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What is Unit4’s “Self-Driving” ERP?

Empowering People in Service Organizations

Today we live in a world where automobiles can drive themselves across the United States. These same cars can parallel park far more skillfully than their human drivers. Airplanes spend most of their time in flight on autopilot. Small, self-directing vacuum cleaners systematically clean our floors while we are at work or play. Fitness devices tell us when it is time to move and warn us when we are over-exerting ourselves. Some of those fitness devices are smart phones equipped with apps – the same smart phones that keep us constantly connected. We get spoiled by all this automation in our personal lives and then we go to work and wonder why the software and technology that is used to run the business doesn’t empower our work lives like consumer technology empowers our personal lives.

Enterprise applications like Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) are meant to capture transactional data and streamline and automate business processes. Yet while ERP was originally meant to make our business lives easier, many old ERP systems just can’t seem to get out of their own way. Unit4 is setting out to change that, at least for its customers. While it has always prided itself in its modern and flexible architecture and its solutions’ ability to accommodate change, it is now taking a page from consumer technology. A revitalized Unit4 is intent on delivering “self-driving” ERP, where user interaction is minimized and limited to activities where people make the difference.

People Are at the Core of all Unit4 Does

Unit4 has always targeted people-centric businesses, where services are the primary product delivered. These targets include professional service organizations, governments, higher education, not-for-profits and real estate. In each case, the key ingredients are people; processes are fluid and dynamic. By its very nature, outcomes are unpredictable. The last thing you want is your people doing manual tasks that add no value to the service delivered.

And yet that is exactly what happens when ERP can’t get out of its own way. What do we mean by that? Legacy ERP solutions that are rigid and cannot adapt as business changes, or that don’t allow business processes to evolve, or that force people to work in very unnatural or counter-intuitive ways, are more of a hindrance than a help to your business. They get in the way.

This has never been more true than it is today as we enter the digital age. Everywhere we look we see the pace of business accelerating and business models being disrupted. This is all fueled by digital communication. And yet many ERP solutions installed today lack the ability to participate in this revolution. They still force companies to transact business the way it has been transacted for the past 50 years. And they don’t contribute much insight in how to break that cycle, or insight into how to more profitably grow the business.

Unit4’s products have always been designed for change, but now they have a new goal: to help companies transform themselves in the digital age. This new goal is actually a natural progression, but is also fueled by the transformation of the company itself. Jose Duarte, Unit4’s current Chief Executive Officer (CEO) took the reins about two years ago. He made a clean sweep of his executive committee. A few very key players remain one level down from the top, which makes the transition smoother, but in the end, the Unit4 of today is very different than it was two years ago.

Today Unit4 is clearly energized, innovative, confident and aggressive. And it is on a mission: To empower people in service organizations.

The 6 Pillars of “Self-Driving” ERP

So what is this thing called “self-driving” ERP? Can software really make business decisions to drive the business? Of course not. Even an airplane on autopilot still needs a pilot. That car driving itself across the United States still has a driver. The homeowner has to decide which room to set up the little roaming vacuum cleaner in. Those fitness devices don’t do your workout for you. But all these technological wonders have a common theme: they make people more efficient and productive. People with these devices can do more, accomplish more. That’s what self-driving ERP is all about: better productivity, improved efficiency and better, more insightful decisions.

Unit4 likes to refer to the following as the six pillars of self-driving ERP:

  • Automation of manual tasks. Don’t make the human driving ERP do repeatable, repetitive tasks if they can be automated.
  • Drastically reduce the amount of input required; eliminate it entirely if possible. Ask for input only on an exception basis.
  • Use the moment of action to ask for the input. Ask a person when that exception actually occurs, not hours or days later.
  • Sense potential problems or bottlenecks.
  • Sense potential opportunities.
  • Make intelligent and sensible recommendations.

 How Does Unit4 Do This?

If you ask Unit4 how it will deliver on the promise of these pillars, Unit4 will talk about the four layers of its People Platform, announced back in April. After you hear the folks at Unit4 describe these layers, you may still not understand, particularly if you are a businessperson and not a technologist. Don’t feel bad. It’s not you. Some of these are tough concepts. But that’s okay. It is much more important to understand what it can do for you than to understand how it does it. You didn’t know how the transporter worked on Star Trek’s USS Enterprise. But you knew exactly what would happen when Captain Kirk said, “Beam me up Scottie.” If you understand the potential conceptually, a myriad of potential use cases might immediately spring to mind.

So here are the layers, as concisely as we can present them:

Personal Experience

The very top layer is the personal experience. This is all about a new, improved and modern user experience, which Unit4 has been working on for the past two years, improving existing functions; efforts will continue as new and different ways of engaging with ERP and new functions are introduced. This includes access through mobile devices of all sorts. But Mint Jutras believes the best user interface is often no user interface, and Unit4 is also heading down this path in automating those manual, repetitive tasks. But ultimately it is all about making software easy to use.

Of course ease of use means different things to different people.

Figure 1: “Top 3” Factors Influencing Ease of Use

Unit4 Fig 1Source: Mint Jutras 2015 Enterprise Solution Study

Note on defining generations:

  • Baby Boomers: born between 1943 and 1964
  • Generation Xers: 1965 to 1981
  • Millenial: born in 1982 or after

This is most apparent when we compare what is most important across different generations participating in our 2015 Enterprise Solution Study (Figure 1). While perceptions vary, minimizing time to complete tasks is right at the very top of the list across all generations. So Unit4 is right on track in automating manual tasks and reducing the amount of input required. In fact complete automation of many of these repetitive tasks is really the ultimate goal.

Business Capabilities

The second layer is business capabilities. Mint Jutras research confirms this as an appropriate focal point. Our latest study confirms that the most important selection criterion for choosing an ERP solution today is “fit and functionality,” followed closely by “the completeness of a solution.”

Expanding the footprint of its ERP remains a priority for Unit4, but it will pay particular attention to individual vertical markets. Some of these business capabilities will be developed by Unit4, some will be acquired, and some may in fact come from partners. The recent acquisition of Three Rivers Systems is a perfect example of how Unit4 can take some giant steps in business capabilities, in this case, significantly expanding Unit4’s solution for higher education.

Who is Three Rivers Systems and what does it do?

Three Rivers Systems’ solution is called CAMS Enterprise. CAMS is short for Comprehensive Academic Management System. As the name implies, it is a comprehensive higher education solution that automates the entire student lifecycle into a single system. It can be run on-premise or hosted in the cloud.

A few facts about Three Rivers:

  • Founded in 1985
  • 55 employees
  • Serving over 200 clients in North America, South Africa, Europe, Middle East, Asia
  • Serving all institution types from under 1000 students to over 40,000

 Smart Context

The third layer is called Smart Context. This is perhaps the toughest to explain and yet its name provides some clues. “Smart” implies intelligence. So the Smart Context layer adds some intelligence, but in the context of a specific task, question or problem. Think about the following:

  • You’re preparing your expense report. Smart Context can suggest the majority of the line items (mileage, airfare, meals, etc.) You simply confirm the amounts.
  • You leave your customer’s site where you have been working on a project. Smart Context asks you if you just spent three hours working on project XYZ. A simple click on yes or no completes your timesheet.
  • You are asked to deliver a detailed project plan (for resources and costing) before the close of day. You enter several characteristics and Smart Context reveals the closest fit to previous projects. You select one as a model and create the plan in a fraction of the time it would take if you built it from scratch. And you even have a complete workforce assignment.

Smart Context is all about removing the clutter, making complex things simpler, and requiring your input only for exceptions. By making suggestions where possible, enriching data with additional context, the information you do see is more relevant and complete. This is the real engine behind the concept of “self-driving” ERP.

Unit4 delivers this type of intelligence by bringing the latest technology together through a variety of components:

  • An alerts engine to keep you up to date with smart business feeds
  • A rules engine establishes and configures the rules to be invoked during data entry, allowing for dynamically altering the UI based on conditions, or proactively assisting the user in entering consistent data. Adding machine learning even makes it self-configuring.
  • Definition of communities (defining who cares about what) and the capture of conversations within the communities (no more lost threads after you hang up the phone). This creates a social context.
  • Mobile context, through technology that can detect location with a time stamp. This allows for location-based filtering and time tracking and can push information automatically (e.g. customer configurations pushed to a field service technician arriving on-site).
  • Predictive analytics, capable of pattern detection. This can involve complex analysis, bringing together technologies such as machine learning and event stream analysis for sensing problems, bottlenecks or opportunities. Or it can be as simple as pre-populating an expense report or suggesting a project plan.
  • Cloud and crowd context through capture of peer analysis and customer sentiment.
  • A workflow engine.

The net result is filtered, contextualized data that can be presented in a simple, relevant and complete experience.

Elastic Foundation

At the base, the fourth layer is the Elastic Foundation. The concept of elasticity is commonly associated with cloud and software as a service (SaaS). Unit4 does offer a variety of cloud options, including what it calls “cloud your way,” which lets the customer choose the deployment option without compromises. Used in this context, the elasticity comes from the ability to grow and consume resources as needed, without additional purchases of hardware, middleware and the associated maintenance.

But Unit4 takes elasticity one step further and uses it in the context of the application itself, which can easily be changed and/or extended without disrupting the installed solution.

The elastic foundation has evolved from the architecture on which Unit4 Business World (formerly Agresso) was built. This is where you define your organizational structure, information requirements, and the relationship between the two. Traditionally these types of structures, relationships and processes tended to be hard-coded in solutions or embedded in codes like the general ledger account, using a “once and done” approach that made future changes difficult and costly. But reality says they need to be fluid, and that is the elasticity that the People Platform delivers.

With Unit4’s Elastic Foundation, no source code changes are required and even if it means changing the business rules, the data model and how the data is presented, this does not constitute multiple changes. You make a single change and it is permeated throughout all the necessary components of the solution. All are on the same page. No delays. Nothing can be out of sync.

Nothing Tells the Story Like an Example

While all this discussion may provide good background, nothing illustrates what Unit4 is doing better than an example. Let’s explore the project plan example mentioned earlier in a bit more depth.

Projects are common in many services organizations. For some, projects are simply internal. But in many companies, particularly in professional services organizations, these projects are core to their business. Unit4 has been listening to these types of customers as they expressed a desire for better ways of winning profitable business. When your business is project-based, that means coming up with more accurate estimates faster. This is one of the scenarios Unit4 has been working on that will showcase all the layers described above.

To better understand this endeavor, put yourself in the shoes of a project manager at a project-based business that has identified a new opportunity. You need to come up with an estimate of cost, resources and schedule in order to propose a price that is both competitive and profitable. And you need to do so quickly and efficiently or either your window of opportunity will close, or your current projects will suffer, or both. If you are smart you don’t start completely from scratch. Instead you find a similar project, hopefully one that was successful, and start from there, modifying it to reflect the current needs of your prospect.

Sounds simple, but in reality, how do you go about finding the right project to use as a starting point, especially if it was a project in which you had no personal involvement or experience? Unit4 is developing a scenario where you will be able to enter a few key characteristics of the project including the customer (if you have done business with the prospect before), type of project, time frame required, cost range, etc. Using these parameters, Unit4 will present you with potential reference projects, each assigned a rating of how closely they match your criteria. They do the legwork; you pick the closest, most profitable and start from there.

But have you ever managed a project that looked great on paper, but in reality it was the project from hell? You can’t tell everything from the numbers. So Unit4 uses sentiment analysis to assist. The solution will be able to look at conversations and pull up up the five most positive things and five most negative things said. What is the most common word used? Perhaps you find it to be “team.” It can look for certain words used in comments and conversations, including words like “complaints” or “excessive overtime.” Perhaps the team is complaining about too much overtime.

Projects under consideration may also not yet be completed; in which case, Unit4 will simulate a completion to predict schedule and cost accuracy, along with projected margins. While all of this might seem relatively simple, when done manually, there are numerous assumptions and opinions that get inadvertently filtered that can result in overlooking the best model, choosing the wrong project or making bad predictions.

By automating the process, Unit4 delivers on all of the pillars of a “self-driving” ERP, from automating manual tasks to reducing input and asking only for input at the moment of action. It can sense problems, as well as potential opportunities and give intelligent recommendations.

This is just one of many possible scenarios. Mint Jutras anticipates more and more of these types of scenarios will be identified through working with actual customers. Once some are delivered (later this year), this could have a snowball effect, with one idea generating many more. Then it will be up to Unit4 (and possibly some select partners or customers themselves) to deliver against the promise of “self-driving” ERP.

Summary and Key Take-aways

Unit4 has truly transformed itself into a new company, one that is energized, fresh, innovative, confident and aggressive. And yet it has done so by building on the strengths it has exhibited in the past. It has always targeted people-centric businesses, particularly those that are “living in change.” It has a strong, modern architecture and understands the trends rocking the world today. We are truly entering the digital age. Social, mobile, cloud and analytics all play a key role. Unit4 is leveraging all of these and delivering a solution with a simple goal: to empower people in service organizations.

But probably most importantly, Unit4 is now focused on execution. That focus is centered on:

  • Delivering vertical solutions for service industries
  • Building applications for people
  • Designing its underlying architecture for agility
  • Delivering cloud solutions “your way,” with no compromise

The recent acquisition of Three Rivers Systems is evidence it is indeed moving into major execution mode. Don’t be surprised to see others and expect some very significant partnerships to be announced soon as it aggressively builds its partner ecosystem.

During the past two years, as this transformation was underway, Unit4 was quite “quiet.” Expect the company to significantly turn up the volume, particularly in North America, where there is tremendous opportunity that has yet to be tapped.

Expect the pace of product innovation to accelerate as it starts to aggressively leverage its prior investment in architecture and technology.

If you are a services organization with an ERP solution that seems to just get in the way, Mint Jutras would agree with Unit4 when it says, “To adapt to the speed of change, ignore the old restrictions.” Perhaps you need to get into the driver’s seat of a new “self-driving” ERP.

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NetSuite Announces the End of the Beginning: Cloud is Here

At SuiteWorld 2015 NetSuite CEO Zach Nelson announced The End of the Beginning. “The question of whether cloud was going to happen is answered. Cloud is here.” Mint Jutras agrees. Attitudes towards cloud and Software as a Service (SaaS) have changed dramatically over the past few years, particularly with respect to software that runs your business. As recently as five to ten years ago, Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) could easily have been called the last bastion of resistance to SaaS. “Cloud” had yet to become part of the business vernacular and “SaaS” was still a relatively new and poorly understood concept. While other complementary solutions were headed in that direction, entrusting the transactional system of record of your business to the cloud requires a higher level of trust than required for other applications, including those which are often referred to as “systems of engagement.”

But now – how times have changed! According to the latest Mint Jutras 2015 Enterprise Solution Study, the majority of businesses have some sort of cloud strategy and the shift to the cloud has definitely begun.

What’s Your Cloud Strategy?

To get a clear picture of how cloud strategies have developed and evolved, we turn to some specific questions in our study.

Figure 1: What Best Describes Your Cloud Strategy?

NS Fig 1Source: Mint Jutras 2015 Enterprise Solution Study

The first of these questions specifically asked about cloud strategies. This is the first year we have asked this question and the results were a little surprising – but only a little. The first surprise was that the majority (84%) has a cloud strategy, even if that strategy is to not go there (8%). In a way this is not particularly surprising given all the hype over cloud these days. This leaves the remaining 16% with no cloud strategy. But notice how we phrased this option: “We don’t have a cloud strategy. Cloud is just one of many factors we consider.” So it doesn’t mean these participants will not consider cloud.

We phrased it that way because for years we have been capturing priorities for selection criteria for ERP. Over the years we have always included some sort of reference to deployment option and it has consistently been ranked close to the bottom of the list of criteria. Since deployment option was not the overriding factor in selecting these solutions, you might also conclude that cloud was not driving strategy. And yet only 16% don’t have a cloud strategy.

So, in a way, survey participants are sending us mixed signals. But at the same time, we saw the availability of “cloud options” rise significantly in importance this year. It moved up from the very bottom of the list of criteria to the middle of the pack.

But, based on the strategies shown in Figure 1, we might conclude that cloud deployments will not dominate immediately. We actually confirmed this conclusion by capturing the percentage of all business software that is currently deployed as SaaS, along with projections over the next two, five and ten years and beyond (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Percentage of Business Software Deployed as SaaS

NS Fig 2Source: Mint Jutras 2015 Enterprise Solution Study

This steady progression is to be expected largely because of the number of existing on-premise (non-cloud) solutions that are currently installed. These will not be ripped out and replaced overnight, particularly when it comes to ERP. Implementing a solution that runs your business is not a small undertaking and most will not abandon their current solutions without a very good reason and an expected return on investment. So in that respect, it is not surprising that the most likely strategy is to leave existing systems in place but surround them with cloud-based solutions. This option leads to a hybrid environment, which delivers some of the benefits of SaaS, but will lead companies down a more circuitous route in their cloud journeys. In these cases, hybrid solutions might simply be viewed as temporary options and not necessarily the desired final destination. It will be interesting to see if interest in these hybrid solutions continues to grow or decline over time. A lot will depend on whether the hybrid solutions deliver the desired (end) results or just whet the appetite for more SaaS.

However, one in five (20%) will seek to replace existing on-premise solutions with cloud-based alternatives and another 8% are taking specific action now to do just that. If we add these two percentages together we see those taking the plunge and replacing systems with complete cloud solutions (slightly) outnumbers those that prefer a more evolutionary, hybrid approach (28% versus 25%). These are the companies most likely to be evaluating NetSuite as a replacement solution, as well as companies just starting out on their ERP journeys.

Those with a defined strategy of moving to the cloud clearly see the potential benefits. These benefits may be cost savings, more innovation, better support of remote workforces and distributed environments, or simply enabling growth.

But Remember, Not All Cloud is SaaS

However, if you recall our previous definitions, while all SaaS is cloud, not all cloud is SaaS. So we asked specifically “Which is most important to you in terms of placing any solution in the cloud?” While 12% admit to not really understanding (Don’t Know), the preference is for SaaS (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Which is most important to you in terms of cloud?

NS Fig 3Source: Mint Jutras 2015 Enterprise Solution Study

SaaS is the top choice, but as long as the solution is web-enabled, even a hosted or on-premise solution might be able to be accessed anytime, from anywhere. However, Mint Jutras would contend that without a SaaS solution, you would leave some of the potential benefits on the table. And as you can see, there is still a significant percentage that prefers a private cloud. This might be because a private cloud is considered more secure (it may or may not be), or because of current or anticipated customization. If the overriding desire is to simply move to the cloud (only), it might be easier to lift and shift existing solutions to a private cloud. Yet in doing so, you relinquish the opportunity to re-implement and remove limitations that might have been imposed by older, less functional and less technology-enabled solutions. And with the current configurability of a good SaaS solution, you would likely be able to eliminate a lot of your invasive customizations and therefore simplify your IT life, particularly as business needs change over time.

As the World Turns

And what business today is not undergoing change? Only those that are stagnating and losing any competitive advantage they might have ever had. In fact today we are living in times of unprecedented change and growth opportunity. New consumer middle classes have sprung up in countries that were hardly industrialized a short decade ago, creating opportunity even for small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Innovation, advanced technology and the Internet have combined to create new business models that were never even considered a decade ago.

Those companies providing these consumer goods and even those offering industrial products that support the manufacturing and distribution of these consumer products see the most opportunity, but are also most subject to new and ever evolving business models. This is a market that NetSuite is very well suited for given its strength in eCommerce and its support for digital transformation.

NetSuite was born in the cloud long before cloud and SaaS came into the limelight. While NetSuite could not have foreseen all the new opportunities and new business models that have been created over the past few years, it did have foresight enough to build a system that could accommodate change. As Zach Nelson likes to say, “We built change into the system. We can’t predict the next business model or where it might go, but we can make the solution adaptable, regardless of the direction.”

Disruption in an Omni-channel Environment

As a result, NetSuite views “disruption” as a good thing. In prospecting, it seeks out these disruptive business models and sees its support of “omni-channels” as a key factor in supporting growth and therefore featured it prominently in its SuiteWorld message..

Omni-channel, alternatively referred to as “multi-channel,” refers to the ability to use different channels simultaneously. Consumers might purchase online, but pick up, or return merchandise at a physical store. Retailers may use retail stores as distribution hubs. As consumers make online purchases, it may be advantageous to ship from a store location where the item may be overstocked, thereby drawing down surplus inventory. Or the choice of ship from location may be made to minimize cost and lead-time. This is definitely an issue for retailers today. But more and more manufacturers and distributors find themselves also selling direct now, so it is just a matter of time before they need to deal with omni-channel supply chain issues as well.

Combining all these options requires flexibility, a level of expertise and feature functionality not typically included in your traditional ERP software suite. NetSuite has differentiated itself by doing all of the above. But more importantly, this requires an unprecedented degree of flexibility and adaptability, well suited for the cloud.

Much of this adaptability comes simply from being a multi-tenant SaaS solution. On the one hand, solution providers that maintain a multi-tenant SaaS solution have a distinct advantage to those offering traditional on-premise or even single-tenant SaaS solutions. But while they must only maintain a single line of code, it must be more configurable and flexible than a traditional solution, or it winds up appealing only to a small sector of companies.

The NetSuite ERP provides many options for configuration without invasive code changes. But it also goes one step further, offering a software development platform that allows partners and customers to add in new features without impacting the single line of code that NetSuite manages for its subscribers. The code developed using this platform can and does survive updates that are made on a quarterly basis.

Shopping for a New Solution?

In order to take full advantage of next generation solutions, enabled by advanced technologies, you may choose to replace your current solutions. The question we have been asking for years now is this: “If you were to select a solution today, which deployment options would you consider?” In the early days of this question, those that would consider SaaS were definitely in the minority and almost everyone would, of course, consider on-premise solutions. That landscape has shifted dramatically. Figure 4 shows the most recent few years.

Figure 4: Deployment Options that would be Considered TodayNS Fig 4

Source: Mint Jutras Enterprise Solution Studies

* Option added in 2015

SaaS is currently the option most likely to be considered (participants are allowed to select as many options as they want). For the past few years “SaaS” and “hosted and managed by your solution vendor” have run neck and neck. In the past, one of the reasons has been because the difference between these two options was often blurry and survey respondents didn’t necessarily understand the difference. This was substantiated by observing that a significant percentage of participants that were running solutions that are SaaS-only (including NetSuite) chose this hosted option instead of, rather than in addition to SaaS.

But we’re now starting to see evidence of a better understanding of the difference between these options. Not only are more participants actually running SaaS solutions, but also the preference for SaaS is starting to pull away from hosted solutions.

Conclusion and Recommendations

Mint Jutras would agree with Zach Nelson. Data from our 2015 Enterprise Solution Study signals that the end of the beginning is indeed here. Early pioneers, and NetSuite in particular, have been providing cloud-based SaaS solutions for more than a decade. NetSuite customers, pioneers in their own right, have led the way and are living testimony to the benefits. The shift to the cloud has begun in earnest.

Most companies today have defined a cloud strategy. If you have not, either because of lack of understanding or lack of attention, take a step back and develop one. Educate yourself on cloud and SaaS, along with the potential benefits; satisfy any lingering concerns you might have and investigate your options.

Not everyone will take the same approach. If you are currently running your business on legacy solutions that limit your connectivity and interoperability, adding some peripheral and complementary cloud solutions might selectively help you connect to trading partners and customers, but ultimately you will need to replace that old software or run the risk of being at a significant competitive disadvantage. Replacing it with a cloud-based ERP, deployed in a secure SaaS model might just be the giant step you need to move into today’s digital world and accelerate your own competitive advantage. If you’re looking for a SaaS ERP solution with some longevity in the market, you would do well to add NetSuite to your short list of vendors.

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Infor: On a Mission to Go the Last Mile

Cloud-enabled Industry Functionality People Actually Want to Use

Infor is on a mission to “build beautiful business applications with last mile functionality and insights for select industries, delivered as a cloud service.” Supporting this mission are three strategy pillars:

  1. Specialized micro-vertical suites
  2. Powered by the architecture of the Internet
  3. That create experiences people love

In constructing these pillars, Infor hits on all cylinders of the go-to-market messaging surrounding the key technology trends today. But for Infor, this is much, much more than just marketing hype. Its portfolio of business applications is broad. Its executive team has a very deep understanding of the products, the underlying technology and the business itself, and has invested heavily in development. That investment includes a creative design team, which is large (about 100 people) and in-house. It’s all about bringing value to its current and future customers and growing its business.

Here we examine each of the three elements of its strategy in terms of the value it brings to Infor’s current and future customers.

Industry-Specific Features and Functions

Much of the functionality required in software that runs your business is quite generic. All companies must record basic transactions that create a system of record, and in some departments that are subject to regulatory requirements (e.g. operational accounting), creativity is frowned upon. This generic functionality has become a commodity today. Any good ERP solution today covers the basics, although the basics aren’t so basic any more.

However, no two businesses are identical and most growing companies actively seek competitive differentiation. Infor acknowledges these differences. In promoting its new CloudSuites, it likes to say, “No two clouds should be alike…because manufacturing tires is different than growing kiwis.”

And yet, one of Infor’s stated objectives is to eliminate customization. In order to do that, it needs to offer an unprecedented range of features and functions, some of which are very specific to certain industries. As a result, Infor is dropping down a level or two in its definition of industry. For example, some vendors refer to manufacturing in general as an industry. Others might concentrate on certain manufacturing sectors like automotive, aerospace and defense, high tech electronics, or food and beverage. But Infor thinks a bit more granular and will, for example, break out food and beverage into sub-verticals such as produce, dairy, beer, processed meats, etc., because each faces its own set of challenges. Dairies must worry about the variability of fat content, while breweries manage fermentation processes and measure alcohol content. Growers need traceability back to the field, or ideally, even a row picked on a certain date. Some food processors combine ingredients through formulas and recipes, while others have the equivalent of a reverse bill of material. How much bacon or pork loin you get will vary pig by pig.

These types of special requirements are often satisfied through customization, or not addressed at all by enterprise applications. Adding this type of specialized functionality to a single, general-purpose Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) solution would certainly add an unwanted level of complexity. On the other hand, maintaining many different solutions that share some common requirements is a waste of development resources for the ERP vendor.

Through many years of acquisitions, Infor has actually accumulated quite a few different ERP and financial management solutions and has made a commitment to existing customers to never force them to rip and replace them. And so, Infor is faced with a delicate balancing act in prioritizing its investments.

Some of these solutions are quite mature and continue to be based on technology that has become outdated. Investment in these solutions is (and should be) minimal. Others are very modern and technology-enabled. Some were originally designed with a certain industry in mind, others were conceived as more general-purpose solutions. Decisions surrounding these solutions require careful thought. Some will be more strategic than others.

As Infor attacks sub-vertical markets, it is critical to start with the ERP solution best suited to each one. The specific industry functionality provided will be a better fit, and easier to deliver. In the case of food and beverage, for example, M3 is the selected ERP solution. Infor then builds out the requirements for dairy or beer or processed meats as optional add-on components. More on that in the next section where we talk about architecture.

Before we do that, let’s explore what this means for customers and prospects looking for a new solution. Mint Jutras has been collecting data on priorities in selecting software for years now. In days gone by, “fit and functionality” always topped the list. But over the past few years another selection criterion crept up in importance and appeared to be running neck and neck with “fit and functionality.” That criterion was “Ease of Use.”

In many ways, this makes sense. All the features and functions in the world won’t do you any good if you can’t figure out how to use them. But the ranking of “ease of use” and “fit and functionality” were so close, we started to wonder what the priority would be if users were forced to choose between them – hypothetically of course.

So in 2015 we changed the format of the question, again listing the different criteria, but this time forcing the participants to stack rank them from 1 (least important) to 10 (most important).

Table 1: Selection Criteria Priorities (ranked from 1 to 10)

Infor Table1Source: Mint Jutras 2015 Enterprise Solution Study

It is quite clear from Table 1 that “fit and functionality” is still king. The top three criteria are all related to features and functions, which would indicate Infor is on the right track in terms of providing solutions that “go the last mile.” User experience (a broader criterion than ease of use) is still in the top half, which indicates it is much more than an afterthought. But getting the right software to do the job – the whole job – trumps all other considerations.

Infor needs to make the best of two worlds. It needs to be able to develop some generic functionality once and reuse it across multiple applications. And it needs to easily tack on new components of functionality, preferably making them optional. Infor’s answer to this is ION.

ION is lightweight middleware, providing common reporting and analysis, workflow, and business monitoring in one, consistent event-driven architecture (EDA). ION also provides an environment that enables new functionality to be developed once and shared by multiple products in the Infor portfolio, which helps in that delicate balancing act.

All of Infor’s strategic product lines have been appropriately “ION-ized.” This means Infor can develop functionality that can and should be shared across many of its different products, including horizontal solutions such as customer relationship management (CRM), human capital management (HCM), supplier exchanges and more, as well as localizations that deal with local country requirements in transaction basic business. This results in more innovation and a broader footprint than could ever be delivered by a single developent team focused on a single purpose-built product.

But Infor also feels it needs to go a step further: providing the architecture of the Internet.

Architecture of the Internet

Nobody today would argue the value of the Internet, bringing us “access any time, from anywhere” connectivity. Of course, the Internet implies “cloud” and Infor is moving into the cloud in a big way. As Infor (and also other major enterprise software providers) vie for leadership in the cloud, most assume the cloud is both well understood and a desirable goal. Mint Jutras research confirms that the market has reached a tipping point where cloud-based solutions are preferred over traditional on-premise deployments.

A question we have been asking for years now is this: “If you were to select a solution to run your business today, which deployment options would you consider?” In the early days of this question, those that would consider SaaS were definitely in the minority and almost everyone would, of course, consider on-premise solutions. That landscape has shifted dramatically. Figure 1 shows the most recent few years.

Figure 1: Deployment Options that would be Considered Today

Infor Fig 1Source: Mint Jutras Enterprise Solution Studies

* Option added in 2015

Note: The time span between the 2011 and 2013 studies was about 18 months as Mint Jutras shifted the timing of the study during the calendar year.

And yet, even with all this interest, Mint Jutras is absolutely convinced that many still don’t understand the terminology that is so easily tossed around today. Many use the terms “cloud” and “SaaS” interchangeably, but there are some important differences. So let’s distinguish between the two:

  • 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 generally is 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 these are more likely to be delivered through a private cloud. Not all of our survey participants want the same thing in terms of the cloud (Figure 2). Yet despite this diversity in preferences, Mint Jutras believes it is important for any software that can be delivered through the cloud to be able to fully exploit the power and benefits of the Internet.

Figure 2: How do you prefer your cloud?

Infor Fig2Source: Mint Jutras 2015 Enterprise Solution Study

This is presumably the reason Infor has set out to take full advantage of the Internet, regardless of what cloud means to its various constituents. It has developed a very clear progression that it refers to as Cloud 1.0, Cloud 2.0 and Cloud 3.0. This journey continues today but Infor’s stated goal is “efficient, scalable, secure, highly available, cost effective applications running on world class infrastructure in the cloud.”

Infor’s requirements for “Cloud 2.0” include:

  • Multi-tenancy: This is the most efficient and cost effective way for solution providers to deliver a SaaS solution and aligns very well with Infor’s goal of “no customization.” Maintaining a single line of code precludes customizations that involve invasive code changes. Not all of Infor’s products offered as SaaS are multi-tenant today, but it is moving in this direction.
  • Scaleability and high availability: These should be prerequisites for any SaaS solution, but both require data centers that can easily grow as needed, with an adequate level of redundancy for backup, disaster recovery and business continuity. Rather than taking on this responsibility itself, Infor relies on the massive remote computing services offered through Amazon Web Services (AWS), leaving Infor to concentrate on developing business applications rather than building and supporting data centers.
  • Zero footprint and no local device dependency: By not requiring any software on the device used to access the software (desktop, laptop, tablet, smart phone, etc.), it delivers the access any time, anywhere promise of the cloud.
  • ION/web-based integrations: Features of Infor’s light-weight middleware, such as its event-driven architecture, message-based communications between applications and industry standard object models for data definition, provide alternatives to point to point integration involving a lot of programming and invasive source code changes. Individual ERP products making up its different suites will of course need to be able to take full advantage of this middleware. Solutions that are deemed “strategic” will take full advantage, while legacy solutions based on older technology can and do have limited capability and therefore might not be good candidates for movement to the cloud.
  • Successful security tests: Infor has three layers of security. Cloud-based products are required to follow acceptable protocols for software development and product release processes. It also has a team of ethical hackers, reporting to a chief security officer, that continually test and advise the development teams. And finally, it uses independent third parties for audits.
  • Health Check Monitors: These need to be built into the software for self-monitoring of performance (think scaleability and high availability).
  • No source code changes are allowed: But extensions, connected through ION, can be used to fill functional gaps.
  • Meets patching and upgrade requirements

Cloud 3.0 will likely produce more changes that are “under the covers,” including more use of open source technology, better support for single instance deployments (think private cloud) and minimizing the use of third party products that would require additional purchases from the customer.

Providing last-mile functionality across a broad set of micro-vertical industries, supported by the architecture of the Internet is a lofty and practical goal. But Infor faces a unique challenge in leveraging this strategies in growing its business. Like any other solution provider today, Infor must attract new business. But it also must work hard to satisfy and retain its existing customer base of over 73,000 companies.

Many of these customers are stuck on older products, built on outdated technology. While promising to never force them to move off these old products is laudable, in a way it does the customers a disservice. In staying put, they will remain at a competitive disadvantage. Infor needs instead to lure them into making a significant change. That is where the third strategy pillar comes in.

Creating Experiences People Love

All too often companies and the people responsible for choosing to replace or upgrade solutions (or not) become complacent. The solution in place might not have all the functionality they need; it might be hard to use; it might not have produced the results anticipated. But change is hard. Many fool themselves into thinking old solutions, based on outdated technology aren’t “that bad.” They lose sight of how much solutions have evolved, both from a technology standpoint, and also in terms of features and functions. They cling to old customizations, not realizing a newer solution could probably be configured and personalized to satisfy their needs without invasive customization.

Many Infor customers fall into this category. What they don’t realize is that they could trade in their old solutions without changing solution providers. If they choose to go to a cloud-based solution, they also benefit by relinquishing the care and feeding of that solution to Infor, allowing the existing information technology (IT) staff to play a more strategic role in the company, adding more value than just keeping the lights on. And those running old versions of the products that are “strategic” for Infor might not even have to switch solutions.

Infor’s UpgradeX program is designed to get these folks on the latest release of these strategic products and then move them into the cloud. If their current ERP is part of one of Infor’s CloudSuites, the biggest effort will be in upgrading. If not, that probably means it will never bring them the kind of competitive advantage a more modern solution can provide. So these customers will need to migrate to a different solution, which means a reimplementation. But that is not necessarily a bad thing. Reimplementation allows the customer to rethink decisions that may have been influenced by prior limitations of the technology or the application. It’s an opportunity, but to get them to move, the target solution better be something that truly beckons.

While Infor has been talking about building “beautiful software” for several years now, it is the concept of delivering an experience that people love that resonates and should have a bigger impact on that portion of its installed base that has been clinging to older software. After all, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and Mint Jutras research has confirmed in the past that efficiency far outweighs the visual appeal of the software. In fact our 2015 Enterprise Solution Study confirmed it once more.

We asked survey participants to select the top three most important factors in determining “ease of use.” As in the past, minimizing the time to complete tasks took first place and intuitive navigation was a close second (Figure 3). The two are closely related, more for knowledge workers than those doing heads-down data entry. A decision-maker in search of answers that must hunt and peck for the right inquiry or function is certainly not minimizing the time to complete a task.

Figure 3: “Top 3” Factors Influencing Ease of Use

Infor Fig 3Source: Mint Jutras 2015 Enterprise Solution Study

However, with all the talk of the impact of the millennial generation recently, we decided to look at this from a generational perspective this year (Figure 4).

Figure 4: “Top 3” Factors Influencing Ease of Use by Generation

Infor Fig4Source: Mint Jutras 2015 Enterprise Solution Study

This gave us a new perspective. While minimizing time to complete tasks still takes the lead for all three generations, it does so with a much smaller margin in the Millennial generation – actually by no margin at all. Beautiful software (a visually appealing user interface) was tied for first in the youngest of the three generations.

While it is more likely that a Baby Boomer or a Gen Xer will have final approval over the purchase of new software, Millennials will often be involved in the selection committee and will definitely be amongst the regular users of the system. So the perspectives of all three generations are critically important.

Yet for decades, user interfaces have been designed by software developers who have never walked a mile in the shoes of the customer, regardless of generation. Which is why Infor is providing more user experience options and is also now taking a radically different approach.

Several years ago Infor created Hook & Loop, its internal creative design agency. Typically software companies turn to creative designers for advertising and imaging, not for software design. But that is exactly what the Hook & Loop team does at Infor. The team has grown from six people to a staff of over 100. This team is not a team of software developers and as a result brings no preconceived notion of how software looks and feels. Instead it goes to those who do the work and asks questions like:

  • What is your role in your organization? What are the different “hats” (roles) you wear?
  • What is a typical day like?
  • How do you interact with your co-workers and share information?
  • What frustrations do you experience on a regular basis?
  • What workarounds have you come up with to make your life easier?
  • What are the (small) things that make you happy?

Remember this team isn’t developing the software. It is just designing what it will look like and how the users will interact with it. As a result, it is unfettered by all the distractions of the programming that very often leads developers down rat holes, creating added complexity and even scope creep.

Yet through its experiences to date, it has grown beyond designing each user experience from scratch, which is very important in terms of delivering innovation at an acceptable and accelerated pace. The team has developed a variety of page-level navigation methods for specific use cases, including approaches such as:

  • Drill down / drill up
  • Breadcrumbs
  • Sections: Tabs
  • Sections: Dropdown
  • Accordion (expand and contract information)
  • Wizards
  • Cardstack/List

If you talk to Infor you will hear them talk about the SoHo user interface, which is transitioning to SoHo Xi. Infor is quite fond of code names. What is more important to the users of the software is that it is designed to be efficient and visually appealing, both at the same time, whether the user is using a desktop, laptop, tablet, smart phone or any other type of device that may come on the scene.

Conclusion

The investment that Infor has been making over the past few years is now coming together and producing some pretty dramatic results. Its verticalized CloudSuites have been emerging on the scene. This of course is an on-going process, but expect more (functionality), and expect more vertical focus. New ways of engaging with ERP are being introduced. They are both efficient and visually appealing. These suites look nothing like the old software of yesterday. This is a new Infor.

Infor will not force its customers or its prospects to move to the cloud, but if they so choose, Infor will be ready and fully Cloud 3.0 enabled. Even if customers choose to stay on premise, they will still be able to benefit from the architecture of the Internet. But of course those stuck on older technology will have to take some action.

Mint Jutras has observed that some Infor customers seem to want to die with their cold, dead hands on old software. While that may be a tribute to the software, if you want your business to grow and thrive, we recommend getting on board with the Infor program. Of course you will have to get used to a new user experience, but we think it will be a welcome change. You could even fall in love with your ERP all over again.

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UNIT4: In Business for People: Introducing The People Platform

When Unit4 talks about people it does so in a variety of different ways. First of all, its products are designed specifically for people-centric businesses. These include those in sectors like professional services, education, government and public services, not for profits, and real estate. This industry focus however has also led the company to put people first in the design and development of the software. Unlike some other enterprise applications that require people to adapt and conform to the way the software works, Unit4 strives very hard to allow users to personalize the software to the business and the way they work – naturally. And because we live in a world where change is the only constant, the ways businesses run and the ways people work also constantly change.

Supporting businesses living in change has been a consistent mantra for its Agresso Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) product for years, but Unit4 is now bringing the platform that facilitates change to other Unit4 products, in order to deliver agility and flexibility, along with an improved user experience. And so… along with the launch of its new People Platform, Unit4 recently announced new releases of two of its flagship products, while also re-branding and renaming them:

  • Unit4 Business World Milestone 5 (formerly known as Agresso)
  • Unit4 Financials, Version 13 (previously known as Coda)

The People Platform

The term “platform” can mean different things to different people, or even different things to the same person when used in different contexts. In this case, it might best be described as a technology stack, or perhaps middleware that does a lot of the heavy lifting in delivering more business capabilities, and an improved, personalized user experience. Unit4 also likes to say it delivers “smart context.” All of this is built on Unit4’s Elastic Foundation.

Elastic Foundation

The Elastic Foundation has evolved from the architecture on which Unit4 Business World (formerly Agresso) was built. So for this product, and for any new products that will be built on it in the future, it really does provide a true “foundation.” It includes the information/data model that feeds all the reporting and analytics. But it also defines and drives much more. The Elastic Foundation is where you define your organizational structure, information requirements, and the relationship between the two.

Traditionally these types of structures, relationships and processes tended to be hard-coded in solutions or embedded in codes like the general ledger account, using a “once and done” approach that made future changes difficult and costly. But reality says they need to be fluid, and that is the elasticity that the People Platform delivers. With Unit4’s Elastic Foundation, no source code changes are required and even if it means changing the business rules, the data model and how the data is presented, this does not constitute three (or more) changes. You make a single change and it is permeated throughout all the necessary components of the solution. All are on the same page. No delays. Nothing can be out of sync.

Today Unit4 Business World, built natively on the People Platform, takes full advantage of the Elastic Foundation. For Unit4 Financials, it will be more of an evolution.It will immediately be able to take advantage of the user interface framework that will open doors for mobile and social capabilities capabilities. It also immediately leverages some elements of the Elastic Foundation including one key component: “Flexifields.”

Think of Flexifields as user-defined fields on steroids. Let’s say you want to track your primary competitors. Most modern systems today will allow you to add user-defined fields, although often you are restricted to a certain number of them. But where do you add this competitor field? Do you put it in the product master file? What if you compete across many products? Perhaps you want to attach it to a region. If you add it to both in traditional, rigid systems, the solution won’t “connect” the two; there is no real relationship implied.

With Unit4 Flexifields, you can associated it with products, regions, customer types, etc. It’s possible to not only create this new data field, but also the relationships. It is even possible to create an entire master file around this competitor field, with data such as:

  • Any known contact data
  • key verticals or regions they operate in
  • their unique selling points
  • key sources of information about them
  • a table with their products

Without this foundation upon which to build, adding something like this would have traditionally required programming and invasive source code changes to existing programs. With the Elastic Foundation, a tech-savvy business user, that fully understands the relationships between competitors, products, regions and/or customers, would be able to add this as a new attribute and start using it immediately. And even better, change it as the competitive landscape evolves.

It is clear that the Elastic Foundation has the potential of delivering a lot of value to Unit4 customers. However, is it what people want? All indications point to this, but few business users will ever look under the covers of their solutions. How will the value manifest itself in such a way that the people using the software can immediately see this value? We can tell a lot about what people expect by the priorities they assign in selecting solutions to run their businesses.

What do People Want? Selecting a Solution

Mint Jutras has been collecting data on these priorities for years now. In days gone by, “fit and functionality” always topped the list. But over the past few years another selection criterion crept up in importance and appeared to be running neck and neck with “fit and functionality.” That criterion was “Ease of Use.”

Given the pervasiveness of consumer technology today, this comes as no surprise. And in many ways, it makes sense. All the features and functions in the world won’t do you any good if you can’t figure out how to use them. But the ranking of “ease of use” and “fit and functionality” were so close, we started to wonder what the priority would be if users were forced choose between them – hypothetically of course.

So in 2015 we changed the format of the question, again listing the different criteria, but this time forcing the participants to stack rank them from 1 (least important) to 10 (most important).

Table 1: Selection Criteria Priorities (ranked from 1 to 10)

Table 1 Unit4Source: Mint Jutras 2015 Enterprise Solution Study

It is quite clear from Table 1 that “fit and functionality” is still king. The top three criteria are all related to features and functions. User experience (a broader criterion than ease of use) is still in the top half and the importance of reporting and analytics rose significantly from prior years. While ERP and financial solutions have long been famous (or perhaps infamous?) for being easier to get data into than to get information and answers out of, people today obviously want more. They want information and answers. Solutions need to be smarter.

The additional three layers of Unit4’s People Platform align quite nicely with what people seem to want most:

  • Personal experience
  • Business capabilities
  • Smart Context

While Unit4 separates these layers, it is the convergence of all three wherein lies the real value.

Personal Experience

While the overall user experience was trumped by fit and function, that doesn’t mean it is not important. Of course “ease of use” means different things to different people. And with all the talk of the impact of the millennial generation recently, Mint Jutras suspected this had become somewhat of a generational issue. Figure 1 proves that to be the case.

Figure 1: “Top 3” Factors Influencing Ease of Use

Fig 1 Unit4Source: Mint Jutras 2015 Enterprise Solution Study

When asked to select the top three factors in defining “ease of use” we found responses quite different in different age categories. While minimizing time to complete tasks still takes the lead for all three generations, it does so with a much wider margin in the Baby Boomer generation. Two out of three Baby Boomers selected this, compared to only one out of two Millennials. “A visually appealing user interface” was virtually tied for first in the youngest of the three generations but far down the list for Gen Xers and Baby Boomers.

The easiest way to satisfy different people, across different generations, is to deliver a user experience that is personalized to the individual’s preferences. A Millennial will seek and immediately adapt to screens that look very much like, and deliver the same kind of “social” experience as they are accustomed to. They will want to dive in and make tweaks on their own. While Baby Boomers might feel more comfortable with a more traditionally organized dashboard set up for them by a super user or the Information Technology (IT) staff.

The UX (UX is short for user experience) framework of the People Platform can satisfy both ends of the spectrum and do so on any kind of device. But perhaps even more important than the look and feel iare some of the more advanced features that can be derived from the organizational structure that was established through the Elastic Foundation. The Personal Experience layer is not only intuitive and easily navigable, it also draws from other layers in the People Platform to make it “smart.” Data, which is always up to date, is pre-populated and context is provided. By making the user interface smarter, Unit4 directly addresses the top concern for ease of use: minimizing time to complete tasks.

Business Capabilities

The same capabilities that facilitate change can be used to speed the development of new features and functions in both Unit4 Business World and Unit4 Financials. Unit4 Business World is already a step ahead in this since it was natively built on the platform, but more and more of these capabilities will be available to Unit4 Financial over time, particularly as Unit4 plans to deliver an SDK (software development kit) that will be available to both customers and partners.

However, the types of new business capabilities being delivered in Unit4 Business World Milestone 5 are representative of what can be delivered (Figure 2). Note the inclusion of “smarter collaboration.” Collaboration is an important flavor of social capabilities.

Figure 2: Unit4 Business World Milestone 5 (formerly Agresso)

Fig 2 Unit4Source: Unit4

While “social capabilities” were dead last in terms of selection criteria priorities, Mint Jutras believes this is because of a lack of appreciation for what these capabilities can bring. We also believe “social” to be a misleading label for some very important capabilities. For the traditional businessperson accustomed to traditional means of communication, “social” has an unfortunate connotation. Traditionalists distinguish between a business event and a social event, between a business conversation and a social chat, between a business colleague and a friend or social acquaintance. Which is why the “social” tag is unfortunate, even though it is really just shorthand for new and improved means of getting and staying informed. “Social” is also about engagement, collaboration and connectivity. The ability to “follow” and “converse” online brings a whole new dimension to “real-time.”

Table 2: Would these capabilities be useful?

table 2 Unit4Source: Mint Jutras 2015 Enterprise Solution Study

If you ignore the term “social” and look at the value delivered, a good businessperson can’t help but be interested. This is quite evident in Table 2, which shows survey participants more than twice as likely to categorize these social capabilities as “must have!” or “Useful” than “Nice to Have.” And 10% or less wouldn’t use them if they were available.

The combination of the Elastic Framework and the UX Framework of the People Platform will be key in allowing Unit4 to deliver more of these types of features and functions. And the introduction of an SDK will only accelerate the delivery.

Smart Context

While a personalized user experience and more business capabilities are both intuitively seen as valuable, the concept of “smart context” might require further explanation. To get a handle on this, recognize that smart is often a synonym for intelligent. Can the Unit4 People Platform deliver, not only reporting and information, but real intelligence? To do that, you need to put data into context and provide a tool for analysis. These requirements are clearly desired by more and more people, as evidenced by “quality of built-in reporting and analytics” making the “top 3” selection criteria.

So what’s the difference between reporting and analytics, and what makes it “smart?” Reporting is quite straightforward. It presents you with data to answer your questions about your business. In order to be truly effective, it has to be flexible and agile, because over time your questions change. And it needs to be able to handle a growing volume of data.

But reporting is only part of the solution. Reports are useful in answering questions you already have. Analytics can help you go one step further in helping you ask the right questions. Analytics implies analysis and any real analysis of data is iterative. You need to start poking at data, changing your view, looking at it in different ways, in order to recognize patterns and causal relationships. You need to transition from reporting of data to real analysis and intelligence.

Unit4 delivers this type of intelligence by blending social, mobile and visualization tools with in-memory analytics that add rapid data analysis and predictive capabilities. The components of the “smart context” layer of the People Platform are:

  • An alerts engine to provide smart business feeds
  • A rules engine establishes and configures the rules to be invoked during data entry, allowing for dynamically altering the UI based on conditions, or proactively assisting the user in entering consistent data
  • Definition of communities (defining who cares about what) and the capture of conversations within the communities (no more lost threads after you hang up the phone). This creates a social context
  • Mobile context, through devices that can detect location with a time stamp. This allows for location-based filtering and time tracking.
  • Predictive analytics, capable of pattern detection. This can be as simple as pre-populating an expense report, suggesting a project plan or for much more complex analysis.
  • Cloud and crowd context through capture of peer analysis and customer sentiment
  • A workflow engine

The net result is filtered, contextualized data that can be presented in a simple, relevant and complete experience.

Conclusion

Unit4 has been developing software that can easily, quickly and cost-effectively respond to changing business conditions for years now, not only at the applicvation level (feature/function) but also in the underlying architecture. It is now leveraging that investment, combining it with more innovations and releasing what is truly an innovative platform. Much of that innovation is under the covers, but never does the company lose sight of who it is developing software for.

Unit4 develops software for people in people-centric organizations. By focusing on the people that use the software instead of the software itself, Unit4 can avoid the all-too-common trap of technology in search of a problem to solve. There are plenty of business problems out there to solve and Unit4 seems willing, able and anxious to solve them.

For the customers running Unit4 Business World (formerly Agresso), this will feel much like any other release, adding new functionality and enriching the technology. Yet packaging this as a platform and broadening its use to the Unit4 Financials is smart in leveraging its strengths across a broader portfolio of products, which can only serve to present new challenges and more innovation.

Those customers running Unit4 Financials will see more fundamental change (in addition to the new features provided in version 13), but given the added flexibility, automation and agilty that this advanced technology brings, these should be welcome changes.

The launch of the People Platform is a big step for both Unit4 and its customers, but its not setting a new course. It is simply accelerating the journey down the current path to the next generation of Unit4. One would expect no less from Unit4. Afterall it is in the business of people.

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The Three Dimensions of SAP Business ByDesign Set The Stage for Growth Part 2

This is Part 2 of a 3-Part series on how SAP sets out to enable growth with its cloud ERP solution, SAP Business ByDesign. In Part 1 we talked about SAP Business ByDesign’s architecture. If you missed it you can back up and read it here or, if you prefer to skip the suspense you can read the full report now.

New Generation User Experience

In Cloud ERP: The Great Enabler of Growth we talked about the people challenges associated with growth. New generations of ERP, delivered through the cloud can help alleviate some of these challenges. But Mint Jutras research finds that “ease of use” means more than just a pretty face. Ease of use is first and foremost about efficiency, which not only requires a user interface that is intuitive, but also processes that align with the way business really works – business scenarios that maximize efficiency and minimize time to complete tasks.

Of course the real proof that SAP Business ByDesign delivers on these promises comes with a demonstration, but SAP’s design methodology is conducive to supporting both. When designing a business scenario, SAP designers go on site, observing the way people work and interact. Their designs are based on these observations and then validated, typically in multiple countries (China, India, Germany and the United States) before being incorporated into the product.

The result of this methodology has been an emphasis on the human engineering of the process. Each individual works from a personalized home page, which combines functions from within SAP Business ByDesign with other functions (e.g. email, calendars, maps, etc.) and a powerful enterprise search capability (think of it as a Google-like search throughout your enterprise data). Business processes are made more efficient as tasks are pushed to users. Throughout, there is a theme of simplicity and personalization.

Business Configuration

Personalization within SAP Business ByDesign is achieved through a “Business Configurator” that takes advantage of the pre-defined business scenarios discussed earlier and a rules-based catalog. Together these allow each customer to tailor the solution to specific needs by interacting in business language, not code and without invasive customization. These business scenarios map the workflow of a business process through the various functions of the solution. Selecting a pre-defined scenario automatically selects all the functions necessary during initial implementation. Customers can then selectively fine-tune the settings immediately or as business conditions change.

This type of configuration tool is particularly important as companies expand into new locations, either through organic growth or acquisition.

The combination of the SAP Business ByDesign business configurator, pre-defined business scenarios and a library of business rules enable this type of standardization. Customers need only to supply company-specific data, including assignments of tasks, to support a “push approach” within an organizational structure. By pushing tasks to an individual, processes continue uninterrupted, making the most efficient use of that person’s time. Nothing falls through the cracks.

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SAP S/4HANA: Simple, Fast, Different

What Does it Mean to the Business?

On February 3, 2015, SAP announced what it called its biggest product launch in the history of the company: SAP Business Suite 4 SAP HANA, or (thankfully) SAP S/4HANA for short, was touted as “the next-generation business suite to help customers run simple.” Indeed, “S” stands for simple; “4” is for 4th generation and in Information Technology (IT) circles, HANA speaks for itself. To interpret for those outside the world of IT, HANA is an advanced in-memory platform that is able to crunch through enormous volumes of data incredibly fast.

In combination these three factors hold enormous potential to change the way businesses are run. While the potential impact might seem intuitive to technologists, it is far less obvious to the typical business executive. And yet, in a world where the terms innovative, disruptive and transformative are all too often over-used and mis-used, SAP S/4HANA is disruptive innovation that can be used to simplify and transform your business. If you are interested in learning how, read on…

What is it?

SAP S/4HANA is a new product, which, like its predecessor (the SAP Business Suite) will include enterprise resource planning (ERP) and other complementary functions including:

  • Customer relationship management (CRM)
  • Supplier relationship management (SRM)
  • Supply chain management (SCM)
  • Product lifecycle management (PLM)
  • cloud functions such as SAP SuccessFactors (HCM) and its Ariba Network

Like the SAP Business Suite, it is designed for the large enterprise, and eventually will satisfy the requirements of the same 26 industries SAP has spent decades building out. This is a big and bold move for SAP. Given these similarities, some immediate questions come to mind. First of all, why develop a new product? After all, the SAP Business Suite could already run on SAP HANA. Secondly, is it really possible to replace over 400 million lines of code quickly enough or will a complete solution be decades in the making? To answer these questions we need to look at both the differences and the similarities.

At first glance, the differences that appear most obvious to the typical business user lay in the user experience and deployment models offered. Beyond the obvious is the new code line with a new and simplified data model, but more on that (and what it means to the user) later.

Choice of Deployment Models

The existing product was essentially an on-premise solution, although SAP has recently offered a cloud-based managed services option. The SAP HANA Enterprise Cloud (HEC) is a service that allows organizations to move existing (or new) implementations of the SAP Business Suite off their own servers and into SAP’s massive data centers where SAP would manage it as a single tenant solution in a private cloud. But this doesn’t carry the same benefits of lower cost and faster innovation possible with a multi-tenant software as a service (SaaS) solution.

With SAP S/4HANA comes a choice of deployment options. The On Premise Edition is available today while the Public Cloud Edition (multi-tenant SaaS) will be available soon (the first quarter of 2015), followed by the Managed Cloud Edition in Q2.

New and Improved User Experience

The user interface of the SAP Business Suite has long been a weak point, and also one of the hardest to “fix.” SAP is not alone in this dilemma. Many enterprise application solution providers struggle with this as expectations change over time, especially with the influence of consumer mobile devices. Users become dissatisfied with existing user interfaces but often getting them to change is like pulling teeth, for fear of the need to retrain users and because people (those actually using the software) get used to it and resist change.

SAP has actually been working on fixing this problem for more than two years. In the spring of 2013 it introduced SAP Fiori, a collection of 25 apps (initially) that surrounded the Business Suite, providing a new user experience for the most commonly used business functions of ERP. While useful in pleasing existing users and perhaps even attracting new users within the enterprise, SAP Fiori had limited impact for two related reasons. First, the initial set of apps just changed the user interface (UI) and did not add any significant new functionality. And yet, they weren’t free. Customers balked at paying a fee for innovation they expected SAP to deliver as part of maintenance.

The second round of Fiori apps however began to add in new capabilities, but in spite of that, SAP responded to customer complaints and made them free (with maintenance). And today there are over 500 of them available.

The intended new user experience delivered with SAP S/4HANA is based entirely on SAP Fiori and SAP expects that over time more and more transactions will come from mobile devices, a very viable option with Fiori. New customers will engage with SAP S/4HANA through these apps right from the beginning. Those SAP Business Suite customers that migrate to SAP S/4HANA will have the option of continuing to use the traditional user interface, but of course Fiori apps won’t shore up this weakness unless they are really used. Hopefully, with the mindset of running a new product, customers will expect to engage differently and therefore take better advantage of the new experience and the new functions delivered through Fiori.

Beyond the Obvious

While either or both of these differences might be compelling, even together they don’t justify the time and effort involved in replacing 400 million lines of code to produce a new product. The real game changer here is the underlying technology that allowed SAP to reduce the data footprint by a factor of 10, increase throughput by a factor of 7 and make analytics and reporting orders of magnitude faster (SAP claims 1800 times faster). SAP’s goal was to achieve a zero response time.

However, many business executives running SAP solutions, as well as those of other vendors, might not perceive themselves as having a problem with response time and the size of their data footprint is hardly something that keeps them up at night. If you consider yourself in this category, what’s in it for you? The short answer is

  • Speed in getting at data and answering questions
  • The power of iterative questions, including immediate answers to new ones you didn’t even know you had until you started looking
  • The ability to base all decisions (strategic and operational) on as much detail, in as fine a level of granularity as you can imagine

Perhaps you don’t think you have a problem because you have adapted to the limitations of existing systems. Or you don’t know response time is slow because you never put your hands directly on the system. You might be accustomed to making decisions from data that is frozen in time (a snapshot) because it is not updated and available in real time. You may have waited so long for new queries and reporting that perhaps you stopped asking for them. You probably forecast sales at a summary level by region, assuming you can’t possibly analyze and predict sales at an individual customer level, by product and region, by sales rep. What if SAP S/4HANA could change all this?

Speed is obviously a key factor, but why should you care about reducing the data footprint? The answer lies in understanding why that footprint got so bloated in the first place. As your solution footprint has grown through the years, there is a very good chance you have introduced redundant data. If you started with ERP, then added CRM, both need customer data and product data. This redundant data needs to be synchronized. SAP estimates that 40% of the data load is the exchange of data between solutions.

In addition all enterprise solutions have traditionally accumulated all sorts of totals. Some are for periodic reporting (monthly, quarterly, annually, etc.), while other aggregates are used to gain insight into different parts of the organizational structure. This aggregation enables reporting without having to sort and calculate totals across a potentially large volume of transactions. While the process is simple and effective (because you can gain access to these totals through a simple query), there were some drawbacks.

Not only is there more embedded code to maintain these totals, there is more contention within the data files. Let’s say a large enterprise has people all over the world entering sales orders. If totals are updated in real time, even though it might appear that all transactions are accessing and updating records in the files simultaneously, in reality, these updates happen one at a time. Before a transaction can update a record, it has to check to make sure no other transaction is trying to do the same. If the record is being accessed or updated by another transaction, it must wait for the record to be freed up. Of course it might take only seconds, but those seconds add up and response time slows.

This is also why sometimes these totals are not updated in real-time, and instead are calculated with batch runs. That means you are looking at a snapshot in time and not the “real” number.

And finally, keeping these totals up to date, whether in real-time or through batch runs, means you have to anticipate how and what you want to include in the totals. What happens when you want to change the organizational structure and report in a new way? Those pre-calculated totals are now meaningless. If you can instantly slice and dice and calculate on the fly using any criteria, you don’t have to do any of this aggregation and you get complete flexibility.

Removing these totals means no updates and no more contention. Dozens or even hundreds or thousands of transactions can be entered and stored, at the same time (literally, not just seemingly). This is what the technologists mean when they refer to “massively parallel processing (MPP).”

So SAP got rid of these totals and also the database indices. Database indices allow you to do key lookups. You can easily look up a customer or a product by customer number or part number because those numbers are keys, allowing the software to go (more) directly to a record without having to search through the entire file. But these indices are no longer required if you can search through even massive files and still get sub-second response.

In the end, SAP S/4HANA reduced the number of data tables from 110 to less than 10. And it also segregated out historical data from current data. By its very definition, historical data can’t be changed any more. That makes it easier to handle. So SAP segregated it and made it read-only, making it even easier to deal with the current data.

This flexibility and speed is the real value HANA brings to the business, along with improved, faster decision-making. However, to take full advantage of HANA, SAP S/4HANA must only run on HANA. Of course, this means customers will not have a choice of databases. Some industry observers are criticizing SAP for removing this as a choice. However, preserving that choice of database means SAP S/4HANA would be restricted to the least common denominator of functionality.

If SAP does not take full advantage of the benefits HANA brings, why create a new product? The SAP Business Suite already provides this freedom of choice, including the Business Suite on HANA. And SAP has promised to continue to develop and support the SAP Business Suite through 2025.

Some customers will be reluctant to spend the money on a new platform. Some will cite the skill levels of their current staffs. If customers want to remain on traditional databases, they should just stay on the SAP Business Suite, at least for now. If IT staffs have not upgraded their skill levels by 2025, they will have more problems to contend with than just limitations in response times. So maybe it is time for some “disruption.”

Disruptive Innovation

While technology industry observers love to talk about “disruptive technology,” many business executives think of disruption as a bad thing. Yet while certain types of disruption can indeed be bad, other types can also be good. Disruption that prevents you from delivering a product or service is obviously bad. Disruption that forces you to do things in a different, but better way can be very good.

Wikipedia defines disruptive innovation as “an innovation that helps create a new market and value network, and eventually disrupts an existing market and value network (over a few years or decades), displacing an earlier technology. The term is used in business and technology literature to describe innovations that improve a product or service in ways that the market does not expect…”

SAP S/4HANA is indeed disruptive innovation, but in the good sense. It is a bold move for SAP. Obviously its customers cannot transform themselves overnight, but they don’t need to. SAP S/4HANA was designed to allow existing SAP Business Suite customers to migrate without the bad kind of disruption. And of course SAP can’t transform millions of lines of code overnight either.

While the SAP Business Suite was just that – a suite of products, eventually all this functionality will be embedded and delivered as a single product. SAP started with ERP, but will eventually add in functionality from CRM, SRM, SCM and PLM. It will start with those industries most likely to see the cloud as the next stop in their extended ERP journey, and then continue to broaden its industry reach. Of course for any company taking this big next step, as always, the devil is in the details. How will companies (both new customers and existing SAP customers) make the transition while SAP itself is still in transition? Will they be able to embrace the good kind of disruption while keeping the bad kind at bay?

Conclusion

The short answer is yes, but that too will be a journey. It will not happen overnight. The key to success is in allowing all the current and new solutions to coexist. While SAP S/4HANA only has 10 or so tables, those applications like CRM, SRM and SCM are expecting to find their share of the full-blown 110 tables. That’s okay.

SAP has also defined a virtual data model that can do a translation of sorts, mapping the old tables to the new data model. This is a key factor in facilitating the migration from SAP Business Suite to SAP S/4HANA without disruption. It not only allows these (currently additional) applications to interoperate with SAP S/4HANA, but also allows customers to continue running current reports that might rely on those old totals. So current and new customers both can ease into taking full advantage of the new capabilities. This is good since it will take companies awhile to realize they can now solve problems that are currently viewed as unsolvable.

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Cloud ERP: The Great Enabler of Growth

 Keep it Simple, Manage Risk, Maintain Control

Every company has aspirations to grow. Growth is exciting, yet it can also be challenging, especially for those companies that have already transitioned from small to mid-size. While that transition may not necessarily have been easy, all the low hanging fruit has been picked and the clear and easy paths to growth have already been traveled. Operations are more complicated now and new paths to growth are riskier. It is no longer easy to keep your business simple and the Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) solution that got you to your current size may not be sufficient to power you through to the next level of growth.

You need to start thinking and acting like a big company long before you have the budget or the staff of a large enterprise. In order to maintain good governance and control, provide a high level of business consistency and efficiency, and speed decisions that minimize risk, you need to arm yourself with the right enterprise applications and technology. A next generation business solution running in the cloud may just be your ticket to scale your business. You need cloud ERP.

What’s Changed?

In some ways, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Growth aspirations aren’t new. Companies have always looked for opportunities to expand and grow either organically or through mergers and acquisition (M&A). And let’s face it; there are only so many different ways your company can grow. You either add new products (or product lines) or sell more of the products you already offer. That may sound simple enough, but most often it is anything but simple. While on the surface little seems to have changed, in reality a lot has changed.

Historically expansion into new territories still kept you within established economies. Today completely new markets are opening up in emerging economies. Not only does this result in increasingly remote and distributed environments, but added risk and new challenges in maintaining governance and control.

Innovation, advanced technology and the Internet have combined to open doors to opportunities all around the world. New consumer middle classes have sprung up in countries that were hardly industrialized a short decade ago, creating unprecedented growth opportunity even for small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). But in tapping into these opportunities, SMEs venture into uncharted territory. Not only is the demand for product and services untested, but also there is no rich pool of local talent well versed in business and technology. Mid-size companies in particular will find governance and control even more challenging. At the same time expectations are accelerated: consumers, shareholders and Wall Street all expect everything to happen more quickly.

To capitalize on this opportunity, mid-size companies will need to take some chances and be willing to fail, but fail (or succeed) rapidly in order to move on to the next opportunity. They will need to leverage technology in order to simplify, manage, control and reduce risk, but they will also need to move quickly. They will not have the deep pockets or the time needed to build out infrastructure. They can’t afford to take years to implement solutions to run the business.

Cloud ERP to the rescue. No capital expenditure required; no need to build out a data center, or even put hardware or a huge information technology (IT) staff in country. And Mint Jutras research shows that solutions delivered as software as a service (SaaS) reach their first go-live milestone 14% faster.

The access any time, from anywhere nature of a cloud solution is conducive to supporting distributed users and bringing up remote sites rapidly and easily. While cyber-security is an understandable concern to all today, SaaS solution providers not only deliver added security, but also the peace of mind of business continuity in the event of a disaster, either natural or man-made.

If you are interested in exploring the people challenge, the risk, the value proposition by persona and learning more about maintaining governance and control through the growth process, Click here to read the full report.

 

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