Epicor

Epicor’s Mission: Ease of Everything

Simplicity seems to be the holy grail of enterprise software these days. It’s no wonder with the rising levels of complexity in the global, digital economy. Streamlining and automation of business processes modeled by enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems should reduce that complexity and yet the ever-present demand for more – more features, more options, more access, more mobility, more technology – conspire against the desire for simplicity. A lot of software vendors today go to market with the message of “simple” but few (if any) can rival Epicor in its quest to provide ease of use, ease of upgrading, ease of access, ease of deployment, and ease of learning… while also becoming a company that is increasingly easy to do business with.

Yes, Epicor’s mission is “ease of everything” and it has made very significant progress on its journey, and has plans to do much more.

Easy to Use

According to Joe Cowan, president and CEO of Epicor, “What we’ve got to do is look at everything the customer does and understand how to make it simpler to do.” When it comes to making the software itself easy to use, Mint Jutras has long recognized that “ease of use” means different things to different people. So every year we ask the survey participants of our annual Enterprise Solution Studies to select what they feel are the top three most important aspects of ease of use. The aggregated answers tell us only a part of the story. For the past several years we’ve started comparing answers across three different “generations.” While all generations agree on some aspects, in others, we find some significant differences (Figure 1), making the job of delivering “easy to use” all that much more challenging.

Efficiency (minimizing the time to complete tasks) is clearly a priority for all. But the different generations have different views on how to achieve that goal:

  • Baby Boomers value intuitive navigation, while it would appear that Millenials simply take it for granted. They grew up playing electronic games and using mobile apps for which a user manual would be a foreign concept.
  • Baby Boomers like to operate from a central point of command, while Millenials are more adept at jumping around.
  • Millenials like “pretty,” as evidenced by placing more value on a visually appealing user interface. And they want it their way – more highly customizable. Baby Boomers apparently are more willing to sacrifice form for function.
  • And Gen X, with the largest representation in our sample, appear to be (appropriately enough) somewhere in between.

Figure 1: Top 3 Most Important Aspects of Ease of Use

Source: Mint Jutras 2017 Enterprise Solution Study

So where do Epicor customers fit in terms of perceptions of ease of use? The priorities of all respondents (its prospects) and its customers are both important to Epicor decision-making. We were fortunate to have almost 80 Epicor customers participate in our survey this year. Clearly Epicor customers lean more toward the practical aspect of user experience (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Top 3 Most Important Aspects of Ease of Use to Epicor Customers

Source: Mint Jutras 2017 Enterprise Solution Study

Epicor customers place a higher value on the efficiency factors: minimizing time to complete tasks, easily and naturally. While intuitive navigation is right up near the top of the list, the emphasis on simply getting the job done places a very high priority on fit and function, which requires continuous innovation.

Features and functions are very important in order to make a solution easy to use without invasive customizations that create barriers to further innovation. But don’t forget the second most important aspect of ease of use (to Epicor customers) was intuitive navigation. For this, you need a modern user interface.

The different Epicor products are at different stages of development, but one thing you can be sure of is that Epicor is developing new user experiences (UX). The next release (10.2) of Epicor ERP for example will include a new role-based and personalized “Home Page.” It will have a whole new look that is clean and bright, but more importantly, will make decision makers better informed and more productive. It will feature active tiles that will present key metrics that change as you watch – live. You can configure your own “data discovery” through a variety of different presentation styles including ordinary charts, and also maps of just about anything ranging from your own warehouse to maps of the world.

Say you are looking for inventory on hand. You can look at it in normal bar or line chart form in aggregate, or you can see it on a map of your warehouse. And this is not just static data. You can look at it as of a point in time, looking back or looking forward. By dragging your mouse across the date, you see it in a format that appears like time-lapse photography. Need more detail? Click on a bin for details.

To really appreciate this new UX, you indeed need to experience it. Ask for a demo and press your Epicor representative for estimated delivery for the product you either run now or are considering. We think you will be impressed. We think it will make your life easier. But you need to be the judge.

For more on Epicor’s efforts to makes its solutions easy to upgrade, easy to deploy, easy to access, easy to learn, while making the company easy to do business with, click here for the full report.

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Epicor Announces It Will Grow Business, Not Software

Epicor has a new tag line: “[We] grow business, not software.” The declaration is not quite as radical as it would first appear. In fact it appears to me to be much more evolutionary than revolutionary.

Epicor’s mantra for years was “Protect, Extend, Converge.” As in:

  • Protect its customers
  • Extend its solutions
  • Converge its product lines

However, in 2014 it appeared Epicor was diverging a bit from the convergence strategy, primarily as a result of the merger of (the original) Epicor and Activant. Both had grown through acquisition, but while Epicor’s ERP solutions were multi-purpose ERP (focused primarily on discrete manufacturing) and therefore ripe for rationalization, each of Activant’s products was purpose-built for distribution, and over time each had become even more focused and fine-tuned to specific segments of wholesale distribution. And then there was the SolarSoft acquisition (2012), which brought along an ERP which focused on more process-oriented industries, and also a “best of breed” manufacturing execution system (MES). And finally there was Epicor’s retail business, which was actually spun off last year.

So while the “Protect” and “Extend” sentiments of the message are still very much alive, convergence gave way to a new message. Last year, Epicor’s (new) CEO, Joe Cowan declared the company would be “totally focused on the customer.” This year’s tag line seems to me to be a simple extension of that customer focus. Software is not the end goal. The goal is to help Epicor customers grow their businesses. It just so happens Epicor will develop software and provide services to make that happen. And a lot of the software will be delivered as a service, as evidenced by the appearance of a fluffy white cloud in the middle of the tag line.

Epicor tag line

Of course in having a tag line like this, Epicor needs to be careful not to make the message itself too fluffy. And in promising to help customers grow, Epicor will have to execute a delicate balancing act, balancing what the customers say they want and what Epicor knows they need. This is particularly true of those customers still running older legacy solutions. Epicor has promised not to sunset those products. And yet if you really understand the demands and opportunities of the new global, digital economy, you know you can’t be competitive without modern, advanced technologies.

Customers running legacy solutions won’t benefit as much from the latest and greatest development, but that’s not to say they won’t benefit at all. Epicor has been a bit quiet on the technology front for the past few years, but that is not the result of lack of attention. In fact it has been doing a lot, sometimes at the expense of new features and functions. Its advanced technology architecture (ICE), visionary at the time of its initial release circa 2009, has undergone a technology refresh of its own, and it also paves the way forward for both strategic products like Epicor 10, Prophet 21 and others, as well as legacy solutions like Vista and Vantage,  etc.

Now that that refresh is complete (for now… after all, technology continues to advance at an ever-accelerating pace), you’ll see more aggressive development of features and functions. Epicor is picking up the cadence of releases, shooting for twice a year (spring and fall) for its strategic products, which of course will garner more of its resources. But even legacy solutions will benefit from the development of external components, which can be used across different product lines. Prime examples include web portals, dashboards, self-service functions, mobile apps and other new features. And developing these components as web-based services (delivered through the cloud) will have the dual purpose of extending solutions and gently pushing those running primarily (or exclusively) on-premise towards the cloud.

I agree with Epicor’s new CTO, Himanshu Palsule, who called the transition to the cloud “inevitable.” But it won’t happen overnight (Figure 1). Part of the reason for this slower, yet steady growth is the fact that there are so many on-premise solutions in production today. And many remain reluctant to simply rip and replace solutions that are essentially getting the job done.

Figure 1: What percentage of your business software is deployed as SaaS?

Fig 1 EpicorSource: Mint Jutras 2016 Enterprise Solution Study

In his main stage keynote, Himanshu also (very astutely) observed that for a topic that is so widely discussed, “cloud” is still misunderstood and means different things to different people. My research supports his observation. While many use the terms cloud and SaaS interchangeably (I find myself guilty of this at times), they are not the same. While all SaaS is cloud, not all cloud is SaaS. While only a small percentage (12%) in 2015 didn’t know how they preferred cloud to be delivered, that percentage didn’t shrink in 2016 (Figure 2). There is still some education to be done. If you count yourself among those that “don’t know,” don’t be afraid to ask. You’re not alone.

Figure 2: How would you prefer cloud to be delivered?

Fig 2 EpicorSource: Mint Jutras 2016 Enterprise Solution Study

I’ve written extensively about the anticipated appeal of SaaS, along with the benefits actually realized. But I wouldn’t disagree with Himanshu’s conclusions about what cloud should stand for:

  • Choice
  • Convenience
  • Cost Control
  • Customization
  • Collaboration

However, I would qualify two of his bullet points. A few years back, my survey participants placed a high value on choice of deployment options. They seemed to like the idea of portability and the ability to move from on-premise to SaaS and from SaaS back to on-premise. Today many are looking for a path that helps them move from on-premise to SaaS, but once they move to SaaS, they almost never go back unless forced to (e.g. they get acquired by a company running a licensed, on-premise solution). So having multiple deployment options available is no longer such a high priority. Prospects simply pre-qualify those solution providers based on the deployment option they prefer.

I agree that choice is important. But it is more important to Epicor as the solution provider than to its customers and prospects. There are still some environments where a real multi-tenant SaaS solution might not be the best choice – at least not right now. These might be heavily regulated industries that require solutions to be certified, and re-certified when they change. Or a heavily customized solution may be required. And customization is the other bullet from Himanshu’s list that needs to be well-qualified.

Not all customizations are created equal. First of all, some simply aren’t needed. They might be left over from an implementation of a solution with far fewer capabilities than available today. Or they might have resulted from a “that’s the way we’ve always done it” mentality. If customization does not differentiate you in your market, I would seriously question whether it is justified.

Furthermore, customizations can be implemented in a variety of ways. Invasive code changes and SaaS don’t make for a good combination. But if customizations can be added as external components and linked back to ERP through Web APIs, or if they can be implemented through configuring the software without mucking around in the code, they may be perfectly compatible.

So Epicor’s announcement this week of its “cloud-first focus to support digital transformation of wholesale distributors is spot on”. The Mint Jutras 2016 Enterprise Solution Study found wholesale distributors lagging behind other industries in preference for and adoption of SaaS solutions. We also found 47% to 73% still relying heavily on paper for their operational and transactional system of record (customer and purchase orders, expense management, payments, etc.). They lag behind other industries in spite of the fact that ecommerce and their proximity to consumers puts them at a higher risk of disruption from the digital economy. Perhaps this “cloud-first” focus will be the gentle push wholesale distributors might need to start down the path of digital transformation.

Indeed, Epicor says it will be “…doubling-down on helping distributors adapt to these shifting dynamics of the marketplace—with an added focus to ushering customers’ journey to leverage the power of cloud-based solutions to drive increased productivity and achieve a differentiated customer experience to grow their business.”

Indeed wholesale distributors aren’t the only Epicor customers that will benefit from this “doubling-down.” I heard similar plans from the Epicor 10 side of the house, including planned features and functionality, along with efforts to improve simplification and usability. Yes, it’s about the overall user experience, but those driving the products seem to understand it’s not just about the “pretty software” you hear so much about today. As business models change, as technology advances and as new innovative products come to market, Epicor’s product must be easy to use, easy to install, easy to manage, and easy to change when the need arises.

Epicor “gets” it. We’ll be watching to see if it delivers.

 

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Epicor Reevaluates Its Strategy

A year ago at Epicor Insights 2014 the Epicor community was introduced to some new management. The owners, private equity investment group Apax Partners, had brought in a new CEO (Joe Cowan), who in turn brought along a new Chief Product Officer (Janie West) and new General Managers (GMs) for the Americas for both its ERP and Retail businesses. But all in all, not much had really changed. And the promise of “Protect, Extend, Converge” was still center stage.

This has been Epicor’s mantra for many years: promising investment protection and continued innovation that would extend the footprint of its customers’ solutions, while also converging multiple product lines acquired through the years. As I wrote last year,

The “protect” and “extend” part isn’t unique. Many vendors promise the same, although some do a better job of delivering than others. However, Epicor is unique in having delivered on a convergence strategy. The result was Epicor ERP version 9, originally called Epicor 9, reflecting that it was the result of converged functionality of nine different ERP products. The “9” has now become “10,” but that is not because it has merged a 10th product, but is more reflective of a traditional “version” level.

However, even last year it appeared Epicor was diverging a bit from this convergence strategy, primarily as a result of the merger of (the original) Epicor and Activant, which focused exclusively on the wholesale distribution market.

A Little Background

The lion’s share of Epicor’s ERP products target manufacturing. While these products have some distribution, capabilities, this was largely due to the overlap of the two industries. Manufacturers often distribute their own products and more and more distributors might engage in some form of light manufacturing. But Epicor ERP is a multi-purpose ERP, focused primarily on manufacturing, and more specifically discrete manufacturing.

Activant brought multiple products to the party but each was focused squarely on distribution. Not only were Activant products purpose-built for distribution, but also over time each has become even more focused and fine-tuned to specific segments of wholesale distribution.

And then there was the SolarSoft, which Epicor acquired back in 2012. This acquisition brought along an ERP which focused on more process-oriented industries, and also a “best of breed” manufacturing execution system (MES).

And finally there is Epicor’s retail business, which has actually been kept quite separate.

Moving Forward: More Than A Few Changes

So given this state of affairs, Epicor’s CEO, Joe Cowan, has made some changes. The underlying message throughout is that the company is “totally focused on the customer.”

The company has undergone a major reorganization, including spinning off the retail business. This group tended to address a smaller number of larger customers that were very different from the rest of the Epicor customer base. This provided no real synergies and the timing was good given other changes Mr. Cowan wanted to make. Even spun off, it will remain an Apax company and as Paula Rosenblum (@paula_rosenblum) from independent research firm Retail Systems Research (RSR) notes, this is really a “win-win.”

In addition, Mr. Cowan has simplified the remaining organizational structure and centralized key functional areas. The “old” Epicor tended to be organized around products, resulting in silos within the company, along with some redundancies. For example, support systems across different products used different policies and processes. Under the new organization, they will all be moved to a common support structure headed by Ian Ashby who came to Epicor with the Solarsoft acquisition.. The reorg also consolidates more than 20 data centers down to 8. And it has brought in some new talent, including new CTO, Jeff Kissling, only 40 days into the job as of the event.

But the changes most relevant and important to customers are the changes in product strategy. While “converge” was the mantra before, Janie West told me that moving forward, Epicor will “not be a slave to consolidation.”

One slide up on the main stage seems to have summarized the new approach:

  • Converge where we can
  • Build where we should
  • Partner beyond our core
  • Acquire as required

Of course the advantage of convergence was to remove any redundancies in development. Despite serving different markets, there are core elements Epicor needs to deliver to all its customer bases. For these functions, Epicor will favor the development of external components, which can be used across different product lines. For those products using Epicor’s advanced technology architecture (ICE) this is simply a no-brainer… which is why there had been a push to get all product lines on this new architecture. But Epicor now realizes this may not be a requirement in order to share the results of development efforts to deliver web portals, dashboards, mobile apps and other new features. So it will only re-architect where necessary, and not just for the sake of re-architecting.

While I believe the convergence to Epicor 9 (which is now Epicor 10) was the right approach at the time, I would agree with this new strategy. Where future acquisitions might simply expand the customer base in markets where Epicor plays, convergence makes sense. Where acquisitions (like Activant and Solarsoft) bring Epicor into new markets, it doesn’t. Where products are limited by older technology, it makes sense to replace the underpinnings with new architecture (like ICE) but where they are already technology-enabled, it makes sense to leverage what already exists.

The prior convergence efforts, coupled with more recent acquisitions leaves Epicor in a good position, with a manageable number of product lines – enough to specialize, few enough to maintain focus…on the customer.

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Epicor Insights 2014: Epicor Responds to Trends in ERP

Epicor Software held its annual user conference this week. True to its name, Insights 2014 did just that… provided insight into recent innovations and roadmaps for the future. Epicor experienced some management changes this year, bringing in a new CEO, Chief Product Officer (CPO) and new General Managers (GMs) for the Americas for both its ERP and Retail businesses. But there were some familiar faces in the executive ranks as well, some with tenures between 15 and 20 years with the company, striking a nice balance between old and new blood, so to speak. The goal of these management changes is to raise the game in terms of technology-enabled products that turn customers into “raving fans for life.”

Throughout the conference, attendees heard reference to what have emerged as the top trends in the enterprise software industry: cloud, mobile, “big data” and social. In addition I believe Epicor addressed the different components that I have been touting as characteristics of “next generation” ERP: providing better ways to engage with ERP in order to encourage more and better use, focus on configuration to replace customization, more innovation and better integration.

Towards that end, Epicor made four announcements:

  • The availability of Epicor ERP version 10, redesigned for device mobility, deployment choice, accelerated performance and social collaboration
  • Support for SQL Server 2014: Not only is Epicor ERP version 10 fully optimized for SQL Server 2014, but Epicor has “purified the technology stack.” That means it only runs on SQL Server in a Microsoft .Net environment.
  • The introduction of the Commerce Connect Platform, fully integrated with Epicor ERP Version 10, to drive rich B2B and B2C online experiences for consumers, customers and suppliers, supporting mobile access and secure PCI-compliant payments
  • New Epicor Windows Phone 8 touch-optimized apps for time and expense tracking, supporting multiple devices and “bring your own device (BYOD)” strategies

Amidst these announcements and as a result of speaking with both Epicor executives and customers, here are my key take-aways from the event.

Protect, Extend Converge Lives On

This has been Epicor’s mantra for many years: promising investment protection and continued innovation that will extend the footprint of its customers’ solutions, while also converging multiple product lines acquired through the years. The “protect” and “extend” part isn’t unique. Many vendors promise the same, although some do a better job of delivering than others. However, Epicor is unique in having delivered on a convergence strategy. The result was Epicor ERP version 9, originally called Epicor 9, reflecting that it was the result of converged functionality of nine different ERP products. The “9” has now become “10,” but that is not because it has merged a 10th product, but is more reflective of a traditional “version” level.

With the merger of Epicor with Activant a few years back you might have expected Epicor to bring those new products into the fold, so to speak. Yet instead it appeared to diverge a bit from this convergence strategy. The lion’s share of Epicor’s ERP products target manufacturing, and to a lesser degree distribution, largely due to the overlap of the two industries. Manufacturers often distribute their own products and more and more distributors might engage in some form of light manufacturing. But I would call Epicor ERP a multi-purpose ERP. Activant brought multiple products to the party but each was focused squarely on distribution. Not only were Activant products purpose-built for distribution, but also over time each has become even more focused and fine-tuned to specific segments of wholesale distribution.

So it seemed to me at the time that Epicor was diverging from its convergence strategy. Rather than bringing a new ERP to wholesale distributors, instead Epicor began to converge them on a technology level, bringing its ICE technology to the distribution party. This seemed to me to be a smart move. Don’t get me wrong; I applaud Epicor’s convergence strategy. Back in 2012 I wrote:

Thus far Epicor has been not only first, but also unique in promising (and then delivering) a single rationalized ERP solution. Other ERP companies have toyed with the idea and even announced such plans, but then either pulled back upon encountering resistance from their installed base of customers or subsequently decided against such a strategy. While at first glance these decisions may have seemed to be in the best interest of their customers, these ERP solution providers may in fact have done customers a disservice in tacitly encouraging them to remain on old, outdated technology that simply cannot serve them well in today’s fast-moving and connected world.

And yet, the resistance from customers was typically not resistance to new technology (like Epicor ICE), but resistance against a perceived, or real forced march to a new product. Each customer wants to move forward and/or make a change at its own pace and on its own terms. And if its current ERP is not perceived to be “broken” the customer is not in any rush and procrastination is the result. At times this procrastination is the product of an older generation of IT professionals who would be content to manage familiar solutions right up until retirement. In fact many of them would benefit from a gentle push.

While Epicor has never forced anyone to move, by boldly declaring Epicor ERP as the future, it provided more incentive to consider moving to it, encouraging those stuck in the past to replace solutions with aging, legacy architectures. Most saw the value in re-implementing rather than carrying forward decisions that had been constrained by limitations of applications and technology in the past. Instead of a mass revolt, as feared by others, many customers embraced this and saw it as an opportunity to justify moving forward.

I still strongly believe in what they are doing with Epicor ERP and in fact Epicor executives still say they have a long-term convergence strategy that includes distribution and the Activant products. But I am not sure they need to bring the two together into a single ERP for two reasons:

  • Epicor is big enough and strong enough to manage two product lines, particularly if they are supported by the same underlying technological architecture (ICE)
  • ICE provides a framework whereby development efforts can be shared across product lines

There will be features and functions shared by all companies, some shared by distributors (or manufacturers) only and some required for niche markets or micro-verticals. For like needs, the Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) and Web 2.0 capabilities of ICE allow Epicor to build once and deploy across multiple solutions, freeing up resources that would otherwise be required to satisfy those requirements in each product line – freeing them up to work on more targeted functionality which has the potential of helping its customers in wholesale distribution (and possibly other markets) achieve a measure of competitive differentiation. This could also help Epicor reach into more narrow micro-verticals that might require more specialized features and functions. But (at least for now) Epicor will leave that opportunity to partners.

Developing “shared” components is the top priority for Epicor right now, not only to share across manufacturing and distribution, but also to add more value to its suite of solutions for retail. An example might be using the ERP functions to strengthen financial management options for retail. You will hear Epicor talk in terms of developing more “granular” functionality and other vendors and influencers will talk about “loosely coupled.” Regardless of the terminology, the net effect is to allow customers to add more features and functions on top of what they already have (with less disruption) and to allow vendors like Epicor to build features and functions once and re-use them across different products and customer bases.

Why is this so important? The obvious answer: to deliver more innovation.

Accelerating Innovation

I’ve written a lot about “next generation” ERP over the past year and I have also written a lot about cloud and SaaS. When it comes to more innovation, the two are connected. First of all the increased pace of innovation is supported through the use of web-based services, object-oriented data models and component architecture. All these combine to support more rapid development of new features and functions, which are more easily consumed as needed. ICE is a key factor in helping Epicor keep pace. So how does SaaS fit in?

A vendor that delivers a product exclusively in a multi-tenant SaaS environment has a clear advantage in delivering enhancements. Solution providers that deliver on-premise solutions are forced to maintain multiple versions of the software. Very often the software is offered on a choice of platforms and databases, and the vendor must support multiple release levels determined by its customers’ ability to keep pace with upgrades. For every person-day vendors spend on innovation, they spend another multiple of that day making sure it works across multiple environments. So if the vendor only delivers innovation in a pure, multi-tenant SaaS solution it needs only support and develop a single line of code. This means it can spend more time on pure innovation and that raises the bar for all vendors.

Epicor’s convergence strategy has helped it compete, but it does support both on-premise licenses and SaaS deployments and until now has offered its converged ERP on multiple platforms. Purifying the stack and limiting the solution to a SQL Server based Microsoft .Net environment reduces development efforts and allows Epicor to optimize for this environment, which adds (2X) speed and (4X) scalability. So while it doesn’t enjoy the same economy of scale as a provider of a pure multi-tenant SaaS solution, it has helped stack the deck for improved development productivity. In addition, it has honed its skills in rapid application (agile) development. And in case you are wondering how this will be received by existing customers, I am told that 90% of Epicor ERP customers are already running on the Microsoft stack. As a result, I expect user resistance to be low, particularly with the demonstrated improved performance.

So I would expect the rate of innovation to start to accelerate from here, at least in terms of Epicor ERP 10. To effect further gains, it will have to carry this strategy over to the distribution side of the house, or it will need to complete the convergence to include the Activant products.

In the meantime Epicor is leveraging the ICE technology to bring more “next generational” characteristics to all its products. Bringing its Epicor Business Activity Query (BAQ) tool to Prophet 21 (an Activant product) is an example. New features of Epicor ERP 10 like…

  • a social collaboration framework that lets users collaborate with one another and “follow” business activities and events
  • a live-tile-style browser interface that’s touch-enabled for any tablet

are enabled by ICE and therefore it is likely these features will be also made available to other Epicor ICE-enabled products as well.

So while Epicor doesn’t enjoy the luxury of maintaining a single code base, it is positioning itself to more rapidly replicate functionality across those different sets of code, thereby accelerating the delivery of new user experiences, better configuration replacing the need for customization and easier integration… all hallmarks of next generation ERP. Time will tell whether customers will turn into “raving fans for life” but if the mood and tone of Insights 2014 is any indication, Epicor has a clear runway ahead to achieve its goals.

 

 

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What’s New in the Annual Mint Jutras ERP Survey

I am excited to be preparing to launch my annual 2014 ERP survey. This will be my 8th and I’ve learned a lot through the years about how to ask the questions and how to best analyze the results. Since founding Mint Jutras in 2011 I have gradually shifted the timing of the survey, so that now (and in the future) it will be launched early in January, and I will use and reference the data throughout the year. As most of you know, I collect a massive amount of data. I try to be consistent with many of the questions from one survey to the next in order to make legitimate year over year comparisons, watching prior trends and spotting new ones. But each year I remove some questions that didn’t produce much insight (that’s how I learn) or that really don’t change much in one year. I do that to make room for something new.

It will be interesting to continue to watch trends, particularly around:

  • Buying cycles: Last year the percentage planning to purchase a new ERP within the next three years more than doubled from 24% to 47%, with another 15% undecided.
  • Deployment preferences: In the 18 months between the 2011 and 2013 surveys, the percentage of companies that would consider a traditional on-premise deployment dropped from 56% to 27%. Preference for both SaaS and hosted models increased.
  • ERP is reaching more users: On average 50% of employees actually use ERP today, including more executives. All executives have access to and regularly use ERP in 47% of companies, a far cry from just a few short years ago. We suspect the growing use of mobile devices has been and will continue to be a game-changer here.
  • Results measured since deploying ERP rose considerably with improvement percentages rising from the 5-7% range to double digits. These are improvements like cost reductions and improvements in on-time delivery, customer retention and inventory accuracy. “World Class” ERP implementations produced results in the 20-24% range. Was this an aberration last year or is new technology fostering better results?

What’s New This Year?

But what I am even more excited about is our new approach to capturing information about how the full spectrum of business applications, with ERP at the core, are implemented. Back when I started benchmarking ERP in 2006, I set out to quantify its usage. My first five annual surveys were done while I was at the Aberdeen Group where I came up with a formula for determining the percentage of ERP that was actually used. When I founded Mint Jutras I used what I had learned in those five years and modified that formula in order to get what I felt was a much more accurate result. But after eight years of this type of measurement, not only has this become old news, it is also harder to get an accurate read.

As I have been saying for several years now, the footprint of ERP has grown to the extent that it is becoming more and more difficult to determine where ERP ends and other applications begin. That is not only the case when covering, writing and talking about ERP, particularly as integration capabilities have improved, but for users as well. In prior blog posts this year I have discussed the relative advantages and disadvantages of “tightly integrated” versus “loosely coupled” applications. But this distinction is not intuitively obvious to the typical ERP user that takes our survey, particularly since typically less than 40% of respondents are in IT. Most are business users and may not have intimate knowledge of the purchase or the architecture of the product itself. They simply use ERP to run their businesses. And of course, that is primarily what we benchmark.

Modules versus Extensions: No longer the right question

In prior surveys I distinguished between ERP “modules” and “extensions” to ERP – those separate applications that might surround and complement it. I asked which modules were implemented (fully or partially) and then asked (separately) which additional applications were implemented. But as the footprint of ERP has grown, the overlap between these two lists also grew. While having both for any particular function might happen occasionally (e.g. a manufacturer might use supply chain planning functions of their ERP and also complement that with a separate “best of breed” solution), it would be the exception and not the norm. And yet, the number of instances where survey responses indicated they had both a module and an extension for the same function began to grow, casting a shadow of doubt on the validity of the responses. That told me it was getting too hard for the survey participants to answer the questions.

So this year I am changing it up with a different purpose in mind. This year, we will

  • Determine current state of implementations with a single list of functions, including traditional core functions of ERP (e.g. general ledger, accounts payable, accounts receivable, inventory control, order management, purchasing, etc.) and more advanced or “edge” functions (e.g. warehouse management, cash flow planning, BI and analytics, employee expense reporting, supplier collaboration, etc.) that might be a module or a separate application. The survey respondent will indicate whether it is (perceived as) part of ERP or not and, if separate, the level of integration.
  • Ask “what if?” Maybe this current state came about because of limited functionality and technology at the time of purchase. If the respondent were making the same decisions today, how would they go about it?
  • Ask “What next?” Given the state of their current implementation, what are most likely next steps? Add new components? Trade it all in for newer technology? Replace certain embedded functions? Eliminate separate applications now that ERP does more?
  • Have them choose up to five areas they are most likely to invest in next.

While this will tell us a lot, we’ll also drill a little deeper into plans for two areas, which happen to be among the hottest categories on the market today:

  • Human Capital Management (is it a fluke the big ERP vendors are buying these applications?)
  • Business Intelligence and Analytics (Is it time to take these tools out of the hands of IT and put them in the hands of the business user?)

We have also added a couple “Mobility” questions, along with one that will determine just how “usable” ERP data is.

If you are an ERP user, look for a link to the survey in the beginning of the year. We welcome your response.

If you are an ERP solution provider and think

  • The data we collect will be useful to you in making product roadmap or go-to-market decisions
  • Mint Jutras might be able to develop some good educational content for you with our distinctive “call to action”
  • You might like to benchmark your customers against our World Class

Please shoot me a message or contact Lisa Lincoln (lisa@mintjutras.com)

Lisa and I both wish everyone health and prosperity in the coming year!

Best Independent ERP Blog

Best Independent ERP Blog

 

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Epicor to Acquire Solarsoft: Expanding its ERP Portfolio While Adding MES and EMI

Last month Epicor announced its agreement to acquire privately held Solarsoft Business Systems from Marlin Equity Partners. Solarsoft itself is a product of acquisitions, with a portfolio of enterprise resource planning (ERP) for manufacturing and distribution, as well as offerings that extend deeper into manufacturing execution. These include a Manufacturing Execution System (MES) and Enterprise Manufacturing Intelligence (EMI). While there is certainly some overlap with Epicor’s existing product offerings, Solarsoft will expand Epicor’s reach to include process manufacturing, push it deeper into manufacturing operations and strengthen its print, publishing and packaging offerings developed by Kodak.

OH NO! More ERP Solutions?

That might be the initial knee jerk reaction to this further consolidation of the ERP market. After all, Epicor already has a whole bevy of ERP solutions. However Epicor stands out in the field of acquisitive companies as the first major ERP solution provider to deliver on a promise of convergence, while also extending functionality and modernizing the underlying technical architecture.

That modern technical architecture is Epicor ICE, which combines a second-generation Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA) with Web 2.0 technologies. This technology provided a good framework for the convergence of nine different ERP solutions, (originally called Epicor 9, now known as Epicor ERP) but its continued evolution has also resulted in the evolution of Epicor’s product strategy.

With the acquisition of Activant last year, a company dedicated to serving wholesale distribution, the focus on converging multiple ERP solutions shifted slightly. In the short term it is now focused on convergence of technology and bringing the benefits of ICE to a broader portfolio of solutions, including the products acquired with Activant (including Prophet 21, Eclipse and Prelude and several other legacy applications). While Epicor ERP is a multi-purpose solution, these products will continue to serve more specific micro-verticals in the wholesale distribution industry, verticals such as distributors of fasteners, ceramic tile, electrical supplies, etc. as separate products for the near term.

However, Epicor didn’t just wake up one day and change its mind (and its strategy) with the acquisition of Activant last year. The evolution of ICE was also a significant factor in evolving the overall Epicor strategy. Over the past several years, ICE has been further strengthened to allow Epicor to build new features, functions and applications on a modular basis without touching the core of ERP. This means Epicor can continue to add new (converged) functionality or supplement or replace existing features without requiring its customers to implement an entirely new ERP.

ICE provides a bridge that connects the existing application with new, modular functionality. And it allows Epicor to “build once” and deploy across multiple solutions, freeing up resources that would otherwise be required to satisfy those requirements in each product line – freeing them up to work on more targeted functionality which has the potential of helping its customers in select industries achieve a measure of competitive differentiation.

So how do the Solarsoft products fit into this strategy? First of all, Tropos, its solution for process manufacturers, allows Epicor to address a whole new segment of the manufacturing market. While discrete manufacturers typically manage components and production in discrete, numeric quantities, process manufacturers often must handle ingredients and produce batches by weight or volume. Discrete manufacturers create bills of material. Process manufacturers deal with recipes and formulas and quite often have specific requirements for material traceability and regulatory reporting. These special requirements typically require special features and functions.

So the sequence of events that must occur to determine exactly how Tropos will fit into the convergence strategy is one of the decisions that will be required once the acquisition is complete. Yet even in the meantime, there are certain features and functions that are common across all sectors. Once the Tropos solution has been enhanced to work with ICE, the investments Epicor has made in evolving ICE should also ensure that Tropos customers have earlier access to much more innovation than Solarsoft itself could have delivered.

Other niche markets covered by Solarsoft such as retail packaging and corrugated manufacturing will reap the same type of benefits and further expand Epicor’s addressable markets. The addition of aVP and bVP, both serving the packaging industries will also further strengthen Epicor’s partnership with Kodak (announced in 2010) to better serve the print, publishing and packaging industry.

Manufacturing Operations

In addition to broadening its market, the Solarsoft acquisition also strengthens the depth of manufacturing operational functionality Epicor can bring to manufacturers in many different industries. Prior to the announced acquisition by Epicor, Solarsoft itself had made two strategic acquisitions: Mattec and Informance.

Mattec MES – Production Control

Mattec provides real-time production and process monitoring allowing manufacturers to gain control of their shop floor and achieve significant improvements in efficiency and product quality. It includes:

  • Real-time production monitoring
  • Process control
  • Dynamic Job Scheduling
  • Statistical Process Control
  • Scrap and downtime monitoring
  • Preventive maintenance management
  • Operator tracking
  • Real-time alarms and alerts
  • Open communications and machine interface

Because its primary role is to control the shop floor, there is of course some overlap and contention with the shop floor control (SFC) functionality already available in some of the ERP solutions Epicor (and even Solarsoft) offers. Yet this kind of overlap between MES and the SFC module within ERP is quite common. MES tends to provide an added level of “real-time” over SFC, as well as a higher degree of interoperability with machine and process automation. So each manufacturer (including Epicor and Solarsoft customers) must make its own decision as to its own specific requirements. And indeed Mattec may be quite a welcome addition to some existing customers, like those running Epicor iScala, which has nothing to compare or compete, or other customers for which SFC provides only a good start to a complete manufacturing operations solution.

Informance EMI – Enterprise Manufacturing Intelligence

The Informance product previously acquired by Solarsoft may in fact be more universally appealing across a broader spectrum of the Epicor and Solarsoft customer base.  The Informance product can be categorized either as EMI (Enterprise Manufacturing Intelligence) or MPM (manufacturing Performance Management). Whichever way you look at it, the overriding goal is to improve the performance of manufacturing operations. In fact, using the Informance software, along with the permission of its customers, Solarsoft has been able to benchmark performance of these operations and determine “best-of-class” standards. It publishes a number of benchmarking studies each year to demonstrate how best practices impact manufacturing performance.

Unlike MES, which adds a level of shop floor control, EMI serves to aggregate data from a variety of sources (man, machine and software applications) and provide a level of analytics and intelligence that cannot be gleaned from any single source.  As such, it does not replace any ERP functionality, but complements it. Today there is nothing in the Epicor product portfolio that competes in terms of this type of functionality, so this part of the acquisition should be entirely accretive.

Conclusions and Key Takeaways

What’s the bottom line here? Epicor expands its addressable market to include process manufacturers and strengthens its position in print, publishing and packaging. Epicor manufacturing customers benefit from added solutions that dive deeper into their operations. Solarsoft customers will benefit from ICE and the “Build once, deploy everywhere” philosophy behind it.

Yes, there is soon to be one less ERP solution provider, but the solutions themselves aren’t going anywhere except forward.

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Epicor Comes Up-Market with Multi-tenant SaaS ERP

Today Epicor announced expanded availability of its next-generation cloud enterprise resource planning (ERP) solution. Previously Epicor Express was offered as a simplified version of its flagship product Epicor ERP. Epicor ERP is a multi-tenant software as a service (SaaS) solution; the simplified Express editions were configured specifically for small companies (both Manufacturing and Distribution editions have been available). Epicor Express for Manufacturing was configured specifically for job shops and discrete manufacturers and, like Epicor Express for Distribution, was delivered only using a SaaS model. The “simplification” process involved hiding selected features and functionality in order to remove some of the complexity inherent in a comprehensive enterprise-level ERP solution, making it more digestible for smaller companies with less complex environments.

With this announcement today at the International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS) in Chicago, IL Epicor’s cloud ERP offering is now available to midmarket manufacturers, distributors and service organizations. The same full-featured Epicor ERP solution, previously only available as an on-premise solution, is now offered as a multi-tenant SaaS solution as well.

After having accumulated experience selling and supporting the Express editions this move makes a lot of sense for Epicor. While many still think of SaaS only in the context of small companies, the latest Mint Jutras ERP Solution Study found that interest in and willingness to consider a SaaS version of ERP grew with the size of the company. While 42% of small companies (those with annual revenues under $25 million) were willing to consider SaaS (along with other deployment options), that percentage grew steadily through the lower and upper midmarket (48% and 51% respectively) to 59% in large enterprises (those with revenues over $1 billion).

Increasingly distributed environments can at least in part explain this escalating interest. Even small companies reported operating out of 2.5 locations and this number grew to 10.7 in large enterprises. Combine this with the increased likelihood of establishing standards for ERP implementations across the enterprise, and it is not surprising that many find SaaS a viable way to establish and enforce these standards. Often these standards are two-tier, particularly in larger companies, where one or more standards for operating locations may be implemented in addition to a corporate ERP. This explains why even Epicor’s early editions for small companies have taken hold. Many operating locations are essentially run as small companies within larger enterprises. But these small companies can also grow and need features and functions beyond the scope of the Express editions… but not beyond the scope of Epicor ERP.

Mint Jutras’ latest survey on “Understanding SaaS” has gathered data on levels of understanding and preferences for SaaS solutions. It found 82% of (over 300) survey respondents had established standards for some or all applications and 93% reported that these standards influenced their choices for deployment.

However, there is still a lot of education that needs to be done. Fifty-seven percent (57%) admitted to not understanding the difference between multi-tenant and single-tenant solutions. Cost is still viewed as the most important potential benefit of SaaS, followed by ease of upgrade in 2nd and support of distributed environments in 3rd. The advantages of not having to purchase hardware and maintain systems and to not have to grow their IT staffs were also considerations.

For more information on cloud deployment of Epicor ERP, visit http://www.epicor.com/Solutions/Pages/CloudComputing.aspx.

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Plex Systems Announces Pending Acquisition by Francisco Partners

Yesterday  (June 6, 2012) Francisco Partners announced the pending acquisition of Plex Systems, one of only a very few SaaS-only ERP solution providers and the one that offers the deepest and broadest offering for manufacturers. If you look at Francisco Partners’ website you see the company describes who it is and what it does as follows: “Francisco Partners (FP) provides transformational capital to technology companies facing strategic or operational inflection points.”

It is pretty clear that SaaS ERP is at one of those strategic inflection points. While a short 5 years ago only about 10% of manufacturers would even consider a SaaS ERP solution, my research indicates that percentage had grown to 45% in 2011 and I expect to see another jump this year. While in the past I have called ERP the last bastion of resistance to SaaS, that resistance is fading and more and more ERP vendors are jumping on the bandwagon, which only increases the acceptance and the hype. But Plex is not following that trend; it is leading the way.

Unlike many other ERP solution providers that are new to SaaS, Plex has been offering SaaS ERP (exclusively) to manufacturers for the past 12 years. For years, deals were often won largely because of functionality and in spite of being SaaS. More recently SaaS has also been a key selling point. I would agree with Petri Oksanen, a principal at Francisco Partners who is quoted as saying,  “We believe that Plex Systems has the potential to lead the transition to cloud ERP for manufacturers, and that this will be as transformative as the adoption of cloud solutions has been to sales, marketing, and human capital management.”

As a result of this acquisition, Francisco Partners will own 100% of all existing shares of Plex. This is also a divestiture of shares by Apax Partners, which happens to have recently acquired Epicor and Activant and merged the two companies as Epicor Software. Mark Symonds, CEO of Plex called the sale of Apax shares “a natural course of events.”  Apax had invested for six years and this is a logical exit strategy for them.  However, unlike the Apax/Epicor/Activant deal, this acquisition is not a mash up of multiple solutions or solution providers.

Which means few, if any, strategic and operational changes for Plex. That is good news for employees and customers, both of which are extraordinarily loyal and engaged. Plex was recognized by the Detroit Free Press as one of the top workplaces in Michigan in 2011. I believe at least one of the reasons customers remain happy is because of the relatively instant gratification they get from Plex’s approach to rapid application development and opt-in enhancements. Unlike the traditional on-premise approach where customers request enhancements, which get put into 12-18 month planning/development cycles (and then those same customers often delay upgrading for another year), Plex updates software frequently, sometimes on a daily basis.

Mark indicates Plex will largely continue along the same path it has been on for the past several years, but Francisco Partners will bring added resources and possible relationships.  This might open doors to Systems Integrators that might have remained closed to a company of Plex’s size and I have to think it might also attract new channel partners. Plex will continue to serve the automotive, aerospace and defense, food and beverage and electronics industries and will also continue to seek to stretch the boundaries of those sectors to expand incrementally.

Plex and Francisco Partners see the market entering into a period of increasing replacement cycles. My research indicates one in four companies surveyed are planning to purchase a new ERP within the next three years and another one (in four) are still undecided. Of those planning a purchase, three out of five will be replacements, while one will be a new purchase for the entire enterprise and one will be a purchase for a new site not currently supported by ERP. Clearly there is lots of opportunity in the niche Francisco Partners calls “Manufacturing ERP.”

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Epicor Brings Lean Six Sigma to Software Development

Lean and Six Sigma are initiatives that were born from the pursuit of operational excellence within manufacturing companies. While Lean serves to eliminate waste, Six Sigma reduces process variability in striving for perfection. And yet even though both have been around a long time, Six Sigma in particular is often under-appreciated and misunderstood, especially outside the world of manufacturing.

Evidence of this was apparent when my Tweet during the recent Epicor Insights 2012 event sparked what one Epicor employee called a “Twitter war.” While I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a war, several comments ensued that made me think my fellow enterprise application industry observers were hardly up to speed on Six Sigma.

I tweeted something along the lines of: “Kudos to Epicor for combining Lean Six Sigma and Agile development. Unique in the software industry.”

I will paraphrase some of the reactions:

Agile development not that unique.” True, but combining the rapid application development process with Lean Six Sigma is that unique.

Does that mean developers remove the clutter from their desks?

Margins in the software industry are large enough that it is not an issue.”

What??? Someone is missing the whole point of Six Sigma.

Understanding Six Sigma

The label “six sigma” itself implies a level of rigor not usually associated with the software industry, considering many software developers today still view what they do as an art, rather than a science. If you don’t believe that, just ask a developer how long it will take to complete a project.

Literally six sigma is a statistical measure that refers to the number of standard deviations away from the mean (or average) point in a bell-shaped curve. Achieving six sigma quality translates to producing no more than 3.4 defects per one million – or in other words, 99.99966% good quality. That might mean 3.4 bugs in a million lines of code. While defect rates are important, Six Sigma is much more than that. It is a rigorous process and a business management strategy with the goal of delivering measurable financial results. In fact to achieve Black Belt certification traditionally the candidate needs to lead a Six Sigma project that has produced significant financial results (e.g. one project that saved at least $500,000 or two projects totaling that cost savings.)

But there are still doubters in terms of its relevance to software. Fellow industry observer P. J. Jakovljevic wrote

While more rigor and analysis cannot hurt, Six Sigma processes can extend the time to market. If one is not careful, one can spend too much time investigating possible risks, since for each issue, you have four levels of analysis in the so-called house of quality, which can become taxing. But if done right, Six Sigma can create sold test plans.

Yes you need to be careful to do it right. As a methodology that uses a structured problem-solving approach, Six Sigma seeks to identify and remove the causes of defects and errors in any process, which is why it makes a nice complement to the Agile development process. But it is not only about quality of the product (in this case the software code) produced, but also the process of developing the product. So it extends far beyond test plans.

Six Sigma is a rigorous program requiring formal training and a special infrastructure of people within the organization who are experts in these methods.  As it is being introduced into the enterprise there might be some risk of introducing delays, since there will be a learning curve, but in the long run, it should have just the opposite effect.

Agile and Six Sigma are new to the original Epicor side of the business.  Kevin Roach, Executive Vice President and General Manager of ERP for the Americas brought both methodologies with him through the merger of Activant with Epicor. I’ve known Kevin for many years and watched him bring them first to the Software division of Rockwell Automation and then to Activant. A Six Sigma Black Belt himself (dating back to his days at GE), he brings the deep understanding of, experience with and commitment to Six Sigma necessary to effectively marry it to the Agile development process.

Indeed, in spite of both Agile and Six Sigma being new to the Epicor side of the business I saw evidence of it producing results already.  While Epicor has struggled with bringing quality releases to the market in the past, the latest “700 release” of Epicor ERP Vs 9 (previously known as Epicor 9) seems to have resolved many of those issues. At the time of Insights 2012 (May 7-9, 2012), six early adopter customers had gone live and another three were scheduled to do so immediately after the event.

What Customers Say

I think it is best to let those early adopters speak for themselves. Here are some general comments from these customers:

“Upgrading [from version 6.07] was so easy. We had trouble doing installs on prior releases, but this time it was effortless. The conversion and schema change ran fast. Because we were already on a later release, the new release was visually similar. Customization and workflows took less than an hour of effort to convert. We especially like the new upgrade utility. From certain releases, it will be effortless.”

“Getting up and running on the new release was like getting a new car – everything is crisper, cleaner, good quality. I have now been out of the office for a week and haven’t gotten a single call or email with an issue.  I actually called in to make sure everyone was still there. We run MRP every night. A full regen went from 90 minutes to 15 minutes. Now we can run ‘what ifs’ and try other options to tune our production.”

“On the prior release, we had 16 known issues that we were living with. We know from testing that 14 are resolved and the other two aren’t re-creatable.”

“We did a fresh install, starting from scratch. We felt this would provide us with the most opportunity to improve our implementation. We simply upgraded our database when we went live. We went live April 23, 2012 and I can tell you the first month-end close was the cleanest and easiest we have ever done.”

“We have 300 employees across 7 plants. We engineer to order a custom built product. Every customer wants something different. We started on Epicor 3 years ago (version 6.04.) Problems we had with performance and quality were immediately resolved in this release.  We have ticked off all but two issues and those are about enhancements. We went through a 14-hour conversion process. It was seamless and achieved over the weekend.”

“We’ve been an Epicor customer for 20 years running the Vantage product. We bought source code and over the years heavily customized it to the point where we stopped doing upgrades. When Epicor 9 came out its ability to customize without customizing was enormous. We upgraded last week. Actually we [line of business] went home early on Friday and IT [Information Technology] upgraded us over the weekend. It was a very seamless process. The IT guys came in Monday morning in a good mood. We were in a good mood.”

“Our upgrade was fast and clean. After a couple of crossword puzzles it was in and clean. The next day we had users asking, ‘Is it supposed to be this fast? What’s wrong? What is it not doing? What did you do to Epicor?” The only complaints we hear now are based on users not being able to enter data incorrectly. We’ve been trying since I have been here to get the users to enter the data correctly. Now it won’t allow them to do otherwise. They ask, ‘Why can’t I do this now?’ We tell them, because you were never supposed to be able to do that to begin with.”

“We’re finding new functionality we didn’t know was there. People are like kids in a playground finding new things to play with – different ways of getting data and answers.”

“We are a 12-year customer, having migrated from Vantage to Epicor 9. We tend to stay current. Sometimes upgrade is a bad word. We have to convince users it is worth it. This time we cut people loose and challenged them to try to break it. After a couple of days they came to us and said, ‘Can we stop now? We can’t get it to fail.’ We do have one minor issue in pricing but it’s not Epicor’s fault. We do things differently. But Epicor resolved it.  This is a smooth, smooth conversion.”

In Conclusion…

In summary, I would repeat my first impression: Kudos to Epicor for bringing a level of rigor to the process of software development. While more and more software developers are embracing Agile, you almost never hear the phrase “Six Sigma” being uttered in relation to developing enterprise applications.

Of course only time will tell, but the combination of the rapid development methodologies of “Agile” and the rigors of Six Sigma should bode well for Epicor customers willing to go through the upgrade process.

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Epicor University: Adds Activant and new Rigor to Processes

Yesterday at Epicor Insights 2012 I got an update from Louise Keppel, VP and Amy Melton, Director, both with Worldwide Epicor University. It has been a little over a year since Epicor announced the launch of a its new university for customers, partners and employees to address the challenge of delivering consistent high-quality training worldwide, and to expand the range of Epicor’s education deliverables. The past year has seen a lot of change for the team with the addition of the Activant training group added to Louise’s worldwide responsibilities. Fortunately the Activant folks brought with them an extensive complement of training materials of their own. They were not created with the same set of robust tools that Epicor University has developed over the past few years, but the Activant team also brought with them added rigor to the development process, including a focus on Six Sigma process improvement.

As soon as it was announced, I was a fan of the University approach. Last year I wrote:

So why is a University needed? After all, user interfaces have become so much more intuitive and software has become easier to use. Navigation through an enterprise application is no longer cumbersome and confusing. And when was the last time you read the instructions for any kind of software anyway? If you can’t figure it out easily it just doesn’t get used.

Exactly! That’s one of the reasons that education and training often gets ignored. Sure the user interface is intuitive. Sure it is easy to navigate through the various functions. But these are potentially complex business processes that are being modeled through an ERP. Are those business processes efficient? Are they standardized and repeatable? Do they produce a clean audit trail? Can they be easily audited? Do they put you in a position of competitive strength or hold you back from realizing your full potential? Most importantly, are you getting the most value out of your investment? Why do you think one company fails miserably while another succeeds beyond all expectations while they both use the same software?

Since then the Mint Jutras 2011 ERP Solution Study gathered evidence to corroborate this sentiment. We captured the top goals of ERP, along with the challenges encountered in achieving those goals. Topping the list of goals (62% of respondents) was that of improving internal efficiencies. Stumbling around in search of the necessary features and functions, in the proper sequence and workflow is certainly not the way to achieve efficiency. Three out of the top five challenges included difficulty in managing change, user frustration with the system and user resistance to new processes. And what was the action most often taken to address these challenges? Provide additional training.

A recent change in the Epicor approach is to bundle access to on-line educational courses into every sale. This is a smart move. Because of the intuitive nature of navigation and all the reasons stated above, companies may be tempted to shave cost by skimping on or even eliminating training when it is purchased a la carte. Embedding it in the deal takes the decision-making out of the equation and insures every user has access to all the necessary courses and materials. Just seeing all the possible courses for all the different available functions could lead companies to take better advantage of the solutions they purchased.

In fact under-utilization of ERP is quite common. The Mint Jutras ERP Solution Study measured ERP usage on a scale of 1 to 100 where a score of 100 indicates all modules relevant to the company were fully implemented. We found the average score was about 65, indicating a lot of relevant functionality is being left on the table. Perhaps because the users don’t even know it is there? Of course the trick will be to condition the users to go looking for added functionality, rather than assume it is not there just because it doesn’t jump right off the screen and grab them. Putting all the materials at their fingertips is certainly a start, and on-line help goes a long way. But making a series of potentially quick (i.e. short) courses available on demand is equally important.

Prior to 2011, all Epicor training classes were classroom based. Today many of them can be delivered virtually. In a world where budgets are still tight and everyone seems to be doing the job of at least 1.3 people, this is a big plus. Companies need not pull key employees out of the office, insert them into an artificial environment and pay for travel and expenses only to have them forget half of what they learned when they get back to the office. Of course the downside is that managers and even the employees themselves may think because they never leave the office they can still accomplish their “day job” during the training, only to have the training suffer. And many of the online courses are 8 hours – often too long to hold someone’s attention well enough for the training to “stick.” But the Epicor University team is working on breaking the courses into smaller chunks that are more easily digested and more easily fit in with busy schedules.

I learned two other facts worth noting yesterday.

First: The Epicor University team is also responsible for putting together the demo databases that the field sales and presales teams use during the sale process. Why? Because these demo databases are also used in all the workshops in the courses. At least some members of the customer’s selection team will be the earliest participants in training. This way, what they see in a training class looks familiar, after having seen the same features, functions and data in the demos.

Second: While usually training reports up through the support organization, this team reports into the development organization. Louise reports to Paul Farrell, EVP of Worldwide R&D. Again you might ask why this matters. There are certainly several different schools of thought on this organizational structure, but Epicor feels the key advantage is in the coordination of product development with the development of documentation and training materials. By making the latter necessary steps in the delivery of a product, when the product goes GA (generally available), you can be sure that the all the course, help and training materials are also ready.

A comment from one early adopter of Epicor’s latest 700 release of Epicor ERP (Epicor 9) summed up the value quite succinctly, “We’ve been finding new functionality we didn’t know was there. People are like kids in a playground finding new things to play with – different ways of getting data and answers.”

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