Challenging the Status Quo, In Pursuit of the Extraordinary
IFS is in hot pursuit of the “challenger.” Being a challenger isn’t about market position or size, but more of a mindset. It’s about challenging the status quo, in pursuit of the extraordinary. Challengers have an appetite for something new. They aim to stand out, to transform their businesses. And while IFS is committed to empowering the world’s challengers in five select industries, it is also intent on being a challenger itself in the world of enterprise applications.
In the eighteen months since Darren Roos took the helm as Chief Executive Officer (CEO), he has sharpened the focus and brought consistency, collaboration and authenticity to its global operations, without damaging a corporate culture built on trust. Already a strong solution provider, IFS has developed products with deep industry functionality by listening to and working closely with its customers. That depth is now complemented with embedded, enabling technology that brings agility, usability, extensibility and more innovation. Under Darren’s leadership IFS challenges the status quo by being a software solution provider that prides itself on “Saying what we [will] do, and doing what we say.”
Here we take a look at what IFS has done to enable it to empower the world’s challengers.
Sharp Industry and Solution Focus
IFS has always focused on asset-intensive and product-centric businesses, but it has sharpened that focus to five industries:
- Aerospace & Defense
- Energy, Utilities & Resources
- Engineering, Construction and Infrastructure
- Installation, Repair and Maintenance Service
While sometimes prospects might pull it into some related, under-served markets that share some common characteristics (like mining and oil & gas), these five are the segments it will use to provide direction to its product roadmaps and its go-to-market strategy. Unlike some of its competitors, interested only in grabbing market share, IFS is sticking to the industries it knows best, and for which its solutions have been designed and tuned. Rather than offering a general-purpose, one size fits all solution, it develops one that is purpose-built.
And while some of those same competitors are also trying to be one-stop shops for all enterprise applications, IFS focuses on three specific solutions that are individually deployable, yet inherently integrated. They are:
- Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP)
- Enterprise Asset Management (EAM)
- Field Service Management (FSM)
However, when combined, these three cover a very broad footprint. Indeed, many ERP solution providers today claim to provide a complete “end-to-end” solution, to the extent that it is often hard to tell where ERP ends and other applications begin. But is this really what companies want today or is it just another land grab?
We asked our 2019 Enterprise Solution Study participants to choose between a “Suite in a Box” – a complete end-to-end solution that is pre-integrated and ready right “out of the box,” or a more “Best of Breed” approach with a strong core, coupled with the ability to purchase or develop additional functionality and easily connect it back to the core. We recognize the choice is not always so cut and dried, and therefore added some options that are more of a mix but leaning in one direction or the other. Where one approach was clearly preferred (i.e. not a mix), we found the “Best of Breed” approach preferred 2:1 over a “Suite in a Box” (Figure 1).
Figure 1: Which approach is most appealing to you?
Source: Mint Jutras 2019 Enterprise Solution Study
This may seem like the integrated suite versus “Best of Breed” arguments that have waged throughout the world of enterprise applications for decades. That debate was always about the tradeoff between sacrificing “best of breed’ functionality for ease of integration. But there are some subtle and not so subtle differences. Nobody today is willing to sacrifice features and functions. And everyone wants an integrated solution. But they also want it “their way” and at their own pace. And they don’t necessarily like to be locked in with a single solution or vendor.
ERP itself is an integrated suite. Mint Jutras defines ERP as an integrated suite of modules that provides the operational and transactional system of record of your business. As such, it is comprised of modules, some of which are core to any business (e.g. general ledger, accounts payable, accounts receivable, purchasing, order management, etc.) and some specific to a type of business. Product-centric businesses, particularly manufacturers, also need logistics and production capabilities. But ERP doesn’t necessarily address the needs of sales, service or marketing. And seldom does it address all the special needs for asset maintenance and management or field service.
For these asset-intensive industries, IFS has chosen to address the special needs of field service (FSM) and enterprise asset management (EAM), but don’t expect it to acquire or develop a CRM system any time soon. It will leave sales and marketing to the likes of Salesforce and Marketo, and payroll to the likes of ADP, Paychx and CloudPay. And it is not afraid to use technology from partners like Microsoft to address industry-specific needs like ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations) compliance in the United States.
Of course, a lot of development effort internally goes into developing and innovating these solutions. But IFS has also invested in acquisitions, including the acquisition of Workwave in 2017, and the most recent announcement of a definitive agreement to acquire Astea Technologies, a well-recognized player in the FSM arena. According to the announcement, “The combined company will have strengthened leadership position in Field Service Management (FSM) by integrating two of the most established and well recognized players in the market.”
It is clear, IFS will stick with what it knows best, leveraging its deep domain expertise, but also provide strong integration capabilities. This is not only possible today, but is also the key attraction to the most popular option in Figure 1 – the ability to assemble exactly what is needed, with the caveat that it must be easily connected back to the core… which brings us to the product(s).
Delivering on its Promises
IFS prides itself on the philosophy of transparency: We say what we do and do what we say. But the cadence and volume of innovation is also important. IFS has a spring and fall release each year. But it is also establishing an ‘evergreen’ approach, which gives customers the option to always be on the latest version of their applications without the disruptions that come with full-scale upgrades. The applications are continuously updated, and new features are optional.
This re-imagined application life-cycle experience does not require the customer to be running in the cloud. Unlike other vendors that seem more intent on being the biggest (in the cloud) than on delivering what customers really want, IFS offers the choice between cloud and on-premise, with the same software available regardless of which deployment option is chosen. While there are some obvious advantages to the cloud, including this ‘evergreen’ approach, IFS offers no incentives to move to the cloud, leaving the choice entirely up to the customer.
Architecture is Key
The secret behind IFS’ ability to keep a steady cadence of both features and technology improvements is the attention it has paid to laying the proper foundation. Oftentimes today, in selecting a new ERP (or FSM or EAM), there is a tradeoff between a solution that has matured over years or even decades, and one that has been developed more recently, based on the latest and greatest technology. IFS is one of the very few solution providers today that has survived the evolution from mainframes to component-based, cloud native architectures, without abandoning its original solutions or leaving them behind to ride out their final years on old and outdated technology.
“IFS has been evolving its technology foundations over an intensive and sustained period of engineering development.”
This statement was included in its recent announcement of what it calls its “evolved industry-focused architecture.” Scheduled for availability in 2020, this new architecture will lay the foundation for IFS’s entire portfolio of products.
“In essence, this new approach will allow customers to integrate enabling technologies such as internet of things (IoT), augmented and mixed reality (AR/MR), artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) in pragmatic and focused ways so they can optimize, automate, predict and interact better across their business.”
But IFS customers don’t have to wait until next year to reap some benefits. The current underlying architecture is already component-based and this is, in fact, how IFS has been successful in delivering last mile functionality, not only to its declared focus industries, but also to individual verticals within those segments. Process manufacturing industries, like food and beverage, provide the perfect example. Keeping up with different regulatory requirements across the globe has always been a challenge, but one IFS has readily accepted. But it has not burdened other industries with the specific requirements needed for compliance. Instead, it has developed a series of components that can be assembled and integrated seamlessly into the core ERP product.
How does this work and how does it set IFS apart from rivals that have similar maturity of feature/function, but perhaps not the technology enablement to meet rising expectations today?
In the past legacy solutions were developed as monolithic structures. Adding very narrowly focused features and functions added to the complexity of the solution and also made it rigid, hard to maintain and innovate. IFS was among the early pioneers in moving away from this monolithic approach. Its journey to a component-based architecture began in 1994 when it introduced its Services Oriented Architecture (SOA). Today it is moving steadily towards a microservices architecture, with specific mention of container technology and Kubernetes, but that is a more technical discussion than most business leaders care to dive into.
Every technologist in our audience knows a microservices architecture is defined as an architectural style that structures an application as a collection of loosely coupled services. For those nontechnical readers, think of it as constructing a solution from a set of Lego building blocks. Purists hate this analogy, and yes, it is an over-simplification. But it is an effective analogy that resonates with most business users that don’t have the interest or inclination to dive deep into technical jargon.
Think about how you build a structure from Legos. Each Lego block is made of the same kind of material and is attached (connected) to the other Lego blocks the same way. In many ways they are interchangeable. But by choosing different colors and sizes, and connecting them with a different design, you can make a structure that is very unique. And once constructed, if you want to change it, decoupling some of the blocks and replacing them doesn’t destroy the parts that are not affected. There is far less disruption introduced than if you had constructed it with a hammer, timber and nails.
IFS has already evolved from the era of the mainframe, through the client/server era where the graphical user interface (GUI) dominated, followed by web-enablement and the cloud era. IFS has declared the next era to be the era of intelligent and autonomous enterprise solutions. In a world where self-driving cars are a reality, why shouldn’t enterprise applications be smart enough to automate processes and help you make intelligent, data-driven decisions? So how is this transition coming along?
Tracking IFS Progress
When the latest IFS Applications 10 was announced last year at its 2018 World Conference, it included new features and functions, but also introduced some key areas that show IFS moving in this general direction. Let’s take a look back on each and get an update.
A New User Experience (UX)
IFS Applications 10 introduced a brand new, intuitive user experience, called IFS Aurena. The new UX was well received when initially launched. It has now been extended across all IFS solutions (FSM, ERP, and EAM), and (impressively) it was delivered ahead of schedule. Aurena provides customers with a truly responsive design. This means it responds to the environment on which it is used, based on screen size, platform and orientation. Whether you use it on iOS, Android or Windows, the applications take advantage of the native capabilities of the device, giving them a familiar look and feel, with support for offline scenarios and device-specific capabilities such as GPS and camera. In addition, IFS Aurena BOT is now generally available. This is essentially a virtual assistant that allows the user to interact with the system via voice or text. It can connect to any of the popular messenger apps (Skype, Skype for Business, Facebook Messenger, etc.) and is making use of artificial intelligence (AI) to make it an intelligent bot.
Application Programming Interfaces (APIs)
Last year IFS started adding APIs to open its applications to new paths to extensibility and integration. Whether you prefer a Suite in a Box or a Best of Breed approach, nobody runs a single application today. And no application can afford to be an island. IFS has now developed over 15,000 APIs, which means connecting, extending or integrating into the IFS core is quick and easy. As a new member of the OpenAPI Initiative (OAI), IFS promotes open applications in order to give customers and partners total freedom to develop and connect data sources to drive value in a way that is meaningful to them. IFS Aurena uses the same set of APIs which are now generally available for every function in every IFS application.
Connecting Smart Devices
IFS is constantly evaluating the potential new digital technologies have in providing real value to its customers. Projects are led by a small development group called IFS Labs. IFS Labs is focused on solving the problems of tomorrow – or perhaps the problems and opportunities customers don’t (yet) realize they already have. With this approach, IFS Labs hopes to provide guidance and inspiration to influence customers to disrupt, rather than be disrupted.
But this is not technology for technology sake. These endeavors are essentially “proof of concept” projects, often conducted with real, live customers in order to solve real problems. IFS Labs keeps the projects small because, with the requisite license to fail, it must decide to pursue the concept and apply it universally or fail fast in order to move on to the next potentially disruptive project.
Much of this pioneering, experimental work is done quietly in the Lab and yet the results of several of these projects were demonstrated at the most recent IFS World Conference.
On stage and on the Exhibition floor at the 2019 World Conference, attendees watched as Marvin, a small, self-driving, robotic forklift delivered materials to the shop floor. Marvin is very real and working at Cheer Pack, a US manufacturer of spouted pouches used in the packaging of baby food, children’s snacks, yogurts, pet foods, dressings, condiments and other food & non-food items… and an IFS customer.
While humans are still loading and unloading the materials, CheerPack intends to connect it directly to material handling equipment in the future to further automate the process. In the meantime, no human is involved in guiding the little robot to its pickup and drop off locations. ERP drives what it carries and where it goes.
The audience also watched as remote technicians guided the diagnosis and repair of Marvin. Think of it as Facetime for the enterprise. An operator on stage was able to share a live view of Marvin with a remote technician, who was able to guide her through the diagnosis and resolution of the problem. Think of the possibilities this might present to asset-intensive companies running a 24/7 operation, but with technicians only on site one shift. Or those operating in remote parts of the world where it makes no economic sense to have technicians remain on site constantly when they are seldom needed.
Attendees of the conference could also don a HoloLens and be guided through the replacement of an integrated circuit board. While this type of augmented reality has been available for a while, in the past it was hard to operate and required far too much skill and use of the wearer’s hands, when in fact the biggest benefit should be for hands-free operation. This technology has now reached the level of maturity where a novice (like the author) can pick up the device and use it with little or no instruction.
While some might call them “next gen” capabilities, these are among those IFS has deemed to be “now gen,” ready for prime time. But these efforts continue.
Look for the introduction of a new Machine Learning (ML) Service coming in 2020. While asset-intensive industries are ripe with possibilities for accelerating the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in practical ways and connecting applications to devices and the Internet of Things (IoT), there are also challenges. It is very difficult to prepare the right data, often requiring a data scientist and competency in machine learning technologies. There is always the risk of a communication breakdown between those data scientists and technologists and business leaders with business goals.
The new ML Service is being designed to be easy to use, enabling business users to solve specific business problems with the automated selection of ML algorithms, based on their own data. These new services will be “explainable.” In order to build trust in the data and the algorithms, ML can’t be a black box. The user should be able to understand why an algorithm is being used. IFS agrees.
Expanding and Strengthening the Ecosystem
In conjunction with opening up its architecture with APISs and modern component architectures, IFS is also investing in its partners. Its mission is to triple the resources, but also create one IFS team, while providing its customers more choice. Many customers prefer to work directly with a more local partner, but since IFS requires all to be 100% certified on the applications, customers should see no difference in quality in working with IFS or a partner.
While in the past partners were very likely to build customizations for customers, we see a huge potential for them to transition to building extensions. As IFS opens up its platform to partners, this presents an opportunity for them to package up potential modifications, providing themselves further revenue sources while also extending the IFS applications deeper into the vertical and even micro-vertical segments within the sectors in which IFS plays well. This removes barriers to consuming IFS innovation that customizations create, while also creating opportunity for IFS, its partners, and its customers.
Summary and Key Takeaways
IFS customers don’t necessarily hold the top spots in their chosen fields. As a result, the old advertising slogan, “We’re number two. We try harder” might very well apply.
To IFS “For the challengers” means:
- Helping customers differentiate
- Focusing on industries and solution sets
- Providing agility and better time to value
- Value and results for the customer
- Choice – how licenses are consumed, and software is deployed and who delivers (partners, IFS, both)
IFS clearly believes in the world’s challengers, encouraging and enabling then to gain a competitive advantage and create value through innovation. In support of these beliefs, it is focused on providing its customers value by delivering on three key enablement points:
- The software used to run the business in select asset-intensive, product-centric industries, namely ERP, EAM and FSM
- Enabling technology that helps its customers keep pace with our rapidly changing world
- Data needed to drive effective decision-making
And at the same time, IFS sees itself as one of those challengers. It’s not the biggest enterprise solution provider, but still it strives to disrupt, rather than be disrupted. In reaching for this objective, it has sharpened its focus on five industries, with three solution categories. With functionality that is broad, deep and industry-specific, it also continues to take advantage of new and enabling technologies. It chooses to embed these technologies rather than use them to milk the cash cow of their installed base.
Whether you are a challenger in one of IFS’ chosen industries, or whether you aspire to be, you might want to take a closer look at IFS.