Infor

Infor Ushers In the Age of Networked Intelligence

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

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

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

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

The Evolution of a Strategy

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

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

The Network Economy

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

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

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

Business Intelligence (BI) and Analytics

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

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

AI: Taking Intelligence to the Next Level

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where Coleman and IoT Meet

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

Demand Planning and Forecasting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So in our 2017 study we dug a little deeper to assess how well companies understand these technologies, and the potential they hold for their businesses. We selected 14 different kinds of technology and asked respondents to assess their level of familiarity with each in terms of how they relate (or not) to their business. The technologies that Coleman might utilize are shown in Table 1 (in no particular order).

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

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

Source: Mint Jutras 2017 Enterprise Solution Study

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

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

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

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

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

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

Key Takeaways

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

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

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

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

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

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New Group at Infor Helps Customers Navigate Digital Disruption

Hook & Loop has been part of Infor now for several years. It is the “creative lab” inside of Infor. Notice I didn’t say “creative agency.” That is a term that is typically associated with advertising agencies, full of those creative types like writers and graphic artists, even filmmakers. There are a lot of those creative types at Hook & Loop, but its charter goes way beyond that of the typical agency. In their own words, Hook & Loop’s is “a collaborative team of designers, information architects, developers, project managers, writers, and filmmakers who are redesigning the user experience for Infor’s software products and envisioning the future of the Infor brand itself. Our mission: change the way people work and think about work.”

Back in early 2015, Diginomica’s Jon Reed did a great job of describing what Hook & Loop was setting out to accomplish. If you aren’t up to speed, you might want to take a moment and review Jon’s Inside the Enterprise UX revolution – a day at Infor’s Hook & Loop. But for here and now, it suffices to say that the Hook & Loop charter went beyond a fresh new user interface (UI). It set out to create a whole new “holistic” user experience (UX) using a unified design methodology.

Infor is now taking this a step further and spinning out a new group from Hook & Loop. It’s called H&L Digital and its proclaimed mission is to create “Differentiation through personalized digital experiences at scale that help enterprises outpace digital disruption and unlock digital growth opportunities.” That’s a mouthful that exposes Hook & Loop’s “agency” lineage.

So let’s move beyond the “agency-speak.” The real purpose of the new group is to help customers navigate digital disruption and achieve a competitive advantage. How do they do that? At its recent Innovation Summit (really an industry analyst day held at corporate headquarters in New York City), Infor attempted to answer that question through examples. We heard about some of its biggest, best and most impressive projects.

Among them was Sports City, a large franchise of stores featuring sports apparel and accessories. H&L Digital helped them transform their brand from a big box retailer surviving on promotion-driven transactions to a branded, sporting goods community leader, attracting those with a passion for sports. This was as much of a branding exercise as it was an ecommerce project, but indeed there were many moving parts from store design to custom application development.

Part of the project was developing an app for coaches of clubs, community and school teams. Through this app, coaches can share online all the equipment kids on the team will need, including specific product options and recommendations within different price ranges and even a pre-owned marketplace. Equipment fitting and a fitting room app also help take the guesswork out of shopping for equipment. That results in Sports City brand loyalty and increased sales. Coaches also can set up their own dashboards for player performance and team optimization, making Sports City the “go to” online destination for all their needs – a far cry from a big box retailer.

H&L Digital also helped transform Nutritious Feed Co. from an animal feed supplier to an animal health provider. Several different customer-facing applications emerged from that project, including Connected Cow Tracker, Total Farm Management, Farmer App, and Animal Health – hardly apps that are in the typical enterprise app portfolio. But the project also attacked more universal challenges like employee engagement and operational efficiency.

Through these presentations and others I was struck by how truly innovative this approach is. H&L Digital helped these companies not only with tools to help them run their businesses; they helped them uniquely re-brand themselves in a completely new light within a digital economy. But I also walked away thinking, these are very big, very custom projects. Translation: very expensive.

In a way it felt like déjà vu all over again. These “custom” projects were reminiscent of the homegrown apps of the 70’s and 80’s. Nobody believed you could have pre-packaged apps back then. Companies believed themselves to be unique and therefore built their own applications. And of course only large companies with deep pockets could (can) afford something with this kind of “Wow!” factor. So the big companies got bigger and stronger and smaller companies “made do.”

Of course, we all know what happened after the 70’s and 80’s. Over time vendors were able to package more functionality and more flexibility, at a more affordable price, so the playing field was leveled and virtually everyone began using pre-packaged solutions. But sitting through these presentations I was beginning to feel like the playing field was no longer level. There would definitely be the “haves” and the “have nots.” Somehow I don’t see Connected Cow Trackers and coaching dashboards becoming part of a standard enterprise application portfolio. So is H&L Digital destined to simply be a high-end provider of custom “luxury” apps?

That’s what I thought at first, but a visit to the H&L Garage (where all this stuff is built) made me think differently. The “creative” teams at H&L Digital do indeed start with a pretty blank sheet when they start to strategize and design. But when it comes to delivering new applications, it is very much an assembly process. The teams talk a lot about creating “wizards.” Wizards essentially assemble a series of components – some custom, some standard (re-usable) under a unique, custom-designed skin, so to speak. This is what makes each project look and feel entirely unique and custom. But if you look under the covers, the components of many of these “unique” processes share a lot of common components.

Outfitting a little leaguer is really just a standard configure-price-quote function and Infor has standard products that deliver that functionality. Is managing player performance really all that different from a sales manager monitoring sales rep performance? The metrics used might be different, but the dashboards probably look and behave quite similarly. Couldn’t you use a lot of the capabilities of monitoring movement of a fleet of trucks to help track cows? I bet “maintenance” schedules of equipment and cows share some common components as well, even though the user interface might appear very different.

So far all these projects have a healthy dose of custom development. But the more of these components Infor develops, the more it will have on the shelf. Over time, more and more components will be standard. This is crucial because companies of all sizes face risk of digital disruption.

Our 2016 Mint Jutras Enterprise Solution Study asked survey respondents to identify the level of risk of their industry (and their business) being disrupted, citing examples like Uber, Airbnb, NetFlix, etc. Almost two thirds (63%) face medium to high and imminent risk and the risk level of small companies (those with revenues under $25 million) is only slightly lower.

Figure 1: How much risk do you face in your industry being disrupted?

Infor fig 1Source: 2016 Mint Jutras Enterprise Solution Study

And yet small to mid-size companies are not nearly as well prepared to face these challenges.

Figure 2: How prepared are you for today’s digital economy?

Infor fig 2Source: 2016 Mint Jutras Enterprise Solution Study

So if Infor is able to successfully come down market and satisfy the needs of both large and small companies – even those with small budgets – there is certainly a big market waiting for it. I, for one, am routing for the little guys and hope to see H&L Digital continue to leverage Infor’s vast tool set and product portfolio to become the “go to” vendor for all companies facing the challenges of digital disruption.

 

 

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Post-Modern ERP Meets #CommerceCloud: Infor to Acquire GT Nexus

Earlier today Infor announced it would acquire GT Nexus and its cloud-based, global commerce platform for $675 million. Pending regulatory approval, expect the deal to close within 45 days.

While at first glance this might seem to be a “me too” move following in the footsteps of SAP’s acquisition of Ariba, this is actually different in that it is all about direct (versus indirect) procurement, which is inherently more complicated because it must tie back to the sale of goods and the production process.

This is something Infor CEO Charles Phillips says he and Infor President Duncan Angove have been looking to do since coming on board in late 2010, pointing to the continued shift to contract manufacturing that moves much of the production process outside the four walls of the traditional factory. “Continued” is indeed the right adjective to use here.

This shift started decades ago when low-cost country sources made “outsourcing” very appealing. As companies have tended to become less vertically integrated, reducing costs and focusing instead on their core competencies, this necessitates new ways of doing business with each other. Through the purchase of subassemblies or finished products, the contracting of manufacturing or distribution services or the outsourcing of customer service or information technology, the value chain has lengthened and become more complicated. Yet expectations of response time and delivery performance have risen dramatically.

This is actually a topic that is near and dear to my heart. I went back and dug up something I wrote previously back in the day, before the digital age, when we talked about “E-business.” Here is what I wrote:

These new business models involve multiple companies working cooperatively and collaboratively together, in a seemingly seamless manner, as if they were a single virtually vertical enterprise. A company that can successfully interoperate in this way can claim to have reached the goal of full E-business integration.

As a result of this push toward full E-business integration, businesses face challenges that force them to push the envelope of business information systems. ERP grew from its predecessors of MRP and MRP II, constantly expanding its solution footprint to address more and more needs of the enterprise. Yet ERP was not conceived to look beyond the “four walls” of the enterprise, regardless of how expansive those walls would become, simply because the concepts of MRP and ERP were born in a time when companies were run as independent enterprises with arm’s length relationships with customers and suppliers.”

Mr. Phillips and Mr. Angove both acknowledged this situation today in announcing the proposed acquisition. They talked about “post-modern ERP” that (with the addition of GT Nexus) would push beyond those “four walls” and “provide customers with unprecedented visibility into their supply chains to manage production and monitor goods in transit and at rest.”

But none of this is really new news. That excerpt above is from my book, ERP Optimization, which was released in December 2002. Has it really taken more than a decade to deliver on this promise? Yes and no. First of all, when I look back on where we were when I wrote ERP Optimization, I realize just how far we have come. Back then “trading exchanges” weren’t much more than online dating sites for buyers and sellers, and very few offered value-added services like trade financing, logistics, electronic payment and settlement. Connecting these functions back to your ERP was difficult at best. Internet procurement was in its infancy. Most companies were still struggling with all the non-standard versions of “standardized” EDI. And the smart phone and other mobile devices (apart from the cell phone) had yet to be invented, so most of us couldn’t even dream of being as “connected” as we are today.

So yes, we have come a very long way. But through that progression, our expectations have also risen. We no longer simply “outsource.” We participate in a networked economy and we look to the cloud to keep us all connected. We also deal in a much more global economy, including emerging economies in countries that were hardly industrialized a short decade ago. The speed of business, as well as the speed of change has accelerated beyond anyone’s expectations.

So it is no wonder that the executives of Infor have wanted to fill this need since coming on board. They actually thought about building their own network. But I think they were smart in acquiring one. After all, the value of the network is largely measured by its size, scope and strength. And let’s face it, you don’t build one that is 25,000 businesses strong (like GT Nexus) overnight. And once networks like these are established and mature, it becomes harder and harder to build a brand new one. Once companies like adidas Group, Caterpillar, Columbia Sportswear, DHL, Home Depot, Levi Strauss & Co., Maersk, Pfizer, Procter & Gamble and UPS have joined, that network becomes that much more attractive with each new major brand added – hence the attraction to Infor.

GT Nexus is also a good choice because it is unique in that it includes supply chain financing partners that add even more value. Buyers and financial institutions offer pre and post export financing and payment protection. Infor admits that many of its own customers in manufacturing and retail aren’t even aware of financing options available, even though they might be struggling to finance procurement of materials and services in advance of collection of revenue. And who doesn’t want to get paid faster? Infor therefore sees a lot of opportunity to expand these offering even further. And the fact that Infor, GT Nexus and many top banks are all in Manhattan doesn’t hurt either.

The integration of GT Nexus and the Infor CloudSuites (there are several for different industries, including retail and fashion, which represents about 60% of current GT Nexus business) should be quite straightforward because both use standardized object models (Infor uses OAGIS). This is in fact one of GT Nexus’ strengths in being able to easily connect to back office solutions. Unlike traditional EDI where each connection is unique, this data model mapping allows suppliers to join the network once and talk to all buyers, avoiding custom maps and portals and invasive code development. So this leaves open the question of how the combined company will continue to work with other solution providers, including existing partners like Kinaxis.

Infor will continue to run the GT Nexus operation as a dedicated business unit. The entire management team is joining the larger corporation, a further testament to the cooperative and friendly nature of the acquisition.

All told this appears to be a win-win-win for Infor, GT Nexus and its customers. If not a match made in heaven, at least it is in the cloud.

 

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Infor customers: Are you listening?

Once again Inforum, Infor’s annual customer event was chock full of new announcements. At last count I saw 13 press releases issued since the start of the event on Monday September 15th:

Sep 17, 2014 Etam Group Expands Scope of its Marketing Activities with the Help of the Latest Version of Infor’s Marketing Management Solutions

Sep 17, 2014 Brasil Norte Bebidas Adopts Infor Solution to Optimize Logistic Processes

Sep 17, 2014 Kansas City Citizens Receive Enhanced Service from Local Government

Sep 17, 2014 Infor Aligns With MercuryGate To Strengthen Transportation Management

Sep 17, 2014 Infor Helps Ferrari to Accelerate Supply Chain Planning

Sep 17, 2014 Infor Announces Internship and Educational Alliance Programs

Sep 16, 2014 Infor Delivers Robust CloudSuite for Business Management

Sep 16, 2014 Infor Announces New Era of Automated Financials

Sep 16, 2014 Infor CloudSuite Available for Healthcare Delivery Organizations

Sep 16, 2014 Infor Announces New Technology Platform, Infor Xi

Sep 16, 2014Infor Dynamic Science Labs Pioneers New Class of Applications

Sep 16, 2014Infor and Aras Deliver Transformative Cloud PLM Solution

Sep 16, 2014Infor Reports Q1 License Revenue at Double-Digit Growth

Sep 15, 2014Varian Medical Systems and Infor to Add New Data Integration Capability within Varian Software Suite for Planning, Managing, and Delivering Cancer Care

 

As you can see from the list above, this collection of news bites is quite diverse. You might even say it’s all over the map. And still it doesn’t cover everything I found noteworthy from the event. Having grown through acquisition, in the past Infor has struggled to have any focus beyond growth for the sake of growth. But I would argue that in spite of the large volume of news, in spite of the diversity, today Infor does have a focus. And that focus is something I have been writing a lot about lately: the convergence of trends, with goal of making ERP easier to consume.

My recent 2014 Trends in ERP Converge report began as follows:

In 2013 you couldn’t pick up an article without being bombarded with what industry observers were calling the “big trends” in enterprise software. We heard cloud and software as a service (SaaS) deployments would take over, although definitions were just that… cloudy. We heard about the prevalence of mobile devices and the resultant “consumerization of IT.” “Social” took on new meaning as Facebook, Twitter and other social media phenomena not only changed the way many of us communicated with the world but also impacted our business applications. And then, as if we weren’t already bombarded with enough data, we heard all about “big data,” analytics and in-memory computing. Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) was not immune to these influential factors and the solution providers strove to brand themselves in the context of these trends. Will these trends continue to dominate, or will we see new waves of innovation? Mint Jutras anticipates 2014 will bring the convergence of these trends, brought together by a common goal of making not only innovation, but also the enterprise applications themselves inherently easier to consume.

 And that was the focus I heard at Inforum. It was all about making software that people want to consume, while making it easier to consume. Infor started down this path with Infor 10x, a platform that delivered a reinvented HTML5 user experience (the SoHo user interface), Infor Ming.le (its social collaboration platform), and embedded analytics. The Infor ION framework (light weight middleware) was integral to this effort. This week Infor announced the next evolution of Infor 10x: Infor Xi, which it calls “an enterprise technology platform for next-generation applications…[which] will deliver a major step in achieving the company’s vision for cloud applications that address specific industry needs with responsive design infused with machine-learning and big data analytics.” That’s a mouthful, but I think it supports my concept of this convergence of trends towards a common goal.

Infor has been talking about “beautiful” software for the past two years, introducing this concept at Inforum 2012. I haven’t always been a big fan of “beautiful” software simply because I think beauty is largely in the eye of the beholder and typically beauty isn’t the primary concern of users. It’s got to be more than a beauty contest.

I have been observing the growing importance of “ease of use” in terms of ERP selection criteria for the past few years. I have asked survey participants to prioritize ERP selection criteria in my annual ERP survey for many years. While “fit and functionality” reigned for years, “ease of use” has bubbled to the top for the past two years (Table 1).

Table 1: Priorities of Selection Criteria in Evaluating ERP

Table 1 InforSource: Mint Jutras 2014 and 2013 ERP Solution Studies

Survey participants were asked to rank the importance of thirteen different selection criteria for ERP on a scale of 1 to 5 where 1 was “not a consideration” and 5 was “must have/most important.” There was nothing to stop the respondents from ranking each and every criterion as a “must have,” but they didn’t.

So what does “Ease of use” mean? Glad you asked. I asked that of my survey respondents as well. For this question, I gave them a list of options and asked them to pick their “top 3.” I guess a “visually appealing user interface” is the closest I come to “beautiful software.” As you can see in Figure 1, it is not at the very top of the list. Factors that affect efficiency and productivity outrank beauty. But in spite of the words Infor execs use (beautiful software), I actually think this is what they are striving for.

Figure 1: What does Ease of Use mean? Pick your top 3

Figure 1 InforSource: Mint Jutras 2014 ERP Solution Study

Sadly enough, all too often in the past, ERP solutions that were meant to streamline and automate processes ended up forcing users to work in ways that simply weren’t natural. That point comes up a lot when talking to Infor execs. In fact they have launched a new initiative (Infor refers to it internally as SoHo Glide) to further improve the user experience. Graphical user interfaces (GUIs) have evolved from legacy command line interfaces. Now Infor wants to take the next step from “graphical” to “natural,” which addresses both the need for intuitive navigation and supporting a natural way of working. I could talk for pages about this, but the best way to understand what they are doing is to ask for a demo.

While many cite “Don’t make me change my business processes” as a “top 3” priority in terms of “ease of use,” I would warn Infor’s (and other vendors’) customers not to use this as a blanket requirement, unless of course all your business processes reflect best practices and/or provide a source of differentiation for you in your market.

Infor has flat out stated that it wants to rid the Infor world of customizations. That’s at the root of its micro-vertical strategy. The goal is to have very industry specific solutions that can address all the requirements of a particular sector without the need for customizations or other point solutions. But that doesn’t mean the software can or should support every idiosyncrasy of your company. “We’ve always done it that way” is not a valid justification, especially if the reason you did something differently was because of a (previous) gap in software functionality or resistance from an individual (who probably doesn’t even work for your company any more). There are a lot better solutions out there today, some of which are offered by Infor.

“Friends don’t let friends build data centers”

One of the reasons Infor is so adamant about removing customizations is because of the move to the cloud. I have lots of data that shows the growing willingness to consider, even the preference for cloud-based solutions. Infor has known for a while that this was happening, but execs on the main stage of Inforum 2014 admitted the push to cloud happened a bit faster than they had anticipated. Hence the “all out” effort to be “all in” on the cloud. And in fact the quote in this heading was from Infor CEO Charles Phillips.

Infor is offering two different paths to the cloud. Its UpgradeX program is probably most attractive to companies that are stuck on older releases, often because of the cost and effort of the upgrade process. Through UpgradeX, Infor gets the customer to the latest release of the software and then lifts and shifts it to the cloud, taking responsibility for its care and feeding, including upgrades. This is more of a hosting option, but relieves the customer of the burden of maintenance of both hardware and software.

I should point out that this option is not available to all customers because not all product lines are cloud (web-) enabled. Those Infor teams are working hard to encourage customers to remove customizations and move forward in anticipation of that day. But I have a better idea. Where Infor has an alternative solution that is modern and technology-enabled, get rid of that older solution and move to something that can more easily, safely and efficiently move you into the future.

You won’t hear Infor say this because it doesn’t want to appear to be abandoning customers or products. And of course, moving forward could mean opening the door to a competitive situation. Quite frankly, when I worked for software companies, some of which are now owned by Infor, I would have said and done the same.

But looking objectively from the outside in, I don’t think this serves the customer well. Suggesting “rip and replace” used to be heresy but today it might just be the fastest, cheapest path to get you to a far more competitive position.

If you do consider trading in an older Infor solution, the other cloud path might be best for you. Re-implement on one of Infor’s industry-specific CloudSuites. These CloudSuites integrate multiple functions traditionally requiring disparate systems into a single suite. Some will be industry-based (e.g. healthcare, manufacturing verticals, wholesale distribution, etc.) and others will be “solution” suites (e.g. financials, human capital management, etc.). These CloudSuites are all destined to be multi-tenant software as a service (SaaS) solutions, although all the necessary components are not multi-tenant today.

The CloudSuites will be available on the Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud infrastructure. As Infor’s COO Pam Murphy likes to say, “Infor is in the enterprise application software business. We let someone else worry about pipes and feeds.” Of course a significant advantage to customers and Infor both is the elasticity and scale of AWS. Infor will also use leading open source solutions including Red Hat’s Enterprise Linux (RHEL) and JBoss Enterprise Middleware, and EnterpriseDB’s Postgres Plus database. And all will be supported by Infor ION®, Infor’s purpose-built, lightweight middleware. Infor ION provides integration and other services.

These suites will feature a consumer-grade user experience from Hook & Loop, Infor’s internal design agency based in its Manhattan headquarters. And they will have embedded analytics. This is an important point. As other vendors are packaging business intelligence (BI) tools and analytic applications and selling them separately, Infor is operating on the belief that analytics are core to next-generation applications and should be a basic part of the solution, with no additional charge.

These analytics will also run on mobile devices. In many ways Infor adopts a “mobile-first” design philosophy that is becoming quite prevalent in new development today. But it also recognizes that a lot of work (both transactional and decision-making) is still done on a desktop, so it is committed to bringing the consumer-grade user experience to all.

In fact this enhanced user experience, based on “beautiful software,” is all about engaging more of its customers’ employees. In the past only a small percentage of employees ever put their hands on ERP – those doing heads-down data entry and a few selected “super users.” Executives in particular couldn’t be bothered to “figure it all out” and were dependent on those super users for answers, causing delays that could be fatal to decision-making.

But today that is changing. The better the experience, the more connected the people running the businesses are to ERP and to each other. And Infor has the stated objective of ending “the tyranny of the super user.” Mint Jutras is already seeing a shift in the market to higher levels of engagement with ERP and cloud deployments seem to play a big role. While overall a little over half (55%) of employees use ERP today, that percentage jumps to 63% when a SaaS solution is deployed (Figure 2).

Figure 2: What percentage of your employees uses ERP?

Figure 2 InforSource: Mint Jutras 2014 ERP Solution Study

Of course cloud-enablement is not the only factor here, but, apart from the access anytime, from anywhere advantage of the cloud, today’s cloud-based solutions are not saddled with a lot of older technology that stands in the way of a consumer-grade experience.

But Will Infor Customers Move?

The new management that took over Infor a few years back has brought significant change to the culture, the technology and the direction of the company. I think all these seemingly distinct announcements are all pulling Infor in the right direction and we’re really starting to see positive results. But the real question remains: Will its customers follow it into the future?

I went to my first Inforum in 2006 and was stunned to learn that Infor had 70,000 customers. Yet through the years of further acquisitions and more Inforums where the stats offered up about numbers of new customers were impressive, the total remained at 70,000. That told me that some customers (although still running run Infor products) might not be (maintenance) paying customers anymore and/or there was attrition equal to new customer wins. That is troubling for any software company.

This year that changed. In 2013 Infor added 3018 new customers and the total jumped to 73,000. But Infor still has a very large number of customers that simply are not in a position to take advantage of all this new technology, including consumer-grade user experiences, mobile design, cloud connectivity, embedded analytics, etc. etc. Other vendors see that as a huge opportunity.

Having dealt directly with some of these specific customer installed bases in the past, I would say a very large part of the reason these customers stay where they are is inertia. It is the “if it ain’t broken….” syndrome or the philosophy that ERP replacement is like brain surgery. Don’t do it unless the patient is dying. Anyone that follows me knows exactly what I think about that philosophy. Waiting until your business is in distress is not the optimal time to set out on a new ERP implementation.

Infor is offering a lot of options to its customers, but not every customer has the exact same options. These new “natural” customer experiences, new technology, new products and new CloudSuites are quite compelling. But if a customer can’t figure out how to get there, it’s all meaningless. Infor has been working on so much that it can be appear quite overwhelming. And it is very hard to convey this in a general session in front of such a diverse crowd. And it is equally hard to have 73,000 conversations.

The promise of beautiful software is not enough. Infor’s story is much more than that, but are its customers listening?

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Infor Goes Back to the Drawing Board for Fashion PLM

Product Lifecycle Management Links Design, Development and Commercial Elements in the Fashion Value Chain

On February 19, 2014 Infor announced the availability of its new Infor Fashion Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) solution. Built from scratch, it is designed specifically for manufacturers of apparel, footwear, accessories, luxury goods, and textile companies. Although the product itself is brand new, Infor leverages decades of experience in the fashion industry, designing a product that can be sold and run as a stand-alone solution, or as part of a suite that also includes enterprise resource planning (ERP), product configuration and supply chain execution (SCE).

This latest addition to its vast product portfolio is further indication of Infor’s willingness to invest significantly in sectors it has selected as target markets. This is not Infor’s first or only PLM solution. In fact it already had not one, but two different PLM products designed specifically for the fashion industry. Both existing products had been acquired: Runtime by Infor and Freeborders by Lawson, which was later acquired by Infor.

Remodel or New Construction?

It may have been cheaper and faster to get from point A to point B starting with either of these two existing PLM products, but with such an approach, would point B really have been where Infor wanted to go? Infor decided instead to relieve itself of any constraints of prior functionality or technology and design and build from a blank sheet of paper what it viewed as its ideal solution. And of course that view of an ideal solution is heavily influenced by its prior experience with Fashion and with PLM.

In deciding between starting from scratch and modifying an existing product, a lot can be learned from the construction industry. There is a reason why those televised “extreme” home makeovers start with demolition. A remodel is constrained by the existing footprint, foundation and infrastructure. Brand new construction can take advantage of the experience and creativity of the designer, as well as all the latest innovative technology.

The same is true for Infor product development. One of the hallmarks of next generation enterprise software is the ability to bring a new user experience to the game. By changing the way people engage with the software, you draw people to the applications instead of encouraging them to work around them. And that is exactly what older solutions did – encouraged work-arounds. They were based on a hierarchical series of menus that required some knowledge of how the solution and the underlying data were constructed. That would be like requiring a homeowner to have some rudimentary knowledge of the electrical wiring in order to use the appliances.

This level of knowledge requirement was a direct result of software engineers designing the user interface. For them navigation and system operation was intuitive. But it might not have reflected how people really worked. This is why software developers don’t design the user experiences of new Infor products.

Enter Hook & Loop

Instead Infor has its internal design agency, Hook & Loop design the new user experience. These are creative types that don’t presume to understand the underlying business process going into the game. Instead they go ask the people who will be using the solution how they work, or want to work. This of course works much better when designing new software than when remodeling existing solutions with pre-defined processes.

Of course in this case a picture will speak much louder than words. Those interested should actively seek a demonstration and insist on seeing different layouts of the same data and perhaps even ask to watch the configuration process. This is not your father’s PLM.

New ways of collaborating  are also delivered more effortlessly through the use of new advanced technology. Can these types of technology innovations be brought to existing products not natively built on newer platforms? Maybe. But it certainly isn’t as easy as when they are built in. While this is an important consideration in designing any application, it is particularly so in PLM for the Fashion industry.

Empowering Creative, Technical and Commercial Teams

Managing the lifecycle of a product is a team sport. But all too often teams forget this and think about PLM primarily as the vehicle by which new products are launched, throwing a design over the wall to be produced. When PLM is used to manage the lifecycle of a hard good, whether it is for industrial or consumer use, typically it is a group of engineers that are first engaged. These engineering types are at least tech-savvy and perhaps even drawn to enterprise applications. Not so much when the product in question is more of a soft good like apparel, footwear or accessories. These are not designed by technologists but rather by fashonistas. So the experience of using a PLM solution better involve drawings and pretty pictures, with the technical stuff buried deep under the covers.

This also makes managing anything after the initial design that much more of a challenge. Of course they want their designs to be commercially successful but they leave the merchandizing of the product to others. And they are even less interested in theLeft_Vs_Right_Brain development –the nuts and bolts of steps in between where materials are sourced and product is produced. It is the classic left brain versus right brain or “logical” versus “creative” discourse. Whether you believe in this general classification or not, there are differences in the roles different types of people play in life and in business.

Whether they realize it or not, in managing the lifecycle of a fashion product, all have a common goal: Shorten the time to market and increase the likelihood of consumer acceptance. And businesses are more successful in achieving this when all constituents in the process work cooperatively and collaboratively together. What it comes down to is better communication and technology can either facilitate or inhibit that communication.

And Infor Fashion PLM provides a platform of communication that can be easily tailored to appeal to either side of the brain that happens to function best.

“Best of Breed” or Integrated Suite?

This level of communication and collaboration is not only required of the people involved, but also can be facilitated (or inhibited) by the integration of different enterprise applications, in particular PLM with ERP and SCE. Early on in the development process Infor must have considered different alternatives: to build Infor Fashion PLM right into one of its ERP solutions or to build it as a stand-alone solution. Infor actually chose the latter and will use Infor ION technology to connect to ERP.

In doing so, a larger potential market can benefit from this solution, but is that what the market wants? Infor is giving customers the option and best of both worlds thanks to XML and Infor ION technology. Over the past three decades ERP companies have expanded their solution footprints, partly as a growth strategy but also because the vast majority of companies using ERP prefer a single integrated suite from a single vendor. Preliminary results from our 2014 Mint Jutras ERP Solution Study confirms this but also finds most will be cautious before sacrificing functional requirements for ease of integration or a single vendor (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Preference is high for an integrated suite

Figure1 Infor

Source: Mint Jutras 2014 ERP Solution Study

As implied earlier, the requirements for PLM in the Fashion industry differ substantially from companies using PLM to manage the lifecycle of hard industrial or consumer goods. While the new Infor Fashion PLM solution will not be the only one its kind, it will be the newest, at least for the time being. And it will be able to boast the latest and greatest in technology in terms of .net, user experience, speed and related innovation.

However, it will also need to be integrated to at least two of Infor’s ERP solutions, the two best suited for the Fashion industry. These are Infor M3 (acquired from Lawson) and Infor System21, acquired from JDA. Each has made a name for itself in Fashion and accumulated a loyal installed base.

The development platform and the Infor ION purpose-built middleware also make it relatively easy to integrate with other non-Infor ERP solutions, but these are not likely to be available “out of the box” and therefore will either be less tightly integrated, or require additional effort and cost.

Summary

Infor has definitely chosen the path less traveled in delivering a brand new, built from scratch PLM solution for the Fashion industry. Leveraging its expertise in this industry gained through both acquisition as well as experience, it should hit the market with a level of maturity unusual for a new product. Combining this experience with a state of the art development platform and advanced Infor ION technology, it may very well leapfrog its competition with a powerful solution that will empower organizations with “all the tools to convert creative concepts to commercial products more rapidly and accurately.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Infor Acquires PeopleAnswers: New Twist to Continuing Trend in ERP and HCM

Big Data, Predictive Talent Analytics Drive Performance

On January 8, 2014, Infor announced it had acquired PeopleAnswers,  a pioneer in cloud-based predictive talent analytics. This continues a trend of large Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) vendor acquisitions in the realm of performance management and recruiting. But unlike other acquisitions, this one adds quite a unique new value proposition to its broadening footprint of Human Capital Management (HCM) solutions. Its software as a service (SaaS) talent analytics capabilities add a measure of data-driven behavioral science to an otherwise “soft” discipline.

Adding Talent Management to ERP

For decades in the world of Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), human resource management (HRM) was little more than an afterthought. For many years, the perceived requirements were rudimentary at best and Human Resource Management modules often were just repositories for employee data. They didn’t really manage anything. ERP continued to expand functionality around the transactional system of record of the business. And apart from payroll transactions, which might or might not be included in the HR landscape, HCM really didn’t involve the transactions that fueled trade. Integration didn’t have to be “tight,” leaving a world of opportunity for separate add-on applications.

A Developing Market

This left plenty of room in the market for a lot of smaller HR specialists to seize the opportunity and grab a niche. The overall software category of HRM became broader, turning into human capital management (HCM) and several different “specialty” categories emerged: talent management, including recruiting, performance management (reviews), incentive compensation, as well as skills development and learning, workforce planning and analytics and time tracking. Sometimes payroll was included, sometimes not.

The number of players in the market proliferated.  Because few took the full suite approach, new HCM software vendors could grasp a foothold and gain traction even with a relatively small footprint.  The success of these new vendors proved to the market just how big the demand was (and is) for this type of software.

Customers and ERP Vendors Respond

Today, not only are customers more demanding and less willing to subject employees to the hassle and confusion of multiple systems, but also the big ERP players are no longer content to leave that opportunity on the table. The result: A big round of consolidation has begun. The year 2012 saw SAP’s acquisition of SuccessFactors and Oracle’s acquisition of Taleo. Last year NetSuite announced its intention to acquire TribeHR. All three of these are cloud-based, software as a service (SaaS) solutions in the talent management arena. So Infor’s announcement was the fourth major ERP vendor to announce an acquisition of a talent management solution, and a cloud-based one as well.

This is not Infor’s first venture into the realm of HCM however. It already has quite a comprehensive offering across the HCM landscape, offered either on-premise or SaaS. Its acquisition of Lawson back in 2011 was a major step forward, particularly in satisfying the human capital needs of certain industries, including healthcare, retail and hospitality. Coincidentally, all three of these industries are human capital-intensive. It later rounded out its offering with its acquisition of CertPoint, which filled an important gap in learning management. Now it is seeking further differentiation through PeopleAnswers’ decade-long investment in “big data” and its unique approach of including behavioral science.

How is PeopleAnswers Unique?

Some areas of HCM categories might struggle to produce hard data that supports evidence of return on investment (ROI). After all human resource management is a relatively “soft” discipline. Manufacturing can accurately produce hard measurements such as production output, lead times, and quality metrics. Sales can measure bookings and revenue against quota. Marketing can count leads captured and converted. Finance can measure discounts lost, days sales outstanding, earnings and profits. But capturing human capital metrics related to performance and employee engagement are indeed softer and harder to measure.

Yet the metric PeopleAnswers attacks most directly is much more firm and definitive. Although its product can legitimately be characterized as both performance management (employee assessments) and recruiting, the real metric that drives ROI is turnover. The premise: By accurately assessing the performance of individuals, you improve your ability to hire the right people. By hiring the right people you improve overall performance and retention. Customers routinely report reduction in turnover by 40%, and even higher returns in reducing involuntary turnover.

How does it do that?

PeopleAnswers uses a data-driven scientific approach to objectively tie individualized performance metrics to the key behaviors of its customers’ best employees. This is not a fluffy, feel-good approach to performance management, but patent-pending scientific research. PeopleAnswers has a science team, including 10 individuals with PhDs in behavioral science.

Through its research, this team has determined that skills alone are not predictive of the future performance of a new hire. The team developed a list of 39 attributes that correlate most directly with performance, including ambition, discipline, energy, acceptance of authority, attention to detail, flexibility, conscientiousness, and empathy. Good hiring managers have been subjectively evaluating these traits for decades. PeopleAnswers takes the subjectivity out and puts consistency in.

The implementation process starts by developing customized Performance Profiles™ from employee assessments, focusing specifically on characteristics and behaviors of top performers and weighting the 39 attributes differently for different jobs and perhaps even geographies. These Performance Profiles become the benchmark for selection, development, and succession planning.

Candidates are required to fill out a questionnaire uniquely tailored to the company and the position. This is used to construct what PeopleAnswers calls the Behavioral DNA™ of the candidate. It then compares that against the Performance Profiles of top performers and “scores” the candidates to help identify future superstars.

PeopleAnswers is also unique in how it charges for its service. It is not unusual to charge on a per-use basis (per assessment and/or per applicant) in this category of software, and PeopleAnswers certainly can accurately measure this. However it prefers to eliminate any excuse for delaying, reducing, or skipping the assessment process in order to save money. To get the most value from the solution, you need to assess every employee and every candidate that applies for a job.  So PeopleAnswers doesn’t charge based on the number of assessments but rather a flat, all-inclusive fixed fee that includes unlimited assessments.

Data Needed

This eliminates any (valid) excuse for not entering an assessment and makes the calculation of ROI that much easier. Of course any customer needs to start the implementation with some clear baseline metrics. Figure out your current turnover and estimate the cost of losing an employee. This might be different for voluntary and involuntary turnover, but even a single estimate will provide a good starting point. From these two numbers you can figure out what turnover is costing you today. If you, like other PeopleAnswers customers, can reduce turnover by 40%, the software will probably pay for itself pretty quickly.

But apart from simplifying the math, providing incentives to collect as much data as possible only makes sense. This is particularly important since without data, the model is useless. In fact without a lot of data, it would seem the model is useless. The more employees you have, the more recruiting you do for the same or similar positions, the more value can be derived directly from the tool. So this may not have the same value proposition for small companies, as it will for large companies. And human capital-intensive industries will benefit more. So a small manufacturer operating in a highly automated plant might not gain the same ROI as perhaps a large healthcare facility staffed with hundreds of nurses, or a retail environment with thousands of in-store personnel.

Who Will Benefit?

Infor’s installed base of customers includes all of these different profiles. At the time of the announcement, Infor and PeopleAnswers have 80 joint customers. About 70% of this customer overlap is from prior Lawson customers, which are most likely to fit the “human capital-intensive” bill. So that will be the first order of business as Infor starts the integration process. The goal is to deeply integrate the PeopleAnswers’ Behavioral DNA into the current Infor Talent Management suite, starting with the Lawson product. If the Lawson acquisition is an indicator of success, this first wave of integration should take about 120 days. Note, this time frame is the current plan and is reflective of past performance, but many factors can impact development plans. So this should not be interpreted as a hard commitment. The timing of future releases and Infor’s development plans remain at the sole discretion of Infor.

This effort will also include bringing Infor 10x enabling technology to the PeopleAnswers products, including Infor ION (light weight middleware), Infor Ming.le (a centralized platform for social collaboration, business process improvement, and contextual analytics) and Infor Motion (mobility).

At the same time, it will be making the Infor Enwisen HR Service Delivery platform more “behavioral.” Infor will then move on to integrating PeopleAnswers to the Infinium product line.

What Does the Future Hold?

While this new addition to the Infor family of products may not be uniformly applicable to its entire installed base of 70,000 customers, it certainly adds clear and measurable value to the subset that operates in human capital-intensive industries where making the right (or wrong) hiring decisions can make (or break) a company. But the potential value might not stop there.

Acquisitive companies typically look to improving bottom line performance by eliminating redundancies between the merged companies. This is an effective approach when those redundancies are limited to back office administration. But when staff reductions start to hit the development team, it can become counter-productive. Infor recognizes this and tends to not only protect the acquired development staff, but also add to it.

The first order of business after the acquisition is completed will be to integrate PeopleAnswers with selected Infor products (Lawson S3). Infor intends to preserve the PeopleAnswers team in order to expedite this. But at the same time it will bring Infor10x technology to the PeopleAnswers product. It is not out of the realm of possibility that Infor will actually add development staff to do this. While at other acquisitive companies an acquisition may trigger layoffs, at Infor it is just as likely to trigger hiring.

As big data and analytics continue to make their way to the forefront of employee and business performance management, it will be interesting to see what other results the addition of a “science team” can produce at Infor. And as the combined Infor and PeopleAnswers teams start to work more cooperatively together, who knows what other value behavioral science can bring to a whole host of other activities beyond recruiting.

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Infor’s Next Generation ERP: Energized and “ION”ized

Yet another post in our series on ERP, The Next Generation: The Final Frontier, this time featuring Infor’s Purpose-Built ERP and Lightweight Middleware

Best Article: ERP, The Next Generation: The Final Frontier?

Best Article: ERP, The Next Generation: The Final Frontier?

In the original series ERP, The Next Generation: The Final Frontier, we described the next generation of Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) in terms of new technology that enables:

  • new ways of engaging with ERP
  • custom configuration without programming
  • more innovation
  • better integration

We predicted the core functions of ERP would retreat “into darkness,” surrounded by newer, easy to consume, intuitive consumer grade apps that would deliver innovation and competitive advantage. For Infor Global, the future is now. Over the past two years new management has come in to re-energize the business and raise the bar for innovation. At the center of Infor’s next generation solutions are Infor 10x, a collection of purpose-built ERP suites, and ION, a modern, lightweight middleware.

Delivering New Ways of Engaging with ERP

In the past ERP was used by a fairly select subset of employees within a company. These users were responsible for maintaining the master data and entering the transactions that form the system of record of the business. Middle management might use the reporting capabilities, but seldom did executives ever put their hands on the system.

Yet times are changing. The latest 2013 Mint Jutras ERP Solution Study found (on average) 50% of employees actually use ERP, a significantly higher percentage than in years gone by. In addition, 47% of companies claim their executives have access to and regularly use ERP. As a result, expectations are rising. Clerical tasks are more automated, which means knowledge workers are replacing clerical workers. Executives are more comfortable with technology and more impatient for data for decision-making. All these changes combine to make old ways of engaging with ERP obsolete. Next generation ERP must provide new ways either through evolution or revolution. Infor’s path to engagement combines a little of both.

In March 2011 Infor announced Infor Workspace, calling it a new “consumer grade user interface designed to revolutionize the experience of doing business using enterprise applications.” Built on Microsoft SharePoint with significant investment, Infor Workspace delivered the next generation user experience by blending a common user interface across a mix of enterprise applications, web services and business intelligence. It is an evolutionary step because Workspace sits on top of existing applications.

This was an important step since Infor had grown primarily through acquisition. These acquisitions added new ERP solutions to its product portfolio, as well as other complementary solutions that filled functional gaps. As a result of these acquisitions Infor will never have a single tightly integrated suite with a single data model. But that doesn’t mean the end user can’t have a single user interface.

Infor Workspace also accommodates how people work today. Nobody spends his or her day in a single application anymore. Automation has eliminated that kind of “heads down” data entry job. Most people jump from applications to email to desktop productivity tools (like Microsoft Office), to the Internet and back to the same or different applications. Infor Workspace allows the user to establish a home base of operations from which to operate all day.

But the “user experience” is more than just a unified user interface. Ask an executive why he or she doesn’t engage directly with ERP and chances are the answer will be something like, “I don’t have time to figure ERP out.” Even if navigation through the menu structure or any particular screen were intuitive, traditionally you would still need to generally know where to look. That means having some idea of how the application and the data is structured. And no, most executives won’t take the time to learn that. To avoid that requires a completely different, revolutionary way of engaging.

That’s where Infor’s latest product, Ming.le comes in. Infor describes Ming.le as a “next-gen enterprise collaboration platform” and a social workflow tool embedded in core business applications, connecting structured and unstructured processes. Ming.le was designed primarily with the Gen-Y folks in mind, using a lot of the concepts and approaches popularized by social media. Those concepts and the description above might not mean much to Baby Boomer managers – until they see it in action that is. Figure 1 is a screen shot of a Ming.le home page. As a manager, at any level in the organization, you will have a few key metrics upon which your performance is measured. If you have a graphical representation of those metrics on your own personal home page, it’s a pretty sure thing that’s where your attention will be.

And while you’re on this home page, why not put your entire “to do” list on it? Ming.le alerts you to potential problems and reminds you of specific tasks. You prioritize your actions. And oh by the way, if you have direct access to ERP from here, you can actually take action yourself. You don’t have to wait for the proverbial, “I’ll have to get back to you on that.”

Figure 1: Infor Ming.le Home Page

Infor figure 1 Source: Infor

When one of your metrics starts to stray outside of an acceptable range, you’ll want more information. You will want to reach out and touch the offending number in order to learn more. You will want to immediately contact others in the organization that can help get that number back on track. You will want to tap into conversations that (you hope) are already underway. And you will want to follow those conversations. “Keep me in the loop” takes on a whole new meaning when a major order is in trouble, or a customer threatens to take business elsewhere, or a supplier doesn’t deliver on time, etc., etc., etc.

Figure 2 is an example of a “feed” from all the business objects you have chosen to “follow,” including customers, suppliers, customer orders, production orders, purchase orders, products, employees, etc. Click on links in those activity streams and conversations and suddenly you will be in ERP without ever really knowing how you got there.

In fact with a personalized view and the mobile capabilities of Infor Motion, it won’t “feel” like you’re in ERP at all. The more untethered devices become, the more tethered you become to work. With a customized view and a strong connection back to the enterprise data in ERP, the constant connection is less disruptive to your personal life. Instead of waiting for data critical to decisions, you access the data, take action and move on.

Figure 2: Infor Ming.le “Feed”

Infor figure 2Source: Infor

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.

Infor is taking a dual-pronged approach to customization. First of all, with projects and products like Workspace and Ming.le, it is making it much easier to tailor the solution without customization. When Mint Jutras ERP Solution Study survey participants were asked what kinds of customization were needed, custom reporting, personalized screens and tailored workflows dominated the responses. Combine Workspace and Ming.le with a good report-writing facility and you satisfy the vast majority of requirements without touching a single line of code.

But 24% of respondents indicated “custom logic” was required and sometimes this does require programming. But Infor has publicly stated that its goal is to reduce this type of customization to zero. How does it expect to accomplish this? First of all, it offers multiple ERP suites targeting different vertical markets. That means it is willing and able to build in industry-specific functionality. As some of its advertisements say today:

  • Building plumbing parts is different than serving hotel guests
  • Packaging peas is different than designing shoes
  • Making tires is different than processing milk

This is what Infor means by “purpose-built” ERP. And it doesn’t stop at the typical vertical. While others might view “food and beverage” as a target, Infor will dive deeper and distinguish solutions for dairies, breweries, meat packagers or bakers. A feature that might require customization to a general-purpose ERP can be built in to a solution that is purpose-built. But if you really need something that is not already built in to the selected ERP suite, Infor says, “Tell us and we’ll put it in the product.”

Infor has quite a backlog of such requests right now, but has been gearing up to deliver on its theme of “moving faster.” In the past year alone it has hired 1,700 new employees, including 600 engineers, and it has produced 5,293 new product features… which brings us to the next defining factors of next generation ERP: innovation and integration.

More Innovation, Easier Integration

When it comes to innovation and integration, Infor’s secret sauce is its innovative Intelligent Open Network (ION), a lightweight middleware, which it also refers to as “purpose-built.” Why purpose-built? Because Infor isn’t in the middleware business; therefore ION wasn’t designed to be sold as a stand-alone middleware product. ION was designed to easily integrate Infor and third-party software applications.

So how does ION help Infor deliver more innovation? The answer lies in understanding Infor’s commitment to moving from tightly integrated solutions to ones that are more loosely coupled. ERP, The Next Generation: The Final Frontier introduced this concept and talked about the benefits, not so much from a technical perspective, but the benefits it brings to the business.  In short, the biggest reason “loosely coupled” might be of very significant value to a business is because things change. Markets change. Companies expand (or shrink). Customers make new demands. Compliance requirements change. Software is enhanced. Technology innovation happens. Yet responding to change is hard.

Think of enterprise applications as different cars in a train. Each of those cars is separate and distinct, but when coupled together they all ride smoothly together and you can easily pass from one car to the next. Need to replace one of those cars? No problem, just decouple it and replace it with another one. But that assumes all the cars use the same standard coupling. ION provides the mechanism by which they are coupled together. But that means they all need that “standard coupling.”

Infor has spent the past few years making sure all its strategic products are adequately equipped with that standard coupling. You might say it has been IONizing its products. That means when Infor develops a new component of functionality, that functionality can be added to not just one of its ERP products, but to many. So Infor can develop functionality once and re-use it across multiple products. This amplifies the volume and accelerates the pace of innovation.

Sometimes that functionality can simply be layered on top of existing products. That would be the equivalent of linking a new car to the train – sort of like adding a cocktail lounge linked to the dining car. However, if there is already a bar in the dining car and you want to significantly expand it to be a cocktail lounge, then you could suspend service in the dining car while you make renovations in place, or you could replace the entire dining car with a different (larger) one. Both options are quite disruptive. More likely you will add the cocktail lounge as a separate car and just stop serving liquor in the bar in the dining room once it is connected.

Traditionally ERP has been one of the cars in the train. If you need to make a significant change, you need to replace the whole car, which can be costly and disruptive to your business. Some of the functionality that is being developed by Infor is already deeply embedded in its current products in some form. Infor doesn’t necessarily need to remove that functionality. We didn’t need to remove the bar from the dining room. But as Infor starts to deliver new features as components (like the new car with the cocktail lounge), the number of features deeply embedded in ERP that are actually being used will shrink. Passengers on the train won’t go to the bar in the dining room for a cocktail; they will go to the new cocktail lounge car.

On the other hand, if the dining car in the train has no bar, if the owners of the train want to add this “feature”, they can certainly add a new car for the bar. But what if the real objective is to enhance the dining experience? That means they need to add this feature to the dining car.

Look for Infor to do some of each. By adding external components to ERP, it will essentially shrink the footprint of the ERP itself. But because it has multiple, purpose-built ERP solutions targeting specific markets, expect it to add enhancements directly to an ERP product that might be specific to an industry (enhancements that would not be used across different verticals or micro-verticals).

So the industry-specific functional footprint will expand even as the general-purpose footprint might shrink. We anticipated such a move in ERP, The Next Generation: The Final Frontier, predicting ERP might appear to slip into the background: “the darkness” of uniformity, of non-differentiation. Yet we also noted: While all companies have common needs, specific industries create specialized needs and it also becomes increasingly important for companies to seek competitive differentiation. But it is not in the core functionality where this source of differentiation lies, but in the services and functions that surround the core – like the industry-specific enhancement requests Infor is encouraging.

In fact Infor is now working off that backlog of these requests, a backlog that has been growing while it was IONizing products. In fact for some products this backlog might extend back to the time before Infor acquired the product. By growing its engineering staff, it has positioned itself to truly “move faster.”

Not All Infor Products Are Created Equal

All of the products in Infor’s extensive portfolio will not necessarily move faster at the same pace. With Infor’s long history of acquisition came ERP solutions that could accurately be called “legacy” applications, or some might prefer the term “heritage applications” (legacy apps you are proud of). Either term you use, these are applications that are built on older, technology. This means not all of Infor’s products can legitimately be called “next generation.”

Outdated technology makes it much harder to IONize them and this imposes some limitations on how much of Infor’s strategic initiatives customers running these applications can leverage. Getting these customers running a next generation ERP solution would be ideal, but many of them are quite loyal to the (legacy) products and many are running highly customized versions. These customizations date back to a time long before solutions were as feature-rich as today and as highly configurable.

But that doesn’t mean Infor is abandoning them. In fact, Infor wants to help. And with over 600 customers having come back on maintenance after previously letting their maintenance lapse, it would appear a good portion are receptive. Of course migrating to one of Infor’s other solutions that are already next generation is one option. But another option on the table: upgrade to the latest release of your current product, get rid of any customization, move it to the cloud and let Infor run it for you.

This may not be as difficult as it sounds because a newer release is likely to eliminate the need for many of those customizations and added configurability of newer releases could very well take it the last mile. Make no mistake, though; this will not be an easy transition for most. But then Infor takes over and the burden of on-going maintenance becomes Infor’s problem, not the customer’s.

All this is new and still “futures” so it is not yet possible to compare costs between current maintenance and the subscription fees paid to Infor. But chances are, if the customer takes into account internal costs and the cost of lost opportunity resulting from being “stuck” in the past, there should be a break-even point, if not a gain in terms of return on investment.

 No ERP is an Island

In order for Infor’s ERP solutions to qualify as next generation, it is not enough to just integrate with each other. While Infor would love to have every customer be an “Infor only” shop, that is not the reality. And even if it were, its customers would still need to interoperate with their customers and suppliers. Professional services from Infor Consulting Services will be available to integrate additional third-party and custom applications via the ION Factory and Infor is actively seeking partners to help meet demand.

Moving Faster: Means Time to Decision As Well

In ERP, The Next Generation: The Final Frontier, we had some fun with comparing ERP’s next generation to Star Trek and the USS Enterprise. ERP is becoming more agile, allowing it to navigate and change direction much more quickly. Yet unlike the starship Enterprise, it still can’t operate at warp speed. However, new advances in in-memory databases and technology are starting to dramatically speed up run times. We are now entering a new phase of ERP’s evolution.

But if Infor remains a business application company, and not a middleware and technology vendor, can it keep up? The answer is yes, but it will need to rely on some other commercially available technology in order to make that happen. That is exactly what it is doing with its “big data initiative” called Sky Vault.

Sky Vault leverages ION, extracting transactions from Infor ERP, formatting them in industry standard (XML) documents and sends normalized data to the cloud for further analytics. Once in the cloud Infor uses Amazon Web Services (AWS) to enable customers to accelerate time to decision from transactional data streams. Among the planned features Infor lists for Infor Sky Vault are:

  • Pre-built, domain-specific business analytics, reporting and dashboards powered by Infor ION BI (business intelligence) that incorporate industry and role-based best practices built on Infor ION Business Vault (a repository of standard business documents and transactional data)
  • Cloud-optimized data repository powered by Amazon Redshift (a fast and very reasonably priced petabyte-scale data warehouse service in the cloud) to more quickly, easily, and securely go-live and scale as data volumes grow
  • Industry-leading workflow and integration platform with Infor ION to support application interoperability and data transition between on-premise and cloud
  • Services from Infor Consulting Services to XML enable applications via the ‘ION Factory,’ which provides for rapid development of integrations to third party and custom systems and applications

Infor Sky Vault is planned to launch in the second half of 2013 with pre-defined content for sales, finance, and production, with more to come in the future.

But what about competing directly with its two biggest competitors: SAP and Oracle? Both are touting the exponential increase in speed with database products and platforms like Oracle Exadata and SAP HANA. Many of Infor’s products already run on Oracle’s data base. There is no reason why this should not extend to Exadata and Infor is actively considering supporting SAP HANA. For now Amazon Redshift provides a very economical alternative and Infor is currently experimenting with massive data volumes well beyond those its customers are dealing with in production environments today.

Summary and Key Takeaways

Among Infor’s extensive product portfolio are next generation ERP suites, technology enabled by its lightweight, scalable middleware, ION. Here are just a few ways Infor lives up to the Mint Jutras definition of “next generation”:

  • It has launched new products and new initiatives to dramatically change the user experience in accessing and interacting with ERP
  • Infor is moving from “tightly integrated” to “loosely coupled” enterprise applications to better equip its customers to adapt to changing business conditions and technological advances
  • ION facilitates the development of (external) components of functionality that can be re-used across multiple ERP solutions. This expands the volume and accelerates the pace of innovation.
  • Infor has and will continue to shrink the footprint of the general-purpose core features of ERP, surrounding it with these external components
  • Yet its micro-vertical approach will coincidentally expand those footprints to include specialized functionality, paving the way for zero customization
  • And along the way, Infor is keeping its eye on new database technology that will help accelerate ERP to warp speed

Armed with purpose-built ERP, modernized with technology enabling middleware, Infor is energized and its products are IONized in preparation for the future. While the core features of ERP may be moving into the darkness, look for Infor to move more into the spotlight. For IONized Infor products, the future is now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Infor Americas Partner Summit: A Definite Crispness in the Air

It may still be the middle of summer, but earlier this week at the Infor Americas Partner Summit, there was a feeling of crispness in the air. I’m sure the beautiful weather in San Diego didn’t hurt, but that sense of crispness really resonated from the clear, crisp and confident messages being delivered from the main stage at the event and seemed to permeate throughout. This was the second one of these Summits I have attended. My first was a year ago. The vibe was definitely different this year.

Much of this new vibe results from the very significant progress the Infor team has made in addressing channel issues and delivering on promises. It was just two short years ago (June 8, 2011) that it announced its new Infor Partner Network (IPN), “a global network of people, systems and services designed to deliver the highest quality support for channel partners.” The goal was to achieve double-digit growth and to double license revenue from its channel partners by 2013.  That goal was achieved, with partners now contributing about 25% of license revenue. In addition the average revenue per year per partner grew 75%. What has been the secret to this success?

Back in 2011, channel chief Jeff Abbott (Senior Vice President, Global Alliances and Channels) saw three basic but inter-related elements of the program:  channel expansion, partner growth and investment in the channel. Having inherited multiple autonomous channel programs spread across different product lines, loose market segmentation and product-centric channel coverage, he and his team set out to transform this into a professionally managed global channel program, with well-defined channel-only sales zones and solution-centric channel coverage. To achieve this, he knew he needed to:

  • Involve the partners in designing the program
  • Clearly define roles and rules of engagement
  • Invest in certification and training
  • Provide the channel with new and more products to sell
  • Enable the partner network with cloud based tools

By the time last year’s Partner Summit rolled around, progress had been made. Rules of engagement and segmentation were defined, as well as product strategy, including a focus on microverticals. The pace of innovation was accelerating. Much had been accomplished in the back office to streamline business booked through the channel, including a “deal desk” to expedite the processing of high volume, low value, low complexity orders. Configuration and pricing tools were announced as planned, along with the proposed roll-out of Salesforce.com. Partners were beginning to see a new Infor. This new Infor listened and took action. But they weren’t quite drinking the Kool-Aid. There was more to done, seen and heard.

Now that Infor management was listening, partners were speaking up. While I wouldn’t call the tone of last year’s event negative or accusatory, partners were still in a “wait and see” mode. They were challenging Infor to do more and the jury was still out as to whether Infor would really deliver. This year, the mood lightened and there was a general sense of trust and belief, largely because it was clear Infor was delivering.

Jeff Abbott’s opening keynote set the stage to prove that. He began by describing IPN program enhancements delivered over the past year, prefacing his comments with, “We listen.”

Here are some highlights:

  • Infor has opened an executive visit center in NYC which is available to all partners. These are impressive new digs for Infor coproate HQ and a visit to NYC will likely include a meet and greet with Charles Phillips, CEO or Stephan Scholl, President. Partners that have availed themselves of this opportunity boast a 90% close rate after such a visit. However, I have to believe the hard part is getting the prospect to commit the time for this, so the actual visit could just be the frosting on the cake.
  • Education was big focus, and Infor admitted it had some catching up to do here. But the team has been steadily building content and certification programs. Infor now offers classroom training (at their education centers, or brought directly to larger partners), as well as online options, including both self-study and virtual, instructor-led classes. The curriculum is only now being extended beyond product and tools training, and some of the long-time partners already know as much, if not more about the products than Infor does. But all can benefit from training in new technology including ION (lightweight middleware), Ming.le (collaboration tools), Motion (mobile platform and development tools). In fact, all must participate in order to become certified.
  • Infor has also delivered implementation accelerators – pre-packaged content for faster time to value, lower cost, reduced risk. This IP is also available to partners. Partners can engage Infor consulting services to assist with 1st engagements on new solutions.
  • In the past getting opportunities “registered” with Infor could be tricky. This was less of a problem within channel-only sales zones (e.g. prospects with annual revenues under $100 million in the US), but there is also a “zone” of opportunities where direct and indirect channels overlap (revenues between $100 and $500 million). This “zone” was extended largely at the request of the partners, but also creates the potential for channel conflict. Infor will extend licenses of Salesforce.com to the channel community, starting in September 2013, in an effort to continue to streamline processes and gain visibility. Salesforce was rolled out internally this past year and Infor is commited to bring the same level of increased transparency where partners are involved.
  • A microvertical partner program will provide more opportunities. Here’s how it works:
  1. Plan: partners will present to Infor what they intend to build. Infor will review and in fact might reject some ideas if they conflict with what Infor is doing to the core.  At the same time, Infor has ideas that it might present to partners
  2. Build: partners sign up to the Microvertical Product Program to gain access to the technology stack and more. And of course then the add-on’s must be built.
  3. Profit: In a bit of a role-reversal, Infor becomes the channel for the partner. Once complete, these will be sold on Infor paper; Infor pays a royalty, and Infor has first right of refusal on purchasing the solution.
  • Infor is just now in the process of developing and rolling out a “Master VAR” program. This will be an “invitation-only” program limited to gold level partners that want to continue to grow. Master VARs will recruit “affiliates.” These affiliates won’t be reselling the product or competing directly with the Master VAR. Think of them more as influencers that can bring more business to the Master VAR and be compensated for that influence.

In addition to these program enhancements, from which the current channel partners can benefit, Infor has also been quietly recruiting a new type of partnership they call “alliance partners.” Alliance partners are typically leading consulting firms and systems integrators, that are key influencers in what can be quite large deals. Joining the program requires a commitment to an annual license agreement. They don’t resell software, but Infor will measure the license revenue achieved through their influence. In return, the partner gets first refusal to the associated services. It’s a synergistic relationship. By working together, both parties are able to close more deals.

These partners might also participate in some co-development, but not all will choose to do so because Infor will own the resultant IP. While a smart move on Infor’s part, this can be a deal breaker when dealing with this type of firm.

These types of partners are best known for partnering at the high end of the market with the likes of SAP and Oracle. They like to serve large enterprises with deep pockets and they like long term engagements. That’s not Infor’s bread and butter. Its sweet spot is more in the mid-market. So it is a major coup for Infor to have grown the number of these partnerships from one  to 25 in a year. In fact, just yesterday, it announced two new ones: CFO Solutions LLC and Inavista Solutions.

 Summary and Key Takeaways

Yes, the vibe from the partners this year was refreshingly positive. The consensus is that Infor management is actively listening, and when they listen, they take action and they produce results. Since the most successful of channel partners typically bet their business on a single solution provider, this can be a risky undertaking. Selling ERP solutions is tough. It’s a major expenditure and commitment of resources. Closing a deal is hard. But getting into deals is even harder. So the biggest fear partners may either secretly harbor or openly admit to: Infor’s successful partner programs might attract too much strong competition.  But the rules of engagement, the performance metrics, the goals and objectives are all clear and crisp. And while many software vendors get a lot more from the channel than they give, Infor understands the give and take. They understand the value of helping their partners grow their businesses. Infor has done that with accelerated development of solutions and technology, and commitment to the success of its partners.

If you are interested in learning more, I would suggest you visit http://www.infor.com/partners/

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Infor’s Inforum 2013: Building Momentum; Going Faster

Like any conscientious industry analyst that attends a big event, I always feel compelled to write and share something about what I heard. But when the event is an enterprise software vendor’s customer conference, it’s not always easy to come up with something really compelling. More often than not, a quick blog post or news article is really sufficient to sum things up. But that’s not the kind of “stuff” I like to write. I prefer something that requires some analysis that leads to conclusions I can support with data I have collected through my research.

About a year ago, returning home from Inforum 2012, I struggled with this. It certainly wasn’t for a lack of announcements. Honestly, there were no less than 21 different press releases talking about everything from the reinvention of the company under its new leadership to numerous technology and product announcements. But mostly these announcements were about strategy and what this new leadership was planning for a company that was obviously changing dramatically. The theme of the conference was “Go Faster” but it was clear that while Infor was out of the starting blocks, it was still very early in the race.

Now, a year later, in leaving Inforum 2013, let me just say, finding something compelling to write about is definitely not a problem. Having hired 650 new developers, not only is Infor “going faster,” it has already completed a few races.

This year there were at least 25 different announcements and that didn’t even include the surprise proposed acquisition of TDCI (product configuration). Announcements emphasized a continued focus by Infor on not just verticals, but micro-verticals, and the new release of Infor 10x. Announcements were sprinkled with a little cloud and a big dose of technology in the form of industry-specific use cases for its “purpose-built” middleware ION technology.

Because I prefer to have any one paper, report or post to be “about” a single topic, the problem this year will be prioritizing what I write. To give you a preview of what’s to come and some highlights from Inforum 2013, here’s what’s on the table:

  • Loosely Coupled Versus Tightly Integrated: The Infor Perspective I recently  did a post that referenced Infor briefly, but was more about SAP’s introduction of Financials OnDemand. It posed the question, “Why should CFOs care?” It’s time to give Infor its turn in the spotlight to dive deeper into Infor’s overall strategy.
  • Is “Convergence” a Dirty Word? Any solution provider that has grown largely by acquisition (as Infor has) must make a decision as to whether or not to rationalize its product portfolio. Thus far Infor has very consciously and conscientiously avoided a convergence strategy, promising not to discontinue support of products and to never force customers to migrate to new solutions. But when you have customers continuing to run on systems based on seriously outdated technology, does this do them a disservice?  In these cases, even a slight shift in strategy can make a huge difference in encouraging these customers to move forward. I’m sensing this shift in pockets of Infor even as it still insists on “no convergence.”
  • Collaboration is Key: Helping Employees Ming.le Ming.le (pronounced mingle) is Infor’s new platform for enterprise collaboration, which it describes with minimal use of the word “social.” I find that refreshing. Designed primarily with the Gen-Y folks in mind, it uses a lot of the concepts and approaches popularized by social media. But by describing it more in the context of triggering alerts and helping those receiving the alerts come to a resolution quickly, it makes it much more “real” even for baby boomers who might not intuitively see how those types of tools can save them time and effort.
  • Introducing Infor Sky Vault: Infor’s answer to big data? You can’t pick up a trade journal today without being confronted with the concept of big data. We “get” it. The volume of data we deal with for decision-making has been growing for decades. Now it is growing exponentially. Not only are there limitations inherent in traditional databases, but more and more data is floating out on the Internet that is not even captured in a structured database. Solutions are emerging to break down those barriers and Infor’s Sky Vault is one of them: a cloud-optimized data repository powered by Amazon Redshift, available through Amazon Web Services (AWS) at a very reasonable price. Because of the traditional difficulty in dealing with massive volumes of data, business decision-makers have essentially learned to “do without.” Now they have to learn about what is possible. Infor’s job now is to help them, as Infor’s James Willey puts it, “see the vision.”
  • Microverticals: Will they save the day or become an enormous burden? The message at Inforum was clear. Forget a vertical focus. Infor is all about micro-verticals. Think dairies, breweries, meat packagers or bakers versus “food and beverage.” The ultimate goal of attacking a micro-vertical is to offer a more customized solution, without customization.  That’s the upside. The downside is the sheer volume of micro-verticals and the burden this places on Infor. Obviously the answer lies not in having entirely different solutions for each micro-vertical. The only way Infor will survive and thrive in this environment is through the effective use of its “purpose-built” middleware (ION) that will allow them to develop components of functionality once and re-use. So how does this work?

I could go on and list more possible topics of discussion resulting from all the different technology, product, acquisition and customer announcements. But I think this is a good start. What do you think? What would you like to hear most about?

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Loosely Coupled or Tightly Integrated Enterprise Applications? Why Should a CFO Care?

It seems lately I have been hearing a lot about “loosely coupled” business applications. It started about a year ago at Infor’s customer event (Inforum) and then continued at SAP’s SapphireNow. More recently, with SAP’s introduction of Financials OnDemand, I heard it again. Financials OnDemand is a derivative of SAP Business ByDesign, a cloud-based, tightly integrated suite (that some might call ERP). SAP pulled out the financials that were previously embedded in Business ByDesign so they could stand on their own and be “loosely coupled” to other applications.

But is this what its customers and prospects are looking for? That’s hard to say because it is very unlikely its typical prospect or customer really understands the intended “benefits” of loosely coupled.  In fact, when you start talking about “loosely coupled” to CFOs you are likely to produce that glazed look that says, “I don’t know what you’re talking about… and I don’t really care.” If you refer to “loosely coupled” in contrast to “tightly integrated” you might get a glimmer of understanding, but not an immediate acceptance of the concept.

CFOs might intuitively understand the value gained from tightly integrated applications, particularly in reference to an integrated suite of modules like ERP. After all, who wouldn’t want a complete solution, one where all the pieces just sort of fit and work together, with no integration effort required and no redundant data? While there might be some inherent value to having a loosely coupled solution, that value is not intuitively obvious to a CFO. Yet the opposite is true for both Infor’s CEO Charles Phillips and representatives of SAP, including former SuccessFactor CEO, now SAP’s chief “cloud” guy, Lars Dalgaard. They see enormous value in loosely coupled. As a result they either don’t see a need to explain it, or they have difficulty in explaining something they just intuitively “get.” Either way, the message is just not very clear to your typical financial executive.

So let me try to explain. The biggest reason “loosely coupled” might be of very significant value to a CFO is because things change. Markets change. Companies expand (or shrink). Software is enhanced. Technology innovation happens.  In fact, technology innovation often results from change but is also often the catalyst for change. Yet responding to change is hard.

Let me give you an example that should resonate with a CFO. Let’s say you are the CFO of a mid-size manufacturer who has helped your company expand over the past 10 years.  You implemented an ERP solution back when you were small and your accounting needs were rudimentary. You chose a solution for its strength in managing inventory and production. While you started out operating from a single location, you have expanded globally and now operate in 6 different countries around the world. While the financial modules of your ERP met your needs when you first implemented it, now you struggle with compliance and tax regulations, multiple legal entities, multiple currencies and consolidation. This is a very real scenario. Our latest Mint Jutras survey on ERP indicates 75% of companies today operate with more than one location. Even small companies (those with annual revenues less than $25 million) have an average of 2.6 locations and this average grows to 7.5 in the upper mid-market (revenues from $250 million to $1 billion).

You’d like to move to a newer, more feature-rich accounting solution, but your ERP is still satisfying the needs of manufacturing and since you are continuing to grow, you don’t want to disrupt the business by ripping it out and replacing it. The very thing that attracted you to your solution is now holding you back. Because it is tightly integrated, you can’t just replace a piece of the puzzle without replacing the whole thing.

To make matters worse, your older ERP solution is not really meeting your needs for customer relationship management (CRM). This is not surprising. While the footprint of ERP has been steadily expanding over the past 10 years, the needs of sales and service organizations were not front and center from the beginning. If these needs had been met with early versions of ERP, companies like Salesforce.com would never have taken off like they have. Maybe you too are considering adding a stand-alone CRM to the mix. If so, SAP might be pitching its Customer OnDemand solution in addition to Financials OnDemand.

So is this building a case against tightly integrated, in favor of stand-alone solutions that might need to be integrated? Not necessarily. In a tightly integrated solution there is only one of anything – one chart of accounts, one customer master file, one item master, one supplier master, etc. But these master files are shared across different functions. Purchasing needs to access the supplier master to place a purchase order. But accounts payable also needs a supplier master in order to make a payment. Sales and order management need to maintain information in the customer master, but accounts receivable needs a customer master to apply cash receipts. Pull the accounting solution out and you still need the suppliers and customers. Does the new accounting solution have its own supplier and customer files? Does this mean maintaining two of each? Does the new CRM add yet another customer master? If so, how do you keep them in sync? Or maybe you don’t. But this adds all sorts of new wrinkles.

“Loosely coupled” applications could very well make your life easier. But what’s the difference between “loosely coupled” and what used to be called “best of breed?” This is where it gets harder to explain and I am not entirely convinced all vendors that claim to deliver it are talking about exactly the same thing. It took SAP several tries before I really saw the difference, and I live and breath this stuff. Your typical CFO doesn’t.

In trying to understand SAP’s definition of “loosely coupled” I described the scenario above to the solution marketing team for SAP’s cloud-based financials and asked how the combination of Financial OnDemand and Customer OnDemand would address this issue of redundancy. If each were sold separately (i.e. not delivered as the integrated suite of Business ByDesign) would the customer wind up with two different customer master files? SAP’s answer was no.

Here’s how it works: Think of the customer (master data) as a business object. An older ERP solution will build that customer master file (the business object) right into the solution. Instead, these OnDemand solutions treat the customer master as a separate business object that lives outside of the application. By doing this, both applications can point to, access and reference the same business object.

But what about maintenance? Instead of building the maintenance functions directly into each application, SAP treats that function as a separate function as well. Instead of building that directly into Financials OnDemand and Customer OnDemand, SAP builds it once and puts it in a “business process library” which both (and other) applications can use. The term “business process library” might be a bit confusing because most think of business processes in the context of processes like “order-to-cash” or “procure-to-pay” or “plan-source-make-deliver”. These are workflows that string together different functions. But in this case the business process is much more granular. It refers to the process of maintaining the customer master data.

So by loosely coupling these two applications, the customer still winds up with one customer master file. And both applications use the exact same functions to access and maintain it. These external business objects sort of plug into these applications.

This solves an important problem, but in our scenario, where we are replacing the accounting applications of an existing ERP solution, it is only half of the problem. If that existing ERP is still managing customer orders, it too needs to access the customer master file and it probably assumes the customer master file is the one that is delivered embedded in the ERP. So until or unless you do some potentially invasive surgery to the existing ERP, you are going to have to deal with some redundancy of data.

Of course if you replace that tightly integrated ERP solution with a newer or upgraded solution that has been assembled with loosely coupled external business objects, this problem goes away. In the meantime, SAP, and potentially other solution providers are beginning to re-architect their solutions to make this much easier. They are essentially performing this surgery and delivering applications that make better use of underlying supporting technology to make this happen. Remember the $6 million man and the bionic woman? They were still people, but with some of their “parts” significantly enhanced. Think of it as bionic ERP.

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