Loosely Coupled

Infor: Building Innovation From the Inside Out

Realizing Potential through AI, Analytics, Network, Cloud, and Industry

Infor has a mission: to “build beautiful business applications with last mile functionality and insights for select industries, delivered as a cloud service.” Behind this mission is a solid strategy to deliver industry-specific functionality to a growing number of specialized micro-verticals, through “Cloudsuites” that leverage the power of Internet-based networks, analytics and artificial intelligence (AI). Over the past several years the privately held company has spent billions of dollars acquiring and developing technology to execute this mission, providing a steady stream of innovation along the way. In the last 12 months alone the company has delivered 176 new products.

And yet, Infor is still one of the largest enterprise application solution providers of which you may never have heard. Even some of its customers (those running acquired legacy solutions) are not aware of how innovative Infor is. This is, at least in part, because of its approach. In the enterprise application market it is not unusual for a vendor to pre-announce its latest, greatest, most innovative idea with a big splash. Then as it begins to execute on this idea it realizes just how much foundational work needs to be done to deliver on it. In the meantime it grows quiet (or announces its next big idea) and (often several years) later when (and if) the first deliverables are finally ready, it makes another big splash.

Infor has taken an entirely different approach, building innovation from the inside and working its way out. It too had a vision of tremendous new innovation driven by advanced technology, but it also had the foresight to clearly see that much of the work needed to deliver on this vision was foundational. And therefore, while others were “splashing,” so to speak, Infor was building that foundation behind the scenes, but with a clear vision of the possible. It is now time to emerge from under the covers as the potential is being realized.

A Smarter Approach

This approach is even smarter than it might appear to be on the surface. Having grown through acquisition, Infor has a very broad portfolio of enterprise applications, including multiple Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) solutions, some more modern and strategic than others. But Infor’s portfolio also contains other applications that extend the capabilities of ERP, such as Customer Relationship Management (CRM), Enterprise Asset Management (EAM), Human Capital Management (HCM), Supply Chain Management (SCM) and more. The different strategic ERP solutions can benefit from these complementary applications, some more so than others. So how can Infor integrate all of these applications and also individually bring them to their full potential without a lot of duplication of effort? The answer lies in taking a two-pronged approach.

Infor has invested in building a strong foundation, which has evolved into the Infor OS (operating service). Infor OS provides a common set of shared services to augment its applications (Figure 1). Rather than reworking each individual user interface, for example, Infor developed a common user experience (UX), which further serves to unify the experience when working across different but complementary applications.

Figure 1: Infor OS Augments the Cloudsuite(s) with Common Shared Services

Source: Infor

But before these strategic enterprise applications could take full advantage of those shared services, they had to be transformed. The transformations took time and effort in parallel with the development of Infor OS. But these efforts proved to be invaluable. Once complete (and even to a certain extent during the process), rather than working on security, connecting to the Internet of Things (IoT), country-specific localizations, or a host of other elements of the infrastructure, the individual enterprise application development teams could focus on delivering features and functions specific to their target markets.

Infor OS: The Journey to Microservices Architecture

While the name (Infor OS) is fairly new, the development of this foundation has been evolving for almost 10 years. First introduced as the Intelligent Open Network (ION), it was based on the same premise as Infor’s prior Open SOA (Service Oriented Architecture) (circa 2006 to 2009). That premise: to provide an environment that enables new functionality to be developed once and shared by multiple products in the Infor portfolio. However, unlike Infor’s Open SOA, which had become very heavy and took years to develop, ION was kept lightweight and simple. Over the years the name has changed and it has evolved to support what is commonly referred to today as a microservices architecture.

Never heard of microservices? You’re not alone. For the reader with a technical background, a microservices architecture, is defined (by Wikipedia) as an architectural style that structures an application as a collection of loosely coupled services. Unfortunately the reference to “loosely coupled” often conjures up the old argument of an integrated suite versus “best of breed.” But this is not that.

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.

Infor needed to transform existing strategic solutions by refactoring the underlying code to introduce microservices. Again, for the nontechnical reader, think of it as restructuring the code without changing the behavior or the functionality. You might be wondering, why bother to change the code if you aren’t changing what it does? There may be any number of reasons, including enabling the solution to take advantage of those common shared services. But Mint Jutras feels the most valuable by-product of refactoring is to make it more “extensible.” In the context of ERP: to make it easier for Infor (and possibly its partners) to add specialized features and functions to a solid code base, with minimal disruption.

This is really the (not so) secret sauce behind Infor’s ability to deliver “last mile” functionality, not just for major industries like manufacturing, or even verticals like food and beverage, but also micro-verticals like dairy, beverage, bakers, confectionary, ingredients, prepared/chilled foods and meat/poultry/fish. While some features and functions might be the same across all manufacturing, food and beverage manufacturers and distributors also must deal with lot and sub-lot traceability and recall. Many within food and beverage must also deal with catch weights.

Catch Weight is a food industry term that means “approximate weight” because unprocessed food products (particularly meats) naturally vary in size. A retailer might order a case of 12 turkeys. The manufacturer (food processor) will estimate the price of the order by the approximate weight (e.g. 15 pounds per turkey), but will then invoice for the exact weight shipped. This can wreak havoc in an ERP solution not well-prepared to handle it.

But catch weight doesn’t affect all food industries in the same way in. It is also used in the cheese industry to manage shrinkage as the cheese ages. So handling catch weight varies for different types of food. By handling all the different types of catch weights in a single line of programming code, you add a level of complexity that adds little or no value to the customer beyond the single problem it is facing. A cheese processor doesn’t care if you can satisfy the needs of a butcher. Having different “Lego blocks” of code to insert depending on the needs of the specific micro-vertical preserves simplicity without sacrificing very specific functionality.

Beyond Features and Functions

But there is more to be gained than industry-specific features and functions from this foundational approach. Most companies today are forced to undergo a digital transformation. Two years ago our 2016 Mint Jutras Enterprise Solution study found that 88% of participants felt that digital technologies were necessary for survival and 80% agreed that digital technologies are truly transformative in the way they connect operations to systems such as ERP. And yet at the time almost half still relied at least partially on spreadsheets and/or manual processes for maintaining their operational and transactional systems of record (i.e. conducting business). Our latest 2018 study shows at least half of companies still rely at least in part on spreadsheets to satisfy needs of various departments. So obviously those transformations are still a long way from being completed.

One strategic acquisition by Infor could go a long way in supporting these digital transformations. In 2015 Infor acquired GT Nexus, a cloud-based global commerce platform. This acquisition represents a marked shift in acquisition strategy. In its formative years Infor aggressively acquired its competitors with more of an eye to growing market share than filling gaps in its portfolio. By comparison, the acquisition of GT Nexus is quite strategic.

As we noted a year ago in Infor Ushers In the Age of Networked Intelligence:

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.

In addition, it is worth noting that last year Infor also acquired Birst, Inc. a pioneer of cloud-native Business Intelligence (BI), analytics and data visualization tools. The addition of Birst’s analytical tools was also a step forward, but Mint Jutras sees it more like another investment in infrastructure and shared services rather than a true differentiator. While the executives that came along with the acquisition might argue Birst is better (the best?) in terms of capability and speed of data discovery and easy to use analytics, most of the existing Birst customers are running enterprise applications that are not part of the Infor portfolio and it is still sold as a stand-alone tool. So you don’t have to run an Infor application to benefit from them.

That said, the tools were made immediately available to Infor customers as a like-for-like trade-in. Since then Infor has been working to replace any existing data cubes and content (previously Cognos-based) and also build out additional applications, content and migration tools.

Enhanced Data Management

Birst allows Infor customers to draw from all sorts of data sources for analysis. But the better story is what Infor has done in terms of data management in general, and to understand that you need to look across several different components “inside” Infor, including artificial intelligence, which requires you to select algorithms, train models and deploy data science. Because we’re talking about advanced technology, this can get very technical very quickly.

A business decision-maker seldom knows the difference between linear regression, neural topic modeling, K-means clustering and a boosted decision tree. Nor should they have to. From a business decision-maker’s point of view, it is more important to understand the potential, and that is quite simple. It’s all about answering these questions:

  • What happened?
  • Why did it happen?
  • What should I do?

To Infor’s credit, this is exactly what it is offering, even though it often falls into the trap of offering TMI (too much (technical) information) to nontechnical business folks.

What happened?

This is all about collecting data. It might be structured data from enterprise applications (yours or your trading partners’), semi-structured data like XML or CSV (maybe you get orders or payments from customers in XML files or streams of IoT data) or entirely unstructured data from social media or other community-based data. You need a common place to put all this data and Infor’s answer to this is its Data Lake. A data lake is a storage repository that holds raw data (usually vast amounts of it) in its native format. Yet while the data is in its native format, Infor also provides a catalog that can be used to determine connections between the different data elements (e.g. an order is connected to a customer, a dollar amount is connected to a key performance indicator).

But you need to consume that data in order to determine what really happened. Figure 2 (provided by Infor) is a bit on the technical side. The key takeaways from it: You might use Birst for analysis of the data; you might use the data in universal searches within the Infor applications; or you can develop your own applications using Infor’s Mongoose development platform.

Figure 2: Infor Data Lake: How to consume data from the data lake

Source: Infor

Why did it happen?

For the “Why?” question, Infor leverages the different connections within the data and does a correlation analysis, looking for causal factors. Did sales go down because prices went up? Or did they go down because sales reps were on vacation or left the company? Was the weather to blame? Or a sluggish economy? For some of these questions you need massive amounts of data, not all of which resides in your enterprise applications.

Infor claims to have no shortage of insights to offer across customer relationship management (CRM), financials, human capital management (HCM), procurement and more. An example of the types of financial insights are shown in the sidebar to the left.

What should I do?

This is where the real data science comes to play. Since announcing the Coleman AI Platform Infor has been developing its first AI data science applications. These are generally predictive in nature, drawing on deep machine learning for forecasting, optimization and decision execution. Some examples include patient demand forecasting for hospitals, a predictive framework to predict asset failure, inventory optimization across a number of different industries, predicting estimated time of arrival for logistic providers and benchmarking performance across industry. Benchmarking of course requires access to large quantities of external data.

And don’t worry if you don’t have data scientists on staff. Infor has over 100 of them ready and waiting to help.

Conclusion and Recommendations

For a company of its size Infor has been exceptionally quiet over the past several years. In the software industry staying quiet often means there is little or no new innovation to share. In the case of Infor, this could not be farther from the truth.

Infor is led by a group of executives with both the vision and the expertise to understand the true potential of advanced digital technologies today. Oftentimes before you can ever hope to take full advantage of this advanced technology you must lay a strong foundation, and this might go largely unnoticed as it is being developed behind the scenes. But Infor’s executives were not afraid to dig in and lay that foundation.

Infor is now starting to reap the rewards of these efforts. It is time to share them with the world, not quietly, but loudly and proudly. Even many of its own customers remain unaware of all that Infor has developed. There are over 90,000 Infor customers and many are still running on old versions or older, non-strategic products. They seem to think none of this new technology is for them.

Mint Jutras would caution them (and other companies running non-Infor legacy applications) against this train of thought. If not for you, then who?

To those running these old solutions: Don’t expect massive (any?) innovation for your old products. They aren’t going to get you where you need to go in order to compete effectively in the global digital economy. For decades ripping and replacing ERP solutions was avoided at any and all cost. Those days are over. If you are running an old, outdated solution, it is unequivocally time to rip and replace. You’ll be happy you did.

To Infor: You’ve developed a lot of great stuff. Get on your bandwagon and shout!

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Sage Says ERP is Dead. What (I think) They Really Mean Is….

At Sage Summit 2015 earlier this week, new CEO Steven Kelly announced the company would drop the moniker ERP from its product names. Sage NA CTO Himanshu Pasule followed up by announcing that ERP is dead. This announcement produced a mixed response. There was some applause (ding dong the wicked witch is dead!) There were some shrugs (I don’t really care what you call it.) In conversations with clients I got some eye rolls and one actually said, “This too will pass.” My reaction? Yes, we need new ways of designing, delivering, consuming and innovating ERP. But you don’t say the automobile is dead just because there are some old clunkers still on the road.

Of course proclaiming ERP to be dead is not new news. Headlines along these lines started appearing shortly after Y2K (which proved to be somewhat of a non-event.) They were attention grabbing for a while and then they began to fade away, only to reappear periodically. So… with this revival does Sage intend to stop selling products that have been labeled “ERP?” No. It just won’t call them that anymore, explaining that instead of standing for Enterprise Resource Planning, what ERP really means is “Expense, Regret, Pain.”

Thanks to Derek du Preez of Diginomica who actually captured Mr. Kelly’s quote: “We believe ERP is a 25 year old industry term, characterised by cost overrun, and in some cases even business ruin, that has been imposed on you for the benefit of others.

“To the finance directors of the world, ERP stands for Expense, Regret, Pain. Sadly our industry has a long history of invasive, disruptive initiatives that have been carried out at the expense of their customers.”

Hearing this or reading it, you somehow get the sense that all ERP implementations are failures. I would disagree and can share some very impressive results from those I have determined to be “World Class.”

You also might get the sense Mr. Kelly was implying this involved some malicious intent – certainly not by Sage, but by all those other ERP vendors. Personally I think a lot of ERP vendors did the best they could with the technology they had available at any given time. But that technology is nothing like what is available today, just as the Model T is nothing like the Masserati, or even the Ford Taurus today.

Old, monolithic ERP solutions have been notorious for being hard to implement, harder to use and sometimes impossible to change as business conditions and businesses themselves change. Over time they have grown more complex and more unwieldy. I agree we need to fix that. Today the industry must find new ways to design, develop, implement and run these systems if they are going to keep pace with the rapid evolution of both technology and business today.

We need solutions that are easier to consume, using new ways of engaging users, over a wide range of devices. We need software that can be easily extended and/or configured without invasive customization that builds barriers to innovation. And we need more innovation, but it must be easier to consume with less disruption to the business. And finally, we need better integration capabilities.

Does any of this sound familiar? It should if you have been following me for the past couple of years. This just happens to be how I describe and define Next Generation ERP. Type that in the search box on my blog and you’ll get lots to choose from, starting with this first post. Could I have labeled it something other than ERP? Sure, I could have named it with the symbol . But if anyone referred to , they would always add, “used to be called ERP.” So I didn’t bother. Maybe we could start just calling it “the software previously known as ERP.” It seemed to work for Prince for a while, but ultimately he went back to being known as Prince.

Some are suggesting it be called Business Management Systems, although that too is far from new. Many have tried using this term in the past and it just hasn’t caught on, largely because those using the term tended not to have a complete ERP solution and were also targeting very small companies that typically lived in fear of ERP. So that sort of sets a precedent, and not one that is to Sage’s advantage.

And in an industry so enamored of acronyms, Business Management Systems would become BMS. So perhaps the reason it never caught on was in part based on the fear we would soon lose the “M” and we all know what BS stands for… again, not particularly advantageous.

In the end, ERP is simply a convenient label for software that runs your business, although I do use a more specific definition:

ERP is an integrated suite of modules that forms the operational and transactional system of record of the business.

This includes the customer order, which seems to be missing from Sage’s declared focus on the “Golden Triangle” of accounting, payroll and payment systems. Indeed it is typically the management of the customer order that sets a full ERP apart from a financial/accounting only solution. While some of Sage’s products are definitely accounting only, Sage assures me the intent was not to exclude the customer order and does include the full system of record in its Golden Triangle. So customers and prospects can feel safe in assuming at least some of the Sage products will continue to deliver on my definition of ERP.

Note also that my definition is intentionally quite broad. It needs to be, simply because the operational and transactional needs will vary quite significantly depending on the very nature of the business. You can’t run a service business like a manufacturing or distribution business. Retailers, government and non-profits all have their own unique requirements.

ERP evolved from MRP, which was originally short for material requirements planning, but later expanded to become manufacturing resource planning and then eventually grew beyond the realm of manufacturing to encompass the entire enterprise – any kind of enterprise, in any kind of industry. While some ERP vendors do have a very narrow vertical focus, others have taken a more horizontal approach. This has resulted in broader solutions designed to satisfy so many different needs that any one company winds up using only a small fraction of the full functionality. Not only are they encumbered by all that functionality they don’t use, but also there still might be gaps in meeting their specific requirements. So ERP winds up being too much and not enough, all at the same time.

This situation is also clearly exasperated by the fact that the footprint of ERP has grown to the point where it is getting more and more difficult to determine where ERP ends and other applications begin. Functions like performance management, talent and human capital management, etc, that used to sit squarely outside of ERP, today might sit either inside or outside that boundary. To be considered part of the ERP solution they must be seamlessly integrated. That used to mean tight integration that required the whole system to move forward in lock step, which made it rigid and very hard to upgrade. ERP users increasingly felt like they were steering a battleship, understandably so.

Expanding footprints, combined with a broader range of industries means complexity no longer grows linearly, but exponentially. Which I believe is the real problem Sage is attempting to solve. Changing the label won’t fix that. Taking full advantage of enabling technology and changing the way you design, develop, package and deliver it will.

I also believe Sage is making tremendous progress in making these changes, but that progress and the value actually being delivered to its customers is being overshadowed by the rhetoric around the death of ERP. Sage’s journey began several years ago under the guise of “hybrid cloud.” In a nutshell, this approach left on-premise ERP solutions in place and surrounded them with cloud-based connected services. The advantage was to allow customers to migrate pieces of their information systems to the cloud over time.

But there was yet another advantage to this approach, one that I wrote about most recently in describing Sage’s approach to Next Generation ERP. This component-based approach allows Sage to deliver more innovation by extending or complementing existing solutions rather than continually mucking around in the original code base. Today seamless integration can be delivered without old-style tight integration. A more component-based approach is typically referred to as “loosely coupled.” If you aren’t familiar with that term, you might want to read through my 4-part series on Next Generation ERP. For purposes here it is suffice to say that this approach allows you to consume more innovation, with less disruption.

Sage began to take a more component-based approach to development with its “hybrid cloud” strategy. Not only did this facilitate the addition of features and functions without invasive changes to the original code base(s), it also allowed Sage to develop new features and functions once and let different products and product lines take advantage of that effort. That means more innovation and easier integration.

This is also something Sage is getting better at in general. It began to implement rapid application development (RAD) methodologies about two years ago and is really starting to hit its stride. Its goal is to offer two upgrades each year. Of course, the real question will be whether its customers can and will pick up these new releases at an increased pace. According to the results of the 2015 Mint Jutras Enterprise Solution Study, 30% of respondents running on-premise or hosted solutions still skip releases and 11% would actually prefer to stay where they are forever.

This changes however as companies move to a SaaS deployment model (Figure 1). It is much easier to deliver more innovation, more frequently in a SaaS model. And there are fewer barriers to consumption because the SaaS provider does all the heavy lifting when it comes to upgrading the software.

Figure 1: Approach to Consuming Innovation in a SaaS Model

Fig 1 SageSource: 2015 Mint Jutras Enterprise Solution Study

After several years of promoting the concept of “hybrid cloud,” with an on-premise ERP at the core, Sage is moving more aggressively to SaaS, although it is still fully supportive on on-premise deployments. Sage X3 is a perfect example. As of its 7.0 release about a year ago, X3 became a true multi-tenant SaaS solution, although it does provide single tenancy at the data base level (which allows for portability between on-premise and cloud and supports extension of the data model). More recently it announced the official launch of Sage X3 Cloud on Amazon Web Services (AWS).

With this introduction, Sage will be competing more directly with SaaS only ERP providers. Those SaaS-only solution providers that offer multi-tenant solutions are able to deliver more innovation, with higher frequency, because they have the luxury of only having to maintain one line of code. Those that offer both cloud and on-premise versions must minimally support multiple releases (and often offer solutions on different databases and operating systems). Sage has indeed been gearing up for this and the proposed 6-month release cycle is evidence of very good progress.

Further evidence of Sage’s ability to innovate faster is the introduction of several new products including Sage Live, a brand new “real time accounting solution” built on the Salesforce1 platform and brought to market in months, not years. While existing customers don’t benefit directly from this product, they do benefit indirectly. Not only does this demonstrate Sage’s ability to apply RAD methodologies and new technologies (like those capabilities provided by the Salesforce1 development platform), but presumably other product like X3 will indirectly benefit from components developed for Sage Live that might easily be incorporated into the X3 landscape. As Himanshu described, “First the very high end, luxury cars introduce heated seats and pretty soon they become a standard feature.”

Conclusion

Let me repeat my initial reaction to Sage’s proclamation of the death of ERP: Yes, we need new ways of designing, delivering, consuming and innovating ERP. But you don’t say the automobile is dead just because there are some old clunkers still on the road. When it comes to solutions that help (or hinder us) in running our businesses, there are a lot of clunkers on the road today. Many were hard to implement, and are even harder to use and sometimes impossible to change as business conditions and businesses themselves change. Over time they have grown more complex and more unwieldy. I agree we need to fix that. Solution providers, including Sage, have made some great strides in doing that.

Those still driving those old clunkers should definitely think about trading them in. Those with some pretty good engines should look to turbo-charge them. ERP is a convenient label for the software that runs businesses across the globe today. Does it really need a new name? If so, I think we should call it Fred.

 

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,