for a few days.

And… there’s no football to watch that weekend. The AFC and NFC Championships will have played out and two lucky teams and their fans will be preparing for the Super Bowl the following weekend.

Access to Acumatica Top Brass

For a company that sells exclusively through partners, the top-level executives at Acumatica are amazingly accessible. That includes CEO Jon Roskill, Founder and CTO Mike Chtchelkonogov (Mike C for short), and Chief Product Officer Ali Jani. It is not uncommon for Mike C and Ali to visit customers and they love to engage directly with users. They are very approachable at the Summit.

Network with an Engaged Community

The Acumatica community is very engaged. That not only includes the Acumatica staff and its partners, but the end users as well. So, if you are looking to network, discuss ideas, offer constructive criticism or praise, the Summit is the place to do it. There’s nothing like the kind of personal interaction you get from meeting others with common interests and most attendees are more than happy to share their experience.

Product Tips and News

Of course, if you just want to keep to yourself and attend sessions, the Summit is a great place to learn more about the current product, the latest innovation and plans for the future. Plus, you can get tips on implementation and getting the most out of yours.

Cool Keynotes

In addition to hearing the latest from Acumatica execs, Acumatica always has a very interesting guest speaker. Not the fluffy kind of celebrities that pretend they know a lot about running a business, (most should stick to show business) but presenters with some substance. This year you’ll hear Robert Ballard, renowned ocean explorer, scientist, and discoverer of the Titanic.

Sessions for Everyone

All sorts of different people attend the Summit. There are sessions for all attendees, including some that are geared towards specific editions (manufacturing, construction, field service, eCommerce…). But there are also sessions for the developers in the crowd, including Acumatica xRP Framework Fundamentals and Web Services (and more). And there are sessions dedicated to partners on topics ranging from pricing to sales strategies, to best practices for co-selling with ISVs.

I’m Usually on a Panel

Typically, I am on a panel with other Industry Analysts talking about trends in ERP. Sometimes we’re joined by customers. While I won’t pretend this is the best reason for you to attend, I promise to make it entertaining!

And so…

These are the reasons I am looking forward to Acumatica Summit 2020. And if you are an Acumatica customer, or thinking about becoming one, or if you are an Acumatica partner, you just might want to attend as well. I’ll see you there!

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Sage Intacct Plots a Path to Intelligent GL

A Worthy Stop on a Longer Journey

Sage Intacct has been on this journey towards an Intelligent General Ledger (GL) for several years. The company’s  goal has been to relieve finance leaders of the burden of routine accounting tasks, while also bringing them visibility to data, along with the necessary tools to provide actionable insights that will lead to growth and profits. Many finance leaders today are spending 80% of their time on accounting, leaving only 20% available to think and act on a more strategic level. An “Intelligent GL” is really all about flipping that ratio. Of course, no piece of software can magically turn a bean counter into a strategist. But it can help you build trust in your data and decisions, and provide you the time and the tools you need to dig deeper, analyze, predict and prescribe a course of action.

And therefore, although an Intelligent GL is a lofty goal, the real value will come from diffusing this intelligence beyond the GL, beyond finance, leveraging it across all aspects of the enterprise. But then, isn’t that what strategic thinking (and doing) is all about? While Sage Intacct doesn’t profess (or pretend) to provide an end-to-end solution, a strong, “best of breed” financial management solution can indeed serve as a solid foundation on which to build a strategy that leads to profitable growth.

Click here for a closer look at Sage Intacct’s path to providing an Intelligent GL and what it can mean to your business.

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Rootstock Delivers on the Value Proposition of the Salesforce Manufacturing Cloud

                                                                                   

Providing the Much Sought After 360o View

How do you achieve a 360o view of your customer? While this has been a popular catch phrase for solution providers offering Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems for years now, there have always been missing pieces to this panorama. A good CRM, as the acronym implies, can indeed help you manage the relationship with your customers, often starting at a point when the customer is still a prospect. CRM solutions do a good job of managing a pipeline from initial contact to quote, and perhaps even to the point where the quote is turned into an order. If this is all it does, it might be more appropriately classified as Sales Force Automation (SFA). But of course, some CRM solutions extend beyond this. But no CRM, on its own, really manages an order, creates an invoice or manages accounts receivable and collects cash – all necessary for that 360o view. That is the domain of Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP).

Salesforce CRM is indeed one of the most mature CRM solutions on the market today. While lighter versions exist for even the tiniest companies, those that tap into its full and extended functionality are able to effectively digitize marketing, manage diverse channels, connect sales and service and derive business insights and intelligence about all things customer-related. This may be sufficient for some types of businesses, but manufacturers face some additional challenges. If sales and operations are not properly aligned, if revenue forecasts can’t accurately predict demand at a detailed product level, then manufacturing can’t deliver completely and on time without inflating inventory. And even with padding inventory, can it deliver the kind of customized or personalized product many markets demand today?

In order to address these specific challenges of manufacturing, Salesforce recently introduced its Salesforce Manufacturing Cloud to “deliver transparency and predictability across your ecosystem… Align sales and operations, unify account planning and forecasts, and deliver greater transparency with a tailor-made CRM for manufacturers.” But in order to make good on this promise, Salesforce itself must tap into its own ecosytem. Enter Rootstock, providing Cloud ERP for Manufacturing, Distribution and Supply Chain organizations. As such, Rootstock plays a key role in helping Salesforce deliver on its declared value proposition of delivering the much sought after, but often elusive, 360o view of the manufacturer’s customer.

Click here to read the full report

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Plex Systems: Connect to Transform

Accelerating Out of the Curve of its Own Transformation

Over the last few decades Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) solutions for manufacturing have evolved from their roots in Material Requirements Planning (MRP), and have become quite mature. Throughout that time we’ve seen solutions and solution providers proliferate and then consolidate, leaving a select few that develop and support a single ERP solution dedicated to filling the needs of manufacturers. Plex Systems is one of those few, but even within this select group, Plex is unique. Not only does its Plex Manufacturing Cloud (PMC) satisfy the back-office needs of manufacturers, it also dives deep into the shop floor, with strength in quality management and manufacturing execution. Born in the cloud, Plex’s ERP has been offered exclusively as Software as a Service (SaaS) since 2001, making the company a true cloud pioneer.

For years following 2001 Plex Systems was in the high-speed lane on the straight-away, rapidly expanding its depth and breadth of functionality. PMC became the performance engine driving growth and profits for a steadily growing customer base. But just as manufacturers today must undergo a transformation in order to compete effectively in the global, digital economy, so must Plex. And in the course of that transformation it must navigate some curves. It must evolve its platform and architecture, embrace new digital technologies, support disruptive business models and adapt to changing expectations of today’s workforce.

Whether driving a muscle car or a business, you know you need to ease up a bit on the accelerator as you enter a curve in the road. But if you have a performance engine under the hood, there is nothing more exhilerating than accelerating out of that curve. Where is Plex Systems today? Is it about to explode out of the final turn?

The Straight-Away: A Bit of History

In its early years Plex offered the only ERP for manufacturing that was available exclusively as Software as a Service (SaaS). In order to fully appreciate why Plex was indeed in the fast lane, on the straight-away, you have to understand why Plex became a “SaaS only” company in 2001. It wasn’t because SaaS and cloud were the hottest topics back then. Back in 2001 “SaaS” and “cloud” were not even part of the vocabulary of the typical manufacturer. It wasn’t because the company wanted to be on the bleeding edge of new deployment options. Most manufacturers weren’t even knowingly and willingly considering SaaS.

The real reason was because the founders had developed technology and processes to rapidly develop applications and SaaS was the only way they could deliver software as fast as they could develop it. They wanted to share new functionality and new technology as it was developed, not 12 to 18 months later, when the next release was scheduled. As a result, early on, customers didn’t buy the Plex Manufacturing Cloud because it was SaaS. They bought it because of the broad and deep functionality and the company’s willingness and ability to respond to their needs… in spite of the fact that it was deployed and delivered through the cloud.

And yet back in the early 2000’s Plex was not only a fledgling company, but also a self-funded SaaS solution provider. Of course, back in 2001, ERP systems in general, especially those offered by small start-ups like Plex, were not as full-featured as today and this naturally led to gaps. However, when you have a development team excited about new rapid application development tools and anxious to please customers, those gaps get filled quickly. During this “straight-away” phase, Mint Jutras once observed that in the time it took a traditional development organization to tell its customers/business users why something couldn’t be done, the Plex development team would have had a proto-type of the solution up and running.

Unlike most providers of multi-tenant SaaS solutions, Plex willingly “customized” the software. But the enhanced software wasn’t custom for long (if at all). Plex always incorporated these enhancements into the product. As a multi-tenant SaaS solution, every single customer runs the exact same software. It just might not look or behave identically from customer to customer because most of these enhancements could be selectively turned on… or not.

Throughout this time, the lion’s share of innovation came from customer-driven enhancements. In the early days, customer-driven also meant customer funded. So, a customer would pay Plex Systems to enhance the product and other customers would benefit. In other user communities this does not happen, at least not consistently. The typical way of thinking is, “I paid for it and it’s mine and only mine.” In the land of Plex, customers simply viewed this as making a contribution to the community. And they expected others to do the same. Each gave a little, and everyone got a lot. When everyone is running the same software, literally, not figuratively, it creates a unique sense of community, one of being “all in” together.

The Turning Point

This strategy worked brilliantly for years, but then Plex reached a point in its own maturing process where it no longer made as much sense. The gaps in functionality had been filled and Plex needed to formulate its own strategy for growth, rather than let itself be led entirely by its customers. Adding functionality that was not mainstream, or features that perhaps led down a path Plex deemed not to be strategic, would only add unwanted complexity to the solution. So, several years ago Plex took charge of the roadmap and began to phase out customer-funded development and increased its R&D investment.

But there were other factors at play here as well. This decision came at a time when disruption had become the norm. We live in disruptive times. Last year, the 2018 Mint Jutras Enterprise Solution Study found 89% 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. Software delivered as a service is only one of the ways innovation is delivered and consumed faster and more easily. This speed is largely dependent on the way your ERP solution is constructed and the platform on which it sits. This caused Plex to focus some attention on the underlying architecture and what Mint Jutras calls “foundational” technologies.

Table 1 shows how our survey participants perceive the value of foundational technologies that are embedded in enterprise applications.

Table 1: Perceived Value of Embedded (or Foundational) Technologies

Source: Mint Jutras 2019 Enterprise Solution Study

While a growing percentage of manufacturers perceive these technologies as providing strong value, on average almost one in three (32%) are unsure of the value. Essentially, they are saying, “Show me.” And another 9% (the average across all) simply don’t know. And yet investment in these kinds of technologies is essential to the continued health and well-being of any solution used to run a business today. As Plex turned its attention to these underlying technologies, it very likely appeared as if innovation was slowing down. In fact, investment increased; Plex was (and is) just navigating a curve. To understand what Plex is doing, and why, we need to step back and look at what is going on in the world around us all in terms of how solutions today are built and delivered.

“Suite in a Box” or Best of Breed? Yes

First, we need to re-examine a debate that has been waged throughout the world of enterprise applications for decades: choosing an integrated suite or “Best of Breed” approach. Many ERP vendors have been preaching the benefits of a complete, end-to-end solution and arguing against the proliferation of disparate applications for almost as many decades.

This is exactly what Plex has been delivering and it would certainly appear to be what Plex customers want. Plex customers have participated actively in Mint Jutras surveys for many years now. They tend to have more complete solutions than manufacturers running other solutions, and strongly favor a single vendor, single solution.

We asked the survey participants in our 2019 Enterprise Solution Study to choose between a “Suite in a Box” – a complete end-to-end solution that is pre-integrated and ready right “out of the box,” or a more “Best of Breed” approach with a strong core, coupled with the ability to purchase or develop additional functionality and easily (we use the term loosely) connect it back to the core. We recognize the choice is not always so cut and dried, and therefore added some options that are more of a mix but leaning in one direction or the other. The results (Figure 1) surprised us a little. We expected a higher percentage would prefer the Suite in a Box approach.

Figure 1: Which approach is most appealing to you?

Source: Mint Jutras 2019 Enterprise Solution Study

Since collecting this data, Mint Jutras actively sought out discussions with companies, posing the same question, and got very similar results. But then we asked, “Why?” The short answer: most are interested in a fully integrated, fully functional solution, but they want the freedom and flexibility to implement incrementally, in their own determined sequence. In other words, they want both.

Many are also in the midst of a transition to cloud solutions. This may mean a complete shift, starting with the migration or replacement of an on-premise ERP solution. Or it may mean a more gradual shift, often leaving in place on-premise ERP solutions and surrounding them with cloud-based added apps.

The core points of any debate between suite and Best of Breed center around the trade-offs between ease of integration and depth and breadth of solution. With a suite approach, all modules share a common database and are developed using the same tools and technology. This eliminates data redundancy and any need for separate integration efforts.

In the past specialty functionality built into ERP was lighter and less feature-rich and definitely not “best of breed.” While that may have been the case early on, over the years, ERP solution providers added more robust features and functions through a combination of their own development efforts and sometimes through acquisition. Today they are often (not always) able to compete head to head against stand-alone “best of breed” applications.

With the exception of two acquisitions (DemandCaster for supply chain planning and DATTUS for Industrial Internet of Things connectivity) Plex’s functionality has been internally developed and therefore intrinsically built into the suite. This includes rich functionality connecting the shop floor to the top floor. The Plex Manufacturing Cloud can certainly hold its own against so-called best of breed applications in several categories, including quality management (QMS) and manufacturing execution (MES).

So, if companies can get best of breed functionality in a suite, without the need to manage separate integrations, what drives the desire for the “Best of Breed” approach as we articulated it in our question?

We find many articulate their desire as a “Best of Breed” approach because they equate the suite to a monolithic architecture and an “all or nothing” kind of decision. In some ways that is true, but not entirely so. Most any ERP solution is comprised of modules (e.g. general ledger, accounts payable, inventory management, purchasing, order management, shop floor control, etc.) and certainly some are optional. There is always a preferred logical sequence to implementation because of dependencies in the data. Foundational data like charts of accounts, customers and part or product masters must be established early. But once the foundation is built each company is free to decide what comes next and how far to go. This is certainly the case with Plex customers. Most go live when they have the basics established, but then have further steps planned.

But with a monolithic architecture few, if any of the modules are designed to stand alone. Sure, you can just implement general ledger, or inventory management perhaps, but you can’t just implement the manufacturing execution system (MES) that is built into ERP. Or the Quality Management System (QMS). Which is one of the primary reasons why Plex Systems is actively engaged in decomposing its monolithic solution and reconstructing it as loosely coupled components. This is at least one of the curves Plex is navigating.

What, if any, significance does this have on existing Plex customers and prospects? For those customers looking for a complete end-to-end solution, it allows Plex to once again speed the delivery of added features and aids them in providing last mile functionality without adding complexity. Instead of building customer-driven enhancements into the base, it can assemble a unique set of components to deliver industry-specific functionality for each of the segments of manufacturing on which Plex focuses.

For prospects looking to start their own cloud journey or digital transformation, it provides an option to start small, perhaps with MES instead of a full ERP solution. And of course, that provides Plex with added growth opportunity.

But “decomposing the solution” is not the only way Plex is navigating this curve and transforming the company and its solution. It is actually hitting on all of the different aspects listed back in table one. The most obvious is the transition to cloud and SaaS. While not exactly a “technology,” it is the only entry in the table that is even close to mainstream. But this requires no transition for Plex. PMC was born in the cloud and has always been offered as a multi-tenant SaaS solution. Enough said.

However, let’s hit on a few of the others listed.

Platforms and Architecture

Development platforms and microservices architectures are key to this decomposition. For the reader with a technical background, a microservices architecture is defined as an architectural style that structures an application as a collection of loosely coupled services. This is the process of decomposition to which Plex refers in its roadmap. For those nontechnical readers, think of it as constructing a solution from a set of Lego building blocks. Purists hate this analogy, and yes, it is an over-simplification. But it is an effective analogy that resonates with most business users that don’t have the interest or inclination to dive deep in technical jargon.

Think about how you build a structure from Legos. Each Lego block is made of the same kind of material and is attached (connected) to the other Lego blocks the same way. In many ways they are interchangeable. But by choosing different colors and sizes, and connecting them with a different design, you can make a structure that is very unique. And once constructed, if you want to change it, decoupling some of the blocks and replacing them doesn’t destroy the parts that are not affected. There is far less disruption introduced than if you had constructed it with a hammer, timber and nails.

Plex is actively engaged in developing this type of platform and is probably about a year away from completion. But in the meantime, it is delivering value through other associated technologies, starting with the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).

Industrial Internet of Things (IoT)

While sensors, machines and equipment on the shop floor have been collecting vast volumes of operational data for decades now, that data has not always been “connected” or accessible for decision making. Indeed the very fact that this data collection has been happening for decades contributes to the problem. Many of the machines and software put in place decades ago pre-date the Internet and therefore have no ability to connect to a network. Retrofitting equipment, or replacing it, is expensive and most of these machines were designed to last a lifetime. Expensive custom integration projects are beyond the expertise and budgets of all but the largest manufacturers. So what’s the alternative?

This is where Plex’s acquisition of DATTUS comes in. Providing an alternative is what DATTUS is all about. Think of it as the bridge between you and your machines. The platform is a hardware/software combination, which collects data from PLCs, VFDs, industry protocols like MTConnect, and popular enterprise applications including Salesforce, SAP and (of course) Plex. The goal: making this data available for analysis and decision-making.

The majority of the original DATTUS customers are not sophisticated and therefore beyond the physical connection Plex is concentrating on developing applications to be used right out of the box, rather than just providing a tool set and leaving it up to customers to connect manufacturing equipment and sensors to the cloud and to PMC. DATTUS is now Plex Industrial IoT and the first applications are centered around visualization of the sensor data, combining it with data from PMC, adding thresholds for alerting production supervisors when a process is about to go out of spec. But the team is already working on connecting data to MES and QMS to complete the genealogy and traceability and for anomaly detection to prevent machine failure. But this anomaly detection will require some artificial intelligence.

Artificial Intelligence

Technologies like machine learning, natural language processing and other forms of artificial intelligence have become quite prevalent in consumer technology (think Siri and Alexa, or GPS that learns your favorite route). Now is the time to bring them into the enterprise, much like they were insinuated into our personal lives – by adding value and embedding them.

The concept of machine learning in an industrial setting employs computer algorithms that learn and improve over time with use, often drawing on data, not only from enterprise applications, but also from equipment on the shop floor or even from smart products in the field. Between the data already being collected in PMC and the data that can be potentially collected through Plex IIoT, Plex is sitting on a potential gold mine of data to use in machine learning. The team is laying the ground work for future initiatives.

In the meantime, the development team is already experimenting within PMC by analyzing settings to discover combinations that produce great (implementation) results and those that can spell disaster, in order to guide new customers and even warn them of pending disaster. Delivering this kind of artificial intelligence provides value, not only to those looking to connect to the IIoT, but to all Plex customers. And therefore, Plex is following the same path Apple took in delivering a voice-activated virtual assistant (Siri). Nobody asked Apple to deliver this and Apple didn’t make it a separate option (with a separate price tag). Once customers started using it, they saw the value and it became a prerequisite for any smart phone. Will Plex set the standard in terms of performance evaluation of a SaaS solution for manufacturing?

Accelerating Out of the Curve

Like any good business competing effectively in the today’s global, digital economy, Plex Systems has been undergoing a transformation. Unlike other SaaS-only solution providers that operate in the red, Plex is cash flow positive and spending more in R&D than ever before in order to fund and fuel this transformation.

For more than a decade and a half, the development team worked swiftly to build out robust functionality that connected the shop floor to the top floor, through practical (often customer-funded) innovation. But today we live in a different world. Both the pace of business and the pace of change are accelerating. The road to success is not necessarily a straight path. Disruption throws us some curves.

And therefore, Plex must find new ways of listening and new ways of solving problems – problems its customers might not even know they have. Apple (think Siri) and Steve Jobs provides some inspiration.

“Get closer than ever to your customers. So close, in fact, that you tell them what they need well before they realize it themselves.” Steve Jobs

Plex’s customers aren’t asking Plex to “decompose” its full suite, but customers like Accuride that operates Plex in some of its divisions, while also running SAP and Workday, see the benefit of being able to insert (Plex’s) MES in other divisions currently running SAP.

Customers transitioning from legacy, on-premise solutions face new challenges and have all sorts of different priorities. The shortest path to their goals may not be the traditional road, but rather a road less travelled. Customers (and prospects) that think artificial intelligence is still the stuff of science fiction aren’t asking Plex to predict machine failures on the shop floor, but they will most definitely benefit.

All this potential for change and disruption, shifting priorities and technology innovation makes the foundational work Plex is doing invaluable. And so are the new technologies it is introducing to its solution. There is nothing more exhilarating than accelerating out of a curve. If you are a Plex customer or prospect, buckle up… it’s about to get very exciting!

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Add Aera Technology’s Cognitive Decision Board to Your Team

To Help Your Team Continuously Learn and Improve

In its quest to enable the Self-Driving Enterprise, last fall Aera Technology introduced its Cognitive Workbench. Using billions of data points collected with its patented data crawlers (real-time crawling technology), Aera’s processing engine analyzes data continuously (even while you sleep) to detect business risk and opportunities. After utilizing decision trees and algorithms to recommend the best course of action, its Cognitive Workbench presents personalized, time-sensitive, and prescriptive recommendations to drive capital efficiency, productivity, growth and customer satisfaction.

Now, Aera further augments and digitizes decision making, tracking decisions made by all your team members, including those made autonomously by your newest virtual team member: its new Cognitive Decision Board. Working interactively through the Decision Board you gain better visibility into your decision making process, and understand the impact of each decision. By tracing steps taken and the reasons why they were taken, you are able to get quick insights about those decisions. Did you accept Aera’s recommendations and if not, why not? Through this monitoring, measuring and feedback, Aera continues to learn and therefore can make better recommendations and your entire team can make better decisions.

Click here to read the full report.

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Introducing QAD Adaptive Applications

Adaptive ERP and More, all built on the QAD Enterprise Platform

QAD Adaptive Applications is a portfolio of flexible solutions for manufacturers, with QAD Adaptive ERP at its core. Founded in 1979 by Pamela Lopker, QAD has always set out to provide an integrated system, laser focused on manufacturing. That focus has never wavered, but over time the underlying technology and the functional footprint have evolved. Just as Material Requirements Planning (MRP) evolved into Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) for manufacturing, QAD’s solutions have also grown and matured. Even as disruptive technology is killing off older companies, QAD is still growing strong. But the leadership is smart enough to recognize, “What got us to here won’t get us to where we are going.”

For years now the company has been committed to the Effective Enterprise, defined as “every business process running at peak efficiency and perfectly aligned to the company’s strategic goals.” QAD remains just as committed as ever to this goal, but now adds the ability to adapt. In the words of CEO Anton Chilton, “We need the Adaptive Enterprise to sense – plan – act. For this you need a different kind of technology.”

The journey that led to this different kind of technology began at a pivotal point in 2013 when QAD mapped out what it wanted to achieve:

  • full functionality operating in the cloud
  • easy extendability with no or low code
  • modular upgrades without redoing extensions
  • Internet of Things (IoT) support
  • real-time analytics
  • a powerful, web-based user experience

This realization led to the launch of a multi-phased internal project, called the Channel Islands Initiative. By 2018, what started out as a user experience initiative had been been transformed into an enterprise platform. The result: a re-architected underlying application infrastructure, a fresh set of RESTful application programming interfaces (APIs), and a new future-proofed user interface (UI), including the framework for connecting devices.

While features and functions are still important today – actually more important than ever – the secret to “adaptive” applications lies in the QAD Enterprise Platform.

Click here to read the full report.

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Epicor: Firing on All Cylinders

More Cloud, More Connected, More Intelligent, More Innovation

Epicor’s mission is to be the cloud vendor of choice in the markets it serves. Those markets are manufacturing, the automotive aftermarket, wholesale distribution, service, lumber, and retail. Its latest user conference, Epicor Insights 2019, served to provide a progress report on that mission, including some exciting new product announcements. Over the past 18 months, the company has invested heavily in its major go-forward product lines. It has published 54 software releases (15 major, 39 minor), and brought a brand new Epicor Retail Cloud to market, completed as planned and on-time. As of three weeks before the event all its strategic product lines had been modernized and Software as a Service (SaaS) enabled. And its SaaS business is growing at an impressive clip, with year over year cloud revenue increasing over 90%. A brand new artificial intelligence (AI) based Epicor Virtual Agent (EVA) was unveiled at the event, along with new industry capabilities, built on cloud technologies, to power digital transformation and enhance the customer experience.

All of this news represents good progress, but Epicor is still fighting the battle of establishing a name for itself as what Mint Jutras last year called “the new Epicor.” As we noted then, “The Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) market is very mature. Some solution providers have been around a long time, dating back to even before the acronym ERP was coined. Epicor Software Corporation is one of those vendors. With that level of maturity comes both pros and cons. On the plus side, as a mature provider, it brings to the market more than 45 years of experience and a set of robust and feature-rich products. On the down side, prospective buyers of enterprise software who might have encountered Epicor in the past may think they know the company and its solutions. But their knowledge and perceptions may be severely outdated.”  A year later, we (still) suspect many customers and prospects alike don’t really know the new Epicor.

The new Epicor is firing on all cylinders. Unlike the rigid, monolithic solutions of the past, its go-forward products are supported by modernized, component-based architectures that support connectivity, accelerate innovation and support the intelligence needed to compete in today’s global, digital economy. While Epicor still offers a choice of deployment models, it operates under a “cloud first” policy that encourages (but doesn’t force) customers and prospects to harness the power of the Internet. But not everyone seems to have gotten the memo. Perhaps if we review some of the recent steps Epicor has taken, we might be able to enlighten those who have not.

Click here to read the full report

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The Push and Pull of Acumatica’s Cloud ERP Innovation

Collaborate – Innovate – Accelerate

Technology vendors, particularly those that offer Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) solutions, must walk a fine line in terms of innovation. On the one hand, they must listen carefully to their customers. Responding to customer requests is crucial to keeping existing customers happy as they push for more features and functions. But today, that just isn’t enough. The most successful vendors also pull the customers along in many ways, including applying advanced technologies. While customers may not be asking for them, these technologies can improve efficiencies and provide a competitive edge.

Like many vendors, cloud ERP provider Acumatica has an “idea” website where it encourages customers to log feature requests and vote for those they feel will produce the most value. Many of those ideas make their way into the product. But Acumatica goes a few steps further. In addition to partner advisory boards and customer focus groups, executives, product managers and developers go on-site to observe how the cloud ERP is being used. They then combine their objective outsider’s view with their intimate knowledge of tools and technologies to come up with new ideas for enhancing productivity. Sometimes those ideas result in what appear on the surface to be small changes, but result in innovation that makes the customers say, “Wow! That’s huge! Why I didn’t I think of that?”

In addition, Acumatica is testing the waters with technologies that go beyond features – like combining machine learning (ML) with natural language processing (NLP) and image recognition to produce artificial intelligence (AI). Like introducing drones into a warehouse or augmented reality (AR) into a service environment. While customers aren’t (yet) pushing them in this direction, Acumatica knows it needs to stay ahead of customer demand in order to pull its customers into a competitive position in the ever-changing global, digital economy. But those customers will not be pulled in the right direction unless the technology delivered has some practical value. Elegant technology in search of a problem benefits no one.

Acumatica’s Path Forward

Acumatica’s path forward (Figure 1) is stated quite simply, but then simplicity is often the key to success. Acumatica’s strategy is to continue to add functionality, both from a horizontal (everyone benefits) perspective, as well as vertical features to support selected industries. The horizontal functionality is delivered in the core product and industry-specific functionality is added through its industry “editions.” But the horizontal and vertical features work together seamlessly. This is made possible through Acumatica’s modern, open architecture, which provides flexibility and scalability. And therefore, both the technology embedded within, as well as platform and technology partners are key.

Figure 1: Acumatica’s Path Forward

Source: Acumatica

So how does Acumatica determine the roadmap? Click here to read the full report.

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THE REAL FACTS ABOUT ERP IMPLEMENTATION

BUSTING THE MYTH OF FAILURE, BUT ARE YOU
OVERRATING YOUR SUCCESS?

Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) implementation is certainly not for the faint of heart. But neither is it the scary ordeal that many describe it as, nor is it doomed to fail. While disasters provide good fodder for sensationalized headlines, failure rates are generally overstated. A recent Mint Jutras study of ERP implementation success by manufacturers and distributors found  67% rate their implementations as successful or very successful. While 31% only achieved partial success, a scant 2% said they were “not very successful” and only one out of the 315 surveyed described their implementation as a failure.

And yet, while many are meeting expectations in terms of schedule, budget and return on investment (ROI), we need to step back and question whether these expectations are set high enough. Based on benefits actually realized, Mint Jutras feels many are over-rating their success and leaving additional attainable returns on the table. In our view, an ERP implementation should never be viewed as done and the ROI should be sustainable.

In my latest report I explore the pace, the goals, the challenges, and the perceived success of ERP implementations. Where are the benefits are coming from? If you are in the midst of an evaluation, what should you expect? What should you do to maximize your investment? If you are not evaluating next steps, maybe you should be. What more could you be getting out of your investment? Is it time for a major overhaul or even a new solution? Today’s fast-paced, global digital economy leaves no room for complacency.

Click here to read the full report.

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