Once again Inforum, Infor’s annual customer event was chock full of new announcements. At last count I saw 13 press releases issued since the start of the event on Monday September 15th:
Sep 16, 2014 Infor Announces New Era of Automated Financials
Sep 16, 2014 Infor Announces New Technology Platform, Infor Xi
As you can see from the list above, this collection of news bites is quite diverse. You might even say it’s all over the map. And still it doesn’t cover everything I found noteworthy from the event. Having grown through acquisition, in the past Infor has struggled to have any focus beyond growth for the sake of growth. But I would argue that in spite of the large volume of news, in spite of the diversity, today Infor does have a focus. And that focus is something I have been writing a lot about lately: the convergence of trends, with goal of making ERP easier to consume.
My recent 2014 Trends in ERP Converge report began as follows:
In 2013 you couldn’t pick up an article without being bombarded with what industry observers were calling the “big trends” in enterprise software. We heard cloud and software as a service (SaaS) deployments would take over, although definitions were just that… cloudy. We heard about the prevalence of mobile devices and the resultant “consumerization of IT.” “Social” took on new meaning as Facebook, Twitter and other social media phenomena not only changed the way many of us communicated with the world but also impacted our business applications. And then, as if we weren’t already bombarded with enough data, we heard all about “big data,” analytics and in-memory computing. Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) was not immune to these influential factors and the solution providers strove to brand themselves in the context of these trends. Will these trends continue to dominate, or will we see new waves of innovation? Mint Jutras anticipates 2014 will bring the convergence of these trends, brought together by a common goal of making not only innovation, but also the enterprise applications themselves inherently easier to consume.
And that was the focus I heard at Inforum. It was all about making software that people want to consume, while making it easier to consume. Infor started down this path with Infor 10x, a platform that delivered a reinvented HTML5 user experience (the SoHo user interface), Infor Ming.le (its social collaboration platform), and embedded analytics. The Infor ION framework (light weight middleware) was integral to this effort. This week Infor announced the next evolution of Infor 10x: Infor Xi, which it calls “an enterprise technology platform for next-generation applications…[which] will deliver a major step in achieving the company’s vision for cloud applications that address specific industry needs with responsive design infused with machine-learning and big data analytics.” That’s a mouthful, but I think it supports my concept of this convergence of trends towards a common goal.
Infor has been talking about “beautiful” software for the past two years, introducing this concept at Inforum 2012. I haven’t always been a big fan of “beautiful” software simply because I think beauty is largely in the eye of the beholder and typically beauty isn’t the primary concern of users. It’s got to be more than a beauty contest.
I have been observing the growing importance of “ease of use” in terms of ERP selection criteria for the past few years. I have asked survey participants to prioritize ERP selection criteria in my annual ERP survey for many years. While “fit and functionality” reigned for years, “ease of use” has bubbled to the top for the past two years (Table 1).
Table 1: Priorities of Selection Criteria in Evaluating ERP
Survey participants were asked to rank the importance of thirteen different selection criteria for ERP on a scale of 1 to 5 where 1 was “not a consideration” and 5 was “must have/most important.” There was nothing to stop the respondents from ranking each and every criterion as a “must have,” but they didn’t.
So what does “Ease of use” mean? Glad you asked. I asked that of my survey respondents as well. For this question, I gave them a list of options and asked them to pick their “top 3.” I guess a “visually appealing user interface” is the closest I come to “beautiful software.” As you can see in Figure 1, it is not at the very top of the list. Factors that affect efficiency and productivity outrank beauty. But in spite of the words Infor execs use (beautiful software), I actually think this is what they are striving for.
Figure 1: What does Ease of Use mean? Pick your top 3
Sadly enough, all too often in the past, ERP solutions that were meant to streamline and automate processes ended up forcing users to work in ways that simply weren’t natural. That point comes up a lot when talking to Infor execs. In fact they have launched a new initiative (Infor refers to it internally as SoHo Glide) to further improve the user experience. Graphical user interfaces (GUIs) have evolved from legacy command line interfaces. Now Infor wants to take the next step from “graphical” to “natural,” which addresses both the need for intuitive navigation and supporting a natural way of working. I could talk for pages about this, but the best way to understand what they are doing is to ask for a demo.
While many cite “Don’t make me change my business processes” as a “top 3” priority in terms of “ease of use,” I would warn Infor’s (and other vendors’) customers not to use this as a blanket requirement, unless of course all your business processes reflect best practices and/or provide a source of differentiation for you in your market.
Infor has flat out stated that it wants to rid the Infor world of customizations. That’s at the root of its micro-vertical strategy. The goal is to have very industry specific solutions that can address all the requirements of a particular sector without the need for customizations or other point solutions. But that doesn’t mean the software can or should support every idiosyncrasy of your company. “We’ve always done it that way” is not a valid justification, especially if the reason you did something differently was because of a (previous) gap in software functionality or resistance from an individual (who probably doesn’t even work for your company any more). There are a lot better solutions out there today, some of which are offered by Infor.
“Friends don’t let friends build data centers”
One of the reasons Infor is so adamant about removing customizations is because of the move to the cloud. I have lots of data that shows the growing willingness to consider, even the preference for cloud-based solutions. Infor has known for a while that this was happening, but execs on the main stage of Inforum 2014 admitted the push to cloud happened a bit faster than they had anticipated. Hence the “all out” effort to be “all in” on the cloud. And in fact the quote in this heading was from Infor CEO Charles Phillips.
Infor is offering two different paths to the cloud. Its UpgradeX program is probably most attractive to companies that are stuck on older releases, often because of the cost and effort of the upgrade process. Through UpgradeX, Infor gets the customer to the latest release of the software and then lifts and shifts it to the cloud, taking responsibility for its care and feeding, including upgrades. This is more of a hosting option, but relieves the customer of the burden of maintenance of both hardware and software.
I should point out that this option is not available to all customers because not all product lines are cloud (web-) enabled. Those Infor teams are working hard to encourage customers to remove customizations and move forward in anticipation of that day. But I have a better idea. Where Infor has an alternative solution that is modern and technology-enabled, get rid of that older solution and move to something that can more easily, safely and efficiently move you into the future.
You won’t hear Infor say this because it doesn’t want to appear to be abandoning customers or products. And of course, moving forward could mean opening the door to a competitive situation. Quite frankly, when I worked for software companies, some of which are now owned by Infor, I would have said and done the same.
But looking objectively from the outside in, I don’t think this serves the customer well. Suggesting “rip and replace” used to be heresy but today it might just be the fastest, cheapest path to get you to a far more competitive position.
If you do consider trading in an older Infor solution, the other cloud path might be best for you. Re-implement on one of Infor’s industry-specific CloudSuites. These CloudSuites integrate multiple functions traditionally requiring disparate systems into a single suite. Some will be industry-based (e.g. healthcare, manufacturing verticals, wholesale distribution, etc.) and others will be “solution” suites (e.g. financials, human capital management, etc.). These CloudSuites are all destined to be multi-tenant software as a service (SaaS) solutions, although all the necessary components are not multi-tenant today.
The CloudSuites will be available on the Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud infrastructure. As Infor’s COO Pam Murphy likes to say, “Infor is in the enterprise application software business. We let someone else worry about pipes and feeds.” Of course a significant advantage to customers and Infor both is the elasticity and scale of AWS. Infor will also use leading open source solutions including Red Hat’s Enterprise Linux (RHEL) and JBoss Enterprise Middleware, and EnterpriseDB’s Postgres Plus database. And all will be supported by Infor ION®, Infor’s purpose-built, lightweight middleware. Infor ION provides integration and other services.
These suites will feature a consumer-grade user experience from Hook & Loop, Infor’s internal design agency based in its Manhattan headquarters. And they will have embedded analytics. This is an important point. As other vendors are packaging business intelligence (BI) tools and analytic applications and selling them separately, Infor is operating on the belief that analytics are core to next-generation applications and should be a basic part of the solution, with no additional charge.
These analytics will also run on mobile devices. In many ways Infor adopts a “mobile-first” design philosophy that is becoming quite prevalent in new development today. But it also recognizes that a lot of work (both transactional and decision-making) is still done on a desktop, so it is committed to bringing the consumer-grade user experience to all.
In fact this enhanced user experience, based on “beautiful software,” is all about engaging more of its customers’ employees. In the past only a small percentage of employees ever put their hands on ERP – those doing heads-down data entry and a few selected “super users.” Executives in particular couldn’t be bothered to “figure it all out” and were dependent on those super users for answers, causing delays that could be fatal to decision-making.
But today that is changing. The better the experience, the more connected the people running the businesses are to ERP and to each other. And Infor has the stated objective of ending “the tyranny of the super user.” Mint Jutras is already seeing a shift in the market to higher levels of engagement with ERP and cloud deployments seem to play a big role. While overall a little over half (55%) of employees use ERP today, that percentage jumps to 63% when a SaaS solution is deployed (Figure 2).
Figure 2: What percentage of your employees uses ERP?
Of course cloud-enablement is not the only factor here, but, apart from the access anytime, from anywhere advantage of the cloud, today’s cloud-based solutions are not saddled with a lot of older technology that stands in the way of a consumer-grade experience.
But Will Infor Customers Move?
The new management that took over Infor a few years back has brought significant change to the culture, the technology and the direction of the company. I think all these seemingly distinct announcements are all pulling Infor in the right direction and we’re really starting to see positive results. But the real question remains: Will its customers follow it into the future?
I went to my first Inforum in 2006 and was stunned to learn that Infor had 70,000 customers. Yet through the years of further acquisitions and more Inforums where the stats offered up about numbers of new customers were impressive, the total remained at 70,000. That told me that some customers (although still running run Infor products) might not be (maintenance) paying customers anymore and/or there was attrition equal to new customer wins. That is troubling for any software company.
This year that changed. In 2013 Infor added 3018 new customers and the total jumped to 73,000. But Infor still has a very large number of customers that simply are not in a position to take advantage of all this new technology, including consumer-grade user experiences, mobile design, cloud connectivity, embedded analytics, etc. etc. Other vendors see that as a huge opportunity.
Having dealt directly with some of these specific customer installed bases in the past, I would say a very large part of the reason these customers stay where they are is inertia. It is the “if it ain’t broken….” syndrome or the philosophy that ERP replacement is like brain surgery. Don’t do it unless the patient is dying. Anyone that follows me knows exactly what I think about that philosophy. Waiting until your business is in distress is not the optimal time to set out on a new ERP implementation.
Infor is offering a lot of options to its customers, but not every customer has the exact same options. These new “natural” customer experiences, new technology, new products and new CloudSuites are quite compelling. But if a customer can’t figure out how to get there, it’s all meaningless. Infor has been working on so much that it can be appear quite overwhelming. And it is very hard to convey this in a general session in front of such a diverse crowd. And it is equally hard to have 73,000 conversations.
The promise of beautiful software is not enough. Infor’s story is much more than that, but are its customers listening?