Grape Escape

SYSPRO’s Next Generation ERP: 7-on-7

 

SYSPRO 7 Addresses 7 Manufacturing Market Demands

In a recent report, Mint Jutras described the next generation of Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) in terms of better technology to deliver a new customer experience, custom configuration without programming, more innovation and better integration. You might think that ERP vendors must reinvent themselves or their products in order to offer up a next generation ERP. Companies reinvent themselves by acquiring other companies and technology, and/or scrapping the development of legacy applications in favor of writing new ones from scratch, new ones that take years to mature.  But if you think these are the only ways to deliver next generation ERP, then you don’t know much about SYSPRO. SYSPRO has been around since 1978, but unlike most of the rest of the ERP world, still offers a single ERP which it has evolved to meet all the requirements of next generation ERP, but has done so using an approach that is unique to SYSPRO.

In the aforementioned report ERP, The Next Generation: The Final Frontier? we had some fun comparing ERP to the successful entertainment franchise, Star Trek. Like Star Trek, SYSPRO ERP is a long-running classic. Star Trek, The Next Generation debuted 21 years after the original series first aired. SYSPRO’s next generation ERP took a little longer, 24 years after the company was founded.  It was introduced in 2001 in response to what SYSPRO calls the “Extended Enterprise.” And the parallels don’t stop there.

The original Star Trek crew had a five-year mission to explore new worlds, travelling on the USS Enterprise. Early ERP often was viewed as a five-year investment. The new and evolved starship Enterprise in The Next Generation had an open-ended “continuing mission” to explore “space: the final frontier… to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.” ERP investments today are also seen as a “continuing mission” and SYSPRO views itself on a mission to make its installed base customers for life, helping mid-market manufacturers and distributors to explore new worlds and seek out life after traditional ERP in what has certainly become a strange new world.

SYSPRO 7 is the most recent of many steps along SYSPRO’s continuous journey, more a constant reinvention than the sudden birth of a new generation. While many limit beta testing to a very small sample of customers, a community of 600 early adopters has now tested this release.

Let’s take a look at the SYSPRO “7-on-7” approach to meeting new market demands. The seven categories of advances cited by this community align quite closely to the next generation requirements in ERP, The Next Generation: The Final Frontier:

  1. New personalized customization and role-based optimization
  2. New advanced functionality (like rapid sales order entry)
  3. New device agnostic mobile capabilities
  4. New industry templates for vertical markets (food, medical devices, electronics, machinery/equipment)
  5. New data integration and toolsets that address the “big 3” issues of big data; volume, velocity and variety
  6. New extended scalability to increase transaction throughput and transaction values including (optional) expanded field sizes
  7. New and more powerful server side reporting solutions that speed processing and simplify the embedding of external data

Defining the SYSPRO Customer Experience

When most software vendors talk about the customer experience, you find them talking about the experience of using the software. Today that discussion starts with the user interface (IU) and then goes on to include web-based and mobile access. This “experience” is influenced heavily by the supposed “consumerization of IT.” Certainly with the introduction of so many consumer applications, largely offered on smart phones and tablets, we have all become more demanding of user interfaces. Nobody has to read a manual to figure out a consumer app and we all make the assumption that we shouldn’t have to read a manual to figure out ERP either.

So many solution providers of next generation ERP have redesigned how their customers engage with ERP, making it a “social” (or “Facebook-like”) experience, typically taking a “Gen-Y” perspective and often guessing at what their customers and prospects really want. But here’s the challenge: ERP is not a consumer app. ERP runs your business. And quite frankly, there aren’t too many mid-market manufacturers and distributors that are run by Millennials of Generation Y. So sometimes these approaches don’t resonate with those making the business decisions.

SYSPRO takes a completely different approach to “the customer experience.” Instead of focusing exclusively on how its customers engage with SYSPRO ERP, it looks first and foremost at how those customers engage with SYSPRO, the company.  Many companies talk about customer satisfaction and listening to the voice of the customer, but for SYSPRO, this is deeply embedded in its corporate culture. As a result, the customers have a profound influence over what SYSPRO then delivers by way of the user experience with the product. No guesswork is involved; no wondering how new engagement models designed for Gen-Y folks will be received by the Baby Boomer and Generation X executives at the helm.

This distinction is not lost on its customers. Vann Spices of Baltimore, MD has been a SYSPRO customer since 2009. Being in the food industry, the company had a long list of system requirements including lot sourcing and product traceability. Because it differentiates itself with custom mixes, it needs to be agile and have a firm grip on available ingredients, ordering, scheduling and billing. It has a variety of direct and indirect sales channels in premium markets like New York, Washington DC and San Francisco, plus website sales.

Mick Whitlock, Vann Spices’ president sums it up well: “It’s not just the lot traceability, reporting, UI and food safety certification controls that matter – as good as they are at SYSPRO.  What’s equally and potentially even more valuable to us, is that I always know the SYSPRO team has my back.  The company executives and its service partners consistently show that they have my best interests at heart and will do whatever is necessary to keep my business running efficiently, no matter what happens.

“You ask a small company what that is worth – and they will tell you:  everything.  It’s worth everything.  Because without a technology partner like that, software is just software.“

That said, the software is still important and if the software isn’t easy to use, employees will spend more time and effort working around the system than with it, and executives will avoid it completely. They will rely on subordinates for data for decision making because they don’t have time to figure ERP out. Yet as executives carry more and more mobile devices, expecting to stay connected wherever they are, they become more impatient waiting for data.

New options for the user interface provided in SYSPRO 7 reflect this growing impatience. Custom-configured dashboards, including a choice of graphical representations of key performance indicators (KPIs) are presented in one or more tiles on the screen, much like those provided by other software vendors. But SYSPRO has gone one step further and made those tiles active (they refresh dynamically as data changes) and touch controlled (touch a bar or a wedge on a pie chart to drill down for more detail). They can be presented on any device, using any mobile platform and can be extensively personalized or customized.

These not-so-subtle differences are supported by the Microsoft standards on which the software is based and the use of HTML5 and XML, which might not mean much to your average business executive. But more importantly, these differences come from its intimate relationship with its customers, knowing how they think and what they want.

Customization versus Configuration

“Customizing” ERP can mean many different things and today configuration is often confused with customization. As noted in ERP, The Next Generation: The Final Frontier, customization used to mean mucking around in source code, resulting in hard-coded logic that was difficult to change. Source code modifications also made it difficult to keep up with updates and upgrades offered by your ERP vendor. If you couldn’t take advantage of innovation delivered, you were essentially letting some of your maintenance dollars go to waste. And as ERP (and your competitors) moved forward, you were stuck.

But SYSPRO has long stayed ahead of the pack when it comes to configuration rather than customization. SYSPRO introduced the concept of UI-centric power tailoring several years before this type of configuration capability became mainstream.  It knew its customers didn’t have big budgets for customization and didn’t want to leave them stranded on older versions as new innovation was delivered.

In spite of being a relatively small company, Vann Spices serves very large customers and hence has the same ERP requirements of a large manufacturer. Yet it doesn’t have the deep pockets of a large company. Mick Whitlock believes this is one reason why SYSPRO ERP can satisfy those needs. “The user interface is incredibly easy to use and tailor to our specific needs. It feels just like we built it specifically for our own company and our own purposes.”

More Innovation, Easier Integration

More innovation implies more features and functions. But an extended functional footprint isn’t what makes any ERP “next generation”. The underlying technology infrastructure does. While business executives often know little and care less about the underlying technology, they do care about the value it brings. And it is that technology that also aids in accelerating the development of new features and functions.

When SYSPRO first introduced its next generation ERP, it also introduced the concept of business objects, modern component architecture and a separate presentation layer. It is not important for the typical business user to understand this from a purely technical perspective. The crew of the Enterprise didn’t necessarily understand how chief engineer Scott’s transporter beam worked. But each and every crewmember knew what it did and what “Beam me up, Scottie” meant. Every businessperson using ERP needs to understand what technology can bring to the ERP party or the potential will remain vastly unrealized.

Presentation Layer

By separating the presentation layer from the source code, modifications can be made without impacting the rest of the system (think different languages, company-specific terminology, adding removing fields from a screen, etc.).

Business Objects

If you are not sure what a business object might be: In the context of ERP, a customer is a business object. But as a business object, a customer isn’t just a record in a master file. It also includes the maintenance functions, validation and controls.

Component Architecture

SYSPRO has coupled business objects with modern component architecture in order to be able to develop reusable building blocks on which additional SYSPRO modules or even custom applications can be built. If you need to add a customer relationship management (CRM) solution to SYSPRO ERP, you don’t need to create an entirely new (and different) customer master or programs to maintain it. You simply re-use the existing object. And you bolt the new CRM solution onto your existing ERP in such a way that it all looks, feels and behaves like a single integrated solution. Indeed SYSPRO offers CRM and it looks and behaves as an integral part of the broader solution.

But if you don’t need CRM (yet), ERP will not suffer from its not being there. You still have your customer master file and all the functions necessary to maintain it. Or perhaps you already have a different CRM. It is not unusual for small companies to invest in CRM even before a full-blown ERP solution. If you need to integrate with another third party application, as long as that other application can map to standard business objects, it too can be easily bolted on, data is synchronized and redundancy is reduced or eliminated. The same is true for any new custom-developed applications.

SYSPRO Release 7 includes new functionality, beyond the added features and flexibility of the new user interface. Release 7 builds on this flexibility by also including industry templates. Those in medical device industries might want to see the lot and/or serial number on every screen.  But unless you are in the food industry, you don’t want to see specific gravity or fat content. SYSPRO partners can pre-design the layout for an electronics manufacturer or a food processor. Or customers can fashion their own “customized” screens.

Achieving Warp Speed

To conquer the final frontier of ERP you need speed. The USS Enterprise had at its disposal amazing technology that allowed the starship to travel at warp speed, using a hypothetical faster-than-light propulsion system. While SYSPRO ERP can’t travel faster than the speed of light, the installation and upgrade processes have been re-engineered to move customers to this newest release faster, often in “one click”.

Once there, Release 7 has been enhanced for faster transaction throughput, supporting large transaction volumes and massive amounts of data from sensors, mobile devices and other external sources. Today these massive volumes must be structured but SYSPRO intends to include unstructured data (think Hadoop) in the future.

Summary

Star Trek was and is science fiction. To many, modern technology-enabled solutions might still seem the stuff of science fiction when in fact they are in production environments, producing results that are nothing short of amazing. What generation of ERP are you running today? Have you explored the world of very real possibilities recently? If not, are you missing out and losing ground in terms of competitive advantage?

Next generation ERP from SYSPRO is very real. If you are faced with the accelerating pace of business, growing volumes of data and higher customer expectations, but your current ERP solution has you stuck in the 20th century, maybe it is time to explore the final frontier. Consider joining the federation of SYSPRO customers for a new and improved ERP experience.

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Meridian Systems Taps Trimble Navigation for a Complete Solution

ILM = Plan(BIM) + Build(BIM) + Operate(BIM)

I recently had an an update from Meridian Systems, thanks to Judith Rothrock’s  (JRocket Marketing) annual Grape Escape ® event. It was also an opportunity to meet Geene Alhady, Meridian’s new President, an 11 year veteran of the company who replaced John Bodrozic as he decided to return to his consulting roots. The update included three key announcements:

However, what I found most compelling was something not on the “announcement list” at all. What intrigued me was the move towards a much more complete solution philosophy, tapping into existing solutions  from its parent company, Trimble Navigation, as well as its announced move to acquire Building Information Modeling (BIM) solution provider Tekla Systems. Given all the complexities and interdependencies, the last thing companies building, managing and maintaining infrastructure and large capital projects need is to collect, manage and integrate a fragmented solution. 

Who is Meridian Systems?

Originally founded in 1993, Meridian Systems started out offering project and portfolio management software primarily for architectural, engineering and construction (AEC) firms. As the company evolved beyond the planning and design and the build phases of construction, it reached into the post-construction phase during which owners manage and maintain those facilities. In doing so, Meridian went beyond project and portfolio management to manage the entire lifecycle of large infrastructure building projects. It coined the term PBO2, which stands for Plan-Build-Operate for Project-Based Organizations and added full Infrastructure Life-Cycle Management (ILM) to its portfolio of products. At this stage of its evolution, Meridian defined ILM as a math equation:

Meridian “ILM” MATH EQUATION =  
Capital Project-Based Organizations + Plan-Build-Operate

In order to complete this equation Meridian offers two product lines:

  • Proliance: A web-based ILM solution that supports project owners in managing a wide range of activities (see side-bar) used by real estate developers, commercial building owners, government agencies and others managing a portfolio of infrastructure projects
  • Prolog: Project and portfolio management software used to provide control and transparency to project-based organizations within AEC, commercial and public sectors. Prolog, the original Meridian Systems product, manages the Build phase of PBO with budget & cost management, contract & change management, purchasing/bid management and document & field worker management

Together these two products help project-based companies manage the business at an enterprise level. In 2006 Meridian became a Trimble company. Trimble Navigation is perhaps best known for global positioning solutions (GPS). Like Meridian, it serves the engineering and construction and related industries. Recognizing the equity of the brand it acquired, Trimble allowed Meridian Systems to maintain its name and for the past five years it operated quite independently.  While that was beneficial in building both brands, it also left some synergy on the table.

While Meridian works at the business and enterprise level, Trimble operates at the level where the work actually gets done, collecting data directly from the workforce on the projects. Trimble uses GPS, lasers, optical, and inertial technologies, as well as wireless communications and application specific software to provide solutions that link positioning to productivity. Some joint customers are seeing the potential synergy and steering them towards more collaboration between the two. Now Meridian is expanding its product reach in order to directly leverage the data collected at the workforce level across the enterprise.

The next step in the combined company’s evolution expands this joint solution even further. In May 2011 Trimble extended an offer to acquire all shares in Tekla Corporation. Headquartered in Finland, with a U.S. office in Atlanta, Georgia, and more than 5,000 customers in the construction industry around the globe, Tekla is a leading provider of Building Information Modeling (BIM) software. Tekla offers model driven solutions for customers in the infrastructure and energy industries (in particular energy distribution, public administration and civil engineering and utilities), creating the potential for even more synergy with the combination of Trimble Navigation and Meridian Systems. Two Meridian customers (Ryan, Stanford Hospitals) are already integrating BIM to ILM.

A New Component: BIM

BIM creates a digital design model. The purpose of this model is to enable constructability and production control. By centralizing and digitizing the model, project management and delivery can become more predictable and collaborative. Tekla’s BIM solution, Tekla Structures supports creation and management of accurately detailed, highly constructible 3D structural models regardless of material or structural complexity. Tekla models can be used throughout the building process from conceptual design to fabrication, erection and construction management. And, as you will see as you read on, perhaps even beyond the initial Build phase.

What is Driving this Push?

The world economy, an evolving global market and the recent spate of natural and man-made disasters all combine to create an increasingly challenging business environment for the capital projects-based organizations Meridian Systems, et al serve.

During the recession, which began in 2008, industries supporting infrastructure-related development took a big hit. New construction slowed or came to a complete halt in many regions of the world including parts of North America. Even necessary maintenance projects were pared down, delayed or postponed. Now as we are seeing signs of a recovery, albeit a slow recovery, the very nature and mix of infrastructure projects are changing. We’re seeing less new construction (the Plan and Build phases) and more renovation and maintenance (the Operate phase) in mature economies. This in turn causes a major shift in the Operate stage to not only maintain and manage, but also to manage renovation, remodeling and even rebranding.

 This also changes the complexion of the projects, shifting from single large projects to multiple, yet often inter-dependent projects. While the ability to manage schedules and cost and maintain control over new infrastructure and construction projects has always been critical, when renovating or remodeling, there is the added factor of business disruption. While renovating a hotel floor by floor, the rooms on the floor under construction cannot be booked. When remodeling a residential apartment building, new tenants cannot take up residence and rental or condominium fees collected. During rebranding, remodeling or renovation of a commercial building, business cannot continue uninterrupted.

“Fast-Track” Projects

 This creates the increased need for “fast-track” projects. And it would appear lately that Mother Nature is also conspiring to supplement the need for these “fast track” projects. While natural disasters are not new or unique to the post-recession, the vast devastation created by events such as Hurricane Katrina, the earthquakes in Haiti, Chili and Japan, the recent tornadoes in Joplin, Missouri and western Massachusetts, is unprecedented, thus creating the need for new or massive repair to infrastructure.

 In a “fast-track” project, design and development often must be combined in order to minimize down time. While management of these projects is better enabled through ILM and project and portfolio management software, adding BIM to the mix is the secret sauce and perhaps the most essential element when combining design and development. BIM creates a three-dimensional (3D) model, which encompasses building geometry, spatial relationships, geographic information, and quantities and properties of various components. All these different elements are created as BIM objects. Relationships between objects are defined as parameters, so that if an object changes, those related to it also change. As a result, a virtual environment is created in order to better understand and manage the physical environment.

In combining ILM with BIM, Meridian Systems also introduces the concept of 4D and 5D modeling. While intuitively difficult to picture, essentially the fourth dimension is cost and the fifth dimension is schedule. By integrating all components of the operational business processes and data (LIM) with the digital design model (BIM) you are able to assess the impact of a design change on both the cost and the schedule.

Another Whole World

While renovation, remodel and repair of infrastructure might dominate in mature markets like North America, there is another whole world out there. In emerging markets, new infrastructure must be built. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Middle East, where some of the largest capital infrastructure projects in the world are underway. These are global projects, unable to rely only on local resources and therefore they pull in people, materials, contractors and subcontractors from around the world. And some of these projects are more massive than any we have seen, at least in modern history. Projects like:

  • The Saadiyat Island Cultural District in Abu Dhabi: Covering a land mass of 2.43 million square meters, the master plan is to build an entire district including a national museum, a performing arts center and Abu Dhabi versions of the Louvre and the Guggenheim. Massive in scale and scope, “Saadiyat Cultural District will be a center for global culture, drawing local, regional and international visitors with unique exhibitions, permanent collections, productions and performances. Its iconic institutions will be housed in buildings constituting a statement of the finest architecture at the beginning of the 21st century.”
  • The Knowledge Economic City in Saudi Arabia, with an estimated construction value of $8 billion, is expected to take between 10 to 12 years to complete
  • The new National Railway Network in the United Arab Emirates will provide freight and passenger service, stretching across the Emirates, covering a network of approximately 745 miles. The new railway network will connect the United Arab Emirates to Saudi Arabia. The first of three stages of the project is projected to be complete in 2014.

As a result of this type of opportunity, Meridian Systems is seeing a significant increase in business outside North America. The ratio between U.S.  and international sales has shifted dramatically.  Until recently, revenue outside of the U.S. was 10% or less, and now it is closer to 30%. Hence the expansion into the Middle East with a new regional office in Dubai. In doing so, it once again leverages the resources of its parent company, already present in the region and is better positioned to support some of its marquis customers and its own growth.

Case in Point:  AECOM, A Meridian Systems Customer

Headquartered in Los Angeles, California, AECOM is one of the largest providers of professional technical and management support services in the world.  According to Jim Walsh, CTO, “You’ll see us in industries like transportation, facilities, environmental, energy, water and the government sector.  We have more than 45,000 employees in approximately 125 countries.  We reported $7.3 billion in annual revenue for the 12 months ending March 31, 2011, and we are ranked #353 on the most recent Fortune 500 list. We are defined by our reputation for leadership – especially in high-growth markets, our long-term portfolio of blue-chip clients and our diversification across multiple industries, geographies and funding sources. We consistently produce strong financials and, for the most part, have a low-risk business model. I say ‘for the most part’ because we do operate all over the world and geopolitical events such as the recent turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa can lead to temporary or long-term business interruption. “

Indeed, AECOM is engaged in the three Middle East projects noted above as well as

  • The New Doha Port in Qatar, a $7 billion construction effort that is currently the world’s largest “greenfield” port-development project
  • The Capital District Development Project in Abu Dhabi, a mixed-use city that will form the center of the United Arab Emirates’ federal government, be home to 370,000 residents and feature an underground, high-speed metro, plus  highways,  water, sewage, cooling, communications and all-inclusive infrastructure.

A complete solution is exactly what AECOM was looking for, working with Meridian since 2002, initially with Prolog for construction management and project management, and then in 2005 selected Proliance as its next generation technology solution. “Meridian is capable of managing tens of thousands of pages of documents…and in managing programs with budgets that reach tens of billions of dollars,” said Mr. Walsh.

“So what makes Meridian so special?  Its solutions are purpose-built. Meridian does what big ERP companies don’t do well.   These big firms have all kinds of toolsets and workaround capabilities– but, for us, that would involve a lot of complex programming that Meridian has already figured out – and does out of the box, with superior end results.   Meridian of course plugs into a wide variety of ERP backbones like Oracle, SAP and Microsoft.   So, why don’t we just use these ERP backbones?  Because, I don’t want to go through all that work, and then have to view 15 screens to get an answer.  With Meridian I can get what we need…quickly, cost effectively and with the right blend of system and technology integration.

“AECOM is a large organization driven heavily by our clients’ requirements.  The goal of the program management we provide is to deliver the expertise that will save our clients time, money and complexity…wherever possible.  Meridian gives us the features and functions that are powerful enough to get the job done with great flexibility and a great user interface.”

Key Takeaways

As you can see, the world of infrastructure and capital projects faces a dichotomy of needs. On the one hand, “fast-track” projects need to be just that – fast. Yet the more likely the project is to be fast-tracked, the less likely it is that it stands alone. So while there may be fewer moving parts, there is also more need to integrate and interoperate with other pieces of a larger puzzle and less room for error. On the other hand, we see more massive and complex infrastructure that must be built, and sometimes (most likely) it needs to be managed half a world away.

A wide variety of functionality is required to manage throughout the PBO2 environment, from planning and design, to build and development, to manage, maintain, renovate, remodel, rebrand and repair. My opening segue bears repeating: Given all the complexities and interdependencies, the last thing companies building, managing and maintaining infrastructure and large capital projects need is to collect, manage and integrate a fragmented solution.  By leveraging the data collected where the work is done, providing a virtual environment that can model the real world and tools that provide a system of record and guided decision-making throughout the Plan – Build – Operate lifecycle, Meridian Systems, with a little help from Trimble, is evolving into a complete solution.

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