ERP

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

The ‘People Platform’ is The Secret Sauce

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

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

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

Business Applications of the Future

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

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

The Unit4 People Platform

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

Figure 1: Unit4’s Platform for Innovation

Source: Unit4

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

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

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

Source: Mint Jutras 2017 Enterprise Solution Study

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

Who (or What) is Wanda?

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

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

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

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

Why Are These Innovative Services important?

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

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

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

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

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

Key Takeaways and Recommendations

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

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

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Oracle’s Cloud Journey… Accelerated

It is quite clear Oracle has set out to be the undisputed leader in cloud computing. Chairman and CTO Larry Ellison publicly stated his goal of Oracle becoming the first company to reach $10 billion in cloud revenue. The acquisition of NetSuite late last year certainly gave Oracle a big boost in meeting that goal.

In fact, in welcoming attendees to SuiteWorld 2017, CEO Mark Hurd declared Oracle to be in a class alone – the only IT company capable of co-existing on-premise or in the cloud. I have to admit this statement confused me a bit, since there are lots of software solution providers that have taken their on-premise solutions to the cloud, priding themselves in offering choice in deployment models. But I with other, more pressing questions to ask, I never got clarity on this statement while I was at SuiteWorld.

However, the week after SuiteWorld, I had the opportunity to visit Oracle’s Redwood City campus and attend an Oracle Media Day. The theme of the day was cloud and I think I “get” it now.

In the context of NetSuite and SuiteWorld, we’re talking about software as a service (SaaS), and more specifically, enterprise application software. That’s the world I live in and where my mind immediately goes when I think of cloud and “as a service.” I suspect I am not alone here. But that is obviously not all Oracle does. Oracle also provides infrastructure (database and middleware) and a development platform. And more recently it has ventured into the world of data as a service, recognizing data is an important key to unlocking better business outcomes.

Other vendors might offer one or two of these categories…

  • Many of its ERP competitors might offer enterprise applications on-premise or as SaaS solutions.
  • Salesforce offers enterprise applications, along with a development platform (PaaS). But Salesforce is exclusively SaaS and PaaS and doesn’t offer anything on-premise.
  • Amazon is focused exclusively on infrastructure (IaaS).

Oracle is the only company to offer all three (infrastructure, platform and enterprise application software) both on-premise and as a service.

Why is this significant? To quote Mr. Hurd, “We will lead a decade long transition to cloud. The hybrid world will last a long time.” I would agree that this hybrid world will last a long time. While preferences for software deployments have shifted dramatically, there is still a lot of software installed on premise today and my research indicates it will take longer than a decade to replace it. This shift of software to the cloud can’t happen without supporting infrastructure and platforms.

Preferences Have Shifted to SaaS

While years ago ERP could have been called the last bastion of resistance to SaaS, this resistance has been dissipating quite rapidly over the past several years. We have been asking the following question for years now: If you were to consider a new solution today, which deployment options would you consider? Participants are allowed to select as many as they wish. A summary of aggregated answers is shown in Figure 1. We start in 2011 and skip every other year just to fit it on the chart. SaaS is currently the option most likely to be considered and the willingness to consider traditional on-premise solutions dropped off dramatically between 2011 and 2013.

Figure 1: Deployment Options that would be Considered Today

Source: Mint Jutras Enterprise Solution Studies

*Option added in 2015

This year we added a follow-on question, displaying back the deployment models the participant selected and asking which was the first choice. Over half (51%) of all respondents selected SaaS. Furthermore, out of the 325 that would consider SaaS, 225 (~70%) selected it as their top choice.

But even with this level of interest, the actual shift to the cloud can’t happen overnight. We asked our 2017 Mint Jutras Enterprise Solution Study participants to estimate the percentage of all business application software they have running in the cloud today and we also asked them to project that into the future. Even 10 years out (and beyond) we still see over 30% of business software will not have transitioned to SaaS (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Percentage of Business Software Deployed as SaaS

Source: Mint Jutras 2017 Enterprise Solution Study

Yet with 40% of business software deployed as SaaS today, the shift has definitely begun. So this begs the question: How will they get there? What path will companies take? Our 2015 and 2016 studies asked this question (Figure 3). The results validate Mr. Hurd’s conclusion that the hybrid world will last a long time.

Figure 3: What Best Describes Your Cloud Strategy?

Source: Mint Jutras 2015 and 2016 Enterprise Solution Studies

No single strategy dominated, but less than one in four operate predominantly in the cloud today. Few (8% in 2015 and 11% in 2016) are taking specific action to move directly to the cloud, and many more prefer instead to supplement existing solutions with cloud applications and perhaps replace on-premise solutions over time.

We didn’t see all that much change in cloud strategies from 2015 to 2016, so we moved on to other questions in 2017. But we will likely revisit this question in 2018 or 2019. We anticipate that even those not anxious to make any move today might be influenced by the cloud momentum, as well as the growing number and variety of options available.

Oracle Building Cloud Momentum

In the meantime, Oracle is building its own cloud momentum. In its latest quarter, cloud bookings of annual recurring revenue (ARR) were up 73%. Current run rate of cloud revenue puts it at $5 billion (annualized), which means Mr. Ellison is at least halfway to his goal. This includes 1,125 new SaaS customers and 908 SaaS expansions. With the NetSuite acquisition, the number of SaaS customers grew from 13,103 to over 25,000.

Yet interestingly enough, while you might think the differentiation of Oracle as the only IT company capable of supporting on-premise and cloud throughout the full stack might be most appealing to its existing customers, Oracle says most cloud customers are net new. This bodes well for Oracle being able to grab more cloud market share. But it will be even more interesting to watch and see if this cloud momentum starts to permeate through its own installed base. This would serve to further accelerate cloud revenue growth.

And Oracle’s current capacity, with 21 data centers, supported by a flat, wide network with fast storage and huge bandwidth, seems like it should be quite appealing to its own customers, comparatively speaking. In fact Oracle presented one comparison between Oracle and Amazon Web Services (AWS) done by one of its customers, showing Oracle was three to seven times faster, at half the cost. And the workload portability to an Oracle data center should be simpler and easier because Oracle can offer a choice of deployment with the same software, the same APIs, and the same commercial terms.

Oracle has outlined six different “journeys” to the cloud, five of which start with existing (legacy) on-premise solutions. This might involve optimizing on-premise before shifting to either a public cloud or a cloud at the customer’s site. It might involve lifting and shifting workloads to a public cloud, creating a new solution with PaaS or modernizing functions by moving to a new SaaS solution. The final journey is one of a new company (or division or business unit), born in the cloud.

Trek Bicycles is an example of one customer that created a new cloud solution to address a specific pain point: processing claims (repairs). Service is a huge part of Trek’s business, and dealers were spending 6-7 minutes in submitting claims, and the average retailer submits about 2,000 claims per year. Retailers renting bikes in the mountains of Europe were rising early and getting in long before the shop opened simply to enter claims. They needed a better way. So Trek created a cloud-based mobile app. Now, whether partners are in their shops or at a trade show or event, they login to TREK claim entry, send a photo, registration of the bike, and easily enter a claim in under two minutes.

Trek is one example of this hybrid world. In the back office, it is running JD Edwards on premises.

One More Stop on the Cloud Journey: The Data Cloud

There is one more piece of the cloud puzzle, or rather one more step along the cloud journey. This one involves data – not the kind of data stored in and managed by Oracle enterprise applications, but the kind of data that lets you truly understand your industry and your customers. Oracle posed a good question during the Media Day: Would you rather spend money working on ERP or getting to know your customers better?

This is a no-brainer for most companies. They would much rather invest (time, effort and money) directly in growing the business, rather than in back-office solutions that offer more indirect benefits. By putting your ERP in the cloud you are relieved of much of the burden of managing the ERP installation. By tapping into the Oracle Data Cloud you take advantage of the investments Oracle has made, investments in companies like Moat, Blue Kai and Datalogix to make big data available to fuel marketing campaigns and strategic business decisions.

Summing Up

Oracle has made very significant progress in attacking its goal of cloud domination through both organic development and acquisitions. It is the only company on the planet today that can claim to have a “full stack” including IaaS, PaaS and SaaS, while also maintaining the same categories on-premise. And it adds DaaS as frosting on the cake.

However, in order to meet its goal of being the first to reach $10 billion in cloud revenue, it will have to continue its momentum of adding new customers, but will likely need a good portion of that revenue to come from transitioning its own on-premise installed base to the cloud. Before that happens, those customers will need to see the value of the move and be confident that Oracle is the best choice to get them there.

Many companies today, including many Oracle customers, have invested a lot of blood, sweat and tears (not to mention dollars) in their current on-premise implementations. They may be loath to make any changes, particularly if they are heavily customized.

Many still view enterprise applications, like ERP, as they would brain surgery: You don’t do it unless the patient is dying. Mint Jutras has long been trying to change that way of thinking, preferring to treat it more like joint replacement. When do you replace a knee or a hip? When it becomes too painful or when it prevents you from doing what you need (or want) to do. But joint replacement is still major surgery and there is some downtime and a recovery period involved. Nobody volunteers for it without the promise of significant improvements. Oracle’s challenge will be twofold. First it must convince customers that the journey is worth the effort. And secondly, it must prove that transitioning to the Oracle cloud is less invasive surgery, with a quicker recovery period. Of course if a company just wants to lift and shift its current implementation to the cloud, its current solution provider will be its first and best choice. But this is more akin to a hosted environment. While there will be some value in doing this, it will leave many of the benefits of a true SaaS solution on the table. Of course not all of Oracle’s ERP solutions are available as SaaS today and NetSuite is the only multi-tenant SaaS ERP solution in its portfolio. But the breadth and diversity of Oracle offerings provides many different paths that might be taken. The task at hand will be to pick the right path, the one that brings the most value to the customer.

If Oracle can accomplish this, it is certainly well positioned to accelerate its own cloud journey and be the first to reach its goal.

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Meet Unit4’s Wanda

Your New Co-Pilot In “Self-Driving” ERP

Have you ever secretly wished for a personal assistant who could sense and respond to your every demand, even before you have figured out what you need? 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 clumsy olden days, a lot of us from all generations sure could use some help today.

If you are a Unit4 customer, help is on the way. Her name is Wanda. On May 2, 2017 Unit4 released its new enterprise digital assistant, Wanda, a completely new out-of-the-box ERP user experience. According to Unit4, Wanda is a core component of its Spring 2017 launch, and an important milestone on Unit4’s journey to deliver self-driving enterprise resource planning (ERP) software. As a solution provider to people-oriented businesses and non-profit organizations, Unit4 has made ERP “self-driving” by leveraging technology to optimize user interaction, allowing employees to focus on activities where people make the difference.

Who (or What) is Wanda?

Wanda is a new way of interacting with Unit4’s ERP. She makes use of natural language processing (think Siri or Alexa for ERP) and machine learning to help people automate, prioritize and complete repetitive tasks in a fraction of the time it has always taken. She makes an effective co-pilot for your self-driving ERP. As a digital assistant, Wanda is embedded in the user interface and accessed through Skype, Slack or Facebook messenger. This allows users to communicate and interact with the solution through a “chat,” much like they would with a colleague. And Wanda is smart enough to understand when multiple topics might be mixed in a single conversation, so no need to artificially compartmentalize… all without formally logging into ERP.

This is made possible through the use of Microsoft’s Language Understanding Intelligent Service (LUIS). This is the underlying technology that gives Wanda the ability to understand what a person wants through the spoken word, not codes or clicks. Five new assistants are currently available to assist customers’ employees with some of the most common (and repetitive) tasks:

  • HR Assistant helps employees with human resource (HR) related tasks like requesting paid time off and enquiring about vacation balances and pay slips.
  • Purchasing Assistant assists in finding products and suppliers, generating requisitions and managing approvals.
  • Time Assistant automatically generates timesheets based on multiple data streams. It can use GPS and beacons to determine work location and track time.
  • Travel Assistant generates travel requests and manages approvals based on travel patterns and preferences and can auto-populate expense claims using receipt recognition technology.
  • Approval Assistant notifies and reminds managers to approve tasks and flags important tasks where deadlines are looming.

An added benefit: The more you use Wanda, the smarter she gets. That’s the “self-learning” part. The travel assistant provides the perfect example. If you frequently travel to a particular location – corporate headquarters perhaps – Wanda will recognize this as a frequent destination and assist throughout the entire process, from requesting approval for travel to submitting expenses for reimbursement. She will know if you typically park your car at the airport, fly on Delta, rent a car or book a taxi or Uber. So she can auto-populate those cost elements of the travel request based on past trips. And when you scan your receipts at the end of the trip, she can distinguish between the airport parking garage and the kiosk where you buy a sandwich close by the office.

Unit4 Getting Ahead of the Curve

While not the only solution provider on the market to be working on chat bots and virtual assistants, Mint Jutras would say it is ahead of the curve in terms of the depth and breadth of the offering. Adoption, and even familiarity with this type of technology is still nascent.

Our 2017 Mint Jutras Enterprise Solution Study sought to determine the level of familiarity with several different digital technologies, including virtual personal assistants for employees. We found almost half (47%) of our respondents either not familiar or only somewhat familiar with this type of technology and only 12% with it deployed or in the process of deploying. However, we find those with World Class implementations are far more familiar and more than three times as likely to be deploying (Figure 1). While having a World Class implementation of ERP doesn’t automatically make you a World Class company, we do see these top performers exceeding their peers when we look at efficiency (cost reduction) and current performance in metrics like complete and on-time delivery to customers.

Figure 1: What level of familiarity do you have with virtual personal assistants for employees?

Source: Mint Jutras 2017 Enterprise Solution Study

By using technology such this from Microsoft as building blocks, Unit4 can now take people productivity to completely new levels. Self-driving ERP automates manual tasks, freeing up people to do what automation can’t. Let Wanda do the repeatable, repetitive tasks while you handle the exceptions. Let Wanda sense potential problems or bottleneck while you concentrate on discovering potential opportunities. Let Wanda make intelligent and sensible recommendations while you make informed, data-driven decisions. Make room for Wanda, your new co-pilot, right beside you in the driver’s seat.

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Exact’s New UX for Macola 10.5: More Than Just a Pretty Face

Adding Functionality and Value Too

At its annual user conference Macola Evolve 2017 in New Orleans (April 20, 2017), Exact unveiled Macola 10.5. Much of the new release of its enterprise resource planning (ERP) software is focused on enhancing the usability of the software with new tablet-led user interfaces, “aligning with how and where manufacturing and wholesale distribution customers use the software on a day-to-day basis.” While new user interfaces are often just about screen navigation and visual appeal, the new usability features of Macola 10.5 add more than just a pretty new face. They make existing functionality more visible and accessible, while also adding new functionality. Will Macola users fall into the typical trap of resisting change or will they welcome it with open arms? It’s all about perceived value.

Overcoming Resistance to Change

It is not uncommon today for ERP solution providers to be transforming the user experience. In fact, it is almost a necessity. After all, the millennial generation grew up with technology in the palms of their hands. The concept of a user manual is as foreign to them as vinyl records and turntables. But with the introduction of so many consumer applications on mobile devices, even Baby Boomers have succumbed to the siren call of mobile technology and have become much more demanding of user interfaces. It’s called “the consumerization of IT” and it is a very real phenomenon. We demand truly intuitive screens and touch technology.

But this isn’t the first time user interfaces have undergone a transformation. Those of us in the older generation remember the “green screens” of yesteryear. And we also remember how difficult it was to get the users to abandon those green screens in favor of a graphical user interface (GUI). When GUIs were first introduced in a major release, if you asked a typical user, “What was the hardest part of the upgrade to the new release?” the answer was almost universally, “The new user interface.” It was a real struggle to get the users to abandon the devil they knew. But if you asked the follow on question, “What was the best value delivered with the upgrade?” the answer was almost universally, “The new user interface.” Even though transitions were tough, they proved worth the effort.

So what have we learned from this prior transition? The key to overcoming resistance is to add value. Even if you hate the existing user interface, once you get used to it, it is indeed the devil you know. But if the new user interface is just different, adds nothing new, doesn’t solve a problem, then you can’t blame the user for resisting.

Personal experience at the Macola Evolve event provides us with an analogy. The event was held at the Sheraton Hotel on Canal Street in New Orleans, right on the border of the French Quarter. A popular location for events of this size, I had been to several located in this 41-story hotel, but they were all held 15+ years ago. Since then, the Sheraton had installed new “smart” elevators. These smart elevators had a new “user interface.” Instead of just pressing the up or down arrow, you entered the floor you wanted to go to as you were calling the elevator. This eliminated the need for any buttons inside the elevator itself. I loved them.

Interestingly one of the main stage presenters at the event, a Chief Information Officer (CIO) at a manufacturer of consumer products, bemoaned this new elevator user interface. He hated it. He wanted the old buttons back inside the car.

Why did this CIO resist them, while I embraced them? Well, for one thing, it provided him with a tongue-in-cheek example of how IT projects would go so much more smoothly if it weren’t for the users. Just kidding, but put something new in front of them, and they are likely to baulk. I would partially agree, but only if what you put in front of them doesn’t immediately solve a problem or add real value. I loved the new elevators because they solved a problem I had recently experienced.

The previous week I was at an event with sessions on three different floors of a hotel. Not only did the hotel not have enough elevators, they didn’t provide any access to stairs (so no work-around). This caused a severe bottleneck. But as one elevator was filled and more people wanted to get on, they couldn’t just press the up or down button because that would cause the doors of the filled car to reopen. They had to wait until it was away to call the next one. And there was no way to organize the group by destination so every elevator stopped at every floor.

With the smart elevator, each passenger could enter his or her destination in advance. This not only allowed the elevator(s) to optimize the routes, often making them express to a particular floor, but never recalled a full elevator car. And a new one was coming before the full one was away.

The CIO’s perception: they took away my buttons. My perception: they made the elevators smart and my ride faster. There are two lessons here. The first to the CIO: Never introduce a new upgrade without being able to convey the value. The second to the solution provider: It’s not enough to just put a pretty face on the software. Make it do more.

Is Macola 10.5 Adding Value?

Macola 10.5 does have a pretty new face. The look and feel is a radical departure from prior releases. The goals from a visual perspective were to strive for clarity, avoiding clutter. And yet users tend to want and need lots of data for insights and decision-making. Power users in particular are likely to ask for more and more data at their fingertips. But the more you add to the screen, the longer it takes a user to react and respond.

Exact has reconciled these two apparently contradictory needs with something called “progressive disclosure.” Simply put, make that added data available, but hide it until you press the little arrow that signals you want more. Progressive disclosure adds more functionality to any particular screen without necessarily adding clutter.

This is particularly important as users move from desktops and laptops to tablets and even smart phones. It’s called “responsive design.” Exact starts with a tablet-first design. A tablet is more constrained in size. Size and fonts, use of color and contrast become more important for visual clarity, along with the ability to collapse or expand sections to take better advantage of the real estate on the screen. A tablet has touch access, but no mouse. Think about how you often use a mouse today to hover over a field to get more information. No mouse, no hover. That hover is a sort of search and help mechanism.

Therefore the way you search needs to change. Think about texting or typing on your smart phone. Once you start typing the word, it gives you suggestions for finishing it. Do you ever miss that when you are typing a document or accessing ERP from your desktop or laptop? Of course you do. You will start to miss it even more when you get used to Macola 10.5 giving you similar suggestions. Start typing a customer name in order entry and Macola 10.5 will show you a list of who you might be looking for, just like your email does when you start typing an email address with which you have communicated previously.

Macola 10.5 is not only striving for clarity, but combining the best features of your different worlds – smart phone, tablet, laptop, email, ERP, etc. – whether you are at your desk or on the move. The goal is to preserve the power of the solution while reducing the complexity of how you interact with the solution and the data.

What Users Want

These added bits of functionality bring value just like the smart elevator brings speed and efficiency. But if usability is the ultimate goal, do these efforts align with what users want? The 2017 Mint Jutras Enterprise Solution Study asked survey participants to select the top three most important elements of ease of use (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Most Important Elements of Ease of Use (top 3 selected)

Source: Mint Jutras 2017 Enterprise Solution Study

We find speed and efficiency at the very top of the list. Macola 10.5’s progressive disclosure, device independence, type-ahead search that requires less data to be entered, infinite scrolling and sort-able table columns all speak to speed and efficiency.

Of course with intuitive navigation, second on the list, the proof is in putting your hands on it. If you are an Exact customer or prospect, ask for a demo. But don’t be content to watch one of the Macola experts demonstrate the new user interface. Of course it seems intuitive when you are watching someone who’s done it about a million times. You will only know if it is intuitive if you try to use it with little or no instruction. We think the software will speak for itself, but you need to be the judge.

Third on our list is “Easy access from anywhere, any time.” Loosely translated, this means cloud. Cloud brings tremendous value, but cloud-based software as a service (SaaS) brings more. What’s the difference?

  • 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.

All SaaS is cloud computing, but not all cloud computing is SaaS. Traditional on-premise or hosted solutions might (or might not) be accessed via the cloud, although this is more likely to be a private cloud.

We could write volumes on the benefits of cloud and/or SaaS. For many, cost savings are the prime advantage. Beyond cost considerations, the other types of possible benefits include:

  • More innovation through more frequent updates
  • Better support of distributed environments and remote workforces
  • Risk mitigation

Macola has been available to run in the cloud for a long time. Everything demonstrated at Macola Evolve 2017 was running in Microsoft Azure.

And finally, rounding out the top four most important elements of ease of use is “Does what I need it to do easily and naturally.” This was a primary goal of Macola 10.5. “In any given day, our customers may be on the shop or warehouse floor managing operations, out of the office visiting customers or suppliers, or sourcing new materials. The latest update to our ERP and business software is focused on empowering users to more efficiently and seamlessly access the information they need to do their jobs, wherever they are at the time,” said Derek Ochs, director of development, Exact, Macola division. “With Macola 10.5, we are matching our software to the way our customers do their jobs. In the end, if Macola is truly doing its own job, the user hardly knows the software is there.”

Beyond Macola 10.5

Of course Exact will continue to develop its road map for Macola. But in addition it is also experimenting with a new “hackathon” approach. Periodically it takes teams of developers across all divisions of Exact and allows them to work on any new idea they might come up with, encouraging them to be creative and courageous. This can result in some pretty cool stuff that may or may not ever get into the product.

One that we think is very likely to make it in is a new login screen that uses facial recognition. Think about collecting transactions on a shop floor. Seldom does every worker have his or her own device for data entry to collect hours worked and quantity completed. At the lunch break or the end of a shift, are they queued up to record a half or full day of work? If so, wouldn’t it be great if they could just walk up to a screen and the system would automatically recognized them, log them in and maybe even bring up the production order in process? How much time and aggravation would that save?

Or how about a Macola Chat Bot (based on Microsoft’s bot engine) to do basic things in Macola just by chatting with it using Skype? Perhaps this might be an alternative user interface for occasional users so they don’t have to understand the system in order to get data and answers from it. Or how about a preferences engine that might suggest other items that are likely to be purchased as you add a line item in order entry?

These are just a few examples of sprint-like projects that are being conceived and developed through these hackathons. None of these are out of the realm of possibility with technology available today. Perhaps the biggest stumbling block to moving forward with these potential innovations is a lack of familiarity, and therefore appreciation for what technology can do today.

In our 2017 Mint Jutras Enterprise Solution Study we selected 14 different kinds of technology and asked respondents to assess their level of familiarity with each in terms of how they relate (or not) to their business. All respondents were asked about all 14, even though we realize some are more relevant to some industries than to others. Those shaded in the lighter green are primarily applicable to those making and/or moving a physical product, while those in the darker green are likely to be applied more universally (Table 1).

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

Source: Mint Jutras 2017 Enterprise Solution Study

Adoption rates are still quite low and in many instances, those that have little or no familiarity outnumber those that understand it well. So in many cases Exact can’t rely on its customers to ask for these features. But even if customers aren’t pushing in this direction, perhaps Exact can pull them along, potentially transforming businesses as it does.

 Summary

Macola 10.5 brings some added new features and functions along with its pretty new face. These include:

  • A newly re-architected tablet-led user interface that uses size and fonts, color and contrast or added visual clarity, along with the ability to collapse or expand sections to take better advantage of the real estate on the screen
  • Progressive disclosure, keeping added detail (clutter) hidden until needed
  • Responsive design of software, which behaves differently depending on the device in use
  • Special search capabilities that ask the question as you type, “Did you mean…?”
  • Intuitive screens (but don’t take our word for it, see for yourself)
  • Available in the cloud

These are exciting times for the developers at Exact. If you are a customer, share in their excitement. If you are considering replacing your current ERP solution, Macola is definitely worth a look. Dive in to Macola 10.5 to see what you are missing.

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Are Digital Technologies for Everyone?

Understanding Just How Well They are Understood and Valued

Industry pundits have been hyping “digital transformation” and “digital technologies” for several years now. This hype tends to make ample reference to the consumer technologies that are indeed making an impact on our personal lives: connected homes, self-driving cars, wearable fitness devices and every kind of “app” you can think of on your smart phone or tablet. That’s easy. The hard part is connecting this transformation to the workplace and the enterprise in a way that seems to bring real value. The pundits make the assumption that these technologies are well-understood and perceived as valuable. But are they?

I don’t make any such assumptions and the results from questions on digital preparedness in my annual enterprise solution study last year confirmed many decision makers are fooling themselves with a false sense of security. While 88% agreed that embracing digital technologies was necessary for survival, the majority still rely at least in part on spreadsheets for something as common as the system of record of business transactions. That contradiction led me to investigate just how well understood various technologies are, and whether value is perceived as real.

How Well Do You Understand?

We are still actively collecting data from this year’s study, but at this point in time we’ve captured over 500 responses – enough to make some early observations. Participants represented a wide range of industries and companies of all sizes, from small to very large.

We selected 14 different kinds of technology and asked respondents to assess their level of familiarity with each in terms of how they relate (or not) to their business. All respondents were asked about all 14, even though we realize some are more relevant to some industries than to others. Those shaded in the lighter green are primarily applicable to those making and/or moving a physical product, while those in the darker green are likely to be applied more universally.

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

Source: Mint Jutras 2017 Enterprise Solution Study

There is a lot of data and insight buried in this table and there are countless different ways we can cut it and present it. One way of analyzing the data is to divide participants into two groups: those that have no familiarity or are only somewhat familiar with a technology, and those that understand it well. We presume those that have deployed or are deploying it fall into the latter category. Figure 1 depicts this dichotomy graphically.

Figure 1: Either you “get it” or you don’t

Source: Mint Jutras 2017 Enterprise Solution Study

We seem to be all over the map here, with those that utilize increasingly large volumes of data to provide intelligence most well understood. And yet we don’t see a big uptake in terms of deployment (Figure 2). Only 10% to 20% have even begun deploying the technologies that are most well understood and many just don’t see the applicability to their business.

Figure 2: Deployment Lags Understanding

Source: Mint Jutras 2017 Enterprise Solution Study

Is this due to a lack of education or is it because they really don’t apply? I think it is a little of both. While I still want to do a deeper dive by industry, two preliminary data cuts told me a whole lot. First of all, those that fall into my category of “World Class” have a far greater knowledge and appreciation for these technologies. Just look at the difference in adoption rate (Figure 3) between World Class and All Others.

Figure 3: World Class Deploy More

Source: Mint Jutras 2017 Enterprise Solution Study

Note that I define World Class (the top 15%) through the results achieved since implementing the software that runs the business and progress against company goals. This is not a “world class company” as much as world class use of technology, although better use of technology very often correlates with better company performance in terms of growth and profits. So we’re not surprised to see a higher level of understanding and more adoption in companies that have achieved World Class status.

However, we also recognize that while deployment is about the company, understanding and perception of value is more about the individual. And this is where the second data cut was quite revealing. I looked at levels of understanding based on the age of the survey participants, the vast majority of which fell into the categories of Baby Boomers (23%), Gen Xers (53%) and Millennials (23%).

Figure 4: Millennials Understand Better

Source: Mint Jutras 2017 Enterprise Solution Study

It is quite clear that the level of understanding of these technologies is inversely proportional to age. This doesn’t mean Millennials are smarter. They were simply born in an age where we rely on technology to make life easier, while Baby Boomers grew up doing things the hard way. In terms of seeing the value, Baby Boomers are definitely harder to convince.

As a Baby Boomer, I am skeptical of technology making us stupid and lazy. I see many examples of this in consumer technology. Smart refrigerators are the perfect example. A simple, online search came up with this:

The Samsung Family Hub fridge has a giant touchscreen built into one of its doors, complete with an app you can use to order groceries online. A line of cameras on the inside will send a picture to your phone when you’re out shopping. An app on the fridge for Samsung’s SmartThings smart home service will let you control your lights, your thermostat, and other connected products right from your refrigerator door.”

My reaction: Really? You need this to manage the inventory of your refrigerator? Are you constantly running out of milk? You can’t flip a light switch or remember to turn down the heat when you leave or go to bed? You want your refrigerator to do that? You really think you’ll save a measurable amount of energy by not having to open the door?

The reaction of my 28-year-old nephew? While he didn’t spring for the Samsung $5,000 model, he did buy a smart refrigerator.

The risk I face is overlooking something that will make a significant impact. The risk my nephew faces is spending too much for too little real value… while perhaps becoming stupid and lazy. But there is hope for both of us. I did invest in a video doorbell this past year, resulting in improved security. Not to mention the fact I actually know when someone is at the door even though my hearing isn’t what it used to be. And my nephew never runs out of milk now and still saved enough money to renovate his kitchen, increasing the resale value of his home.

The lesson for businesses to learn: educate yourself on the real value, but scrutinize the return on investment. Over the next few weeks and months, look for me to dive deeper into these different technologies for help in both areas.

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Deltek iAccess: More Than Just a Pretty Face

Deltek’s Secret Sauce to Innovation

Deltek is laser-focused on meeting the needs of project-driven businesses. Unlike a myriad of solution providers that simply provide software used to manage the projects themselves, Deltek takes a giant leap beyond, also providing software that runs the projects-based business. This type of software is typically referred to as enterprise resource planning (ERP). But in Deltek’s case we’re not only talking about ERP, but also a special kind of ERP.

Over the years, through organic development and acquisition, Deltek has collected a dizzying array of products: specialized enterprise solutions for government contractors and a wide range of professional services organizations including architecture and engineering (A&E) firms, management consultants, advertising, PR and marketing agencies and more. The one thing all these segments have in common is this: They are all people-centric, providing services, largely delivered through projects.

Beyond this point of commonality, they can be very different. They don’t go after the same type of business; their customers are worlds apart; some are heavily regulated; others operate under few constraints. Some are small; others are large. Some manage projects that last days or weeks and others span multiple years. A general-purpose kind of solution just doesn’t work well here.

This leaves Deltek with a rather difficult challenge of providing continued innovation across a broad portfolio of products, but a challenge the company has embraced with vigor. What is the secret sauce to keeping a potentially diverse set of customers able to keep up with the demanding requirements of our digital economy? Deltek iAccess.

What is Deltek iAccess?

Deltek describes iAccess as an “Easy to use front office solution.” But unless you count each and every employee in a project-driven firm as an occupant of the front office, you completely underestimate what iAccess can do. Mint Jutras would suggest you think of it instead as a front door, an entry point into some of the most critical functions performed in a project-based business.

As a front end to Deltek’s ERP solutions, iAccess provides a new way to navigate and therefore it does provide a new user interface, which will eventually work its way throughout the various applications. iAccess will supplant previous user interface efforts such as the Maconomy Portal and Vision Smart Client. But for the functions it serves today, it is more than just a user interface.

Three Workspaces Touch Much of the Organization

Deltek iAccess is more like an extension of your Deltek ERP. Today it provides three distinct workspaces that are specific to three different functions performed by employees and in doing so, covers much of what is accomplished in a project-based business:

  • Business Development Workspace provides a lot of the functionality typically associated with sales force automation, supporting those charged with developing business, including managing clients, contacts and opportunities
  • Project Management Workspace helps project managers monitor projects and identify problems before it’s too late
  • Employee Workspace makes it easier to keep timesheets and expense reports up to date from anywhere

While Deltek iAccess is browser-based, all three workspaces are available and integrated with both cloud-based software as a service (SaaS) and on-premise deployments of ERP. And it also provides a uniform look and feel across multiple products. Of course each Deltek customer will likely be running only one of Deltek’s ERP solutions, but all the features and functions required are not necessarily embedded within ERP. In fact Deltek has been smart in delivering extended functionality, particularly in light of its diverse portfolio of products.

Consistent Look and Feel Across Extended Products

Deltek has been delivering more and more functionality via cloud-based add-ons, including Deltek CRM, Deltek Resource Planning (RP) 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 while also fostering engagement at all levels of the organization.

In days gone by a select few ever put their hands directly on ERP. Today we find over 50% of employees typically have direct access. The access any time, from anywhere advantage of the cloud has contributed to this rise in engagement, but also ease of use and intuitive navigation. The prevalence of consumer technology has changed expectations and the user experience delivered through iAccess is meeting and exceeding those expectations.

More Innovation, Easier to Consume

This kind of approach is also smart. It leverages development efforts across a range of products and should ultimately allow Deltek to deliver more innovation across its entire portfolio. While the needs of project-based businesses vary across different industries, they do share some common requirements.

The fact that these new modules/components are cloud-based is also significant. All three of its major product lines (Costpoint, Vision and Maconomy) have all made the transition into the cloud and are offered as multi-tenant SaaS solutions. Note the applications are multi-tenant but each customer has its own instance of the data base, and Deltek does have an Enterprise Cloud offering for those customers that require a single instance type environment. Multi-tenant SaaS solutions have the most potential for delivering more innovation, faster.

The fact that these new modules are delivered as add-on components is equally important. It addresses two key issues. First, as noted earlier, it allows Deltek to leverage development efforts across a range of products and should ultimately allow Deltek to deliver more innovation across its entire portfolio. Secondly, it makes it much easier for its customers to consume innovation.

Adding new functionality to ERP in a way that makes it easy to consume has long been a challenge. The very definition of ERP (at least the definition according to Mint Jutras) contributes to this challenge. Mint Jutras defines ERP as an integrated suite of modules that forms the operational and transactional system of record of a business.

A core ERP solution has historically been a monolithic structure. Not only do all modules of an ERP solution share a common database, but also all are developed using the same tools and technology (platform) and traditionally they all move forward in lock step. This eliminates data redundancy and any need for separate integration efforts. And a common platform for development is beneficial to both the customer and the vendor.

When new features and functions are added to ERP, this tight integration implies that all modules, all functions, and therefore all departments within an organization must move forward together. This can slow down the upgrade cycle. But even more troublesome: It takes massive efforts of coordination for all departments within a customer’s organization to take those next steps all together. And all might not have the same level of motivation.

So what’s the alternative to this tight integration? The alternative is often referred to these days as “loosely coupled,” but that terminology frequently conjures the “best of breed” approach of yesterday, where you had independent point solutions that needed to be interfaced or integrated back into ERP. We’re not advocating taking a step backwards. Perhaps a better way of describing the newer alternative would be “component-based” or “service-based.” Deltek’s add-on solutions (CRM, RP, Talent Management) are good examples.

When it comes time to offer up new features and functions, instead of inserting lines of code directly into ERP, you might instead call upon a standard “service.” When it comes time to upgrade or add new functionality, simply swap out the old “service” for the new. You might also view these services as external components. While this is an oversimplification, it conceptually describes how next generation ERP can effectively deliver new, targeted innovation without forcing all departments served by ERP to march forward together.

Innovation has never been more important than it is today. We live in disruptive times.

Handling Disruption

We asked survey participants in our 2016 Mint Jutras Enterprise Solution Study to estimate the level of risk they face in their industry (and therefore their business) being disrupted (Figure 1). We found 88% of companies believe they face some level of risk in their businesses and/or industries being disrupted by new innovative products, new ways of selling or pricing existing products or services, entirely new business models, or some combination of all of the above.

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

deltek-fig-1Source: Mint Jutras 2016 Enterprise Solution Study

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

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. The Internet has leveled the playing field, allowing even small to midsize companies to establish a global presence and take advantage of unprecedented growth opportunities. But with these opportunities come change and the need for more (not less) innovation.

Wrap Up

Deltek iAccess is indeed more than just a pretty face. It is the face of innovation. It not only provides easier access and intuitive navigation, it adds functionality. When coupled with other cloud-based components, it will help Deltek handle universal needs while also delivering purpose-built functionality specific to different types of project-driven businesses. That is Deltek’s secret sauce.

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SYSPRO Delivers on the Practical Side of Digital Technologies

Bringing Technology, People and Processes Together In a Winning Combination

Advanced technologies and automation have been transforming manufacturing and distribution for decades now. Through these advances we have streamlined production and eliminated waste and variability. We make products better and faster. But the digital technologies of today, those that serve to connect operations, people and processes through the power of the Internet, have the potential of fundamentally changing the way we do business. Eighty-two percent (82%) of manufacturers participating in the 2016 Mint Jutras Enterprise Solution Study agree and 86% understand that embracing digital technologies is necessary for survival.

And yet few manufacturers seem to fully grasp the potential digital technologies have to truly change the game. In some ways, this is perfectly understandable. While we are constantly bombarded with examples of how digital technologies can transform our world, most of the examples fall into the category of consumer technology (social, home, shopping, fitness…). The reference to this technology in the context of the enterprise is very often at a level of abstraction that leaves down-to-earth manufacturers either scratching their collective heads or thinking it is way beyond their reach. While we might buy the latest consumer gadget just because we can, manufacturers and distributors make investment decisions with their feet planted firmly on the ground.

This is why SYSPRO is announcing six new capabilities that help manufacturers and distributors take practical advantage of advanced digital technologies. If you are one of these pragmatic individuals, you might be so busy dealing with day-to-day challenges that you let inertia keep you mired in spreadsheets and paper. If so, you’re not alone. But don’t let that stop you. SYSPRO’s new advanced capabilities might be just what you need to justify that leap into digital transformation.

Do Manufacturers and Distributors Care?

As noted above, the majority of manufacturers and distributors today have an appreciation for the significance of digital technologies. In our 2016 Mint Jutras Enterprise Solution Study we asked survey participants how much they agreed with various statements about these new, advanced technologies (Table 1).

Table 1: How strongly do you agree or disagree with the following?

syspro-table-3Source: Mint Jutras 2016 Enterprise Solution Study

Only 3% to 6% disagreed at all with any of the statements above and a relatively small percentage was neutral. The majority of those in manufacturing and distribution companies today understand that digital technologies can not only facilitate the connection between companies, people and processes, but can also automate the connection between different enterprise systems. Whether this is a continuation of your current plans for information technology (IT) and/or automation, or a brand new direction, you need to implement them in order to forge that connection. While 86% agree these technologies are necessary for basic survival, we find evidence they have not been embraced with the level of priority and urgency that will give companies a competitive advantage.

Table 2: To what extent are these activities performed/managed digitally?

syspro-table-2Source: Mint Jutras 2016 Enterprise Solution Study

Table 2 is a sad reminder of the continued prevalence of spreadsheets and paper. Of course some use of spreadsheets is simply the result of familiarity and comfort level. But that doesn’t make it any less troublesome or the data any more real-time.

Come to find out, SYSPRO USA also gathered its own intelligence on this topic through one of its SNAP surveys, sent to its own customers. From this latest poll, SYSPRO concluded, “Companies are confused or have never heard about the newest, high-impact technologies.” This conclusion was based on the question: “Have you read or heard about [insert technology]?” The technologies included were predictive analytics, the Internet of Things (IoT) and bots. In each case, less than half (about 45%) said “Yes.” The remainder said, “No, I don’t know” or, in the case of bots, “Not sure.”

While this actually could help explain this lack of urgency, Mint Jutras interprets the answers a little differently. Individuals may be confused, but more likely these responses indicate they simply are not paying attention and therefore don’t make the connection between problems and challenges faced and digital technologies. For those that follow technology trends closely, the hype over digital technologies is impossible to miss. But your typical manufacturing or distribution professionals are far less likely to follow technology just for the sake of technology. They are far too busy fighting those pesky fires on a day to day basis.

Talking about predictive analytics won’t get their attention. Talking about ways to better forecast demand or predict revenue and profits might. Connecting the dots is not only practical, but also a winning combination.

Discussing the Internet of Things is an intellectual discussion. Suggesting ways to make better use of data captured today on the shop floor (i.e. through the IoT), whether it is for the purpose of increasing throughput or quality or customer service, is not only practical, but also a winning combination.

Bots in general still seem quite futuristic and “pie in the sky” to many, in spite of the fact that all kinds of production and material handling automation is already quite prevalent in many manufacturing and distribution companies. But investment in that kind of automation has traditionally been expressly for the purpose of making and/or moving more product, better and faster, not making the business itself, or the people that run it any more productive or efficient. But think about where supervisors and managers can be the most effective – not sitting at their desks, but out on the floor. The problem in the past arose from the fact that as soon as they leave the comfort of their offices and venture out on the floor, they have been instantly disconnected from enterprise data. Demonstrating how communicating with devices in a hands-free manner can facilitate control and decision-making is not only practical, but also a winning combination.

That’s really what SYSPRO’s new capabilities are all about: practical ways of bringing technology, people and processes together in a winning combination.

SYSPRO’s New Digital Capabilities

So what are these new capabilities? They combine the power of digital technologies with analytics, cloud deployment, big data and some other cool, high-impact technologies like that used for facial recognition. But think beyond faces; think about blemishes on raw ingredients, components or fabricated products. Here’s the rundown:

SYSPRO Azure Cloud Platform

SYSPRO has teamed up with Microsoft to deliver infrastructure as a service (IaaS) now and platform as a service (PaaS) in 2017. SYSPRO’s ERP will be delivered in the Azure cloud in 2016, but will also move beyond this to deliver the SYSPRO Azure Operation Center. This is more than just a data center. It will be staffed with SYSPRO employees that will provide managed services to assist companies looking to move from on-premise to cloud deployments. Early on SYSPRO customers may want to lift and shift from existing on-premise deployment and then move more fully into a SaaS environment in order to take full advantage of software as a service (SaaS). But these SYSPRO employees will also be available for new installations and will be armed with templates and tools for rapid deployment.

Additional services offered will include backups of course, but also system monitoring, incident management, disaster recovery and high availability (think automatic rollover and scaling).

Mint Jutras research finds SaaS deployment is the most preferred option for new deployments, but the market will be in transition for the next ten years or more because there are simply so many on-premise deployments today. The inertia that keeps manufacturers and distributors from actively researching and investigating new technologies is the same inertia that keeps these solutions in place long after their glory years. SYSPRO can help make that transition smoother and more appealing.

SYSPRO Harmony

SYSPRO describes this as a “cloud-based multi-user experience platform that unites social media capabilities, internal/external collaboration, machine learning, cognitive services and data analytics into a single offering for accomplishing targeted or highly complex tasks.” That’s a mouthful. What does it really mean?

To the manufacturing or distribution professional who might think “social” is something employees should do on their own free time, think of it more as an application that lets you keep your finger on the pulse of all the “stuff” going on concerning your production, orders, operations and finances.

Many business leaders in manufacturing and distribution companies downplay the importance of “social” capabilities, equating them to social media. But when we break down the really useful capabilities, and don’t necessarily label them as “social” we get a very different response. Suddenly these concepts become useful or even “must have!”

Table 3: Would these capabilities be useful? Shhh… don’t call them “social”

syspro-table-1Source: Mint Jutras 2016 Enterprise Solution Study

If you aren’t already a fan of “social” the concept of “following” might not seem familiar to you. But chances are, you are already following someone or something either in your professional or personal life. Perhaps you follow the stock price of specific companies, or you watch a stock exchange like NASDAQ or the Nikkei. Or maybe you follow the stats of your favorite sports teams. Maybe you do that through newspapers, online or using an app on your mobile device. Perhaps newsfeeds are delivered to you through email. Regardless of the delivery method, the objective is to stay informed.

What if you could easily apply that same concept to your customers, orders or prospects? Perhaps you need to keep tabs on that big deal you hope to close by the end of the quarter. Wouldn’t it also be helpful to “follow” the trail of activity that has already occurred during the sales cycle? What if you could see the conversations or chatter between sales rep and manager? What documents have been delivered to the prospect? And what if this potential deal is with an existing customer? Wouldn’t you like to be able to scroll through the support activity over the past few months, including the calls, issues, resolutions? Has the customer experienced any quality or delivery issues? Have they been consistently paying their bills on time or is their outstanding balance over 90 days?

And what if all that activity was collected for you and presented in a single stream? The result of monitoring these types of activity streams is fewer surprises and more proactive versus reactive management. And to present this coherently you need a “consumer grade” user interface. This is what SYSPRO Harmony is all about.

SYSPRO Predictive Search

Enterprise search capabilities should be quite self-explanatory, but don’t mistake just any kind of current search capability for a true enterprise search. Of course you can look up a part by its description or a customer number by the customer’s name. ERP solutions have had this kind of search capability since the 1990’s. But can you search across your entire enterprise database for any reference to a particular customer, including contacts, conversations, sales orders, invoices, dunning notices, cash receipts? It’s not entirely clear when “Google” became a verb, but can you “Google” your customer and include the data in your ERP?

SYSPRO’s Predictive Search can be used to search like this within the confines of your ERP. It is predictive just like your consumer device or your productivity tools (think email and messaging) are predictive. You start typing and it anticipates what you are looking for. And best of all, it puts that search into a specific context of a customer or an order or any relevant business object.

SYSPRO BOTS

Sometimes you might think when you are looking for an answer to your question, “Wouldn’t it be nice if I could just ask for something in plain English?” Many smart phones today allow you to do just that, using voice activated commands. You say, “Hey Siri” and an automated bot responds. With SYSPRO Bots, you initiate a similar conversation with, “Hey chatbot.” And guess who and what is at your service? It is actually a self-service agent lurking in the background, one that never needs a coffe break or a day off.

SYSPRO Webviews (User Interface)

SYSPRO has completely rethought dashboards, making them configurable to the extent that a single individual can construct his or her own “single view” of the world. Tailorable by power users (without the assistance of a developer), the traditional “read only” view of the world becomes interactive. For example, an order can be released from a dashboard via a single click – no need to open it up, browse through and then take action.

The Age of Digital Disruption

Eighty-one percent (81%) of manufacturers and distributors agree that embracing digital technologies will give them a competitive advantage. And yet 77% to 91% still rely at least partially on spreadsheets or (even worse) manual efforts to plan and manage activities. This is a far cry from “embracing” digital. So what are they waiting for? What are you waiting for?

The Internet levels the playing field in our global economy, allowing companies of any size to establish a presence and compete on a global basis. That’s the good news. The bad news is that those same windows of opportunity you might encounter, are also open to your competitors. And those competitors come in many different shapes and sizes. So as you take your place on the world stage, be careful what you wish for. The enterprise applications that got you where you are today simply may not be able to take you where you need to go. In order to participate and become a real player, you need to embrace the cloud and take advantage of digital technologies in many different shapes and forms.

The age of digital disruption is upon us. As a result, you better be pretty flexible in terms of where you want – and need – to go. Giving examples like Uber, which disrupted the taxi industry, Airbnb, which disrupted hospitality and Netflix and iTunes, which disrupted entertainment, we asked our 2016 Mint Jutras Enterprise Solution Study participants, “How much risk do you face in your industry being disrupted?” Figure 1 shows the majority (79%) peg the risk as low to medium. But how do you think the taxi industry would have responded shortly before Uber came on the scene? These kinds of game-changing disruptions can occur right out of the blue. Are you ready? Would you survive?

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

syspro-fig-1Source: Mint Jutras 2016 Enterprise Solution Study

What will be the compelling events that drive this disruption? Will it come from the introduction of new products or from new ways of selling/pricing existing products, or entirely new business models? Or might it come from some combination of sources, making it even more unpredictable?

Are You Listening?

Manufacturers and distributors face difficult challenges, not only in the possibility of disruption, but just in dealing with the increasing complexities of an already complex world. You don’t have time to constantly surf the web and other information sources looking for that one new digital technology that just might change the game (and your life). So in keeping abreast of new, potentially high-impact technologies, select your source carefully. SYSPRO has the practical experience, the vision, the expertise and the platform to deliver. If you are looking to better embrace digital technologies for practical use, to connect enterprise systems directly to people and processes, to gain a competitive advantage… SYSPRO speaks your language.

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What Acumatica 6 Means to Digital Transformation

Productivity, Analytics, Technology

The Internet levels the playing field in our global economy, allowing companies of any size to establish a presence and compete on a global scale. But in order to fully participate in this global, digital economy, most companies must undergo a digital transformation. Digital technologies of today, those that serve to connect operations, people and processes through the power of the Internet, have the potential of fundamentally changing the way we do business. Eighty-four percent (84%) of companies participating in the 2016 Mint Jutras Enterprise Solution Study agree and 88% understand that embracing digital technologies is necessary for survival.

And yet we find evidence most have not embraced “digital” with the level of priority and urgency that will give them a competitive advantage. Almost half still rely on paper and/or manual processes for maintaining their operational and transactional systems of record. And 71% to 82% still rely at least partially on spreadsheets or manual processes to plan and manage key elements of their businesses. Why is that?

Oftentimes it is because the “digital” hype focuses either on consumer technology (social, home, shopping, fitness, etc.) or is discussed at such an advanced (and abstract) level that your typical business leader just can’t figure out how to get from here to there.

Acumatica is looking to change that and its latest release of its cloud ERP, Acumatica 6, provides us with some good examples of how it is going about it.acumatica6

Click here to read the full report.

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Plex Systems Hits the Acquisition Trail

Earlier this month Plex Systems announced its first (ever) acquisition. On August 9, 2016, Plex revealed it had acquired DemandCaster, essentially stretching the end points of its end-to-end cloud-based solution for manufacturers. Adding DemandCaster’s Supply Chain Planning (SCP) solutions to its enterprise resource planning (ERP) and manufacturing execution system (MES) means Plex now has the most complete suite of products of any independent cloud-native solution provider targeting manufacturing.

As I noted in a recent post, there are several reasons for one company to acquire another, one of which being to:

Fill a product gap: It can be far easier to acquire functionality than to develop it yourself. This can make the company more competitive, provide cross-sell and up-sell opportunity, or both. But don’t assume there is any M&A pixie dust that will magically integrate products overnight.

This is clearly Plex’s intent here, adding SCP to an already robust ERP and MES offering. But in this case, no M&A pixie dust is required. Plex and DemandCaster have been partnering together for about a year and already 10 out of DemandCaster’s 50 customers are also Plex customers. The integration is complete and bidirectional.

Partnering turned out to be a great way for the two companies to get to know each other and Plex was already positioning (and white labeling) DemandCaster as its answer to supply chain planning, sales and operation planning (S&OP), practical forecasting and demand planning, distribution requirements planning (DRP) and multi-site master production scheduling (MPS).

The solution, which is based on Microsoft technology, is highly graphical and was built from scratch as a multi-tenant SaaS solution. And the functionality is 100% complementary. The company is based in Chicago, but has a team of developers in Bulgaria, which could prove to be an additional plus in being a great entry point for Plex in attacking the eastern European market.

While acquisitions have a tendency to cause disruption, fear, uncertainty and doubt, if there ever was one immune to that disruption, this is the one. The entire staff of DemandCaster, including founder and CEO Ara Surenian, will come on board as Plex employees. Customers should only see a continuation (or perhaps strengthening) of their relationship. There is no sales staff to integrate. Previously DemandCaster was sold online with a “try before you buy” approach, with a little product evangelism thrown in. Plex intends to leave that channel open. Who knows, other (ERP and MES) sales efforts might even benefit.

Plex should also benefit from being able to natively satisfy the needs of larger, multi-national, multi-site manufacturing enterprises. The largest DemandCaster customer already handles over 300,000 individual SKUs. This could help Plex move up market and DemandCaster will also provide an additional entry point into Plex prospects.

Plex will also continue to make DemandCaster available as a “stand-alone” solution. We use the term loosely because DemandCaster alone is pretty useless unless it is tied back to an ERP. DemandCaster handles the integration by placing a very simple piece of software on the customer’s system. No APIs or web services required. Of the 40 nonPlex customers, DemandCaster already successfully interoperates with 18 different ERP solutions. So who knows, this might even be a “land and expand” opportunity for Plex to lead with SCP and eventually replace an incumbent ERP.

As acquisitions go, this one seems to be nice and neat and clean – adjectives rarely used in the same sentence as M&A. Kudos to Plex Systems for starting small but knocking one out of the park!

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The New Sage: Who and What Is It? Where Is It Going?

Early in his opening keynote for Sage Summit 2016, CEO Stephen Kelly announced, “Our real purpose is to champion the ambitions of entrepreneurs.” This sentiment goes well beyond the development and delivery of software products. Mr. Kelly himself is a business ambassador to the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, representing the interests of small and midsize businesses to governments, in global markets, at colleges and universities, and on the political front as well. He has pledged to bring Sage’s products to the cloud and more innovation to the products. And he has declared that Sage is “The only company providing your digital heartbeat from Start-up to Scale-up to Enterprise.” [These are the new monikers for the markets in which Sage plays, replacing references such as “small” and “mid-size.”]

But, having grown through acquisition, Sage faces some challenges, not the least of which is the sheer number of products it owns, many of which are based on older technology and run exclusively on premise. I’ve never done a specific count, but based on a quote from Mr. Kelly presented in a Diginomica article by Stuart Lauchlan back in May after a mid-year earnings call,

“Our historic, federated and fragmented and de-centralized business model meant that we couldn’t fully leverage the scale and the global reach for the benefit of our customers or ourselves. In fact, it was actually hindering our ability to grow.

Our acquisition-led growth strategy compounded the internal fragmentation and complexity. And this fragmentation I’ve shared with some of you before in terms of 270 different products, 73 different code bases, over 150 different sales compensation plans, 139 sites, 105 databases from management accounting, 21 different CRM systems. I could go on and on.”

Wow! That’s a heck of a lot to consider. But Mr. Kelly seems up to the challenge. Make no mistake: This is a new Sage. Over the past year there has been a changing of the guard, with many departures, and many more new faces. But more to the point, Sage has re-architected its positioning. This started a year ago when Mr. Kelly declared Sage would no longer sell ERP, noting the acronym should really stand for expense, regret and pain. This year that sentiment persisted.

Throughout the keynotes, we heard reference to “accounting, payroll and payments,” but never “ERP.” Couple this with the heavy dose of “entrepreneurship” and you walk away thinking Sage is the place to be for small businesses in need of an accounting solution. With enormous installed bases from acquired products like Peachtree, AccPac and Simply Accounting, you might say, of course they are.

But what about all those “enterprise” customers running Sage 100, Sage 300 and Sage X3 where the founder of the business has long since exited? I found myself wanting to be their champion amidst all the accolades for the entrepreneurs in the audience. These enterprises need more than accounting, payroll and payments. They need to manage the complete system of record of the business, including orders and/or contracts. Fortunately the Sage products formerly known as ERP do just that.

And I felt for the partners who sell these products into the ERP market. When a new prospect wants to buy a new ERP solution, with this new positioning and the declaration that ERP is dead, will they even give Sage a look? Precise percentages might vary, but experts today estimate 60% to 70% of the evaluation process happens before a single vendor is ever contacted. Will those in the market for a new ERP system ever find Sage? The answer is maybe – but not necessarily because of Sage’s efforts, but rather because others still hang on to that label.

As I wrote last year, I have never been a big fan of the “ERP is dead” mentality. To my way of thinking, although the acronym itself has lost a lot of its meaning over the years, ERP is a convenient label. While early ERP solutions were fraught with problems, and indeed some of those problems persist today, calling it something else doesn’t fix it.

Based on my conversation this year with Mr. Kelly I understand his intent. This statement was his way of sparking some controversy, something Sage had previously been unwilling to do. However, based on how vigorously some of his Sage colleagues have defended this stance, I worry a little that the spark has become a flame that continues to burn at Sage. This is not only troublesome for existing ERP customers and partners, but also for those start-ups that will eventually scale up and become full-fledged enterprises. If Sage wants to continue to provide the “digital heartbeat” for these growing companies, it needs to provide a logical path forward that doesn’t require any steps back.

Sage provides different products for different stages of company growth. Early on, startups might run Sage One or the newer Sage Live (built on the Salesforce platform, which allows it to take advantage of many of the cloud, mobile and social capabilities inherent in the platform). But as the company starts to scale, perhaps it makes a move to Sage 50c, the Sage product most recently enhanced with integration to Microsoft Office 365. Or it might go to Sage 100, Sage 300 or skip right on up to Sage X3.

But Sage itself admits that it needs to catch up in terms of new features and technology. To its credit, Sage is not satisfied with just catching up, but wants to leapfrog its competition. But will all products along the path have some of the nifty new features inherited from the Salesforce platform or added to Sage Live? An example of this leapfrog effect was seen in a demonstration that linked Sage Live to TomTom WebFleet to record mileage as an expense in Sage Live without any human intervention whatsoever. In the future it will be possible to record billable hours this way using a Siri-like conversation to “start the clock.”

Another leapfrog moment on stage was the introduction of Pegg, an accounting chatbot that can take input from Slack and Facebook Messenger (for now, others to come) to report expenses using natural language English. Pegg combines a natural language interface with machine learning and intelligence to potentially do much more. Sage even describes it as a “personal trainer” for your business, but I suspect it needs to mature a lot before that really happens.

But what happens to this innovation when the customer outgrows Sage Live? Does it too get carried forward? Does the integration to Office 365 carry forward? Can you bring Pegg along or your TomTom? When you look at all the different paths forward, you start to realize the devil is indeed in the details. And all the permutations can be daunting.

This potential complexity is the reason why I think the most important Sage Summit announcement of all was the Sage Integration Cloud. During the keynote, we watched Nick Goode, EVP of Product Management integrate Sage One with Expensify in just a few minutes and a few clicks. As Nick said on stage, “No code, no fuss, no maintenance, no techy skills required.”

It was so incredibly simple, you knew there had to be something more to it than met the eye. And there is. This is built on Cloud Elements, an API Integration Platform for application providers. And the author of the “add-on” product (in this case Expensify) has to do some work in order to allow customers to connect it this easily. The level of preparatory effort will depend a lot on the technology and architecture of the solution(s). But Cloud Elements has created a Sage Hub, which means in connecting it to one Sage product, it connects to all (relevant) Sage products.

This is incredibly important for those on older Sage products, particularly as Mr. Kelly reinforced a commitment he made to customers at last year’s Sage Summit:

  • No forced migration.
  • No end of life for any Sage products.
  • If you love your current Sage solution, whether it is desktop or cloud, Sage will support your continued use of it.
  • When you are ready to move to cloud, full mobility and real-time accounting, then Sage is ready to take you there.

Sage is essentially promising never to “sunset” a product. Sage is not the only company making this promise. Infor, which also grew through acquisition and faces similar challenges, makes a similar promise, although Infor is also clear on saying it provides no real innovation to these non-strategic products. That’s the difference. I sense that Sage is (or should be) going down this “no innovation beyond compliance” path, but has not been as forthcoming with that statement. But both Infor and Sage continue to support a very broad and diverse portfolio.

On the surface this might seem quite noble of both Sage and Infor, or perhaps simply the right thing to do. But is it? Do they actually do a disservice to these customers by making it too easy to simply stay where they are and continue to be severely limited by this old technology? We understand the fear of disruption of ripping out an existing solution and replacing it, but in reality this fear and these older solutions are holding these customers hostage.

In order to make it less easy to stay put, Sage will most definitely use the carrot and not the stick. And the Sage Integration Cloud could be a very appetizing carrot. By offering some add-on components that might help these customers emerge out of the dark ages, Sage could “show them the light” (so to speak) and get them hooked on the opportunities newer technology provides. But in order for these customers to make a giant leap to a newer cloud product, with mobile and social capabilities built in, they will need to drag these new components along with them. That is the role the Sage Integration Cloud can play.

And it will also serve to make the Sage solution much more than “accounting, payroll and payments.” Sounds a lot more like ERP (and more) to me. This whole positioning exercise sort of reminds me of when Prince changed his name to a symbol. Everyone simply started calling him “the artist formerly known as Prince.” Ultimately (and fortunately) Prince went back to just being Prince, only better than ever. I am still hoping Sage might come full circle too.

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