Author Archives: mintjutras

Rootstock‘s Low-Code, Business-Driven Cloud ERP Release

Couldn’t Have Come at a Better Time

Rootstock Software’s latest release takes full advantage of Salesforce’s Lightning user experience and its “clicks not code” approach to deliver agility, speed and intelligence to its Cloud ERP customers. Much more than a pretty new user interface, Lightning also includes Lightning Flows, an App Builder, Community Builder and Artificial Intelligence (AI) tools, all designed to put more power directly in the hands of the business users on the front line during these volatile times.

Of course, the risk of disruption is not entirely new. Last year our Mint Jutras Enterprise Solution Study found 90% of companies already believed they face some level of risk in their businesses 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. On top of these are all the traditional forms of disruption like expansion, reorganizations and regulatory compliance. And now… a global pandemic. Not only has COVID-19 wreaked havoc on manufacturing, distribution and supply chains, it has also abruptly forced many companies into new ways of conducting business.

This abrupt change has a cascading impact on the enterprise applications used in running the business, especially on Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP). And let’s face it… it has not always been easy for ERP solutions to turn on a dime. Without the latest in advanced technology, business users needed to wait in line for busy Information Technology (IT) departments or hire expensive consultants. Meanwhile, the pace of change continues to accelerate and the coronavirus has put it into overdrive. If you must wait for IT to work off its backlog, by the time it gets to your request, things will likely have changed again. And so, being able to quickly respond has gone from being a luxury (available only to those with deep pockets) to necessary for the very survival of your business.

And therefore, Rootstock’s timing of this release couldn’t have come at a time when it was needed more. Click here to read the full report to explore what this “clicks not code” approach can deliver (registration required).

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Plex Smart Manufacturing Platform

                                                                                    May 2020

Headache Relief in Times of Crisis

Manufacturers today face extraordinary challenges as the world is plunged into an unprecedented crisis. Even as we see efforts to recover, everyone was and is affected, though not necessarily in the same way. Some industries were completely shut down while others (think software and professional services) could close offices and still remain at least somewhat productive. Manufacturing lies at both ends of the spectrum. Obviously you can’t make industrial or consumer products from home – at least not at scale. But within the realm of manufacturing, we see a widely diverse impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, depending on what is being manufactured. Cloud computing and advanced technology that supports connectivity, collaboration, automation and agility have eased the burden for some, while others struggle (still) amidst shelter-in-place orders that caught many flat-footed.

Those companies operating on the Plex Smart Manufacturing Platform are among the more fortunate, whether they are manufacturing products deemed “essential” or not. Of course no piece of software can fully address the crisis of needing to completely shut down production. But even those businesses still have cash to collect and customers to support. As administrative and support personnel were locked out of their offices, Plex’s native Software as a Service (SaaS) deployments allowed employees to start working from home immediately. And as many manufacturers have had to pivot their businesses, efforts from Plex over the past several years to provide automation, collaboration capabilities and an added level of agility are all paying off.

For anyone who still questioned the value of cloud, SaaS and digital transformation at the beginning of 2020, the words of Plex Systems CEO, Bill Berutti, should ring true. “This crisis is shining a whole new light on the power of technology and the power of smart manufacturing, to make us more agile in times of crisis, to allow us to adapt.” Let’s take a look at a few of the ways Plex’s solution provides some relief from the headaches that come along with this crisis.

SaaS Proves its Value

Let’s start with the obvious. The capability to access anytime, from anywhere is inherent in software solutions that are accessed via the cloud and delivered as a service. Mint Jutras has been extolling the benefits of cloud computing and software as a service (SaaS) for many years now, but in spite of all the hype associated with cloud and SaaS, we still see evidence that many don’t fully understand the difference between the two or the benefits SaaS can bring. Whether you run a solution on your own premises or in a private or public cloud, the ability to access anytime, from anywhere is a significant advantage and web-enablement opens the door for the kind of connectivity you need as workers work from home. The ability to connect is critical, but how you connect is equally important. This issue surfaces when suddenly office workers became remote, work-from-home workers.

One of Plex’s customers, Accuride, provides the perfect example. Accuride primarily makes steel and aluminum wheels for the heavy trucking industry. As a global company that made a recent acquisition in Europe, Accuride runs the Plex Smart Manufacturing Platform in some of its divisions, but not all. While workers in the locations using Plex were able to start working from home almost immediately, it took several days of frantic work to support remote workers where solutions were still on premise. The recently acquired division in Germany is still running an SAP solution on premise. It needed to upgrade from 100 VPN connections to support 250 newly remote users very quickly – not an easy task. This only served to validate Accuride’s strategy to move to the cloud and SaaS.

Trojan Battery is another example. A longstanding Plex customer, it completed its shift to SaaS at the end of 2018. It not only runs Plex, but also Dropbox, RingCentral, Workday and Salesforce. But the company was subsequently acquired by C&D Technologies, which still uses on-premise solutions. While Trojan Battery employees were able to take their laptops and mobile devices or just sit down at their home computers and have full and immediate access to the same data and systems they had in their offices, those from C&D Technologies that were still using on-premise applications had a much different experience. They needed access through a VPN, which proved to be a significant pain point, especially for those employees who had never before been issued a laptop (having no need for one). As IT Director Matt Irey points out, “We can’t open our corporate network up to unsecured machines, so they’ve got to be using company equipment.”

This also raised the issue of network performance. Mr. Irey goes on to say, “There’s limited bandwidth — guaranteed Plex, Workday, Dropbox, have a heck of a lot more bandwidth than I do going into my location.”

Plex was an early pioneer of SaaS. It has offered its solution exclusively as a multi-tenant SaaS solution since 2001, long before cloud and SaaS were even part of the vocabulary of the typical manufacturer. Back then most manufacturers weren’t even knowingly and willingly considering SaaS. And so, for many years, the company was successful in spite of, rather than because of its pioneering efforts in SaaS. The key to this success lies in offering a more complete solution for manufacturing, stretching beyond the typical boundaries of Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP).

The 4 Pillars of Smart Manufacturing

This has led it to its current offering, the Plex Smart Manufacturing Platform, a rather unique combination of ERP, Manufacturing Execution (MES), Manufacturing Operations Management (MOM), supply chain management, industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and analytics.

What makes the platform a “Smart” platform is data, often described as the “new oil” or the most valuable resource of today. Plex recognizes that the four pillars of a Smart Manufacturing Platform are:

  • to connect and integrate to data sources (including machine data)
  • to automate (processes and data collection)
  • to track (and trace)
  • and analyze that data

In addition, the system, along with the data, must also be available, reliable, scalable, secure and agile. Over the years Plex has excelled in areas like availability and reliability. Its service level agreement (SLA) promises 99.99% availability and it has delivered 99.996% availability over the last four years, with an average of just 22 minutes of unplanned downtime each year. With those statistics on the books, along with an impressive track record of security, last year it decided to focus more heavily on agility.

The Increased Need for Agility

The need for agility has been on the rise for the past several years. We live in disruptive times.

Figure 1: How much risk do you face in your industry being disrupted?

Source: Mint Jutras 2018 Enterprise Solution Study

Back in 2018, the Mint Jutras Enterprise Solution Study found 89% of manufacturers believed they faced 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 were (and still are) the more traditional disruptive factors like expansion and growth, organizational restructuring and regulatory changes, just to name a few. And now… a global pandemic.

While different industries and individual companies face an incredibly diverse range of challenges, there is one constant today, and that is an element of uncertainty. No one really knows what the “new normal” will be. Some Plex customers have already had to pivot their businesses very quickly.

As noted earlier, this global crisis has impacted different industries in very different ways. While some making products that are not deemed “essential” have been forced to close, others are struggling to keep up with higher demand. Select food, beverage and personal care products are experiencing a boost in demand. Manufacturers of medical supplies and equipment (think ventilators and face masks) are facing increased demand that can far exceed capacity. Others making industrial or non-essential consumer products are forced to re-tool and ramp up production for new and different products. We see hair care manufacturers making hand sanitizer and automotive suppliers making ventilators or personal protective equipment (PPE).

Each option brings its own set of challenges, often requiring new supply sources and processes that include shop floor redesign or limiting capacity to create social distancing. Some are responding quickly, but many are not, as evidenced by shortages of staples like toilet paper, disinfectants, flour and other necessities. We’ve seen evidence of brittle supply chains and manufacturers that remain rigid and inflexible. While enterprise software solutions can’t (all by themselves) overcome all these hurdles, they certainly can contribute to the pain or ease the burden as innovative companies undergo a paradigm shift.

One Less thing to Worry About in Shifting Gears

Creative Foam, another Plex customer, is one manufacturer that has quickly pivoted its business. The company turned 50 years old this year and specializes in foams, nonwovens and adhesives in industries that include transportation and healthcare. Creative Foam engineers seek to create products that are quieter, stronger and lighter.

But in the wake of the crisis, the company was able to quickly shift gears. Tareq Falah, Vice President of Information Technology and Information Systems tells us, “Nobody had a crystal ball. No one could have predicted anything that is going on now during this COVID crisis – not when, not who, not how. Before, we had always asked ourselves, ‘What can we do to win business?’ But in response to this crisis, we went through a paradigm shift. Now we ask, ‘What else can we do to help?’”

Essentially Tareq was talking about helping the front-line workers in the field of medicine. They began with PPE, face shields to be more precise. This meant sourcing new materials, coming up with an initial design and then refining that design. And throughout this pivot, office workers went home to work. While there were many issues to resolve like getting people laptops and rerouting phones, according to Tareq, “We didn’t have to worry about Plex. Support of our business has been phenomenal.”

Another success story in responding to this global crisis is Olde Thompson. Founded in 1944, the company started out manufacturing houseware products, including salt and pepper mills. Today 80% of its business is in the powders that might go into the original products, including salt, pepper and a wide array of spices. While other businesses have slowed or stopped production, Olde Thompson has doubled its monthly output in response to increased demand.

Plex’s inventory management capabilities and its supply chain planning tool were key to Olde Thompson’s ability to respond to this spike in demand while its competitors simply could not react as quickly. When India shut down all spice manufacturing, Olde Thompson was able to locate and engage with other suppliers. This opened the door to acquiring three new customers. Being able to quickly bring on new customers using Plex’s new Smart EDI, a more scalable and flexible approach to onboarding new customers, meant this new business was not just a short-term blip, but the beginning of long-term relationships with three new customers.

But the real key to winning this new business was in Olde Thompson’s ability to ramp up production quickly. And the key to that was integration – pulling data out of machinery and automating machine setups using data within Plex. Process improvement is a key focus looking forward and Olde Thompson will be relying on Plex to provide visibility to their yields and support continuous improvement and long-term growth.

Speaking of Supply Chain Planning…

Plex also recently made another announcement that will assist customers in reducing the risk associated with market volatility, a subject that can strike fear in the hearts of many manufacturers today. On May 14,2020 it announced the release of the Plex Market Forecast Manager, now part of the Plex Supply Chain Planning Suite. Creating and maintaining a viable forecast has always been hard, but the uncertainty introduced with the COVID-19 makes it even more difficult.

According to Plex:

“Plex Market Forecast Manager enables manufacturers to integrate internal and external data points alongside demand plans to drive more accurate inventory decisions, gain market share, and evaluate and scale the supply chain. The initial release will provide automated access to IHS Markit’s Light Vehicle Forecast, helping automotive manufacturers form more accurate and timely forecasts. IHS Markit is a world leader in critical information, analytics, and solutions for the major industries and markets that drive economies worldwide.”

While the initial release of this new module specifically targets the automotive industry, perhaps Olde Thompson will not immediately benefit, but we suspect it will be able to at some point down the road. One of the industries IHS Markit follows is agribusiness, which of course supplies the food, beverage… and spice market.

Focus on Automation

Beyond the ability to connect, another of the four pillars on which the Plex Smart Manufacturing Platform is built is automation. Certainly, automation also plays a key role in alleviating some of the pain associated with the COVID-19 crisis. For decades now manufacturing has been investing in automation on the shop floor. Automation can speed production, eliminate variability, improve quality and reduce costs. An unfortunate side effect has been that it has also cost some jobs. But in all fairness, it has also created jobs, although these new jobs require different skills.

Now in the midst of a global pandemic, when the health and safety of workers is top of the list in terms of priorities, there is a silver lining in the reduction in workers required to keep production running. If you simply need a handful of employees to monitor automated production, those employees are more likely to be able to maintain acceptable social distancing and product continues to be produced. And now as this automation (think robots, PLCs, mechanical devices) are increasingly connected to the Internet, taking advantage of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), perhaps production can be monitored remotely. Even remedial work might be done through augmented reality, with limited staff on site.

Plex’s engineering team, led by CTO Jerry Foster, is constantly investigating and experimenting with leading edge technology including augmented reality (think hands free and/or remote monitoring and even remote repair). Those investigative efforts also led to the acquisition of DATTUS in 2018 to accelerate IIoT adoption through connectivity, data management and data analysis.

But there is more to automation than machines and robots on the shop floor. There are many processes that must occur in the back and front offices of manufacturers that can be streamlined and automated, freeing office workers from repetitive tasks. And therefore, on May 14,2020, Plex announced Robotic Process Automation (RPA) can now be added on to the Plex Smart Manufacturing Platform through a new partnership with business technology solution provider Thirdware

An early adopter Plex customer Stant Corporation, a tier-1 automotive supplier of thermal and vapor management parts, worked with Plex and Thirdware to implement RPA to manage its invoice delivery. This was a labor-intensive and error-prone process, spread across multiple technology solutions. With the help of a bot on the Plex Smart Manufacturing Platform, Stant has been able to reduce its invoice backlog from three weeks to four days, with 100% data entry accuracy. Now, 80% of invoices are able to move to processing without intervention, enabling the Stant team to focus on more valuable problem-solving activities. And of course, a bot never has to move to a remote working location during a global pandemic.  After this first (successful) application of the technology, Stant went on to work with Plex and Thirdwave to create more. It now uses multiple bots for accounts payable, accounts receivable, customer service, and supply chain processes.

Summary and Recommendations

Manufacturers across the globe face many different challenges as the world tries to emerge from a global pandemic. Depending on where you live, the worst may be over. Or not. And even as we see signs of recovery, there is a high likelihood that things will never go back to exactly the way they were before. These factors combined reinforce the one common theme that confronts us all: uncertainty.

One thing is certain. As the communication and interaction around the world continues down the path of becoming more digital and more virtual, cloud computing and advanced technology that supports connectivity, collaboration, automation and agility step out of the realm of “nice to have” and become table stakes. Those manufacturers operating on the Plex Smart Manufacturing Platform are fortunate in that the solution that runs their businesses allowed them to immediately support workers remotely.  Plex also continues to innovate to bring more automation, to connect and integrate, to track and analyze.

If you are a Plex customer today, our advice is to hold the fort and continue to consume as much innovation as Plex can throw your way. If you are not a Plex customer and you are still struggling to connect newly remote workers, if you don’t have the agility to support whatever the new normal way of operating becomes, you might be thinking implementing a new ERP, MES, or MOM solution is the last thing you want to tackle right now. You could be dead wrong. If business is slow, take advantage of the down time. It’s okay to be dead wrong. It’s not okay to let your business die.

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Can FinancialForce’s Spring 2020 Release Help Keep Your Business Healthy?

                                                                       

 

Supporting Agility in These Troubling Times

Health and well-being is undoubtedly top of mind today. We are all concerned not only about our own personal health and that of friends and family, but also the health of businesses and the economy in general. And as we focus on staying safe and healthy, we find ourselves turning to tools and technology to help us through this global crisis. Amidst the disruption caused by the COVID 19 pandemic, FinancialForce has announced the general availability of its Spring 2020 Release, highlighting features that help customers navigate increasingly remote work environments and rapidly changing market dynamics. Obviously the design and development of this latest release was in the works long before COVID 19 changed the world. And yet one of its primary tenets – supporting customer agility – is perfectly aligned to the preservation and improvement of the health of businesses today.

Built natively on the Salesforce development platform, FinanicalForce’s solutions are cloud native, providing the kind of connectivity that has become an absolute imperative as so many workers have instantly been transformed into remote workers. Furthermore, this new release takes advantage of many of the advanced technologies in which Salesforce has invested, including its Lightning Experience (LEX), Lightning Web Components (LWC) and Einstein Analytics. These advanced technologies, coupled with new features and functions, serve to enhance insights, provide personalization and tailorability without expensive, invasive code changes.

Why Is Agility So Important Today?

Even before the COVID 19 pandemic hit, we were already living in disruptive times. The 2018 Mint Jutras Enterprise Solution Study found 90% 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 (Figure 1). 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. And now, a global pandemic.

Figure 1: How much risk do you face in your industry being disrupted?

Source: Mint Jutras 2018 Enterprise Solution Study

While only 7% of our 2018 survey participants felt that risk was high and/or imminent, most do understand the risk is real. While 84% felt the risk was low to medium, 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 ruinous impact Netflix would have on its business? Could anyone have estimated the devastating impact of a global pandemic?

In the past, much of the potential for disruption came from the introduction of new, innovative products. Back in 2018 and even throughout 2019, it was more likely to come from new ways of selling/pricing existing products (think subscription to services), entirely new business models, or some combination of all of the above (Figure 2). These factors, as well as today’s crisis, have less to do with new products and more to do with new ways of conducting business.

Figure 2: What is most likely to cause this disruption?

Source: Mint Jutras 2018 Enterprise Solution Study

This kind of disruption has much more of a cascading impact on business application requirements, making agility – the ability to easily innovate, evolve and change – more important than ever before. Software alone does not guarantee your success but can directly contribute to your failure. You can’t afford to have the software that runs your business be the reason you can’t adapt to change.

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. Software delivered as a service is only one of the ways innovation is delivered and consumed faster and more easily. How you go about adding that functionality can lead you down a path of stagnation, or a path to growth and prosperity.

Platform is Key

This speed is largely dependent on the platform on which your ERP and other applications are built. A development platform can provide “application services” for things like file handling, security, searches and access from mobile devices. These and other requirements may be hidden from view for the business user but add to the time and effort required by developers, which in turn determines how much and how quickly they can deliver.

Developers benefit from using the services delivered with a good platform, speeding the development process. And in fact, it is the “platform” upon which a solution is built that also determines whether or not you can tailor or configure a solution without invasive custom code. So, a good platform is more than just a tool for the developer. It actually adds value to the business as well, by making applications more agile.

FinancialForce develops natively on the Salesforce Platform. Salesforce estimates the platform speeds development by a factor of five and cuts the cost of development in half. As a result, leveraging the Salesforce Platform has been a big win, not only for FinancialForce, but also for its customers. Both benefit from the ease and speed of development, as well as the vast ecosystem that has grown around the platform.

For FinancialForce, it means fewer wheels to (re)invent, by taking advantage of application services already built into Salesforce including:

  • Support for a multi-tenant SaaS environment, which is a key enabler in delivering more innovation, faster
  • A workflow engine, access and identity management
  • Other rapid developer services include the Lightning Experience (LEX), (business) object orientation and built-in mobile support, and Lightning Web Components (LWC)
  • Embedded analytics with Einstein, a cloud-based data platform as well as a data-analysis front end designed to analyze not just data in FinancialForce, but also any third-party app data, desktop data, or public data you bring in

The platform contributes to the robustness of the Spring 2020 release.

Spring 2020 Release

FinancialForce’s Spring 2020 Release was developed around five themes (Figure 3).

Figure 3: FinancialForce Spring 2020 Release Themes

Source: FinancialForce

Intelligent Project & Resource Management

As the company name implies, FinancialForce started out providing accounting and financial management. But since its founding in 2009, it has continued to broaden its footprint and today promises “a complete, customer-centric view of your business with ERP and PSA,” encouraging customers to “see your customers in full color.” With an eye towards full engagement with its own customers, from opportunity to delivery and revenue, it focuses on industries like:

  • Professional Services and Consulting
  • Business Services
  • Health and Life Sciences
  • Media and Digital Communications
  • Software, High-tech and IT Services
  • Telecommunications

This is the world of projects and resource management, where “resources” are largely human. The impact of the coronavirus crisis has been anything but uniform across these types of industries. Some are still able to deliver services remotely while others are forced to keep highly skilled and often highly paid people on the bench. Health and life sciences may be overwhelmed with work while non-essential types of service businesses may be shut down. One result that is consistent across all of these businesses is the high level of uncertainty, the need for added visibility and the need to be able to react fluidly.

The specific functional area of investment around “intelligent project management” is more anchored to the software category of professional services automation (PSA), helping customers manage projects more proactively and with greater visibility and control with tools like its new Project Burnup report, which limits project overruns. Here are some highlights:

Proactively keep projects on track
An enhanced Gantt chart gives customers both greater discipline around project management as well as overall improvements to user experience. In addition, the Project Burnup view, powered by Einstein and embedded in the Project, limits project overruns and warns when exceeding contracts.

 See staffing supply and demand at a glance
As the world demands easier, more adaptive staffing and resource management capabilities, FinancialForce PSA now enables customers to optimize staffing with a unified view into supply and demand, including advanced visualization of resource schedules against requests. 

Streamline the sales-to-service handoff
FinancialForce PSA can now automate opportunity milestones and project risk templates, removing manual steps and ensuring continuity between sales and services.

 Forecast faster and more accurately
Accurate services forecasting is more important than ever. Using the latest version of FinancialForce PSA, services organizations can now plan for the future faster and more accurately, using enhanced support for fixed-fee forecasting supporting all revenue treatments, opportunity forecasts, and forecast scheduling. 

Global Accounting

To help companies manage their global operations better, FinancialForce Accounting & Reporting now offers several new features, including multi-book functionality for maintaining separate books by entity, French and Spanish localizations and financial reporting, enhanced currency management revaluation and translation, and the ability to easily tailor language packs. FinancialForce now features global value-added tax (VAT) support through an integration with Avalara.

Two other areas specific to accounting are also worthy of mention:

Accounting & Financial Reporting: Personalizing analytics to customer needs
It will be particularly important for any company to keep close tabs on cash flow, revenue and expenses. The Spring 2020 Release of FinancialForce Accounting & Financial Reporting offers more powerful personalization of analytics. Additionally, the new Deferred Revenue Reconciliation Report reduces manual reconciliation and data export for faster period close, while the Aged Analysis Report introduces new insights and predictability.

Billing & Revenue Management: Automate contract-to-revenue processes

With the increased level of uncertainty, it is now critical to streamline the invoicing and collection of cash. Every bit of revenue may count, now more than ever. The Spring 2020 Release offers Billing Central in Salesforce Lightning Experience (LEX), improving user productivity and further automating billing processes.

Next Generation User Experience

With Billing Central now fully available in LEX, the Spring 2020 Release brings FinancialForce closer to providing a complete suite of LEX-only solutions.  Across the board, the new release offers a modern, fully personalized user experience with embedded Einstein Analytics, actionable data, custom objects, and workspaces.

Accelerate Time to Value

Last May, FinancialForce introduced FinancialForce Accelerate, a set of service and product solutions created to accelerate customer value across the entire customer lifecycle experience. Featuring both paid and non-paid services, in addition to tools, methodology, and product, the goal is to deliver on accelerated outcomes for customer success. Unlike other programs aimed exclusively at speeding implementation, the Accelerate process starts earlier and has no end.

FinancialForce Accelerate kicks in during the pre-sale phase as prospects start their evaluation, identifying specific value to be realized through use of the software. That might be addressing low utilization or revenue leakage, or any number of other potential improvements and cost savings. A business capability model is created, which in turn helps guide the implementation, training and onboarding of employees. But it doesn’t stop there. It continues throughout the entire customer lifecycle, with continuous updates and always an eye towards improving performance.

The Spring 2020 Release includes enhancements to Accelerate, including the launch of the FinancialForce Customer Lifecycle eXperience Hub (CLX Hub). CLX Hub is a collaborative workspace complete with preconfigured application packages, best practices, and a business process model. For Spring 2020, there are nine pre-configured Accelerate Builds that support functional capabilities for specific industries, with Software, High-Tech and Professional Services being the initial industries, with more to come in future releases. In addition to a number of pre-configured capabilities that support added functionality, workflows and meta-data are also pre-configured.

Actionable Analytics

The need for better reporting and analytics has been growing and this need has only accelerated with the onset of the latest crisis. As we’ve seen in previous sections, FinancialForce has responded by embedding analytics directly into transactions, which makes them far more actionable. Einstein Analytics from Salesforce makes this possible, allowing you to explore all of your data quickly and easily with AI-powered advanced analytics, right in FinancialForce. There is no need to create separate databases or data warehouses. The data sets for reporting and analysis are the same as those that power transaction processing.

Summary

As we progress through this new phase of our global economy, it is absolutely critical to deploy every tool at our disposal to navigate the disruption and the uncertainty it brings. This kind of disruption has a cascading impact on the business applications we use to run our businesses, and makes agility – the ability to easily innovate, evolve and change – more important than ever. Deploying the right solution alone cannot guarantee your success, but not having a modern, technology-enabled solution can cause you to fail. You simply can’t afford to have the software that runs your business be the reason you can’t adapt and respond to change.

Like any innovation to ERP or PSA solutions being delivered right now, the design and development of FinancialForce’s Spring 2020 Release was in the works before this global pandemic struck. But FinancialForce has been preparing for just such an eventuality for years by adding a level of responsiveness and agility to its solution that can only come from a strong platform and advanced technology.

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The Secret Benefits of ERP You Can’t Afford to Ignore

                                                                                    April 2020

And the Key to Unlocking Them

Is the ERP that is running your business able to help you effectively achieve your goals in the current market? Does it take advantage of the kind of advanced technology that we have all come to rely on in our personal lives? Is it agile and flexible? Does it adapt easily to our rapidly changing world? Does it provide the level of connectivity needed to successfully operate in today’s global, digital economy? Or are you running a solution that may have once been state of the art, the best of the best available at the time, but is now stuck – stuck on an older release because of customizations that built barriers to innovation? Or stuck because you simply can’t justify the cost and effort of upgrading for the limited business benefit, because you’ll still be constrained by older technology?

If you are indeed stuck, your best path forward is most likely replacing it. But for decades ERP replacement was likened to brain surgery. It was reserved for dire cases only. “Rip and replace” was to be avoided at all costs. Today these perceptions are just as outdated as the solutions to which they apply. Yes, early ERP solutions were rigid and inflexible, limited in functionality, hard to install and implement and even harder to use. Innovation was painfully slow due to rigid architectures and older technology.

You can’t really blame those early solutions or the software companies that created them. The kind of technology needed for flexibility, ease of use and agility simply didn’t exist, making those conclusions justified. Why go through all the blood, sweat and tears, not to mention the cost, of implementing a newer solution just to wind up right back where you started?

But the world, and your business continued to change, and so have newer, next generation ERP solutions. Solutions now are far more flexible and technology-enabled, provide many more features and functions, are easier to install, easier to implement and easier to use. They bring far more benefits than ever before, but for those with lingering (mis)perceptions about ERP today, they remain hidden. And in today’s fast-moving, global, digital economy, you simply can’t afford to ignore them. The key to unlocking these secret benefits is in understanding the potential and then mapping out a plan to realize them.

Advanced Technology Holds the Key

What makes today’s next generation ERP so different? A variety of different type of advanced technologies can be embedded in enterprise applications today. It is through these kinds of embedded technologies that new ERP systems provide additional value. Of course, some vendors do a better job than others in leveraging them, and hence provide more value than others. This is why I’ve included a section later that provides some insight on how to best evaluate ERP solutions in order to ensure success. In the meantime, Table 1 presents some results from my 2019 Enterprise Solution Study, on the perceived value of several of these technologies. Note this study collected feedback from 464 survey respondents from companies of all shapes and sizes.

Table 1: Perceived Value of Advanced Technologies

Source: Mint Jutras 2019 Enterprise Solution Study

While a growing percentage of respondents perceive these technologies as providing strong value, on average (across all) 30% are unsure of the value. Essentially, they are saying, “Show me.” More than one in five (22%) see little or no value and another 10% simply don’t know. And therefore, it falls to industry experts and the vendors themselves to educate their audiences in order to prove the value and unlock these secrets. Let’s start that process by exploring a few of these.

Platforms and Architecture

Development platforms and microservices architectures, on which applications are built, provide the perfect example of those secret benefits. For the reader with a technical background, a microservice architecture is defined (by Wikipedia) 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.

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 and nails.

These platforms and technologies provide a level of agility, configurability and extensibility to today’s applications to help us respond to change.

Cloud and SaaS

We see more interest in cloud enablement and Software as a Service (SaaS). Indeed, whether you run a solution on your own premises or in a private or public cloud, the ability to access anytime, from anywhere is a significant advantage and cloud-enablement opens the door for the kind of connectivity you need as a full and active participant in the digital economy. Yet still, last year only half of our survey participants perceive it as bringing strong value. We suspect that if we were to ask this question today, given the current need for distancing and remote work, this might change.

But there are other benefits to moving to the cloud in general and SaaS in particular. We see subscriptions to software rapidly replacing the traditional license. When you license a copy of the software you take on the responsibility for maintenance and upgrades. This is especially important in light of the fact that when asked to select the top three challenges in achieving maximum value from ERP, “cost and disruption of upgrades prevent us from innovating” was at the very top of the list, selected by 40% of our respondents. With a SaaS solution, the solution provider assumes that responsibility and does the heavy lifting for you.

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.

Apple customers didn’t demand the ability to converse with their mobile devices. Apple just delivered it, not as an option and certainly not without adding to the cost. But they didn’t charge extra for it. Other device manufacturers followed suit. Pretty soon virtual assistants became commonplace features. And people got hooked. It was only after this secret was unlocked that people willingly went out and bought stand-alone devices like the Amazon Echo Dot and Google Home.

Make no mistake – the same thing is happening with applications for the enterprise. Modern platforms add a level of configurability and extensibility that adds agility needed to keep pace with the unprecedented pace of change in technology and business. Cloud and SaaS add speed and contribute to affordability. Pretty soon all sorts of artificial intelligence technologies will be generally available for the enterprise, but you won’t be able to take advantage of them if you are still stuck on old legacy solutions.

Automation

Robotic Process Automation (RPA), as the name implies, is all about automating routine tasks in order to free up time available to perform tasks which require more strategic thought and therefore contribute more value to your business. For decades ERP has claimed to streamline and automate these processes, but the term “automate” was used quite loosely, to say the least. Today’s technologies truly enable these tasks to be performed with little or no manual effort. Automating the filing of travel expenses, reconciling data for a month or year-end close, three-way matching and applying cash to outstanding invoices are all examples of routine tasks that can be largely automated, requiring manual intervention only when exceptions are detected.

And of course, the more intelligence you can add to these automated processes, the fewer the number of exceptions that require manual intervention. Embedding artificial intelligence and machine learning enables RPA to better detect anomalies and prevent errors. With these added capabilities, the more they are used and the more data that is collected, the more they continue to learn, adding more intelligence over time. Today’s “intelligent ERP” solutions are nothing like legacy applications of yesteryear.

Advanced Analytics

The addition of advanced analytics, often in the form of predictive or cognitive analytics, is another way to make ERP smarter. Early ERP solutions were notorious for being far easier to get data into than information out of. You had to know exactly where to look and how to get there if you had any hope at all of getting answers to business questions. And you had to ask all the questions because the solutions didn’t offer up much to notify you of issues.

That has all changed with new next generation solutions. Today decision makers are often greeted with role-based, personalized dashboards with data presented in charts, graphs and other visually appealing and meaningful ways. These dashboards become their portal, a gateway so to speak, to all the data previously hidden in applications. They get alerts and notifications on those dashboards and on their mobile devices. Not only have user interfaces become more intuitive, making systems easier to use, some have even learned to “listen” and “speak.”

All next generation solutions today do a better job of presenting data to you. But data driven decision-making requires more than just reporting. Predefined reports help you answer relatively static questions like: How much did I sell by customer type or region? Analytics present the bigger picture and can help you figure out what questions to ask like: Where and how will I have the most success in regaining and /or growing revenue? In your quest to answer that you might ask: Are all sales down, or only by region or customer type or sales rep or product? This might take several iterations and the exact path you will take in your questioning won’t be apparent until you start to drill down.

Smarter analytics (like predictive and cognitive analytics) can spot patterns that produce fewer sales. Smarter analytics can do predictive scoring and modeling to identify those patterns early and exploit them for guided decision- making. The smartest solutions will then continue to learn, getting better at spotting issues earlier, hopefully in time for you to course correct.

Tips For Your Evaluation

Looking for a new ERP solution is not something you do every day. If it has been awhile since you have been through this exercise, take note: A lot has changed.

Whereas fit and functionality once drove most decisions, basic and even not so basic features and functions are table stakes today. While an 80% fit used to be acceptable, today’s flexible and technology-enabled solutions should get you much closer to 100% than ever before, without the need for invasive customization.  Of course, you still need to perform due diligence and confirm robust functionality, including industry-specific features and functions, but if you haven’t looked around for awhile, expect to be pleasantly surprised.

Yet while features and functions are indeed important, there is danger in making a decision solely based on what you need today, because it might not be what or all that you need in the future. Last year my Enterprise Solution Study found 90% 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 don’t forget all the traditional forms of disruption like expansion, reorganizations and regulatory issues. 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. For that you need the right approach to innovation and the right architecture and platform to support it.

Also equally important today is the whole user experience, including easy navigation, visual appearance and personalization. And don’t forget integration capabilities and the quality of built in reporting and analytics. Any evaluation today requires you to raise the bar in terms of your search.

So…Where do you Start?

The answer to that question may be closer to home than you think. Just because you are not running a next generation ERP, enabled with the latest and greatest technology, doesn’t necessarily mean your current ERP solution provider hasn’t stepped out ahead of you.

SAP might be the perfect example of this. A longtime leader in the market, SAP is perhaps one of the very few, if not the only “household name” in ERP. However, many of its customers have yet to move to its latest, most technically advanced product, SAP S/4HANA. While SAP also has products that target the small to midsize market (SAP Business One and SAP Business ByDesign), it is also the incumbent in many very large multi-national enterprises that have invested heavily in predecessors to S/4HANA. And if these solutions date back far enough, chances are they have been heavily customized. Without the advantage of platforms and architectures available today, any kind of modification or invasive customizations created barriers to moving forward. And therefore, the move to S/4HANA is certainly no simple migration.

However, if you are currently running your business on an outdated solution, whether it is an older version of SAP’s ERP or a legacy solution from any vendor, simply migrating to a newer, more technology-enabled system means you will drag along decisions that were made when ERP was far less feature rich, technology enabled and flexible. You shouldn’t be looking to recreate what you are doing today, but instead automating, improving efficiency and productivity, providing added visibility and giving yourself the ability to make more data-driven, strategic decisions. You should also look for a return on your investment (ROI) in terms are real cost savings and/or the generation of increased revenue. For this, you need to treat it like a re-implementation, with all the careful planning and commitment that implies.

Not sure where to look for this kind of ROI? I would strongly encourage you to examine these real-world SAP Success Stories.

Conclusion and Recommendations

If you are currently running an ERP solution that you cannot legitimately call modern, intelligent or next generation, you might still be viewing its replacement like brain surgery. I prefer to treat it more like joint replacement. You suffer with that bum knee or hip until you can’t stand the pain any longer, or you simply can’t function properly. Many ERP implementations today suffer from pain, and prevent you from being flexible and able to do what they need to do.

Whether you view ERP as brain surgery or joint replacement, there is no such thing as non-invasive surgery. It can and should have a serious impact on your business, but hopefully in a positive way.

Here are a few recommendations for a successful ERP journey:

  • Don’t wait until the patient is critical. Making a selection and running an implementation project when the business is under duress does not create an atmosphere of careful consideration, planning and execution. You will be tempted to take shortcuts that you may later regret.
  • Need it but can’t afford it? Consider the potential cost savings. Most ERP solutions pay for themselves in less than two years. If capital funds are not available to support the project, consider SaaS deployment with less up-front cost.
  • Set goals and measure. Before embarking on your ERP project, decide which metrics will measure success. Establish a base line, set goals and measure progress against those goals. When you reach them, set another goal. Continue to measure and continue to reap more benefits.

An ERP implementation is not easy. Just like surgery, there will be some “recovery” time. But that doesn’t mean your business stops during that recovery period. It just means you need to take extra care to insure a full recovery, with the result being a healthy business that is able to function better than ever.

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Zoho: The Pros and Cons of the “Full Stack” Approach

Are Control, Independence, Data Privacy (and more) worth the Cost?

Zoho is serious about software. If you go out to its website to learn more about the company and its products, one of the first statements you encounter is, “Software is our craft and our passion. At Zoho, we create beautiful software to solve business problems.” While this type of mission statement is certainly not unique in the world of enterprise applications, the approach Zoho takes, along with the results it has achieved, are just that: quite unique. And impressive.

And its customers will attest to that differentiation. If you speak to some of its (more than 50 million) users, you are struck by some of the terms you hear – terms like peace of mind, seamless, simplicity, certainty, powerful, predictability, and “It just works.”

The uninformed might assume this level of seamless simplicity comes from overly simplified, lightweight functionality. And they would be wrong. These descriptors are the direct result of Zoho taking a full stack approach. The Zoho philosophy: “To provide this seamless, superior customer experience, we need to own all core aspects of the technology stack.” That stack includes everything from the applications themselves, the services, and middleware software, to the hardware, infrastructure, network, and data centers.

This full stack approach comes at a time when most other native Software as a Service (SaaS) solution providers are choosing to leverage tools and technology from public cloud providers like Microsoft (Azure), Amazon (AWS) and Google, in order to focus their efforts on their core competency, which is the application itself. Some do create their own development platforms, while others turn to giants in the industry like Salesforce and its Force.com platform. They do organically develop new features, functions and new products. But they also plug gaps in functionality and expand into new markets through acquisition and partnerships. And in doing so, they also sacrifice a level of independence, control and sometimes performance and data privacy.

Zoho is unwilling to sacrifice any of this, and is also committed to providing seamless integration and a single, unified data model. But that comes at a price. There are no shortcuts. Zoho must develop everything itself. While this might appear to be a serious constraint, its solution stretches well beyond the usual boundaries of enterprise applications to include productivity tools like Mail (think Outlook), Sheet (think Excel), Show (think PowerPoint), Writer (think Word), Meeting Bridge (think Microsoft Teams or Zoom), and much more, totalling 47 apps today and growing. Plus it continually innovates its products, embedding new technologies like natural language processing (NLP) and artificial intelligence (AI). And it somehow manages to deliver an average of five new products a year.

Look for the full report coming soon!

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Innovation Fuels Acumatica’s Accelerated Growth

An Innovative Approach to Business, Coupled with Continual Product Innovation

Acumatica, a prominent provider of cloud Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software, has been calling itself “the world’s fastest-growing cloud ERP company” for several years now. But growth can be measured in many different ways – as an absolute or a percentage increase, measured by revenue, number of customers and/or employees, just to name a few. This opens the door to multiple competitors claiming that top spot of “fastest growing.” But as Acumatica shared some statistics at its recent Acumatica Summit 2020, it would appear that it is indeed moving away from the pack.

As a subsidiary of Swedish investment firm EQT Partners, Acumatica does not disclose revenue, but does share some numbers. License revenue from all deployment models grew 72% year over year. Acumatica signed on 1,300 in 2019, bringing the total to over 6,500. A year ago there were no user groups. Today there are nine. In 2019, 1,500 people attended the annual conference.  This year, over 2,500 were in attendance at Acumatica Summit 2020, with thousands more tuning into the live stream.

Given the growing acceptance of cloud and Software as a Service (SaaS) in recent years, Mint Jutras has been expecting (hoping) to see at least one of the native cloud solution providers enter a period of explosive growth. Thus far we have been disappointed, but now Acumatica appears to be doing just that. How has Acumatica been able to achieve what others have strived but failed to do? We see several factors combining synergistically to create a perfect storm to drive growth. The common theme across all these contributing factors is Acumatica’s ability to continually innovate, not just in terms of the product, but in terms of its own business model.

Click here to read the full report where we will look at how innovation fuels growth from both of these perspectives, starting with how Acumatica does business.

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Purposeful Innovation Helps Deltek Turn Challenges into Opportunity

Deltek is unique within the world of enterprise applications. Focused squarely on meeting the needs of project-driven businesses, on the one hand, it is like hundreds of other solution providers offering some flavor of project management software. On the other hand, it is unique in offering an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) designed specicially for projects-based businesses. Yes, other ERP vendors target similar industries and also offer complementary project management solutions, but no other vendor combines these two software categories quite like Deltek. In the realm of (just) project management, Deltek must face the challenge of differentiating itself in a highly fragmented market. But in creating a software category where only a single vendor qualifies, a different kind of challenge looms. Competitors bring validation.

While Deltek is laser-focused on project-based businesses, this “sector” also brings a tremendous level of diversity. Government contractors are starkly different than advertising, PR and marketing agencies. Architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) differs from legal, healthcare or management and IT consulting services. Energy, oil and gas is different than aerospace and defense. Operating a for-profit business is different than running a nonprofit. Some sectors are heavily regulated; others operate under few constraints. Some manage projects that last days or weeks and others span multiple years. And yet Deltek addresses the needs of all these different types of project-driven businesses – and does it very well.

A general-purpose kind of solution can’t do this effectively, and therefore over the years, through internal development and acquisition, Deltek has collected quite an array of products, leaving it with the added challenge of providing continued innovation across a broad portfolio. And yet it has proven over time its ability to leverage this portfolio to go beyond the traditional 80/20 rule of ERP to deliver last-mile functionality.

And of course, Deltek is confronted with some universal challenges all software companies face today. Technology is rapidly changing the way we do business. At the same time, the workforce is undergoing a generational shift and the access anytime, from anywhere, collaborative promise of the cloud is becoming a “must have.”

Can Deltek’s plans to leverage technology for “purposeful innovation” address these challenges and also unlock the potential for more opportunity for both Deltek itself and its customers? Let’s see.

The Challenge of Being “One of a Kind”

In today’s global, digital economy, competition is fierce and every company strives to differentiate itself. So at first glance, being the only software company competing for market share in a particular software category may appear to be a good thing. Yet while it does put that company in a position of strength, it never means winning business is a slam dunk. Every company has competition, and Deltek is no exception. On the plus side, Deltek recognizes this and never attempts to beat its chest and portray itself as truly “one of a kind.” But, the type of competition it faces will vary depending on what the prospect does and what it sets out to buy.

If a Deltek prospect, say a government contractor, is looking for ERP (think accounting, procurement, inventory, manufacturing, etc.), Deltek will face certain qualified ERP providers. The prospect may not even necessarily think, “I need to find an ERP solution to support my project-based business.” Instead it thinks, “I need a software solution to run my business.” And therefore, Deltek’s differentiation as ERP for project-driven businesses doesn’t necessarily narrow the field of competition at the outset. The door is open for any or all ERP competitors. It then falls on the Deltek sales team to educate the prospect on the differentiating features for a project-based government contractor. When that effort is successful, then the tables are turned and that “one of a kind” status will serve to eliminate the other contenders.

But if the prospect, say a professional services organization, is simply looking for a better way to schedule projects, Deltek has moved away from the “one of a kind” challenge. Here it faces a whole different set of potential competitors in the category of project scheduling software. And this field is  highly fragmented, with offerings that range from simple desktop solutions to robust, multi-faceted solutions for budgeting, project accounting, scheduling, risk management and analytics.

Here oftentimes the issue is the age-old debate between a suite-based solution or a “Best of Breed,” and this debate has been hotly contested for just as long. An integrated suite that provides a complete end-to-end solution (including project management) on which to run your business has been the holy grail of the ERP world for decades. For project-based businesses, this is the premise behind Deltek’s ERP. But if the prospect is just looking for something to help them manage the projects themselves, putting a full ERP solution in front of them will appear as overkill.

To better determine where we stand today in this debate, we asked survey participants in our 2019 Mint Jutras 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. Figure 1 paints an interesting picture, made even more interesting in the context of project management.

Figure 1: Which approach is most appealing to you?

Source: Mint Jutras 2019 Enterprise Solution Study

Over time the pendulum has swung back and forth between preferences for the two choices, predicated primarily on two factors. When the debate first emerged, the proponents of an integrated suite pointed to the ease of integration. If you used the functionality built into your ERP, there was no added cost or effort in integrating multiple applications. But the “Best of Breed” camp reasoned against this approach, using the “depth or breadth” argument. They implied integrated suites were a mile wide, but an inch deep, pointing out that the functionality built in was lighter and less feature-rich and definitely not “best of breed.” This is the exact assumption Deltek disproves with its project-based ERP.

And yet, Figure 1 shows the Best of Breed approach is favored over the full suite 2:1. There are actually some very good explanations for this preference amongst project-driven businesses.

Take, for example, a small professional services firm with 10 to 20 consultants. This type of small business may think it is too small for ERP. While Mint Jutras would disagree, we do recognize many might be adequately served by solutions like QuickBooks or desktop or cloud-based simple accounting systems. Yet projects are the lifeblood of their businesses and therefore they need robust tools to schedule and manage those projects.

At the opposite end of the spectrum you might also have large enterprises that have invested heavily in a corporate ERP system chosen for its depth and breadth of administrative and financial capabilities. Many of these corporate ERP solutions lack the operational capabilities required to help the business function efficiently. And therefore, divisions or entire corporations turn to Best of Breed solutions to better manage projects. Deltek not only has that base covered, but also makes it easy to integrate back to any ERP.

Deltek’s broad portfolio of products helps it turn the challenge of being “one of a kind” into a strength. Rather than attempting to serve the varied needs of a very diverse market with a single general purpose, horizontal solution, it offers several different suites targeting the needs of different verticals, as well as a more “best of breed” project and portfolio management solution. But the breadth of its product portfolio comes with its own set of challenges.

The Challenge of Last Mile Functionality in a Diverse Market

The ERP market has long been dominated by the 80/20 rule. With few exceptions, most early solution providers cast a wide net. Unwilling to turn any potential business away without a try, they came to market with very broad solutions. By trying to please everyone, they never had a complete solution for anyone. The 80-20 rule prevailed. Nobody expected a solution to satisfy all their needs (an 80% fit was often the goal), resulting in complexity, as well as invasive (and sometimes expensive) customizations that built barriers to further innovation.

Deltek has been unique in never succumbing to this 80/20 rule, choosing instead to acquire and develop purpose-built solutions that address the needs of specific industries, including what many view as the elusive “last mile functionality.” Its latest acquisition of ComputerEase is yet another example of this pursuit. ComputerEase is the recognized standard in construction accounting, project management, and field management software for contractors. 

Earlier in the year, Deltek acquired Avitru to bolster its Specification Solutions with a library of master specifications (MasterSpec®), specification writing software and professional and spec-writing services. These are just two examples of how Deltek delivers true last mile functionality to the AEC industry.

While these requirements are very unique to AEC, even functional areas that might seem quite generic to other businesses have some unique characteristics across different project-based businesses. Procurement for government contracts differs (a lot) from procurement in residential or industrial AEC sectors, and these differences carry over into accounts payable , otherwise typically a pretty generic function.

But as different as these businesses are from each other, they always share some common requirements.  General ledger is general ledger, even though projects may carry into the chart of accounts. Cash collection is cash collection. Currency conversion, tax rates and multi-company consolidations are applied universally.

Both of the acquisitions above are examples of how Deltek extends the functionality of its core solutions, rather than embedding features through invasive code changes. Yet the types of (potentially shared) services are typically built into the core solution, rather than included as extensions.

Embedding core functionality is reflective of how ERP has traditionally been built, and Deltek ERP solutions are no exception here. Early ERP solutions were monolithic structures. They were likely comprised of modules (e.g. general ledger, accounts payable, inventory management, purchasing, order management, etc.) and certainly some were optional, but none of these could stand alone. All modules shared a common database and all were developed using the same tools and technology. The good news: they all moved forward in lock step, data redundancy was eliminated along with any need for separate integration efforts. But this approach makes it hard for different solutions to share commonly required features and functions and means Deltek must develop the same or similar functionality within several different software suites.

Disruption: A Contributing Factor

This wasn’t too much of problem when requirements for this type of core functionality were quite stable. That is no longer the case. We live in disruptive times. The pace of change and the pace of technology innovation has accelerated beyond anyone’s expectations and it doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.

We asked our 2018 Mint Jutras Enterprise Solution Study participants to assess the level of risk their industries faced in terms of the potential for disruption.

Figure 2: What risk do you face in your industry being disrupted?

Source: 2018 Mint Jutras Enterprise Solution Study

While all but 10% acknowledged some level of risk, the majority (84%) feel the risk is low to medium rather than high or imminent. Yet we feel compelled to ask the question: How do you think the taxi industry would have answered this question on the eve of the launch of Uber? Nobody saw that disruption coming and therefore few (if any) were adequately prepared.

This type of disruption is unlike the disruption of the past that was largely due to new innovative products. Not only can it bring change almost overnight, but it can fundamentally change the way we do business. That kind of change has a cascading impact on the core requirements of ERP.

Technology Helps

Fortunately, today technology exists that can help companies like Deltek to address new or changed common requirements once and apply that solution across different solutions. This kind of technology is foundational.

While early ERP solutions were rigid, monolithic structures, today’s modern solutions are more component-based, also referred to as microservices architectures. Every technologist in our audience knows a microservice 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.

With this type of architecture, enhancements, customizations and extensions can be built and consumed much more quickly, and companies like Deltek can develop functionality once and deploy it across multiple products. Not all of Deltek’s solutions today are there yet, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be refactored to take advantage of this kind of technology, and in fact its Vantagepoint product already does.

This noninvasive approach was instrumental in bringing a new, modern user interface, Deltek iAccess, to all its applications. While each Deltek customer will likely be running only one of Deltek’s ERP solutions, Deltek has been delivering more and more functionality via cloud-based add-ons, including Deltek CRM, Deltek Resource Planning and Deltek Talent Management. With iAccess providing that front end across all products, users experience a consistent look and feel throughout, making the integration appear seamless. Mint Jutras expects that this kind of approach will eventually be used to bring change and new innovation to the different cores as well.

In the meantime, iAccess is also a step in the right direction to address another challenge – that of the generational shift in today’s workforce.

The Challenge of A Generational Shift

This generational shift is a given today. Baby Boomers are retiring at an accelerating rate, passing the torch primarily (but not exclusively) to Generation X. But it is not the Gen Xers as much as the Millennials that are creating demand for access to data from anywhere, from any device, with a new and improved user experience. This generation never knew a world without the Internet, smart phones and on-demand access to technology. They never used software that came with (or needed) a user manual. And they are more transient. Employees don’t come to a company and stay forever or even for a long time. As more Baby Boomers retire, the tribal knowledge they have accumulated over decades goes out the door with them, contributing to a skills shortage.

Many of the younger generation have developed a dependency on technology. Without decades of experience, they have come to rely on it to guide them through business processes. At the same time, we’re all asked to do more, and we’d love to accomplish this without working longer hours and making sacrifices. Never before has the home/work life balance been more top of mind.

New intuitive user interfaces, like iAccess, are certainly a giant leap in the right direction. But this is just a start. Deltek is also taking two other, equally important steps through adding automation and intelligence.

Robotic Process Automation for the Mundane

Have you ever secretly wished for a personal assistant who could relieve you of the burden of repetitive, mundane and time-consuming tasks that really don’t require the kind of smarts or skills you hope you bring to your job? If you are a Baby Boomer who launched your career in a business setting back in the 1970’s, you probably had access to the services of a secretary or an administrative assistant. After all, you couldn’t survive without one to help navigate the administrative nightmare of a generation that was completely dependent on paper and manual processes. Today technology has made us far more self-sufficient, but we’re also expected to get more done – a lot more. While nobody misses those golden olden days, everyone from every generation sure could use some help today.

Often called “bots,” Robotic Process Automation (RPA) can in fact relieve employees of repetitive, mundane and time-consuming tasks. RPA is part user interface, making use of natural language processing (think Siri or Alexa for the enterprise) and part artificial intelligence (AI) to help people automate and complete repetitive tasks in a fraction of the time it has always taken, without introducing the occasional (but inevitable) human error. Adding bots to your workforce can boost productivity, thereby helping humans get more of the “real” work done. It sure would be nice if Deltek customers could say, “Hey Deltek! Help me out.”

And so…Deltek is partnering with Alirrium, an authorized reseller of UiPath, a leading Robotic Process Automation software provider, to offer Deltek customers RPA for automating processes within and across Deltek solutions, as well as between Deltek and third party applications.

In addition to natural language processing (NLP) for voice communication, it will also use optical character recognition (OCR) and in the future, combine it with machine learning (ML) in order to turn OCR into ICR or intelligent character recognition. For example, if you take a picture of your receipt, that added intelligence can distinguish a receipt for a meal from a parking receipt. In many of the industries served by Deltek even time and expense reporting is compliance driven. Deltek’s goal therefore is to make it easy by combining mobile, OCR, machine learning and GEO location tracking to not only improve efficiency and assure compliance, but also add a level of intelligence.

Building the Company Brain

While automation is a necessary step in making companies and people more efficient and productive today, it is really just the first step in a longer journey. As noted above, Deltek’s innovation strategy also includes adding intelligence to both processes and decision-making. Deltek views this journey as an evolution of the company brain.

Project-based companies today are awash with data from operations, customers, projects, the workforce… The question is: What to do with all this data. The possibilities are endless to augment human decision-making, making it more predictive with AI and ML. Whether they realize it or not, everyone makes decisions constantly that involve prediction:

  • What is the probably of winning a deal?
  • Is this prospect a good fit?
  • What is the probability of project success?
  • What will be the schedule outcome?
  • Will a vendor deliver on time?
  • What makes an employee a “good employee”?
  • Who should we hire next?
  • How can we improve days sales outstanding (DSO) and cashflow?

In order to make the best decisions, with the most predictable outcome, we consciously or perhaps unconsciously look for patterns in data to determine what makes projects, teams and resources successful.  But the human brain is limited in how much it can examine, absorb and analyze. AI and ML know no such limitations and can operate at speeds that can only be described as super-human. This is power Deltek is looking to leverage.

An early example of this is its recently launched Acumen Touchstone , the first product in the next generation of Deltek’s Project and Portfolio Management (PPM) tools and a key step towards its Project Intelligence Cloud (PIC). According to Deltek:

“The Project Intelligence Cloud is a technology refresh designed to solidify Deltek as the industry leader in the PPM space. This web-based technology will ultimately have many functions designed for project-based business, including cost, schedule and risk management, analytics and workflow.”

The immediate benefit of Deltek Acumen Touchstone is in its time-saving capabilities, automating the project schedule process. Schedule submissions are analyzed using schedule diagnostic AI for quality and deliverability. If it does not meet the required standard, the submitter is automatically emailed a report showing the metric score and deficiencies to be corrected.

This is the kind of purposeful innovation that not only helps Deltek overcome its own challenges, but also assists customers in seizing opportunity.

Wrap Up

In the world of project-driven business, Deltek is both unique and one of many. As a pure play project management solution provider, it must differentiate itself in a fragmented market. It does so through its depth and breadth.

But if you are looking for an ERP solution provider that focuses exclusively on project-based business, there is only one: Deltek. Yes, other ERP vendors target similar industries and also offer complementary project management solutions, but no other vendor combines these two software categories quite like Deltek.

However, the market in which Deltek competes is far from uniform. Government contracting, AEC, A&D, professional services, management consulting, legal, healthcare, creative agencies, energy, oil and gas are all very different from one another. A one size fits all solution simply doesn’t work. Deltek’s broad portfolio of products helps it turn this challenge into a strength. Rather than attempting to serve the varied needs of a very diverse market with a single general purpose, horizontal solution, it offers several different suites targeting the needs of different verticals.

This too presents its own set of challenges, but advanced technologies like microservices architecture, cloud-based computing and all the various forms of AI are the key to turning those challenges into real opportunity. But leveraging technology for technology sake is not the answer. Purposeful innovation that effectively leverages technology to produce real, tangible value is Deltek’s answer. But this is a long and evolutionary process – one that we will be watching closely, not necessarily from afar, but from the outside. If you are a project-based business, you might want to consider watching from inside the fold.

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Plex Systems Delivers Flexible Manufacturing Execution Suite

Available Stand-Alone or Fully Embedded within Plex ERP

Late last year (November 2019), Plex Systems announced its manufacturing operations capabilities were available as a best-of-breed, shop floor-specific offering called the Plex Manufacturing Execution Suite (Plex MES). This cloud-based suite is designed to satisfy a full spectrum of manufacturing needs from MES to manufacturing operations management (MOM). While MES capabilities are not new to the Plex solution, this is a departure from the past when those capabilities were always deeply embedded within its Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) suite. Plex MES can now stand alone, alongside any ERP.

Since 2001, Plex Systems has been dedicated to serving the needs of manufacturers (originally targeting small to mid-size companies and more recently serving larger enterprise organizations), not only in the back offices, but also deep down into the shop floor. Its solution reaches well beyond the typical features and functions of ERP and includes strength in quality, inventory and production management. In the past, some industry observers and competitors made the assumption that many Plex customers simply used Plex as a point solution. That assumption was (and is) just plain wrong.

A good representative sample of Plex customers has been participating in my annual Enterprise Solution Studies for many years. Over the years I have collected data on completeness of solution and employee engagement. Year after year, Plex customers tend to purchase and deploy a more complete solution than the typical manufacturer, and the percentage of employees that use the Plex Manufacturing Cloud (ERP) on a regular basis far exceeds the norm – the average over the past five years was 77%.

That begs the question: If Plex has been successful providing a complete suite, why carve MES out now? Does this reflect a change in philosophy or purpose? I don’t believe so. I think it is more reflective of the changing times and the needs of today’s global, digital economy. For those prospects that fit the profile of a current Plex customer, I don’t think a lot will change. They will continue to reap the rewards of a complete solution. But it allows Plex to satisfy the needs of more manufacturers now, not just when (and if) they ever get around to replacing underperforming ERP solutions. And who knows… perhaps a little (or a lot) of added value might just provide enough incentive to get rid of those old solutions that might be holding them back.

Changing Times

What kinds of changes are we talking about? First, the Internet has changed the world. It has leveled the playing field, bringing unprecedented opportunity to all manufacturers, but it has also significantly increased the risk of disruption and the need for speed. The accelerating pace of business only serves to increase the need for visibility. And yet, even today, the shop floor remains a black hole. While basic capabilities of ERP help with planning production and procuring materials, once material is issued to the shop floor, visibility is  quite often lost.

Larger companies struggle with this when their corporate ERP solutions, chosen for their financial capabilities (think multi-company consolidation), can’t adequately support their (manufacturing) operations. Small to mid-size manufacturers are often saddled with legacy solutions that might have once been “state of the art,” but now simply don’t have the technology needed to provide the connectivity and agility required. Can you significantly improve all of the above, but especially this visibility, without a wholesale replacement of ERP?

The answer is yes, and Plex MES is one way to do it. But is the market ready? To answer this question, 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, but Plex is also changing with the times.

To get a better sense of preferences today, we asked the survey participants in our 2019 Enterprise Solution Study to denote their preference for 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. Best of Breed was preferred more than 2 to 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

We combined these results with follow up discussions with many manufacturing companies. While most are interested in a fully integrated, fully functional solution, they also want the freedom and flexibility to implement incrementally, in their own determined sequence. They want the ability to attack their most pressing needs, without creating a nightmare of disparate and disconnected solutions. In other words, they want to have their cake and eat it too.

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 ERP 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 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 represents the first fruit of that labor.

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 has already successfully de-coupled MES, but with an eye on integration capabilities. Importing of data and/or access to data from external systems is designed into the architecture. Plus, it is delivering value through other associated technologies, starting with the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).

Plex’s customers aren’t asking Plex to “decompose” its full suite, but enterprise customers that operate Plex in some of their divisions, while also running other “corporate” solutions such as SAP and Workday, see the benefit of being able to insert (Plex’s) MES in other divisions not currently running Plex.

Other Plex prospects 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. Offering MES as a stand-alone solution falls into this latter category, allowing those running on legacy solutions to take an incremental step into the cloud, perhaps leaving on-premise ERP in place (for now).

Summary and Conclusion

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. If you are a small to mid-size manufacturer today, or perhaps an operating division of a large corporate enterprise and you don’t have the operational visibility you want or need to compete effectively today, Plex MES may just be your ticket to a whole new view. And it also may be a good first step in becoming a connected and agile manufacturer.

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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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