BI

Infor Ushers In the Age of Networked Intelligence

Leveraging The Rise of Networks and Data To “Bend the Curve of Progress”

Even amidst all the hype around disruptive and game-changing technology, few innovations have had the ability to truly change the game or dramatically alter the course of history. The steam engine enabled advancements in transportation and trade, completely changing the game in terms of how people and goods moved across what used to be viewed as vast distances. What else has had the same dramatic effect?

In more recent times, the Internet and the mobile phone, which evolved into the smart phone, were perhaps the two most significant game-changers. Infor, a leading provider of business applications, specialized by industry and built for the cloud, believes the rise of networks, coupled with the intelligence that can be derived from the massive amounts of data available today, will be the next such game-changer that will truly “bend the curve of progress.”

And Infor believes it is well-positioned to leverage these two factors and accelerate that movement.

The Evolution of a Strategy

Since the current management team, led by CEO Charles Phillips, took over about six years ago, Infor’s strategy has been evolving. Its mission: to “build beautiful business applications with last mile functionality and insights for select industries, delivered as a cloud service.” As a privately held company with a recent infusion of capital by Koch Industries, Infor has been able to spend billions of dollars developing and acquiring that last mile of functionality for a growing number of vertical and sub-vertical industries. The goal is to totally eliminate the need for invasive customization.

Having grown through acquisition, Infor has a very broad portfolio of products, including multiple Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) solutions, some more modern and strategic than others. Its strategic solutions have been re-architected to run in the cloud and as a result, its cloud revenues have been growing faster than the industry average. As companies move to a public cloud environment, it becomes even more critical to eliminate customizations that create barriers to innovation.

The Network Economy

Infor also recognizes the continued shift to more distributed environments and global trade relationships. This shift started decades ago when low-cost country sources made “outsourcing” very appealing. As companies have tended to become less vertically integrated, reducing costs and focusing instead on their core competencies, this necessitates new ways of doing business with each other. The move away from vertical integration and towards the Internet and cloud-based computing has spurred the rise of the network economy.

In response, two years ago Infor acquired GT Nexus and its cloud-based, global commerce platform. More and more of the communication, collaboration and business processes of any company are likely to extend beyond the four walls of the enterprise. Focused on the supply chain, GT Nexus largely applies to those industries that must manage the movement of materials, but also has an impact outside of traditional manufacturing and wholesale distribution. The procurement of supplies in industries like healthcare and hospitality has not changed in decades and are ripe for innovation.

Whether you deal with a physical product or services, the value chain has lengthened and become more complicated. Yet expectations of response time and delivery performance have risen dramatically. Hence the need for an added level of intelligence in dealing with this new digital, network economy.

Business Intelligence (BI) and Analytics

Which leads to the next step in the evolution of Infor’s strategy. Earlier this year it acquired Birst, Inc., a pioneer of cloud-native, business intelligence (BI), analytics, and data visualization. The tools are available immediately, while Infor works to replace any existing data cubes and content (previously Cognos-based) with the newly acquired technology and also build out additional applications, content and migration tools. Existing Infor BI customers will be able to migrate, trading in (like for like) old licenses for new Birst tools.

Of course, this will be easiest for those already operating in the cloud. About 8,500 out of 90,000 Infor customers are in the cloud today, leaving many still on premise and often operating on outdated products and technology. This represents both a risk and an opportunity to Infor. But the addition of Birst to the Infor product portfolio should only serve to add more incentive to move to the most current CloudSuite for any customer’s particular vertical.

AI: Taking Intelligence to the Next Level

To sweeten the pot even more, Infor has now introduced the Coleman AI Platform. On the surface, Coleman might look a lot like some other “virtual assistants” offered by other vendors recently. However, it doesn’t take long to realize that under the surface, Coleman is quite different. This is partly because it actually resides under the surface. It is not a “bolted on” application, but is a platform that will be embedded in Infor’s CloudSuites. In fact, while the world is just now learning about it, Infor has been working on Coleman for a few years and has embedded it in a few spots already.

Some examples are predictive inventory management for healthcare, price optimization management for hospitality, and forecasting, assortment planning, and promotion management for retail. Where it is embedded, adding new features to existing solutions, these capabilities are delivered to existing customers with no additional license or subscription fees.

Coleman changes the way the user interfaces with the software. Think of it as a Siri or Alexa for enterprise applications. Infor suggests some of the questions you might ask it:

  • Coleman, what is the accounts receivable balance for ACME Corp?
  • Coleman, what’s the next best offer for this customer?
  • Coleman, who is the sales rep on the ABC Labs account?
  • Coleman, what price should I charge for a hotel room?
  • Coleman, what are sales by month for the NW region this year?
  • Coleman, how much PTO [paid time off] do I have left?
  • Coleman, create a requisition for item 4321
  • Coleman, approve the promotion for Nurse Jones

For now, these are fairly simple questions, but Infor anticipates the kinds of questions asked will become much more predictive in nature as the application of the technology matures.

Its natural language processing is the same technology that powers Amazon’s Alexa. But it doesn’t stop there. Infor has been quietly acquiring machine learning technology and scouring the open source community for tools and technology for several years. There is much more to come, including image recognition to chat, hear, talk, and recognize images to help people access growing volumes of structured and unstructured data more efficiently.

While many today have begun to fear that AI will take jobs away, much like the automation that occurred in the latter part of the 20th century, Infor prefers to focus on delivering a tool that will instead maximize the human potential. It has the potential of automating and eliminating the tedious, time-consuming tasks that keep a knowledge worker from working efficiently and effectively, without wasting time searching for data, policies or processes.

The predictive capabilities have traditionally been what have drawn attention to artificial intelligence and machine learning. The most common application of predictive technologies is in the case of asset performance and maintenance. Given Infor’s strength in Enterprise Asset Management (EAM), this is indeed a prime target.

Where Coleman and IoT Meet

Of course assets like equipment and machines have been equipped with sensors for decades now, which have brought access to an unprecedented volume of data. But for decades that data has gone largely underutilized and has had little connection to any kind of system used for decision-making. So companies still lose precious production time for (potentially unnecessary) preventive maintenance. Or they run the risk of disrupting schedules by running until a failure occurs. Embedding Coleman for condition monitoring can potentially predict equipment failures in order to schedule maintenance (with the necessary repair parts) just in time, minimizing downtime for maintenance and maximizing production.

Demand Planning and Forecasting

When it comes to forecasting demand, there is an old saying: The one (and only) thing you can count on with absolute certainty is that it will be wrong. The corollary of course is that the more data you have, the more accurate the forecast. But you can also reach a point of having more data than a human can assimilate and analyze. Coleman knows no such limit. And so, forecasting demand should be an excellent application of Coleman’s capabilities.

But what about brand new products with no history? For decades we’ve simply made assumptions. Intuitively we use prior experience with similar products, but that’s a lot of guesswork and it’s never easy. Infor is predicting that Coleman will shatter previous demand planning and forecasting performance in these (and all) situations. How can it do that? By analyzing a vast array of attributes about the new product and correlating them against the attributes of products with a history. The deep industry-specific functionality of the Infor CloudSuites, combined with the extensive data available from the GT Nexus Commerce Network will help make more of this kind of data available for analysis – a winning combination. Time will tell, but given the credentials of Infor’s Data Science Labs (65 PhD’s in a laboratory setting), and the business data available from Infor’s CloudSuites and GT Nexus, our money is on Coleman.

But… Is Infor Getting Too Far Ahead of its Customers?

Coleman was announced at Infor’s annual user event, Inforum 2017. Most customers, while intrigued and interested, still view the kind of AI delivered with Coleman as “bleeding edge.” Infor has recently been seeing much more success in working some very innovative projects with some vary large customers, especially when it brings Hook & Loop Digital (a creative lab within Infor) and its Data Science Lab to bear. However, the vast majority of its installed base is comprised of small to midsize enterprises (SMEs). How will Coleman impact the rank and file?

Sometimes software companies must lead the charge in terms of innovation, inspiring customers and prospects to apply leading edge technologies in new and creative ways to create a competitive advantage. Without this push, many (most?) companies can become complacent. If the software that runs the business isn’t broken, there’s no need to fix it. So they stay on legacy solutions instead of moving to an appropriate Infor CloudSuite.

Eighty-four percent (84%) of survey respondents participating in the 2016 Mint Jutras Enterprise Solution Study agree that digital technologies of today (those that serve to connect operations, people and processes through the power of the Internet) have the potential to fundamentally change the way we all do business. Furthermore, 88% understand that embracing digital technologies is necessary for survival. And yet, we found the vast majority still coasting or riding the brakes when it comes to digital transformation. Infor customers are no exception.

Last year we also found that while 58% of participants felt they were well prepared for the digital economy, in peeling back the onion, we concluded that many were perhaps over-confident in their progress, often held back by old ways of thinking and a lack of understanding and appreciation of what is possible today.

So in our 2017 study we dug a little deeper to assess how well companies understand these technologies, and the potential they hold for their businesses. 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. The technologies that Coleman might utilize are shown in Table 1 (in no particular order).

With the exception of predictive analytics and IoT, those that are unfamiliar, only somewhat familiar and/or don’t perceive the value outnumber those that have embraced these technologies. And yet these technologies have actually insinuated themselves into the lives of many consumers. And most of us don’t even realize it.

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

Source: Mint Jutras 2017 Enterprise Solution Study

Anyone using Siri, Alexa or Cortana has used a virtual assistant and natural language processing. Google, Spotify and Pandora all employ “deep learning” (aka machine learning) to create a better play list for you. Did you ever notice that your GPS seems to get smarter over time, suggesting the routes you actually prefer? And the more you use any of these “apps”, the smarter they get.

These technologies are no longer science fiction. They are woven into the fabric of our lives. Apple, Amazon and Microsoft didn’t require you to buy something extra. They just made it part of what you got with your new device. And didn’t those features make you want the latest and greatest device?

That is exactly what Infor is setting out to do: weave these technologies into the fabric of the software we use to run our businesses. Unfortunately, it’s not quite as easy to “trade up” to a new ERP solution as it is to get a new mobile device. But Infor has a program to make it as easy as possible. It’s called UpgradeX.

UpgradeX provides customers with different options, but the most value will be derived from moving to the latest release of one of its strategic solutions, running in the cloud. This may mean upgrading to the latest release of a solution already implemented or moving to a new solution quickly, cost-effectively, and with minimal business disruption.

The process typically begins with working with an Infor Value Engineering team to build a “board-ready” business case for upgrading that includes a proposed solution architecture and roadmap, projected business process improvements, and anticipated return on investment (ROI). Infor can also offer consulting services, delivered by 3,500 professionals in 50 countries.

While Infor has promised never to force any existing customer to upgrade, migrate or abandon a product that is installed, the only way for customers to take full advantage of Infor’s vast investments in technology is to be running one of its industry-specific CloudSuites. You don’t have to run in the cloud, although Mint Jutras would argue that is exactly how you will get the most value: Eliminate the cost of obsolescence of hardware and software; let Infor manage the upgrades, and allow your company to take full advantage of the innovation Infor can deliver.

Key Takeaways

We do indeed live in a world where digital technologies have the potential of fundamentally changing the way we do business. Cloud computing and technologies such as AI, natural language processing, machine learning and predictive capabilities are infiltrating our personal lives. It is now time to bring them into the enterprise.

At the same time, the network economy and vast amounts of data are a reality for any company today. The more intelligence companies can derive from that data, the better equipped they will be to leverage the vast potential of opportunities.

Infor is uniquely positioned to help its customers “bend the curve of progress.” Its purpose-built CloudSuites provide deep functionality for industry verticals and sub-verticals. Running in the cloud on Amazon’s AWS relieves customers of the burden of maintenance and obsolescence. GT Nexus provides a platform to connect to a vast commerce network. The recent addition of BI and analytical tools promises to bring a new level of insights and intelligence. And the Coleman AI platform is the logical next (and final?) step in completing the journey of digital transformation.

Yet too few of its 90,000 customers have stepped up to the plate. To those Infor customers still running on old versions or older, non-strategic products: Complacency is your enemy. The same applies to non-Infor customers limping along on legacy products built on old and outdated technology. For years ripping and replacing ERP solutions was simply not worth the time, effort and money. It simply resulted in something different and not a whole lot better. Those days are long gone.

While digital technologies such as AI, machine learning, natural language processing and even predictive analytics are still nascent, by embedding them in the fabric of the software that runs the business, they truly have the potential of becoming mainstreamed into the Infor community. Don’t sit by complacently while your competitors gain an advantage over you. Start to bend that curve of progress. Infor can help.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Welcome to the New World of Exact Macola

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

The Mobile Executive’s Connection to ERP

 

Making it the Path Well-Travelled

While data collected in ERP has always been important to executive level decision-making, in the past very few executives ever put their hands directly on ERP. Instead they relied on subordinates or super users to collect data and investigate, delaying decisions and sometimes even distorting the view from above. Why? Because the perception (and often the reality) was that ERP was complex and hard to use. Executives simply didn’t have the time or inclination to “figure it all out.” And yet today the pace of business has accelerated to the point where any delay in decision-making can be fatal.

This was bad enough when the typical executive’s day was spent in a plush office, sitting behind a desk. But those days are long gone. Whether on the road or spending time with the family, executives need to be “always on,” connected by mobile devices. Forget the laptop that requires a WiFi connection and VPN access. Today executives rely more and more on smart phones and tablets that simply require a signal to their mobile carrier. The resultant intrusion into their personal lives has made them less patient in waiting for analysis and answers.

But do executives really access enterprise apps via their mobile devices? What % of executive management has access to and actually uses ERP? How many receive ERP-related alerts on their mobile devices? Click here to read more in my guest blog post for Edgewater Fullscope: http://bit.ly/1etLsTx

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Insights from SAP Insider BI2014 – BI for the Business User?

Those of you who follow me (and my blog posts) might have scratched your heads a bit earlier this week when you saw me Tweeting from the SAP Insider BI event. After all, I generally write for an audience of business users and let’s face it, it is the IT department that buys and uses BI tools. Well, I was there because of all the exciting new advances in BI tools and technology that have the potential to assist you, the business user in gaining insights and intelligence about your business. But more importantly I was there because so few of you are screaming for these new tools. As Steve Lucas, President of SAP Platform Solutions, said on stage, “When was the last time a business user came up to you and asked for more middleware?” Bingo! As business users, you don’t want more (or any) middleware; you want answers to your questions and solutions to your problems. The problem is, many of you have become so frustrated waiting (too long) for simple things, like a new piece of data added to a report, that you’ve stopped asking.

Case in point: You also might have noticed that you only heard from me during the opening keynote. Why? Did I just breeze in and out? Did I lose interest? Was there nothing else of importance to comment on? None of the above. After that first keynote I was never able to actually connect through the network available in the other meeting rooms. In the “Happiest Place on Earth” (yes, we were at a Disney resort), it didn’t make me very happy to have no access to Twitter, HootSuite or any of the other platforms I would have used to communicate. But actually saying “never” is a bit misleading. The reality was, after the first few (or dozen) attempts, I gave up trying. And that’s exactly what happens to the business user in search of the next bit of “intelligence” needed to make a serious impact on the business. After a certain period of frustration (minutes in my case, years in yours) you just assume it is too difficult and it is not worth asking.

While some of this new technology is new enough to be bleeding edge, and not everything that gets presented and discussed is generally available, I can tell you: Now is time to start asking for more. Yes, there will be a price tag, but when did you ever get something for free that really added value? And if it adds enough value, it should pay for itself in a reasonable period of time. But in order to find that potential value-add, you might have to start thinking out of the box. In fact, maybe you should re-evaluate problems that were deemed unsolvable in the past.

That is certainly the case when it comes to predictive analytics. Everyone would love to forecast, predict and plan accordingly, but hardly anyone is really doing it today. I grew up (professionally) in the world of manufacturing. Everyone knows there is one universal truth about the forecast: It is always wrong. It’s just a question of how wrong it is. Of course there are all sorts of different forecasting tools and models to use, but the problem is, they are usually very complex and only as good as the input provided. And how does the typical businessperson know which variables really matter? Are some truly indicative of cause and effect, or is it just a correlation? Do you really understand the difference? What if you didn’t have to?

What if you had a tool that allowed you to just throw a lot of variables at the problem? What if you had a tool that was smart enough to pick out the ones that matter and come back with a prediction with a 99% confidence level? That’s exactly what SAP InfiniteInsight is supposed to do. Never heard of it? I’m not surprised. First of all, the name itself doesn’t exactly speak volumes about what it does. I am a firm believer that the name of the product should tell you (or at least hint at) what the product does. There is really nothing in InfiniteInsight that even implies prediction.

Also, the product comes to SAP through acquisition. The acquired company is KXEN, formerly a privately-held San Francisco-based company. Its specialty:  the automation of (at least many aspects of) prediction so that business users can make forward-looking decisions. So does this mean this is a self-service function and the business user doesn’t have to wait for the technical staff to do something? Not really. Those variables the business user wants to throw at the model? Well, someone has to know where they are and how they are represented in the grand scheme (or schema).  But that should be relatively easy for the technical staff and tech-savvy business analysts might also be able to construct the model. So we’re not talking days or weeks; we should be talking hours. This makes the whole process that much more dynamic. How many times have businesses stuck with a forecasting model that was known to be flawed or no longer reflected the real business environment (after all, things change over time) just because it was too difficult and time-consuming to change?

Production forecasts, sales and operations planning and financial planning are just the tip of the iceberg here though. Getting accurate predictive analytics will become contagious. Get good results in one area and you will start to think of all the other ways you would like to “predict.”

And how many times have massive volumes of data sat largely dormant because there weren’t tools to handles such volumes in real time? Those days are also gone. While the Internet of Things is all the rage right now and spells huge opportunities in many different disciplines, this is not a new problem for manufacturers. Many have been collecting these massive volumes of data from sensors on the shop floor for years. And while these sensors might have the ability to shut down an automated production line as temperature or viscosity or any number of other measures start to drift out of tolerance, how many are able to accurately predict when that might happen?

Since preventive maintenance also causes a line to shut down production, timing is critical. Shut it down too early and you lose more production. Wait too long and you pay an even greater price. And yet without the ability to not only collect, but also process and analyze colossal volumes of data in seconds, that data is massively underutilized. Moving data off storage devices and into memory is the key to improving speed and in this case SAP will turn to HANA.

And finally, a third SAP product will play a key role in drawing the business user out of his or her complacency. All the predictive capabilities and all the speed and processing power in the world will be meaningless to the business user if the tools can’t present the results in a meaningful way. That’s the problem SAP Lumira is intended to solve.

Here’s another product name that doesn’t tell you what it does. No it doesn’t treat rheumatoid arthritis or diabetic nerve pain. Does it illuminate data? Hard to say. But even though it doesn’t tell you what it does, the name has a couple things going for it: it’s short and it doesn’t say the wrong thing; it makes you ask what it is. Here’s what SAP says it does:

“Gather and quickly make sense of your data with SAP Lumira, our easy-to-use, data visualization software. In just a few clicks, you can combine and visualize data from multiple sources – presenting both big picture and granular insights in a single view. Use a drag-and-drop interface to create beautiful visualizations, explore data, and share insights with your team.”

Does this mean as a business user you can do it yourself? My guess is, you will still need some help from IT or that tech-savvy super user. Because you still need to know how your enterprise data is organized. But if you have data in spreadsheets now (and who doesn’t?) you can download it for free and try it out for yourself. You’ll educate yourself on the different possibilities and perhaps even come up with those new (out of the box?) ideas.

The bottom line: you don’t have to be a BI expert or a techie to gather more intelligence and insight today. And you don’t have to be a psychic to predict the future. But if you sit back and think all this stuff is too difficult and time-consuming, you better hope your competitors aren’t figuring out that it isn’t.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

SAP Business Analytics Keep SMEs Safe While Living on the “Edge”

 Living life on the edge can be thrilling, exciting and exhilerating. It can also be dangerous. Living life on the edge means you are moving at a pace where one mis-step can mean the difference between winning the race and falling over a cliff. Surviving today’s pace of business requires speed and agility of decision-making. Fast and efficient decision making not only requires lots of data, but also the ability to process and analyze that data at lightning speed, before it simply becomes history. Small to medium size enterprises (SMEs) face the same challenges of intense competition, globalization and acceleration of change, but often lack the tools needed to respond quickly and efficiently not only to data, but to events as they happen.

On June 14, 2011, SAP announced the latest offerings from its business analytics portfolio, tailored to fit the decision-making needs of SMEs. These include SAP® Crystal Server 2011 software and the 4.0 release of SAP® BusinessObjects™ Edge Business Intelligence (BI). Of course, when SAP used the word “edge” in its product name, it meant something a little different than the precipice that was implied in the opening paragraph. SAP’s use of “edge” implies these solutions lie at the perimeter of and complement enterprise applications like its Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) products. And yet, most SMEs today do indeed live on the edge and are in danger of not being able to understand all facets of their businesses and make confident, data-driven decisions as events unfold, in real time.

Most SMEs today are looking for increased visibility to their businesses, beyond the traditional reporting, which tends to focus the eyes of the business in the rear view mirror. Today’s accelerated pace of business creates an added requirement to move away from using data only to understand what has already happened. Additionally all companies must also monitor events in real time in order to avoid danger, mitigate risk and respond to new opportunities. Yes, this is a requirement for all companies, but to date, SMEs have been far less well equipped while also being in far greater danger. Unlike the large enterprise with size and influence to provide a buffer, SMEs are more vulnerable to a mis-step.

The highlights of SAP BusinessObjects Edge BI 4.0 include:

  • Unified and integrated user experience
  • New and more powerful mobile BI
  • The ability to glean insight from both business and social data
  • New tools to handle complex data in real-time
  • More choice through additional deployment and integration options

SAP brings several different components of its business analytics portfolio to bear and several of these capabilities overlap. For example, the same new powerful BI functionality available through the SAP Crystal Dashboard designer not only provides added power, but also is instrumental in transforming the user experience and makes that data easier to consume. A dashboard can be constructed for each decision-maker, at any level in the organization, including the very top. And this dashboard can not only include structured data captured in enterprise applications, but can coexist with other frequently used applications such as email, calendaring, Internet searches. And it can integrate structured business data with unstructured data available from sources such as blogs, emails and other social media. New text analysis functionality brings a new level of analysis to the decision-making process. The combination of all these capabilities means the software can sit and watch and analyze while decision makers are busy running the business.

While BI certainly adds significant value to the enterprise, there have always been a couple of glaring deficiencies of BI tools in the past. First of all, you usually had to be a programmer (or at least IT savvy) to create the intelligence that was sought. A new inquiry, report, data cube or analysis required technical expertise. Sometimes even running those reports and inquiries wasn’t something your typical executive was likely to do. Secondly, you had to know what to ask and how to ask the question.

Not only has “self-service” been a key goal of SAP BusinessObjects Edge BI 4.0 for SMEs, but the search and exploration functionality within the Edge package brings a new level of intuitive search capabilities to exploring enterprise data. Think about how all of us have become proficient in Internet searches. We start with a phrase and as we learn more, we continue to refine our search. Similarly, Explorer uses a familiar keyword search and then allows the business user to drill down and through the enterprise data.  Adding text analysis applied to unstructured data adds a new dimension.

SAP has also introduced the concept of event insight to SME. Event insight combines BI with event management. Neither of these technologies is particularly new. BI tools have been around for decades, although they have certainly matured. Event management has also been available for more than a decade, but few business people understand the possibilities and few companies have deployed this technology, at least not to its fullest extent.

In fact, many readers might not even be familiar with the term. Often reference to “event management” draws a blank stare from the non-technical business user. Substituting the phrase “triggers and alerts” might cause the light bulb to go off, but dimly. Those unfamiliar with event management may not see the full potential of being able to automatically troll through data looking for an event or a condition that either occurred or failed to occur as planned. Hence the slow adoption rates over the past decade.

Event insight adds a new dimension to event management, observing events, detecting patterns, correlating relationships and attempting to define cause and effect. As a result, it has a predictive nature whereby it infers a particular expected result. This type of monitoring and automated analysis has been particularly effective for example in preventing credit card fraud, business activity monitoring and security monitoring. SMEs can benefit from event insight just as large enterprises can but two factors are most likely to impact adoption: cost and awareness.

SAP can more easily address the cost factor. It may be harder to address the awareness factor. Even rather simplistic event management has not made great strides over the past decade, partly because technology budget holders have not really grasped the potential. But now as social media starts to invade our business world, it will be all that much more important for business executives to monitor both structured and unstructured data, detect events as they happen, and mitigate risks to their businesses and their brands. The event insight capabilities, together with the future potential of in-memory capabilities that SAP has developed to process massive amounts of data, may just be the tipping point that will prompt companies to bring this technology into the mainstream and help SMEs safely but boldly operate on the edge.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

What’s in a Name? Former and New SAP BI Product Names

In case you hadn’t heard, SAP has changed the names of some of its BI solutions. Name changes can often be confusing and even disruptive in terms of branding and building brand equity. But I do think that in this case the new SAP names are more meaningful and should help in making it easier to identify what the different components of the Business Objects suite actually do. For example, “Dashboards” is much more descriptive than “Xcelsius.” But you might need some help in making that transition. The following “translation” was pulled directly from SAP’s website. I happened to find it in the upper right hand corner of this page: http://www.sap.com/solutions/sapbusinessobjects/large/business-intelligence/data-exploration/explorer/index.epx

 Former Name New Name
SAP® BusinessObjects™ Enterprise SAP® BusinessObjects™ Business Intelligence platform
SAP® BusinessObjects™Xcelsius Enterprise> Xcelsius Enterprise Interactive Viewing SAP® BusinessObjects™Dashboards> SAP BusinessObjects Dashboards Interactive Viewing
SAP® BusinessObjects™Advanced Analysis, Web EditionSAP® BusinessObjects™Advanced Analysis, Office Edition SAP® BusinessObjects™Analysis, edition for OLAPSAP® BusinessObjects™Analysis, edition for Microsoft Office
SAP® BusinessObjects™Web Intelligence SAP® BusinessObjects™Web Intelligence (Installer name and documentation refers to “Interactive Analysis”)
Crystal Reports SAP® Crystal Reports
Tagged , , , , , , ,

SAP Business One: What’s New? What’s Next?

 Having recently posted updates on both SAP Business ByDesign and SAP Business All-in-One, I felt it only fair to also weigh in on the “other” SAP Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) solution for small to mid-size enterprises (SME) – SAP Business One. With almost 30,000 Business One customers, it enjoys a larger installed base than most all other ERP solutions vying for the attention of small businesses. Besides having featured it prominently on the main stage at SAPPHIRE NOW 2011, what has SAP been up to in terms of delivering innovation and what plans does it have for the future?

For those of you not familiar with the product line, SAP Business One is sold exclusively by over 1,100 partners in 40 countries around the world and is available in 25 languages. A Business One customer typically has fewer than 100 employees.  Designed for small companies, Business One is an integrated suite including:

  • Financial management  
  • Sales and order management, including the ability to support eCommerce through an on-line web store
  • Warehouse and production management
  • Customer relationship and service management
  • Purchasing
  • Reporting –using SAP Business One with SAP Crystal solutions

It is extendable with a Software Developer’s Kit (SDK) and indeed there are over 450 partner solutions, including some that are industry-specific. SAP also leaves more specialized functionality, such as Human Capital Management for example, to its partners.

While employee headcount is an important qualifier, it is not the only qualifier. Several years back I remember speaking with Mike Cornell, EVP of Bamboo Pipeline and a Business One customer. When I first met Mike in 2007, he had recently completed his initial implementation. His company had been a candidate for a new ERP because its existing solution couldn’t handle the growing velocity of transactions that accompanied the fast growth of its early years.  Bamboo Pipeline’s revenues had doubled on average every two years, making it one of the fastest growing suppliers of landscape materials in the USA. But Mike made a comment back then that stuck with me. He said something along the lines of, “When we hire employee number 101, I have no intention of ripping Business One out and implementing something else.” He was obviously in it for the long haul and would not have selected Business One had he not been confident that it would scale with him.

I recently caught back up with Mike for an update. Being in the landscape design business, selling directly to building contractors, Bamboo Pipeline was impacted by the housing bust that followed the financial crisis in 2008. At that point the role of ERP changed. Instead of fueling growth, it instead became a shock absorber.  Bamboo Pipeline preserved revenues throughout the downturn in the economy but improved margins each year. According to Mike, “We were in the midst of trying to manage change and a decline in revenue. However, because our technology platform [Business One] was configurable and adaptable, we were able to very quickly add a whole new line of business. While in the past we had simply sold to landscapers, our new Plants Express business (www.plantsexpress.com) allows us to sell direct to consumers through a partnership with Home Depot. We started with an eight store pilot and now we are in 130 stores and will be in 170 by the fall of 2011. This went from 0% to 30% of our business and we launched it with $0 investment in technology and one new employee. If we had needed to buy new technology we probably would not have been able to do it. Nobody was lending money. Having it in place allowed us to launch this new side of the business. It removed labor capacity as an obstacle and provided efficiency for bottom line survival.”

So beyond making the businesses of its customers more sustainable, what has the Business One team been up to? Like most of SAP’s products, it has been the beneficiary of new developments in Business Analytics, mobility and in-memory computing, and like the rest of the “new” SAP, has gotten much closer to its customers.

Reporting and Business Intelligence

Visibility into the business is one of the primary goals of any ERP solution and yet even today many companies, large and small, are still making decisions based on gut feel. Executives need to know their businesses better in order to make decisions and act boldly. One seemingly small, but deceptively important feature of Business One is a key here. That is its drill-down capability. To the left of any field on the screen you will see a little arrow. Want to know more? Just click on the little arrow and it will drill down to more detail. And you can keep drilling further and further. For super users that understand all the structure and relationships within the data and the application, this might seem like a nice little shortcut that keeps them from traversing a hierarchical menu and data structure. But for an executive that doesn’t have the time, patience or inclination to understand all those structures, it is the key to the kingdom. And that key unlocks a wealth of knowledge right at the touch of a button.

Then of course there is reporting.  The reporting mechanisms of ERP represent a key factor in decision-making and Business One relies primarily on the SAP Crystal Reports software for this visibility. There are Crystal Reports that come as standard fare within SAP Business One, pulling live data from all different parts of the solution, from accounting to sales to production and inventory. And SAP will continue to add more and more of these standard reports. However, I think the bigger value proposition will come from the release of SAP BusinessObjects Edge BI 4.0 for the SAP SME products (including Business One.) Adding the SAP Crystal Dashboard Design (formerly Xcelsius) is where the real added value lies, allowing you to create your own views and combine data from both SAP and non-SAP sources.

In SAP Business All-in-One (BAiO) Living Up to Its Name I wrote, “But perhaps where the BAiO user is likely to see the biggest change is in the experience of working with the product. You really have to see this to get the full effect because describing the new user interface as a portal or a mash-up really doesn’t do it justice.” The same kind of experience is available with Business One. Picture a screen that combines frequently used transactions or inquiries from your enterprise application (ERP or CRM), along with a Google-like search, maybe Microsoft Outlook and a few charts of key performance indicators. Maybe other widgets or Microsoft Office components would be added? It would be tailored by role, customizable by individual preference. It would be the equivalent of setting up a home base of operations from which a business user could comfortably operate all day long.

Unfortunately the typical Business One demo doesn’t show this off to its full extent. I can understand why. You don’t get this same experience without some add-on’s to the basic Business One. So I can see that the pre-sales folks don’t want to oversell the ERP product, particularly in selling to small companies that are typically very budget-constrained. And yet, for an incremental added cost, the additional value can be exponential, truly bringing the user experience to life.

Mobility

But decision makers aren’t just sitting in an office, at a laptop or desktop all day long. They are increasingly mobile and are far more likely today to stay relatively connected at all hours of the day and night. We hear lots these days about connecting to enterprise data through a mobile device. And there certainly are plenty of those mobile devices around. The mobile access Business One delivers today is largely for the purpose of securing approvals. Indeed my own research has found that approvals, authorizations, notifications and alerts are the top priorities of those using mobile devices today. So this really takes a “push” approach – pushing alerts to the mobile device in order to obtain approvals. The action to be taken might be a phone call or email in response, but it also might be a simple click.

 SAP sees mobile access as more of a push and pull in the future, allowing decision makers on the run to pull data on demand, rather than waiting for it to be selectively pushed to them.

In Memory Computing

If you have attended any SAP event, or even engaged in a sales presentation over the past 12 to 18 months, you’ve no doubt heard of “in-memory computing.” In the upcoming year, SAP plans to revamp existing SAP solutions with the power of in-memory computing and to release completely new applications such as Sales and Operations Planning, Trade Promotion Management, Smart Meter Analytics, Intelligent Payment Broker, cash and liquidity forecasting. SAP already has Business One running on the SAP High-Performance Analytics Appliance (HANA) in its labs. In memory computing usually equates to “big data” and big data is generally associated with large enterprises. So why is this significant? There are two scenarios at play here.

First of all, while we don’t ordinarily think of small companies as generating the massive volumes of data associated with in-memory computing, organizations of any size must deal with a proliferation of data. And while transaction volumes in small companies can’t compare to those in large multi-billion dollar multi-nationals, it’s not just business transactions that generate data. There is a plethora of other data ranging from quality and characteristic data collected on a plant floor, to consumer preferences that influence buying decisions of a retailer to smart meter readings in managing energy consumption and promoting sustainability. And then of course there are the massive volumes of data being amassed in social media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter and blogs. Even small companies cannot hide from the influence of the masses today.

Secondly, sometimes those large enterprises are indeed comprised of business units, subsidiaries and divisions that run individually as small companies that interoperate as an integrated business network. Not only must the business unit handle its own data, but that of its sister divisions. And ultimately the parent company must make decisions by consolidating and analyzing data from a vast number of sources. But individual business units can also benefit from having this facility with managing and analyzing massive volumes of data at the speed of their business.

Business executives don’t know or care about advances in data compression, columnar data store, and in-memory computing technology, but they do care about the speed and power the next generation of enterprise data management can bring to decision making. Whether the goal is to dramatically improve data-intensive processes such as planning, forecasting, and pricing optimization or to analyze sales profitability or manage cash and liquidity, once this power is in the executives hands, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for them to go back to “business decisions as usual.”

Key Takeaways

While SAP is well known in the world of the large enterprise, a fairly well-kept secret is that 75% of all of SAP’s business is sold to SMEs. SAP Business One continues to play an important role in providing a solution to the low end of the SME market. The reporting and Business Intelligence strategy will continue to be important, as will mobility, bringing enterprise data to the mobile device in a very easy and consumable fashion. SAP also will continue to build out the Business Network Integration story in multi-entity corporations that operate much like a network of small to mid-size companies. And finally, the 2011 and 2012 timeframe will see more concentration on reaping the benefits from SAP’s in-memory computing technologies.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,