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
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.”
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”
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.