Unit4 Lines Up Vertically: Higher Education Setting An Example

Unit4’s specialty has long been people-centric organizations. In fact its tag line today is, “In business for people.” These people-centric organizations not only include service-oriented commercial businesses, but also non-profits, higher education, governments and other public services. While some might call this people centricity a “vertical” focus, in fact Unit4’s Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) solution (although Unit4 prefers the term SRP for Services Resource Planning) has quite broad appeal. You might even call it more of a horizontal play across the services industries. But that is now changing.

In the past Unit4 built its strategy and its messaging around its VITA architecture’s ability to easily accommodate change. It was indeed a very broad (horizontal?) message targeting businesses living in change (BLINC). BLINC became Unit4’s mantra and in some ways, it is even more relevant today than when the acronym was first crafted. Every type of business and organization not only faces change today, but at an accelerating pace. And while change has always been hard to manage, today it can be dangerously so, especially when that change is disruptive.

After watching Uber disrupt the taxi industry, Netflix and iTunes disrupt entertainment and Airbnb disrupt hospitality, today we live in a world where nobody can predict which segment will be disrupted next. Our 2016 Mint Jutras Enterprise Solution Study asked participants to rate the risk of their industry being disrupted (Figure 1).

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

Unit4 fig 1Source: Mint Jutras 2016 Enterprise Solution Study

Few feel they are exempt from any risk. This disruption might come from new product introductions (26%), new ways of selling/pricing existing products (29%), entirely new business models (12%) or some combination of the above (33%).

But in spite of the continued relevance of managing change, there comes a time when old messaging has to make way for new. The next new message from Unit4 was its concept of “self-driving ERP”. Self-driving ERP is all about making ERP a productivity driver rather than a productivity killer. It’s about automating low value tasks, so that high value individuals can combine the right skills and knowledge with the right information to produce better outcomes.

This is a great goal and Unit4 is well on its way to delivering on its promises, particularly with its recently announced Digital Assistant and Business World On!. But self-driving ERP is still a rather broad, horizontal message that can be applied to a plethora of industries and circumstances. So in taking a more verticalized strategy, is Unit4 abandoning prior strategies around BLINC and self-driving ERP? Absolutely not. Think of it more as a refinement of strategy.

Service-oriented businesses and people-centric organizations have a lot in common, but there are also some very clear and distinct differences within this general category. As with any type of organization, each is a bit different, but some are more different than the rest. Over the years, in focusing attention on a service orientation (as opposed to product-centric businesses), Unit4 has been building on those similarities. Now it is time to accentuate the unique elements that distinguish higher education from non-profits, professional service organizations from public service providers (including governments), healthcare from real estate, just to name a few. Each of these people-centric organizations has its own unique requirements.

In combination with this, Unit4’s new tag line is “in business for people.” Given its focus on people-centric organizations, at first glance this doesn’t appear to be anything new. But Unit4 is adding a new dimension to the “people” part. Ordinarily ERP is for the people running the business or the organization. Take higher education as an example. Yes Unit4 is in education to help the people running the college or university (the administration). But it is also in education for the students. And it is in education for the alumni. And for the donors and benefactors. And the professors. And for all that, you need more than your typical ERP with a service orientation.

If you are in education for (all of the) people, you need a student management system. This is definitely not your typical core ERP module. It is an application that helps students enroll in the right courses for their degree programs. It’s an application that supports student recruitment and entrance applications. It helps manage tuition payments, student loans and more.

Then again, if you are in education for professors, you also need to help manage research efforts, from the feasibility study and due diligence to proposal development and financial planning to project planning, management and completion. Plus you need to manage assets and facilities on campus and probably the occasional special project. And of course you still need ERP for financials, procurement, HR and payroll.

Unit4 provides all of this, but not all in a single giant monolithic ERP solution. Let’s face it: Most other service-oriented organizations don’t need student management. You don’t want to overburden other types of customers with features and functions they will never use. So Unit4 packages up student management separately. Yes, it is integrated to ERP where appropriate. After all, tuition bills create accounts receivables and payments impact cash management, the income statement and balance sheet.

But Unit4’s student management application can also run stand-alone. This is actually more important than you might think. Providing a full verticalized solution for any industry today is a delicate balancing act for both solution providers and those consuming those solutions. Theoretically you would like a single integrated solution to meet all the needs of your organization. But the urgency of satisfying different needs varies across different functions within the organization, and so does the readiness of different departments. Maybe whatever you are using to manage your back office is “good enough”, at least for now. But you are in desperate need to better manage student services. You don’t want to have to wait until finance is ready before you provide online enrollment to courses.

This is exactly the type of requirement that has blazed the trail towards loosely coupled versus tightly integrated ERP solutions. A tightly integrated solution shares a common set of data, is developed under a common development environment and all moves forward in lock step. That is both good news and bad news for organizations. The good news is obvious: integration is inherent, no redundancy or duplication of data that needs to be synchronized, etc. But the fact that all the different parts of the organization must move forward together often slows the process and builds barriers to consuming new features.

Tightly integrated can be bad news for the solution provider as well. Development efforts across a a wide footprint needs to be tightly orchestrated and packaged together. A feature that is completed in March might not be delivered until December. And in order to satisfy a specific need (like student management), an entire integrated solution must be ripped out and replaced. When an organization is not quite ready for that, the vendor loses the deal either to no decision or because a competitor’s solution can stand alone.

The solution to this dilemma is loosely coupling the different functions so they might move forward separately, without losing the integration. By offering specialty functions like student management as (also) stand-alone solutions, the vendor is able to satisfy the urgent need without disrupting the entire organization. But the best of both worlds is to offer the add-on functionality that can stand alone, but also be fully integrated with a complete back-end ERP – now or later.

This is Unit4’s strategy. Higher Education is leading the way in execution, largely because of the acquisition a year ago of Three Rivers Systems and its Comprehensive Academic Management System (CAMS). Unit4’s current installed base of customers in higher education is a mix of those originally sold by Unit4 (prior to the acquisition) and those brought to the party by Three Rivers. In fact the latter represents the lion’s share of customers in this segment in North America. While all of the original Unit4 customers run its ERP and about 75% also run a version of student management authored by Unit4, all (100%) of the prior Three Rivers customers run student management, but run a mix of ERP solutions, including Unit4’s. In the future, the combined company will lead with student management in this segment, but expect to pull an ERP system along in about 50% of deals. In order for this to work, student management and ERP must be separate, but (optionally and seamlessly) integrated.

Looking to the future, I expect to see Unit4 replicating this strategy in other people-centric segments, starting with Professional Services organizations (watch for functionality to support contingent workforces), followed by not-for-profits (building on strengths in grants and research management) and then governments and public services. But I also see Unit4 diving deeper into what you might call sub or micro-verticals. Community colleges are a big market for Unit4 today, but the recruitment process for a private university like Harvard Law School (also a Unit4 customer) is just one aspect that is entirely different.

In order for Unit4 to successfully execute on this vertical strategy it will need to aggressively leverage all the work it has done previously. The same architectural principles that helped businesses living in change navigate through changing business conditions should help those same customers weather the potential storm of looming disruption. And if Unit4’s self-driving ERP can relieve them of some of the burden of the mundane, they stand a far better chance of deciding on the right (next) destination and how best to get there… either incrementally or all at once.

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Top 10 Quotes from NetSuite’s SuiteWorld 2016

It has been an extraordinarily busy spring conference season. I personally attended 10 events over the past eight weeks and missed a few more because of scheduling conflicts. Of all those I attended, I think NetSuite’s gets the prize for the best sound bites produced in an event. Here are my top 10 favorite quotes from SuiteWorld 2016.

“I love the smell of GL systems in the morning.”

Not. Of course this was said tongue in cheek by Zach Nelson, CEO, and was actually a veiled reference to the context of the next quote. Zach (somewhat proudly) noted that Gartner’s ranking of NetSuite’s Financial Management System (FMS) had progressed from #8 in 2014 to #6 in 2015.

“We didn’t set out to build a Financial Management System (FMS). Our goal was to build a system to run the business.”

Actually NetSuite originally started with three goals: to build an end-to-end system, deliver it only over the cloud, and include ecommerce natively. Of course, in order to deliver an end-to-end solution, it needed a back office accounting solution, but that was just one piece of the puzzle, not the end game. Through the years they were tempted to put servers on premise, especially in the early days before Software as a Service (SaaS) had come into its own. But they resisted. And they made sure even the early solution had a web store.

“We spent $1 billion so you didn’t have to.”

Continuing on the theme of including eCommerce, Zach touted the speed of Suite Commerce, giving some statistics on how it outperforms other leading sites. In a follow-on to Zach’s opening keynote, CTO Evan Goldberg (also one of the original NetSuite founders) noted they had delivered a 33% faster sales order save and 40% faster Suitecommerce advanced page load time. Obviously there is a cost associated with delivering speed and performance, but not a cost that comes directly out of NetSuite customers’ pockets.

“Security bugs? We find ‘em; we fix ‘em. The next morning, all are running with the appropriate patches.”

The reference to security bugs was in the context of a security bug, purportedly reported to and fixed by rival SAP three years ago. Yet some customers had yet to apply the patch and were therefore still vulnerable. My tweet with this quote sparked a bit of a push back from someone coming to SAP’s defense:

This was an SAP API fix that broke ISV integrations if applied, hence SAP made optional. Cloud companies have similar probs

To which I responded: would venture to say in a #SaaS environment, problems don’t linger 3+ years

His response: API fix is a little different, SAP gave customers option because fix could break ISV integrations – it was a useful defect

“Useful defect?” Is there really such a thing? And have we really become so inured to fixes of any kind “breaking” integrations? I hope not.

But the real point here is the value of a multi-tenant SaaS environment. First of all, the customer is relieved of the burden of applying patches. The SaaS vendor pushes them out in (hopefully) a timely manner. And with only a single line of code to maintain, more innovation should come along faster.

The other implied benefit is the value of a platform that allows partners and customers to customize and extend the code without fear of it breaking when fixes and enhancements are delivered.

“Customization is not a dirty word at NetSuite.”

The caveat to this is obviously… as long as you can upgrade. NetSuite customers are all running the same code, yet all are a little different. One of the unique features of NetSuite’s platform (unique for a SaaS-only solution anyway) is the ability to make even complex changes to the data model with no negative impact. This feature is becoming more and more popular among NetSuite’s customers. Within the last year, the ability to add custom fields went from the 5th most used feature to number 1. This actually comes as no surprise to me. My 2016 Enterprise Solution Study asked survey participants what type of customization they required. Fifty-seven percent (57%) selected user-defined fields. Only custom and ad hoc reporting were more widely selected (63% and 62% respectively).

In fact much of the “customization” that is typically required by NetSuite customers does not require you to muck around in code at all. Much can be done through tailoring and configuring, or personalizing screens. But let’s say you want to develop a whole new function that is either very industry-specific or helps you differentiate your individual business. NetSuite does provide development tools for this, including SuiteScript. Per NetSuite: SuiteScript is a JavaScript-based scripting solution for sophisticated coding and debugging within NetSuite that enables developers to build new applications, processes and business rules.”

In addition, a beta version of SuiteCloud Development Framework has recently been released after a multi-year effort. This framework includes all the tools for coding that you know and love, now with team development collaboration, richer code completion, version control, change and dependence management (i.e. discover what code might break if you make this change).

“SuiteScript allows you to do anything your wife wants you to do.”

This quote came from Evan Goldberg, one of the original NetSuite founders. When not performing his duties as NetSuite’s chief technologist, his alter-ego manages his wife’s ecommerce site, which she happens to run on NetSuite SuiteCommerce. The new release of the NetSuite Development Tools has had a profound impact on all developers, including Evan and his alter-ego as both took the stage. While it was quite hard to decipher everything going on (the font was way too small for my eyes, and I haven’t written code in almost 4 decades), it was clear the new code created for Mrs. Goldberg’s web storefront was a lot shorter and faster..

“Our goal is to stay out of your way [to innovate] in your business.”

While first spoken by Evan, this phrase proved to be thematic, popping up in other keynotes and sessions as well. Revamped developer tools were just the beginning. What the NetSuite development team has accomplished with the tools is equally important, if not more so. Among the new features and enhancements were many in the finance area, a new SuiteBilling module, complete with support for new revenue recognition rules for ACS 606 and IFRS 15, and “intelligent” order management. NetSuite places the dual goals of streamlining the development process and customers’ business processes on equal footing.

Disruption caused by today’s digital economy makes digital transformation compelling and the need for agility crucial. Traditionally ERP solutions were more likely to hold you back than to enable transformation. Can NetSuite be an enabler? They can certainly try. And trying is even more important than ever as business complexity increases.

“In the cloud economy everything gets more complex.”

Actually I would say it is the digital economy that makes things more complex. Perhaps in this quote, “the cloud economy” was meant to be synonymous with “the digital economy.” Indeed, it is hard to have a digital economy without the cloud. But I think there is a subtle difference. Cloud is an enabler in helping us participate in the digital economy, both as consumers as well as enterprises. On the one hand, the cloud has made our personal lives simpler. We can order dinner, entertainment, or a taxi ride online. We can shop online and have goods delivered right to our doors. But we can also still shop in a store. Or we can order online and pick up the goods in a store. This is the very definition of “omnichannel.” As we simplify our personal consumer experience, we complicate matters for the enterprise.

“Hybrid business models are the new black.”

Can one system handle all these different ways of conducting business? Certainly traditional ERP solutions made this difficult. They either catered to a retail/cash sale environment or an order-to-pay environment. But today blended environments are becoming more and more common. Many try to accomplish this with different systems. But when these systems don’t talk to each other the customer experience suffers.

But this isn’t the only example of a hybrid business model. We are rapidly entering a subscription-based economy. The software industry led the charge here. Enterprises and consumers alike used to license software and bring it on premise. While this didn’t really mean they “owned” it, as they might own a pair of shoes, in some ways they did own a copy of it. Today, these same software companies are much more likely to sell a subscription to the software.

Now even companies that sell and ship physical products are likely to sell a subscription either along with the product, or instead of it. Consider the water filter company that ships you a device that filters your water for free and then invoices you monthly based on how much water you filter. After a certain period of time, the filter needs to be changed and they charge you when they ship you a new one. Chances are you don’t own the DVR in your home. Your cable provider does. You simply pay for the cable service as a subscription.

More and more companies must invoice based a hybrid business model, invoicing for some combination of product, services or “as a service.”

“If you can sell it, we can bill it (and recognize it.)”

NetSuite’s SuiteBilling module not only supports all these different invoicing methods, but it can also combine them all on a single invoice. While this sounds simple, trust me, there are many solutions out there today that will struggle with supporting all these different billing methods at all, even without trying to combine them on a single order and then a single invoice. I applaud NetSuite for rejecting the option of trying to optimize for the intersection. Instead NetSuite chose to but have to optimize for each and make it easy to combine them.

And because many of these new ways of billing have a signed or at least implied contract, there won’t be too many companies that are not going to be impacted by the convergence of ACS 606 and IFRS 15 (Accounting Standards Update (ASU) 2014-9, Revenue from Contracts with Customers (Topic 606 and the International Accounting Standards Board (IASB) International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) 15, Revenue from Contracts with Customers.)

These converged standards for revenue recognition go into effect the beginning of 2018 for public entities, and in 2019 for privately held organizations, bringing very significant changes to financial statements and reporting for any company doing business under customer contracts. While revenue recognition, including expense and revenue amortization and allocation, has never been simple, with these changes, it is about to get harder – at least for a while.

Why? First of all, while you can prepare for the change, you can’t jump the gun. You can’t recognize revenue based on the new rules until those new rules go into effect in 2018. At that point public entities must report under the new guidance and private companies can, but they have an additional year before they are required to do so. So any public entity better be ready to flip the switch, so to speak. But flipping the switch doesn’t only mean recognizing revenue in a new way. For any contract with outstanding, unfulfilled obligations, you also have to go back and restate the revenue for prior periods under the new rules. And for some period of time, you will need to do dual reporting: old and new. In addition, when contracts change, this can potentially have an impact on revenue previously recognized, including reallocation and amortization of revenue and expenses.

NetSuite has been working on this for quite awhile, starting with the support for multiple sets of books, which is how it will accommodate the dual reporting. It is not too early to be planning for this change and using multiple sets of books, you can be looking at how the revenue will be recognized in the future. I have seen some of these before and after revenue reports and the changes are not particularly intuitive. Best to understand what is coming or your revenue predictions for 2018 are going to way out of whack.

Bonus Quotes

While those were my top 10 favorites coming out of SuiteWorld 2016, there were a couple more that you might find interesting:

“Luck should not be a business strategy”

No further explanation required. Real “luck” is a combination of careful planning and hard work.

“The Cloud is the last computing architecture, the last business architecture.”

Sorry Zach, I just can’t agree with this one. I am sure some will immediately think of the famous quote: “Everything that can be invented has been invented.” While some give credit to Charles H. Duell, the Commissioner of US patent office in 1899, others point to a more contemporary source, a book published in 1981 titled “The Book of Facts and Fallacies” by Chris Morgan and David Langford. Either way, whoever said it, was wrong. Maybe Zach is right, but personally whatever the last computing or business architecture will be, I’m pretty sure nobody has even thought of it yet.

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ACS 606 and IFRS 15 Revenue Recognition Rules Are Coming

Are You Prepared? Intacct Has You Covered.

In May 2014, FASB issued Accounting Standards Update (ASU) 2014-9, Revenue from Contracts with Customers (Topic 606). At the same time the International Accounting Standards Board (IASB) also issued International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) 15, Revenue from Contracts with Customers. In doing so, these two governing bodies largely achieved convergence, with some very minor discrepancies. These converged standards for revenue recognition go into effect the beginning of 2018 for public entities, and in 2019 for privately held organizations, bringing very significant changes to financial statements and reporting for any company doing business under customer contracts. And of course with these changes come new audit challenges.

“The core principle is that an entity should recognize revenue to depict the transfer of goods or services to customers in an amount that reflects the consideration to which the entity expects to be entitled in exchange for those goods or services.”

Source: FASB ASC 606-10-5-3 and 606-10-10-2 through 10-4

As a result of these changes, revenue is no longer recognized on cash receipt, but instead on the delivery of performance obligations. In summary, there are 5 steps:

  1. Identify the contract with the customer
  2. Identify the performance obligations in the contract
  3. Determine the transaction price for the contract
  4. Allocate the transaction price to the performance obligations
  5. Recognize revenue when or as the entity satisfies the performance obligation

Sounds simple enough, right? Not really. Unless your business is dead simple and you operate on a completely cash basis, the process of billing, accounting for and forecasting revenue, in conjunction with expense and revenue amortization and allocation has never been simple. But with these changes, it is about to get harder – at least for a while.

Why? First of all, while you can prepare for the change, you can’t jump the gun. You can’t recognize revenue based on the new rules until those new rules go into effect in 2018. At that point public entities must report under the new guidance and private companies can, but they have an additional year before they are required to do so. So any public entity better be ready to flip the switch, so to speak. But flipping the switch doesn’t only mean recognizing revenue in a new way. For any contract with outstanding, unfulfilled obligations, you also have to go back and restate the revenue for prior periods under the new rules. And for a period of time, you will need to do dual reporting: old and new. In addition, when contracts change, this can potentially have an impact on revenue previously recognized, including reallocation and amortization of revenue and expenses.

If you are managing billing, accounting and/or revenue forecasting with spreadsheets today… good luck. If you are an Intacct customer, luck is on your side. Earlier this week Intacct announced a new Contract and Revenue Management module. Intacct claims it is the first solution to fully automate the new complexities created by ASC 606 and IFRS 15. They are certainly not the only company working on it. In fact QAD (which targets a completely different market: the world of manufacturing) highlighted its efforts in its own event in Chicago recently. But I have to say, Intacct seems to be right out front leading the charge in helping companies deal with what is sure to be a complex and potentially disruptive transition.

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QAD Channel Islands: Multiple Stops on the Journey to the Effective Enterprise

QAD defines the Effective Enterprise as one “where business processes are operating at peak efficiency and perfectly aligned with strategic goals.” Yet given the ever-accelerating pace of change in our world today, QAD also recognizes that the Effective Enterprise is more of a journey than a destination. The journey is one of continuous improvement and carefully balanced objectives.

The same could be said for the software that runs the business. Which is why its “Channel Islands” initiative is divided into milestones that have QAD (figuratively) hopping from one island to the next. A year ago it released Anacapa and this year Santa Cruz is ready for early adopters. Next year, it will navigate to Santa Rosa and in 2018, San Miguel. With two releases a year planned, chances are San Miguel will simply be another stop along the never-ending journey, but by then QAD will likely be on to other additional adventures suitable to whatever the future might bring.

Channel Islands: An Appropriate Metaphor

In the meantime, QAD appears to have chosen the name of its latest initiative well. QAD’s Channel Islands initiative has a dual purpose. The metaphor is perfect because the first goal of the initiative is to re-invent the entire user experience of QAD ERP, making it more natural (intuitive), visually appealing and easy to use. The Channel Islands of California are a chain of eight islands located in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of southern California along the Santa Barbara Channel near QAD headquarters. The main attraction of the real Channel Islands is their natural beauty, providing relief from the cluttered, hard-to-navigate urban setting.

But the second goal of the initiative makes it even more appropriate. The islands are divided into two groups—the Northern Channel Islands and the Southern Channel Islands. The four Northern Islands used to be a single landmass, but as water levels rose (thousands of years ago), Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa and San Miguel emerged and evolved as separate islands. While QAD ERP was originally developed as a single, tightly integrated solution that needed to move forward in lock step, the goal now is to support more modular upgrades, allowing different modules and disciplines (think finance versus purchasing or production) to move forward independently at their own pace. Mint Jutras often refers to this approach as “loosely coupled” versus tightly integrated, but it should not be confused with a collection of point solutions with arm’s length interfaces. Just like the Northern Islands, under the surface all these different functional areas are still connected.

In fact that was why QAD named the first phase Anacapa. Of the four Northern Channel Islands, Anacapa appears to be the smallest, but in fact has an enormous land mass hidden under the surface of the water. This is representative of the work done to re-architect the underlying infrastructure, reworking the application programming interface (API) structure and protocols, and future proofing the user interface (UI), including the framework for connecting devices. This supports the theory that sometimes the best UI is no UI at all and paves the way for succeeding phases (Islands).

To better understand how QAD is delivering on this modular upgrade approach as well as a new and improved user experience, read the full report (no registration required):

QAD Channel Islands: Multiple Stops on the Journey to the Effective Enterprise

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Women in Manufacturing & Technology At PowerPlex 2016

I recently had the opportunity to participate in Plex Systems’ second annual Women in Manufacturing and Technology Forum. Held at PowerPlex 2016, Plex’s annual user conference, this year’s forum brought together over 85 women, providing an opportunity for networking and discussion. Plex also put together a moderated panel (on which I was honored to sit) to kick off the discussion. But in spite of the name of the forum, the topic of discussion wasn’t manufacturing or technology, but rather the challenges women face in working in what is still very much a man’s world.

So if the discussion didn’t touch on manufacturing or the Plex Manufacturing Cloud, or any kind of software for that matter, why did Plex do this? I believe it is ultimately because Plex cares deeply about its customers and their success. The depth of interest is evident in the level of customer engagement that strikes me as exceptional every time I meet Plex customers or attend one of its events. And while the software is the focal point of the engagement, customer success is always a combination of people, process and technology.

On the people side, amidst an overall skills shortage in manufacturing, women have so much to offer. Yet while our ranks are growing slowly, we remain a small minority. It is very challenging for a woman to get ahead and make it to the top and we need to support each other along the way. The best way to accelerate gender diversity in the worlds of manufacturing and technology is to create a supportive environment and highlight success. In the famous words of former U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright, “There should be a special place in hell for women that don’t help other women.”

Plex happens to have some great role models, with three women among its C-level executives: Heidi Melin, Chief Marketing Officer, Lilian Reaume, Chief Human Resource Officer and Elisa Lee, Chief Legal Counsel. These three women actively sponsored the forum. I applaud them for that. I would also like to share with everyone a couple of the main themes we discussed, as there are some good lessons both men and women can carry away from them.

Don’t Limit Yourself

While some women are indeed shattering the “glass ceiling” today, many (not all) of the limitations that hold others back are self-imposed. While no two women are exactly alike (just as no two men are), when asked to rate themselves on skills and accomplishments, women tend to under-estimate their own effectiveness, while men tend to over-estimate theirs. A woman will say she is good at A, okay at B and has never done C. A man with the same skill set will say he excels at A and B and could very easily learn C. It’s all about the presentation and the self-confidence with which it is presented. I am not advocating for shameless self-promotion, but whether this reticence stems from a lack of confidence or an overactive sense of modesty, it is equally detrimental in seeking advancement as it is in interviewing for a new job.

Believe in Yourself, But Don’t be Afraid to Ask for Help

If you are a woman and have trouble believing in yourself, you’re not alone. Many of the most successful women in the world today grew up believing they could do anything they set out to do. Very often they had the support of family or an early mentor who encouraged them to pursue their dreams.

I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Condoleeza Rice speak recently and walked away with a quote that I think is priceless. She was talking about growing up with the support of her parents. Dr. Rice and I are about the same age. But while I had the advantage in the 1950’s of growing up white in the northeast, she was a little black girl in Birmingham, Alabama where segregation was the norm. And yet she said, “Somehow my father believed that the little black girl that couldn’t order a hamburger at the lunch counter at Woolworth’s, could grow up to be the president of the United States.” That belief system carried Dr. Rice very far.

But just as many women (probably more) didn’t have that level of encouragement growing up and still don’t have it today. But it’s never too late. Seek out that encouragement. It doesn’t have to come from another woman, but it should be someone who is successful in his or her own right, either in business or just in life.

Be Yourself

One of the most common mistakes women make in entering a man’s world is trying to think, behave, act or communicate like a man. A piece of advice from someone who has worked in a man’s world for over 40 years … Don’t. Yes, develop your ability to think, analyze and be decisive. Yes, work on your communication skills, both listening and speaking. Yes, be conscious of how you come across (confidently or defensively). The list of skills you should develop will vary based on your role. Regardless of your role, trust me, it will be long. But as you work on that list, work just as hard to be yourself. Don’t try to be a man. It’s OK – even good – to be a woman in a man’s world as long as you remain you. If you haven’t figured out who that is yet, don’t worry, you will. I may not see it before I retire, but if we all do that, perhaps the man’s world will indeed give way to a world of diversity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Welcome to the New World of Exact Macola

Did you ever walk purposefully into another room and forget what you came for? It happens to me all the time. My pantry is less than 20 steps from my kitchen, and yet, 9 times out of 10, I open the door, step in and wonder what I came for. I wind up stepping out, looking back into the kitchen to see what I was doing. Usually that will trigger my memory. It’s gotten worse with age, but I’m not that old. It happens to all of us. When something we need is not visible and clearly within reach, it’s easy to get distracted and lose track of what you’re looking for.

It’s bad enough when you’re puttering around the house or making dinner. It’s even worse when it happens when you’re sitting at your desk at work. You get a call or an alert on your smart phone, or something doesn’t look quite right on that report you’re scrolling through, or you’re preparing to present performance results to your boss and you need to dig a little deeper. You have a question in mind but even though you know the answer is buried someplace in your enterprise data, it’s not immediately visible and clearly within reach. If you have to hunt and peck, traversing a series of menus, to find what you’re looking for, it’s easy to be distracted along the way. Sometimes you wind up going down a rat hole and 2 hours later, you realize you still haven’t answered your own question. No wonder the days just seem to get longer and longer.

This is clearly the problem Exact Macola is trying to solve in its newest version of Workspaces. A Workspace in Exact Macola 10 gathers together all the data you might need to perform a process, make a decision or monitor performance… in other words, to do your job. Some will come right out of the box. But because your role in your organization and your job is unique, new Workspaces must be easily constructed and standard Workspaces must be easily tailored.

Exact Macola describes Workspaces as “one of the most unique and powerful pieces of Exact Macola 10 – allowing personalized role-based views of your business information and creating a natural and intuitive experience.” I came into the Exact Macola Evolve conference last year with a pretty favorable impression of this technology and that impression became even more favorable as I watched the “Dueling Developers” session this year, which pitted a senior consultant (Thijs Verberne) against product manager David Dozer, in creating Workspaces on the fly as the audience watched.

That exercise proved development was fast and easy. But how does this keep users from wandering into the pantry and forgetting what they came in for? A new feature of Workspaces 2.0 is the ability to add Workspaces menus to transaction screens and/or perform transactions directly from Workspaces. Do you have a job where you spend the majority of your time in transaction screens (e.g. you’re a buyer researching and creating purchase orders)? You can stay there all day doing your primary job, but when you need to do some further investigation, (right from a transaction) you can bring up a Workspace from a pull down menu and it appears as a popup. This feature alone drew a huge round of applause from the audience.

Or maybe you are a manager that prefers to monitor status of a series of key performance indicators (think dashboard). But occasionally you need to perform a transaction like approving those purchase orders or requesting a change. You can stay in your dashboard-like Workspace, and attach a drop down menu (or 2 or 10) that allows you to divert and run a transaction without ever leaving your preferred space.

Marry these two features together and you don’t have to worry about anticipating all your needs up front. Get the basics set up and let your work naturally direct the evolution of your Workspaces. At first you might not think you would ever have a need to go directly to a transaction. But sure enough…. No problem, it can be added in minutes (really!)

While Workspaces 2.0 was (in my mind anyway) the highlight, it is not the only innovation that has been delivered by Exact Macola over the past year. Here are some other areas the team has been working on:

  • Phase 1 support for IFRS
  • Workflow conditional statements (rules, if-then statements, more control and flexibility)
  • Financial consolidation across divisions
  • Business Intelligence delivered through a partnership with Qlik, but sold by Exact under the Exact Insights brand
  • Forecast Pro integration
  • Avalara integration
  • New web services and some underlying architectural changes

All this innovation (and more to come) seemed to infuse a new energy and vibrancy into the Exact Macola community and created more urgency for those still running older solutions like Exact Progression or the Enterprise Suite (ES) to upgrade/migrate to the newer Exact Macola 10.

Not only has the Exact Macola team been delivering innovation at a much accelerated pace, it has also been responding to several trends in the market today. Beyond those features listed above, Exact Macola has been working on full web enablement and the overall user experience. In addition to Workspaces, the company has renewed its focus on ease of use, bringing in experts to help deliver a more natural user experience (UX). This includes both the access anytime, anywhere convenience of the cloud, as well as more mobility. After delivering mobile functionality on iOS last year, it added Android this year. And it has been delivering more analytics, as well as a more end-to-end integrated solution.

Indeed these are exciting times for Exact Macola and its customers. But for those still running those older solutions (Progression and ES), the excitement might soon fade, unless of course they decide to make the leap forward. I would strongly encourage them to do so.

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Epicor Announces It Will Grow Business, Not Software

Epicor has a new tag line: “[We] grow business, not software.” The declaration is not quite as radical as it would first appear. In fact it appears to me to be much more evolutionary than revolutionary.

Epicor’s mantra for years was “Protect, Extend, Converge.” As in:

  • Protect its customers
  • Extend its solutions
  • Converge its product lines

However, in 2014 it appeared Epicor was diverging a bit from the convergence strategy, primarily as a result of the merger of (the original) Epicor and Activant. Both had grown through acquisition, but while Epicor’s ERP solutions were multi-purpose ERP (focused primarily on discrete manufacturing) and therefore ripe for rationalization, each of Activant’s products was purpose-built for distribution, and over time each had become even more focused and fine-tuned to specific segments of wholesale distribution. And then there was the SolarSoft acquisition (2012), which brought along an ERP which focused on more process-oriented industries, and also a “best of breed” manufacturing execution system (MES). And finally there was Epicor’s retail business, which was actually spun off last year.

So while the “Protect” and “Extend” sentiments of the message are still very much alive, convergence gave way to a new message. Last year, Epicor’s (new) CEO, Joe Cowan declared the company would be “totally focused on the customer.” This year’s tag line seems to me to be a simple extension of that customer focus. Software is not the end goal. The goal is to help Epicor customers grow their businesses. It just so happens Epicor will develop software and provide services to make that happen. And a lot of the software will be delivered as a service, as evidenced by the appearance of a fluffy white cloud in the middle of the tag line.

Epicor tag line

Of course in having a tag line like this, Epicor needs to be careful not to make the message itself too fluffy. And in promising to help customers grow, Epicor will have to execute a delicate balancing act, balancing what the customers say they want and what Epicor knows they need. This is particularly true of those customers still running older legacy solutions. Epicor has promised not to sunset those products. And yet if you really understand the demands and opportunities of the new global, digital economy, you know you can’t be competitive without modern, advanced technologies.

Customers running legacy solutions won’t benefit as much from the latest and greatest development, but that’s not to say they won’t benefit at all. Epicor has been a bit quiet on the technology front for the past few years, but that is not the result of lack of attention. In fact it has been doing a lot, sometimes at the expense of new features and functions. Its advanced technology architecture (ICE), visionary at the time of its initial release circa 2009, has undergone a technology refresh of its own, and it also paves the way forward for both strategic products like Epicor 10, Prophet 21 and others, as well as legacy solutions like Vista and Vantage,  etc.

Now that that refresh is complete (for now… after all, technology continues to advance at an ever-accelerating pace), you’ll see more aggressive development of features and functions. Epicor is picking up the cadence of releases, shooting for twice a year (spring and fall) for its strategic products, which of course will garner more of its resources. But even legacy solutions will benefit from the development of external components, which can be used across different product lines. Prime examples include web portals, dashboards, self-service functions, mobile apps and other new features. And developing these components as web-based services (delivered through the cloud) will have the dual purpose of extending solutions and gently pushing those running primarily (or exclusively) on-premise towards the cloud.

I agree with Epicor’s new CTO, Himanshu Palsule, who called the transition to the cloud “inevitable.” But it won’t happen overnight (Figure 1). Part of the reason for this slower, yet steady growth is the fact that there are so many on-premise solutions in production today. And many remain reluctant to simply rip and replace solutions that are essentially getting the job done.

Figure 1: What percentage of your business software is deployed as SaaS?

Fig 1 EpicorSource: Mint Jutras 2016 Enterprise Solution Study

In his main stage keynote, Himanshu also (very astutely) observed that for a topic that is so widely discussed, “cloud” is still misunderstood and means different things to different people. My research supports his observation. While many use the terms cloud and SaaS interchangeably (I find myself guilty of this at times), they are not the same. While all SaaS is cloud, not all cloud is SaaS. While only a small percentage (12%) in 2015 didn’t know how they preferred cloud to be delivered, that percentage didn’t shrink in 2016 (Figure 2). There is still some education to be done. If you count yourself among those that “don’t know,” don’t be afraid to ask. You’re not alone.

Figure 2: How would you prefer cloud to be delivered?

Fig 2 EpicorSource: Mint Jutras 2016 Enterprise Solution Study

I’ve written extensively about the anticipated appeal of SaaS, along with the benefits actually realized. But I wouldn’t disagree with Himanshu’s conclusions about what cloud should stand for:

  • Choice
  • Convenience
  • Cost Control
  • Customization
  • Collaboration

However, I would qualify two of his bullet points. A few years back, my survey participants placed a high value on choice of deployment options. They seemed to like the idea of portability and the ability to move from on-premise to SaaS and from SaaS back to on-premise. Today many are looking for a path that helps them move from on-premise to SaaS, but once they move to SaaS, they almost never go back unless forced to (e.g. they get acquired by a company running a licensed, on-premise solution). So having multiple deployment options available is no longer such a high priority. Prospects simply pre-qualify those solution providers based on the deployment option they prefer.

I agree that choice is important. But it is more important to Epicor as the solution provider than to its customers and prospects. There are still some environments where a real multi-tenant SaaS solution might not be the best choice – at least not right now. These might be heavily regulated industries that require solutions to be certified, and re-certified when they change. Or a heavily customized solution may be required. And customization is the other bullet from Himanshu’s list that needs to be well-qualified.

Not all customizations are created equal. First of all, some simply aren’t needed. They might be left over from an implementation of a solution with far fewer capabilities than available today. Or they might have resulted from a “that’s the way we’ve always done it” mentality. If customization does not differentiate you in your market, I would seriously question whether it is justified.

Furthermore, customizations can be implemented in a variety of ways. Invasive code changes and SaaS don’t make for a good combination. But if customizations can be added as external components and linked back to ERP through Web APIs, or if they can be implemented through configuring the software without mucking around in the code, they may be perfectly compatible.

So Epicor’s announcement this week of its “cloud-first focus to support digital transformation of wholesale distributors is spot on”. The Mint Jutras 2016 Enterprise Solution Study found wholesale distributors lagging behind other industries in preference for and adoption of SaaS solutions. We also found 47% to 73% still relying heavily on paper for their operational and transactional system of record (customer and purchase orders, expense management, payments, etc.). They lag behind other industries in spite of the fact that ecommerce and their proximity to consumers puts them at a higher risk of disruption from the digital economy. Perhaps this “cloud-first” focus will be the gentle push wholesale distributors might need to start down the path of digital transformation.

Indeed, Epicor says it will be “…doubling-down on helping distributors adapt to these shifting dynamics of the marketplace—with an added focus to ushering customers’ journey to leverage the power of cloud-based solutions to drive increased productivity and achieve a differentiated customer experience to grow their business.”

Indeed wholesale distributors aren’t the only Epicor customers that will benefit from this “doubling-down.” I heard similar plans from the Epicor 10 side of the house, including planned features and functionality, along with efforts to improve simplification and usability. Yes, it’s about the overall user experience, but those driving the products seem to understand it’s not just about the “pretty software” you hear so much about today. As business models change, as technology advances and as new innovative products come to market, Epicor’s product must be easy to use, easy to install, easy to manage, and easy to change when the need arises.

Epicor “gets” it. We’ll be watching to see if it delivers.

 

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Unit4’s Self-Driving ERP Gets a Digital Assistant

Don’t you envy those top-level executives with personal assistants who seem to sense and deliver on the bosses’ every demand, even before the bosses have figured out what they need? You see them on TV and in movies all the time. Unfortunately for the vast majority of us in the business world today, the trend is in the exact opposite direction. Even prior to the emergence of the digital economy, electronic communication changed everything. Back in the day, many of us (old enough to remember) first relied on secretaries and then administrative assistants, telephones and paper. Today we rely on emails, texts, instant messages, along with specialized apps for things like purchase requisitions, travel and expenses and personnel administration and management. This makes us administratively self-sufficient – all in the name of productivity and efficiency. Sure it’s faster. Sure, we’re better connected. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Or fun.

It also doesn’t necessarily relieve us of the burden of mundane tasks. Yes, we have elevated employees to become more “knowledge workers,” and we eliminated a lot of menial jobs, but we haven’t entirely eliminated all the grunt work. We’ve just distributed it more democratically across the organization. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could eliminate more of it?

That’s exactly what Unit4 has in mind in developing what it calls its “self-driving ERP.” I introduced the concept to my readers back in June 2015 with a blog post: What is Unit4’s “Self-Driving” ERP? Unit4’s latest announcements, coinciding with its customer conference in Amsterdam last week, showed the company is making headway in fulfilling its “promise of self-driving business solutions which free people from repetitive tasks and allow them to focus on high value activities.” In fact that is a direct quote from its press release on Unit4 Business World On! – the biggest release ever of its business suite for services industries.

Unit4 Business World On! is built on Unit4’s People Platform Premium Edition, which is the technology foundation for Unit4 applications, enabling self-driving capabilities based on predictive, event-centric and pattern recognition technologies. It is available as a true multi-tenant SaaS solution, but can also be delivered and deployed on-premise without sacrificing the mobile-access capabilities. Unit4 has put a lot of work into the user experience, but you need more than a visually appealing user interface to be “self-driving.” And I am a firm believer that the best user interface is often no user interface at all. (Refer back to my previous blog post to get a better handle of what makes it “self-driving.”)

But what really caught my eye this time around was the press release on its Digital Assistant. I was kind of hoping for someone (or even something) to shadow me (even if it is virtually), anticipating my every need. But if you look closely you see this is a “Digital Assistant for business software” not an assistant to industry analysts or presidents of small companies. Business software needs an assistant more than I do?!?

Actually yes. As I noted last June, enterprise applications like ERP are meant to capture transactional data (which happens to be the basis of a lot of our decision-making) and streamline and automate business processes. Yet while ERP was originally meant to make our business lives easier, it hasn’t always delivered on that promise. It’s gotten a lot better over time, but we still need to be expert navigators. We often have to fill some gaps. Sometimes we play the role of the (human) glue that holds everything together. If Unit4’s Digital Assistant can help the business software do all that for us, then sign me up!

The Digital Assistant is scheduled for general availability in 2017. In the meantime the glimpses I have had of Unit4’s “self-driving” capabilities are impressive.

Now, if only it could make a great cup of coffee!

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A Changing of the Guard at IQMS

A new president and CEO took the stage at IQMS Pinnacle this week as customers and long time employees bid a fond farewell to founders and leaders Randy and Nancy Flamm. IQMS has been one of the best kept secrets in the world of ERP for manufacturing, but new investors hope to break out of the stealth marketing mode of the past and really put the company on the path to increased market awareness and a new level of growth. New CEO Gary Nemmers, previously with HighJump, stepped into this new role about six months ago and has been assembling a team that will shift the strategic focus, but also leverage successes of the past.

Under Randy’s leadership the customer base has grown quite steadily to about 500 customers (not too shabby!) and those customers have been instrumental in developing manufacturing functionality that is both broad and deep. Indeed product development has been almost exclusively driven by Software Enhancement Requests (SERs) submitted by customers. While that approach was smart in the early stages of the company’s growth, building “real world” functionality that expressly meets the needs of its users, at some point it also has some drawbacks.

The breadth of functionality that IQMS can deliver is impressive, particularly for a relatively small ERP player. Scratch the surface of other solutions from vendors comparable in size and you get more surface. Scratch the surface of EnterpriseIQ (IQMS’ ERP) and you find remarkable depth. And you also have a very engaged user community. But having been driven by existing customers, the development process has not been entirely well organized. One customer noted, “It’s like a house that started out small and then additions were added on piecemeal. In the end you might have everything you need, but not necessarily where you need it. You might find the oven in the living room.”

Development of some of IQMS’ mobile apps provides us a good example. The development team has produced some pretty cool features like its Android Bulletin Board, described as “Twitter for your shop floor” or “Messenger-like instant communication to workers on the shop floor.” This includes the ability to attach the equivalent of sticky notes to business objects (e.g. orders, work centers, etc.). As the status of these business objects changes, an update is automatically sent. But while most of this development work is now transitioning to HTML5, making it compatible with a range of devices including Android, iOS and Windows devices, many of the existing apps run only on Android – not very useful if your company has standardized on iOS or Windows.

This example is symptomatic of a larger limitation inherent in being completely customer-driven. Customers will never push a vendor to do a major revamp of the underlying technology – particularly small to midsize manufacturers They already have too much to worry about without asking their software provider to fix something that isn’t broken. And yet today that underlying technology is critical in building and/or maintaining a competitive advantage in our digital economy.

Questions inserted (new this year) in our 2016 Enterprise Solution Study lead me to believe many companies over-estimate their “digital preparedness.” A two thirds majority (67%) of manufacturers feel they are close to or very well prepared for the digital economy, yet Table 1 tells us a very different story.

Table 1: To what extent is your operational and transactional system of record digital?

IQMS Table 1Source: 2016 Mint Jutras Enterprise Solution Study

*B2C Commerce is Not Applicable to 18% of our respondents

Generally over half still rely heavily on paper for their transactional system of record – more proof no solution provider can rely on existing customers to push for a major technological shift (e.g. to full web-enablement, support of HTML5, social, mobile and cloud capabilities).

For this kind of progress, as well as growth and expansion into new markets, you need a strategic plan and a well-defined product road map. That is exactly what new VP of Product Management, Rob Wiersma, is setting out to do. This shift in overall product and corporate strategy will take some time to put in place, but this is not Rob’s first rodeo. He is only in his second month on the job, so right now customers and prospects will need to wait and watch for this. But I would expect to see some major progress within months, not years.

Another area that bears watching is IQMS’ cloud strategy. The catch phrase at IQMS Pinnacle was “Cloud is the new choice.” The choices from IQMS today include a traditional on-premise license, a hosted model or cloud managed services. Notice there was no mention of Software as a Service (SaaS). And just to be clear, we know that while all SaaS is cloud, not all cloud is SaaS.

While the two terms are often used interchangeably (I admit to falling into that trap as well), they are not the same thing. So let’s distinguish between the two:

  • Cloud refers to access to computing, software and storage of data over a network (generally the Internet.) You may have purchased a license for the software and installed it on your own computers or those owned and managed by another company, but your access is through the Internet and therefore through the “cloud,” whether private or public.
  • SaaS is exactly what is implied by the acronym. Software is delivered only as a service. It is not delivered on a CD or other media to be loaded on your own (or another’s) computer. It is generally paid for on a subscription basis and does not reside on your computers at all.

Again – all SaaS is cloud, not all cloud is SaaS. While the IQMS customers I spoke with are not expressing a strong desire for SaaS (in fact some are still trying to understand the difference between client/server and SaaS and cloud), many are also faced with the challenge of aging servers that ultimately will need to be replaced… or not. Moving to a hosted model may eliminate the need for upgrading this hardware, but it also might not, depending on who and how it is hosted. Moving to SaaS eliminates this problem by eliminating the need to invest in hardware and its ongoing maintenance, among all the other potential benefits of SaaS. And I am now seeing a shift in preference away from hosting and to a real SaaS solution (Figure 1).

Figure 1: How do you prefer your “cloud”?

IQMS fig 1Source: 2016 Mint Jutras Enterprise Solution Study

So far IQMS “cloud” options provide reasonable choices to customers not demanding SaaS, but this could limit growth in the future. IQMS added about 100 new customers in 2015 and is expecting to increase that number to 140 in 2016. So it will be interesting to watch as IQMS continues to further define its overall strategy, including cloud and SaaS.

Mr. Nemmers has also made some other changes in his (so far) short tenure with the company. On the advice of his head of customer support (a 20 year veteran of IQMS) he deployed new call center software (Five9 Call Center), which went live about a month ago and is now operating 24X7 and providing faster response time and quicker resolution of customer issues. The software features skill-based browsing to connect the customer to the right support technician, and a nifty feature that facilitates an automatic call back (without losing your place in line) when high call volume precipitates a longer than usual wait time.

In order to emerge from its stealth marketing mode, IQMS also has a new CMO, Steve Biesczcat, on board now for almost a year. I think we will see some significant changes in the near future, since Mr. Nemmers has doubled the SEO and brand recognition budget from a year ago.

There have been some changes on the sales side as well with a new VP of Sales Operations (long time industry veteran Gary Gross) and the formation of a new Customer Success Team (think account management), leaded by Ken Kratz, providing a better front line link from the customer to IQMS. Also expect growth in EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa) through value added resellers (VARs) using the same model that has been successful in covering the Asia Pacific area.

In summary, I think 2016 will prove to be a year of transition for IQMS. I think fewer and fewer industry observers and potential prospects will be saying, “IQMS? Who’s that?” I look forward to seeing an aggressive and progressive road map and certainly more splash on the marketing side. I expect to see growth in North America and internationally. And through this transition I would expect customers to remain engaged and productive.

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New Group at Infor Helps Customers Navigate Digital Disruption

Hook & Loop has been part of Infor now for several years. It is the “creative lab” inside of Infor. Notice I didn’t say “creative agency.” That is a term that is typically associated with advertising agencies, full of those creative types like writers and graphic artists, even filmmakers. There are a lot of those creative types at Hook & Loop, but its charter goes way beyond that of the typical agency. In their own words, Hook & Loop’s is “a collaborative team of designers, information architects, developers, project managers, writers, and filmmakers who are redesigning the user experience for Infor’s software products and envisioning the future of the Infor brand itself. Our mission: change the way people work and think about work.”

Back in early 2015, Diginomica’s Jon Reed did a great job of describing what Hook & Loop was setting out to accomplish. If you aren’t up to speed, you might want to take a moment and review Jon’s Inside the Enterprise UX revolution – a day at Infor’s Hook & Loop. But for here and now, it suffices to say that the Hook & Loop charter went beyond a fresh new user interface (UI). It set out to create a whole new “holistic” user experience (UX) using a unified design methodology.

Infor is now taking this a step further and spinning out a new group from Hook & Loop. It’s called H&L Digital and its proclaimed mission is to create “Differentiation through personalized digital experiences at scale that help enterprises outpace digital disruption and unlock digital growth opportunities.” That’s a mouthful that exposes Hook & Loop’s “agency” lineage.

So let’s move beyond the “agency-speak.” The real purpose of the new group is to help customers navigate digital disruption and achieve a competitive advantage. How do they do that? At its recent Innovation Summit (really an industry analyst day held at corporate headquarters in New York City), Infor attempted to answer that question through examples. We heard about some of its biggest, best and most impressive projects.

Among them was Sports City, a large franchise of stores featuring sports apparel and accessories. H&L Digital helped them transform their brand from a big box retailer surviving on promotion-driven transactions to a branded, sporting goods community leader, attracting those with a passion for sports. This was as much of a branding exercise as it was an ecommerce project, but indeed there were many moving parts from store design to custom application development.

Part of the project was developing an app for coaches of clubs, community and school teams. Through this app, coaches can share online all the equipment kids on the team will need, including specific product options and recommendations within different price ranges and even a pre-owned marketplace. Equipment fitting and a fitting room app also help take the guesswork out of shopping for equipment. That results in Sports City brand loyalty and increased sales. Coaches also can set up their own dashboards for player performance and team optimization, making Sports City the “go to” online destination for all their needs – a far cry from a big box retailer.

H&L Digital also helped transform Nutritious Feed Co. from an animal feed supplier to an animal health provider. Several different customer-facing applications emerged from that project, including Connected Cow Tracker, Total Farm Management, Farmer App, and Animal Health – hardly apps that are in the typical enterprise app portfolio. But the project also attacked more universal challenges like employee engagement and operational efficiency.

Through these presentations and others I was struck by how truly innovative this approach is. H&L Digital helped these companies not only with tools to help them run their businesses; they helped them uniquely re-brand themselves in a completely new light within a digital economy. But I also walked away thinking, these are very big, very custom projects. Translation: very expensive.

In a way it felt like déjà vu all over again. These “custom” projects were reminiscent of the homegrown apps of the 70’s and 80’s. Nobody believed you could have pre-packaged apps back then. Companies believed themselves to be unique and therefore built their own applications. And of course only large companies with deep pockets could (can) afford something with this kind of “Wow!” factor. So the big companies got bigger and stronger and smaller companies “made do.”

Of course, we all know what happened after the 70’s and 80’s. Over time vendors were able to package more functionality and more flexibility, at a more affordable price, so the playing field was leveled and virtually everyone began using pre-packaged solutions. But sitting through these presentations I was beginning to feel like the playing field was no longer level. There would definitely be the “haves” and the “have nots.” Somehow I don’t see Connected Cow Trackers and coaching dashboards becoming part of a standard enterprise application portfolio. So is H&L Digital destined to simply be a high-end provider of custom “luxury” apps?

That’s what I thought at first, but a visit to the H&L Garage (where all this stuff is built) made me think differently. The “creative” teams at H&L Digital do indeed start with a pretty blank sheet when they start to strategize and design. But when it comes to delivering new applications, it is very much an assembly process. The teams talk a lot about creating “wizards.” Wizards essentially assemble a series of components – some custom, some standard (re-usable) under a unique, custom-designed skin, so to speak. This is what makes each project look and feel entirely unique and custom. But if you look under the covers, the components of many of these “unique” processes share a lot of common components.

Outfitting a little leaguer is really just a standard configure-price-quote function and Infor has standard products that deliver that functionality. Is managing player performance really all that different from a sales manager monitoring sales rep performance? The metrics used might be different, but the dashboards probably look and behave quite similarly. Couldn’t you use a lot of the capabilities of monitoring movement of a fleet of trucks to help track cows? I bet “maintenance” schedules of equipment and cows share some common components as well, even though the user interface might appear very different.

So far all these projects have a healthy dose of custom development. But the more of these components Infor develops, the more it will have on the shelf. Over time, more and more components will be standard. This is crucial because companies of all sizes face risk of digital disruption.

Our 2016 Mint Jutras Enterprise Solution Study asked survey respondents to identify the level of risk of their industry (and their business) being disrupted, citing examples like Uber, Airbnb, NetFlix, etc. Almost two thirds (63%) face medium to high and imminent risk and the risk level of small companies (those with revenues under $25 million) is only slightly lower.

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

Infor fig 1Source: 2016 Mint Jutras Enterprise Solution Study

And yet small to mid-size companies are not nearly as well prepared to face these challenges.

Figure 2: How prepared are you for today’s digital economy?

Infor fig 2Source: 2016 Mint Jutras Enterprise Solution Study

So if Infor is able to successfully come down market and satisfy the needs of both large and small companies – even those with small budgets – there is certainly a big market waiting for it. I, for one, am routing for the little guys and hope to see H&L Digital continue to leverage Infor’s vast tool set and product portfolio to become the “go to” vendor for all companies facing the challenges of digital disruption.

 

 

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