Epicor Software held its annual user conference this week. True to its name, Insights 2014 did just that… provided insight into recent innovations and roadmaps for the future. Epicor experienced some management changes this year, bringing in a new CEO, Chief Product Officer (CPO) and new General Managers (GMs) for the Americas for both its ERP and Retail businesses. But there were some familiar faces in the executive ranks as well, some with tenures between 15 and 20 years with the company, striking a nice balance between old and new blood, so to speak. The goal of these management changes is to raise the game in terms of technology-enabled products that turn customers into “raving fans for life.”
Throughout the conference, attendees heard reference to what have emerged as the top trends in the enterprise software industry: cloud, mobile, “big data” and social. In addition I believe Epicor addressed the different components that I have been touting as characteristics of “next generation” ERP: providing better ways to engage with ERP in order to encourage more and better use, focus on configuration to replace customization, more innovation and better integration.
Towards that end, Epicor made four announcements:
- The availability of Epicor ERP version 10, redesigned for device mobility, deployment choice, accelerated performance and social collaboration
- Support for SQL Server 2014: Not only is Epicor ERP version 10 fully optimized for SQL Server 2014, but Epicor has “purified the technology stack.” That means it only runs on SQL Server in a Microsoft .Net environment.
- The introduction of the Commerce Connect Platform, fully integrated with Epicor ERP Version 10, to drive rich B2B and B2C online experiences for consumers, customers and suppliers, supporting mobile access and secure PCI-compliant payments
- New Epicor Windows Phone 8 touch-optimized apps for time and expense tracking, supporting multiple devices and “bring your own device (BYOD)” strategies
Amidst these announcements and as a result of speaking with both Epicor executives and customers, here are my key take-aways from the event.
Protect, Extend Converge Lives On
This has been Epicor’s mantra for many years: promising investment protection and continued innovation that will extend the footprint of its customers’ solutions, while also converging multiple product lines acquired through the years. The “protect” and “extend” part isn’t unique. Many vendors promise the same, although some do a better job of delivering than others. However, Epicor is unique in having delivered on a convergence strategy. The result was Epicor ERP version 9, originally called Epicor 9, reflecting that it was the result of converged functionality of nine different ERP products. The “9” has now become “10,” but that is not because it has merged a 10th product, but is more reflective of a traditional “version” level.
With the merger of Epicor with Activant a few years back you might have expected Epicor to bring those new products into the fold, so to speak. Yet instead it appeared to diverge a bit from this convergence strategy. The lion’s share of Epicor’s ERP products target manufacturing, and to a lesser degree distribution, largely due to the overlap of the two industries. Manufacturers often distribute their own products and more and more distributors might engage in some form of light manufacturing. But I would call Epicor ERP a multi-purpose ERP. Activant brought multiple products to the party but each was focused squarely on distribution. Not only were Activant products purpose-built for distribution, but also over time each has become even more focused and fine-tuned to specific segments of wholesale distribution.
So it seemed to me at the time that Epicor was diverging from its convergence strategy. Rather than bringing a new ERP to wholesale distributors, instead Epicor began to converge them on a technology level, bringing its ICE technology to the distribution party. This seemed to me to be a smart move. Don’t get me wrong; I applaud Epicor’s convergence strategy. Back in 2012 I wrote:
Thus far Epicor has been not only first, but also unique in promising (and then delivering) a single rationalized ERP solution. Other ERP companies have toyed with the idea and even announced such plans, but then either pulled back upon encountering resistance from their installed base of customers or subsequently decided against such a strategy. While at first glance these decisions may have seemed to be in the best interest of their customers, these ERP solution providers may in fact have done customers a disservice in tacitly encouraging them to remain on old, outdated technology that simply cannot serve them well in today’s fast-moving and connected world.
And yet, the resistance from customers was typically not resistance to new technology (like Epicor ICE), but resistance against a perceived, or real forced march to a new product. Each customer wants to move forward and/or make a change at its own pace and on its own terms. And if its current ERP is not perceived to be “broken” the customer is not in any rush and procrastination is the result. At times this procrastination is the product of an older generation of IT professionals who would be content to manage familiar solutions right up until retirement. In fact many of them would benefit from a gentle push.
While Epicor has never forced anyone to move, by boldly declaring Epicor ERP as the future, it provided more incentive to consider moving to it, encouraging those stuck in the past to replace solutions with aging, legacy architectures. Most saw the value in re-implementing rather than carrying forward decisions that had been constrained by limitations of applications and technology in the past. Instead of a mass revolt, as feared by others, many customers embraced this and saw it as an opportunity to justify moving forward.
I still strongly believe in what they are doing with Epicor ERP and in fact Epicor executives still say they have a long-term convergence strategy that includes distribution and the Activant products. But I am not sure they need to bring the two together into a single ERP for two reasons:
- Epicor is big enough and strong enough to manage two product lines, particularly if they are supported by the same underlying technological architecture (ICE)
- ICE provides a framework whereby development efforts can be shared across product lines
There will be features and functions shared by all companies, some shared by distributors (or manufacturers) only and some required for niche markets or micro-verticals. For like needs, the Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) and Web 2.0 capabilities of ICE allow Epicor to build once and deploy across multiple solutions, freeing up resources that would otherwise be required to satisfy those requirements in each product line – freeing them up to work on more targeted functionality which has the potential of helping its customers in wholesale distribution (and possibly other markets) achieve a measure of competitive differentiation. This could also help Epicor reach into more narrow micro-verticals that might require more specialized features and functions. But (at least for now) Epicor will leave that opportunity to partners.
Developing “shared” components is the top priority for Epicor right now, not only to share across manufacturing and distribution, but also to add more value to its suite of solutions for retail. An example might be using the ERP functions to strengthen financial management options for retail. You will hear Epicor talk in terms of developing more “granular” functionality and other vendors and influencers will talk about “loosely coupled.” Regardless of the terminology, the net effect is to allow customers to add more features and functions on top of what they already have (with less disruption) and to allow vendors like Epicor to build features and functions once and re-use them across different products and customer bases.
Why is this so important? The obvious answer: to deliver more innovation.
I’ve written a lot about “next generation” ERP over the past year and I have also written a lot about cloud and SaaS. When it comes to more innovation, the two are connected. First of all the increased pace of innovation is supported through the use of web-based services, object-oriented data models and component architecture. All these combine to support more rapid development of new features and functions, which are more easily consumed as needed. ICE is a key factor in helping Epicor keep pace. So how does SaaS fit in?
A vendor that delivers a product exclusively in a multi-tenant SaaS environment has a clear advantage in delivering enhancements. Solution providers that deliver on-premise solutions are forced to maintain multiple versions of the software. Very often the software is offered on a choice of platforms and databases, and the vendor must support multiple release levels determined by its customers’ ability to keep pace with upgrades. For every person-day vendors spend on innovation, they spend another multiple of that day making sure it works across multiple environments. So if the vendor only delivers innovation in a pure, multi-tenant SaaS solution it needs only support and develop a single line of code. This means it can spend more time on pure innovation and that raises the bar for all vendors.
Epicor’s convergence strategy has helped it compete, but it does support both on-premise licenses and SaaS deployments and until now has offered its converged ERP on multiple platforms. Purifying the stack and limiting the solution to a SQL Server based Microsoft .Net environment reduces development efforts and allows Epicor to optimize for this environment, which adds (2X) speed and (4X) scalability. So while it doesn’t enjoy the same economy of scale as a provider of a pure multi-tenant SaaS solution, it has helped stack the deck for improved development productivity. In addition, it has honed its skills in rapid application (agile) development. And in case you are wondering how this will be received by existing customers, I am told that 90% of Epicor ERP customers are already running on the Microsoft stack. As a result, I expect user resistance to be low, particularly with the demonstrated improved performance.
So I would expect the rate of innovation to start to accelerate from here, at least in terms of Epicor ERP 10. To effect further gains, it will have to carry this strategy over to the distribution side of the house, or it will need to complete the convergence to include the Activant products.
In the meantime Epicor is leveraging the ICE technology to bring more “next generational” characteristics to all its products. Bringing its Epicor Business Activity Query (BAQ) tool to Prophet 21 (an Activant product) is an example. New features of Epicor ERP 10 like…
- a social collaboration framework that lets users collaborate with one another and “follow” business activities and events
- a live-tile-style browser interface that’s touch-enabled for any tablet
are enabled by ICE and therefore it is likely these features will be also made available to other Epicor ICE-enabled products as well.
So while Epicor doesn’t enjoy the luxury of maintaining a single code base, it is positioning itself to more rapidly replicate functionality across those different sets of code, thereby accelerating the delivery of new user experiences, better configuration replacing the need for customization and easier integration… all hallmarks of next generation ERP. Time will tell whether customers will turn into “raving fans for life” but if the mood and tone of Insights 2014 is any indication, Epicor has a clear runway ahead to achieve its goals.