Embracing a Platform Approach to Create More Innovation
The theme for this year’s Macola Evolve user conference was Embrace –Create – Innovate. Indeed these three words, along with the name of the conference itself, epitomizes the recent past and the projected future of the product. Macola, the product is evolving into Macola, the platform. The goal is to make it easier for customers to create their own unique customized solutions through configuration, not code, and to be able to extend and innovate with less disruption. A key to this configurability and extensibility is an open architecture that facilitates integration and makes it easy to “plug in” added functionality. This transformation has been underway for the past several years, but has been energized and accelerated as Macola has found a new home.
Last August Dutch software company Exact Group B.V. (Exact) announced that an agreement had been reached to sell Exact’s Specialized Solutions division, which included Macola, JobBOSS and MAX. The division was acquired by Apax Partners and combined with ECi Software Solutions, under the leadership of ECi. ECi is a business management and e-commerce software publisher, comprised of four business units specializing in serving small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) in manufacturing, wholesale/retail distribution, building and construction, and field services. Macola, along with JobBOSS and MAX, joins ECi’s M1 in the product portfolio of the manufacturing business unit of ECi to become ECi Macola/MAX, LLC. While previously each operated autonomously, ECi is planning on the four manufacturing product teams working more collaboratively, leveraging best practices and creating shared services and synergy. An open platform facilitates the sharing of common services, while allowing each to serve its own, differentiated market.
What Does a Platform Approach Mean?
While Mint Jutras is a strong proponent of taking a platform approach, we realize the typical business decision maker might not fully understand or appreciate what this means today. To a certain extent any Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) solution is built on a development “platform.” In the early days of ERP, the platform equated to the programming language, the operating system and the data structures used (e.g. a flat file structure or a relational data base). Data structures for enterprise applications tended to be hierarchical in nature and rather complex. Enterprise application solution providers would develop standard routines for common tasks like retrieving and storing data or printing, but there was still a lot of heavy lifting to be done in developing code, and most so-called platforms were closed in that it was hard for anyone apart from the original author to add value beyond invasive customization.
Today a platform approach means much more. Modern platforms allow developers to create software without the complexity of building and maintaining the infrastructure and services typically associated with developing an enterprise application. Clearly developers benefit from using the services delivered with a platform, speeding the development process. But how does this translate to benefits to the business?
While there are numerous benefits, the most important is that it brings agility – the ability to easily innovate, evolve and respond to the rapidly accelerating change all businesses face today. Furthermore, an open platform encourages more innovation, not just from the original software developer, but also potentially from an expanded ecosystem.
The Growing Need For Agility
Upon observing the growing disruptive forces in the economy today, we started asking questions about disruption in our 2016 Enterprise Solution Study (our annual survey). Citing examples like Uber, Airbnb and Netflix, we asked survey participants to assess the level of risk they faced in their industries (and hence their businesses) being disrupted. At the time we found 88% of companies believed they faced some level of risk in their businesses and/or industries being disrupted by new innovative products, new ways of selling or pricing existing products or services, entirely new business models, or some combination of all of the above. And then of course there are still the more traditional disruptive factors like expansion and growth, organizational restructuring and regulatory changes, just to name a few.
We repeated that question in our most recent 2018 study and found similar results (Figure 1). The risk has not lessened, but we suspect the speed of that disruption has increased. We also found that speed was reported as the single biggest challenge to growth.
Figure 1: How much risk do you face in your industry being disrupted?
Source: Mint Jutras 2016 and 2018 Enterprise Solution Studies
All this disruption can have a cascading impact on business application requirements, making agility – the ability to easily innovate, evolve and change – even more important than current functionality.
As a result of this potential for disruption, we made innovation a centerpiece for our 2017 Enterprise Solution Study. The days of slow and limited innovation are long gone. Our survey participants last year confirmed many solution providers have increased the pace and volume of upgrades (Figure 2).
Figure 2: How has the pace of innovation delivered changed?
Source: Mint Jutras 2017 Enterprise Solution Study
This obviously puts more pressure on Macola (and ECi) to remain competitive. How much pressure? We also asked respondents, on average, how frequently new releases (not just bug fixes) are delivered today (Figure 3).
Figure 3: How frequently are new releases delivered?
Source: Mint Jutras 2017 Enterprise Solution Study
If we average the responses, we find solution providers offer a new release every 5.2 months. This frequency is higher than expected. We suspect this was largely due to the high percentage of companies surveyed in 2017 that had deployed ERP as cloud-based Software as a Service (SaaS). The breakdown is noted in the sidebar to the left.
The Role Cloud and SaaS Play
Continuous innovation is really only feasible with solutions. This is one of many of the potential benefits of SaaS, and one of the many reasons why fewer and fewer manufacturers (Macola’s target market) will no longer even consider a solution that is only available through traditional on-premise licenses. And also why one of the goals of parent company ECi is to speed the transition of Macola to the cloud. This transformation was already underway under its prior owners, with new extensions to the product being designed and delivered with a “cloud first” strategy, but we expect the pace of this transition to accelerate now.
We’ve been assessing preferences for deployment models in our annual Enterprise Solution Studies for years now. The question: If you were to select a new solution today, which deployment options would you consider?
Figure 4: Which deployment options would you consider today? (manufacturing only)
Source: Mint Jutras Enterprise Solution Studies
* Hybrid option added in 2015
Participants are allowed to select as many as they desire. Figure 3 gives an historical perspective to this question based only on participants in manufacturing. Between 2011 and 2013 the percentage that would even consider a traditional on-premise solution went over a cliff and never recovered. Correspondingly, the percentage that will consider SaaS has slowly but steadily risen. Solutions hosted by the solution provider are also popular and, when cloud-based, often serve as an interim step for both the solution provider and its customers.
This year we added a follow on question, listing all the deployment options selected and asking which is the top choice. Over half (56%) of all manufacturers surveyed selected SaaS and 81% of those that would consider SaaS, indicated it is their first choice. The time has truly come for SaaS.
Architecture is Equally Important
Agility and the ability to transition to the cloud both require a strong foundation built on a modern architecture. Early ERP solutions were monolithic structures, eliminating data redundancy and the need for separate integration efforts. The good news was: All of the modules and all the departments affected, moved forward together in lock step. The bad news: Everyone had to move forward in lock step.
That meant purchasing couldn’t move forward until order management, shop floor control and inventory management modules (and people) were ready to move. It takes massive efforts of coordination by the vendor to make sure all the pieces of the puzzle more forward together. And it takes similarly massive efforts of coordination for all departments within their customers’ organizations to take those next steps altogether.
But what if a supplier (or, even worse, a customer) demands that your enterprise change the way you conduct business with them? In our disruptive times, the likelihood of this happening, and happening quickly, increases. What if your current solution can’t support that new way of doing business?
Today’s modern technologies solve this problem by creating solutions as components rather than a single monolithic line of code. New components can be added as extensions, or used to replace existing components without having to invasively modify that monolithic structure. By taking a platform approach, modern architectures support loose coupling of these extensions by providing modern APIs (application programming interfaces) that negate the need for invasive customization.
This type of loose coupling is often described as microservices. For the reader with a technical background, microservices, also known as the microservice architecture, is defined (by Wikipedia) as an architectural style that structures an application as a collection of loosely coupled services. For those nontechnical readers, think of it as constructing a solution from a set of Lego building blocks.
Think about how you build a structure from Legos. Each Lego block is made of the same kind of material and is attached (connected) to the other Lego blocks the same way. In many ways they are interchangeable. But by choosing different colors and sizes, and connecting them with a different design, you can make a structure that is very unique. And once constructed, if you want to change it, decoupling some of the blocks and replacing them doesn’t destroy the parts that are not affected. There is far less disruption introduced than if you had constructed it with timber, a hammer and nails.
Many other vendors have started to introduce this kind of architecture by refactoring the underlying code. Again, for the nontechnical reader, think of it as restructuring the code without changing the behavior or the functionality. These other vendors may be making it easier to work with their ERP, perhaps reducing complexity and the cost to maintain, but the refactoring itself adds no new features or functions.
ECi Macola/MAX, LLC is taking a slightly different approach. Instead of refactoring the underlying code, it is instead attaching a new layer with which new services and new functionality may be connected. Think of it as adding that Lego-like coupling to modular structures that may have been built with a hammer and nails. It has added more than 200 of these connections in the form of APIs and has also used this approach in modernizing the user experience (UX).
A year ago Mint Jutras recognized (Exact) Macola’s new UX as more than just a pretty face. We concluded Macola 10.5 brought some added new features and functions along with its pretty new face. These included:
- A newly re-architected tablet-led user interface that uses size and fonts, color and contrast or added visual clarity, along with the ability to collapse or expand sections to take better advantage of the real estate on the screen
- Progressive disclosure, keeping added detail (clutter) hidden until needed
- Responsive design of software, which behaves differently depending on the device in use
- Special search capabilities that ask the question as you type, “Did you mean…?”
- Intuitive screens (but don’t take our word for it, see for yourself)
- Available in the cloud
This year, we see the momentum continue with Macola 10.7. According to ECi Macola/MAX, LLC, “The key features and benefits of Macola 10.7 include:
The End of Version Lock
By creating a powerful and flexible extension layer to the platform, Macola will virtually eliminate the “version lock” that has plagued ERP systems for generations. This will revolutionize the way customers think about extending their ERP system—liberating them from the fear of upgrading.
An Expanding Ecosystem
Macola 10.7 continues to expand the Macola ecosystem with yet another round of API coverage, including hundreds of new API functions available for systems integrators to use. Macola’s “expanding ecosystem” ensures visibility of real-time data and control of enterprise processes through integrated third-party apps.
Doubling Down on User Experience and Streamlined Processes
Continued Focus on User Experience – focusing on the UX, 10.7 has incorporated convenience features such as “at a glance” status indicators that instantly let customer service personnel determine the status of orders. 10.7 has also redesigned one of the more complicated aspects of Macola 10—the “features and options” configurator—which has been dramatically simplified to increase speed and simplicity when getting orders into the system. Lastly, with 10.7, customers who use multiple divisions can now simply toggle between divisions without disrupting their workflow.
Streamlined Processes – to further streamline processes, such as order entry, billing selection, searching and filtering orders, the quoting and creating of credit memos has been streamlined and simplified to closer mimic the way people do their jobs.”
Summary and Conclusions
ECi Macola/MAX, LLC is indeed embracing technology to create, innovate and evolve. Its product’s transition to the cloud and its goal of becoming a platform to sustain configurability and innovation continues. With this approach customers enjoy industry-specific functionality and are also able to differentiate themselves within their individual sectors.
After having been combined with ECi Software Solutions, it has not strayed from its declared path. But all signs point to an accelerated journey, learning from ECi’s own cloud transition and leveraging the combined efforts of multiple product teams in the manufacturing business unit. While all of the different products in the ECi manufacturing business unit target different sectors, there is enough overlap between targets to provide synergy. Macola customers and prospects should rest assured investment will not only continue, but should effectively increase.
Neither Macola nor ECi are exactly household names in the world of ERP for manufacturing. But Mint Jutras suspects the days of relative anonymity are about to end. As Macola settles into its new home and ECi strengthens its executive ranks with a new Chief Marketing Officer and a new Manufacturing Division President, expect to hear and see more… lots more.