machine learning

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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Unit4: Delivering Not Only What People Need, But Also What They Want

The ‘People Platform’ is The Secret Sauce

Is there a difference between what people in people-centric businesses need and what they want? You betcha! They need applications like finance, human resource information systems (HRIS), procurement and all the different pieces needed to maintain the system of record of their businesses. In other words, virtually everyone needs basic Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP). But ERP isn’t new and exciting. What they really want are the cool features, functions and applications that help them clearly differentiate themselves and make them stand out from the pack. They need those routine back office processes to run smoothly, but they also need the agility to respond to change and embrace new ideas and new technologies.

A recent Mint Jutras report asked the question: Is “Agile ERP” an Oxymoron? For decades using “agile” to describe ERP was indeed the conjunction of incongruous and even contradictory terms – the very definition of an oxymoron. Unit4, a software solution provider that specializes in people-centric businesses, has always prided itself in its agility. For many years the goal of Business World (its flagship ERP solution) was to effectively and efficiently meet the needs of businesses living in change (BLINC). Yet over those years Unit4’s product portfolio has also been extended to include additional solutions that can address more specific vertical needs and provide a level of differentiation. These additions came, not only through both its own development efforts, but also through acquisition.

Most notably Unit4 has acquired a Student Information System (SIS) for higher education, a Professional Services Automation (PSA) solution for professional services organizations and Corporate Performance Management (CPM) for all types of people businesses. While these might fall into the category of “the cool stuff,” Unit4 isn’t stopping there. At the same time, it has been developing a range of microservices that will help all these and its Business World ERP take advantage of new and disruptive technologies in order to unleash their full potential. At the core of these innovative services is the Unit4 People Platform.

Business Applications of the Future

Business applications of the future are more flexible, configurable and (perhaps most importantly) more extensible. In Is “Agile ERP” an Oxymoron? we talked about the importance of components-based architectures and the ability to extend the foundational solution that runs your business. We also talked about the importance of the underlying development platform. The speed of innovation and the ease of consuming it are largely dependent on the platform on which your ERP solution is built. A development platform can provide “application services” for things like file handling, security, searches and access from mobile devices. The value of the development platform is derived largely from developing a service once and re-using it throughout a product or suite of modules.

But with a diverse portfolio of products, Unit4 also deals with different development platforms. For example, Unit4 Business World is based on an architecture previously branded as Vita. But its newly acquired PSA solution is based on Microsoft Dynamics 365. How can Unit4 develop a service once and leverage it throughout its growing portfolio of products? The answer lies in its People Platform. While its different products may be based on different development platforms, the People Platform is a different kind of platform.

The Unit4 People Platform

Technically not a development platform, think of the Unit4 People Platform more as a collection of innovative services, beyond the typical file handling and security.

Figure 1: Unit4’s Platform for Innovation

Source: Unit4

These innovative services are meant to open doors to the growing number of digital technologies just coming of age. These are the type of services the People Platform is putting within the reach of Unit4 customers. Most notable are alerts and a virtual assistant (Wanda) that takes advantage of both natural language processing (think Siri or Alexa for enterprise applications) and machine learning (the more you use it, the smarter it gets). And also the business intelligence delivered with it CPM solution, including predictive analytics.

Unit4 is being proactive in making use of these new and potentially disruptive technologies. The 2017 Mint Jutras Enterprise Solution Study found a large percentage of our survey population in services types of businesses lacked familiarity with these technologies, and/or saw little value to their businesses (Table 1).

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

Source: Mint Jutras 2017 Enterprise Solution Study

We point this out, not to imply there is little value – quite the contrary. We recognize enormous value and applaud Unit4 for playing a role in educating its customers and getting out ahead of the demand. Let’s take a look at an example.

Who (or What) is Wanda?

Unit4’s Wanda is the perfect example of the kind of value delivered using the People Platform. It is currently available for Unit4 Business World customers, but Unit4 is working hard on bringing it to its PSA and SIS constituents as well.

Wanda is a new way of interacting with Unit4’s enterprise applications. She makes use of natural language processing (yes, you can talk to her) and machine learning to help people automate, prioritize and complete repetitive tasks in a fraction of the time it has always taken. As a virtual assistant, Wanda is embedded in the user interface and accessed through Skype, Slack or Facebook messenger. This allows users to communicate and interact with the solution through a “chat,” much like they would with a colleague. And Wanda is smart enough to understand when multiple topics might be mixed in a single conversation, so no need to artificially compartmentalize. All of this is possible without formally logging into the application.

And in fact if you are already comfortable communicating with Alexa in your home setting, you have a head start in using Wanda. That is because Alexa has already met Wanda and in the not too distant future you can use her to ask Wanda questions. Click here to see and hear a live demonstration.

This is made possible through the use of Microsoft’s Language Understanding Intelligent Service (LUIS). This is the underlying technology that gives Wanda the ability to understand what a person wants through the spoken word, not codes or clicks.

Why Are These Innovative Services important?

While delivering what people want, instead of or in addition to what they need, sounds very appealing, there is more than just a wish list involved here. Agility and the ability to extend current solutions to do more, including providing differentiation, is becoming a “must have” today. Why? We live in disruptive times. The 2016 Mint Jutras Enterprise Solution Study found 88% of companies believe they face 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.

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.

While only 10% of our 2016 survey participants felt that risk was high and/or imminent, most do understand the risk is real. While about one in three (34%) feel the risk is low, we have to ask: How do you think the taxi industry might have answered this question on the eve of the launch of Uber? Do you think the hotel industry anticipated Airbnb? Did Block Buster foresee the devastating impact Netflix would have on its business? What kind of disruption is lurking out there for you?

The Internet and the digital economy made all of these disruptions possible and none were decades in the making. Compared to slow, evolutionary changes of the past, they literally happened almost overnight. The Internet has leveled the playing field, allowing any company, even small ones, to establish a global presence. This creates new competition, along with new opportunity. While new windows of opportunity open every day, they can also close as fast as they open.

Change is inevitable, bringing about new requirements. As your business changes, along with the world around you, the speed with which new features and functions can be developed, delivered and consumed will clearly impact your agility.

Key Takeaways and Recommendations

Agile ERP is no longer the oxymoron it once was, and yet many of the solutions installed today remain rigid and require extensive modifications to meet the changing needs of enterprises today. And the pace of change does not appear to slowing down. Even traditional types of business change resulting from growth, expansion, organizational restructuring, and/or regulatory changes are accelerating along with the pace of business itself. Add to that the threat of disruption made possible by the digital economy. A stagnant solution may just put you ahead in the race to the bottom.

Unit4’s People Platform and the company’s drive to deliver innovative services that can complement and extend your solution to put you back in the race to the top of your game. Unit4 is in business for people. Whether you operate in a professional services organization, higher education or in one of a growing number of people-centric businesses, Unit4’s People Platform, together with one (or more) of its purpose-built applications, could very well be your secret sauce in getting you what you want while satisfying what you need.

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What is Unit4’s “Self-Driving” ERP?

Empowering People in Service Organizations

Today we live in a world where automobiles can drive themselves across the United States. These same cars can parallel park far more skillfully than their human drivers. Airplanes spend most of their time in flight on autopilot. Small, self-directing vacuum cleaners systematically clean our floors while we are at work or play. Fitness devices tell us when it is time to move and warn us when we are over-exerting ourselves. Some of those fitness devices are smart phones equipped with apps – the same smart phones that keep us constantly connected. We get spoiled by all this automation in our personal lives and then we go to work and wonder why the software and technology that is used to run the business doesn’t empower our work lives like consumer technology empowers our personal lives.

Enterprise applications like Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) are meant to capture transactional data and streamline and automate business processes. Yet while ERP was originally meant to make our business lives easier, many old ERP systems just can’t seem to get out of their own way. Unit4 is setting out to change that, at least for its customers. While it has always prided itself in its modern and flexible architecture and its solutions’ ability to accommodate change, it is now taking a page from consumer technology. A revitalized Unit4 is intent on delivering “self-driving” ERP, where user interaction is minimized and limited to activities where people make the difference.

People Are at the Core of all Unit4 Does

Unit4 has always targeted people-centric businesses, where services are the primary product delivered. These targets include professional service organizations, governments, higher education, not-for-profits and real estate. In each case, the key ingredients are people; processes are fluid and dynamic. By its very nature, outcomes are unpredictable. The last thing you want is your people doing manual tasks that add no value to the service delivered.

And yet that is exactly what happens when ERP can’t get out of its own way. What do we mean by that? Legacy ERP solutions that are rigid and cannot adapt as business changes, or that don’t allow business processes to evolve, or that force people to work in very unnatural or counter-intuitive ways, are more of a hindrance than a help to your business. They get in the way.

This has never been more true than it is today as we enter the digital age. Everywhere we look we see the pace of business accelerating and business models being disrupted. This is all fueled by digital communication. And yet many ERP solutions installed today lack the ability to participate in this revolution. They still force companies to transact business the way it has been transacted for the past 50 years. And they don’t contribute much insight in how to break that cycle, or insight into how to more profitably grow the business.

Unit4’s products have always been designed for change, but now they have a new goal: to help companies transform themselves in the digital age. This new goal is actually a natural progression, but is also fueled by the transformation of the company itself. Jose Duarte, Unit4’s current Chief Executive Officer (CEO) took the reins about two years ago. He made a clean sweep of his executive committee. A few very key players remain one level down from the top, which makes the transition smoother, but in the end, the Unit4 of today is very different than it was two years ago.

Today Unit4 is clearly energized, innovative, confident and aggressive. And it is on a mission: To empower people in service organizations.

The 6 Pillars of “Self-Driving” ERP

So what is this thing called “self-driving” ERP? Can software really make business decisions to drive the business? Of course not. Even an airplane on autopilot still needs a pilot. That car driving itself across the United States still has a driver. The homeowner has to decide which room to set up the little roaming vacuum cleaner in. Those fitness devices don’t do your workout for you. But all these technological wonders have a common theme: they make people more efficient and productive. People with these devices can do more, accomplish more. That’s what self-driving ERP is all about: better productivity, improved efficiency and better, more insightful decisions.

Unit4 likes to refer to the following as the six pillars of self-driving ERP:

  • Automation of manual tasks. Don’t make the human driving ERP do repeatable, repetitive tasks if they can be automated.
  • Drastically reduce the amount of input required; eliminate it entirely if possible. Ask for input only on an exception basis.
  • Use the moment of action to ask for the input. Ask a person when that exception actually occurs, not hours or days later.
  • Sense potential problems or bottlenecks.
  • Sense potential opportunities.
  • Make intelligent and sensible recommendations.

 How Does Unit4 Do This?

If you ask Unit4 how it will deliver on the promise of these pillars, Unit4 will talk about the four layers of its People Platform, announced back in April. After you hear the folks at Unit4 describe these layers, you may still not understand, particularly if you are a businessperson and not a technologist. Don’t feel bad. It’s not you. Some of these are tough concepts. But that’s okay. It is much more important to understand what it can do for you than to understand how it does it. You didn’t know how the transporter worked on Star Trek’s USS Enterprise. But you knew exactly what would happen when Captain Kirk said, “Beam me up Scottie.” If you understand the potential conceptually, a myriad of potential use cases might immediately spring to mind.

So here are the layers, as concisely as we can present them:

Personal Experience

The very top layer is the personal experience. This is all about a new, improved and modern user experience, which Unit4 has been working on for the past two years, improving existing functions; efforts will continue as new and different ways of engaging with ERP and new functions are introduced. This includes access through mobile devices of all sorts. But Mint Jutras believes the best user interface is often no user interface, and Unit4 is also heading down this path in automating those manual, repetitive tasks. But ultimately it is all about making software easy to use.

Of course ease of use means different things to different people.

Figure 1: “Top 3” Factors Influencing Ease of Use

Unit4 Fig 1Source: Mint Jutras 2015 Enterprise Solution Study

Note on defining generations:

  • Baby Boomers: born between 1943 and 1964
  • Generation Xers: 1965 to 1981
  • Millenial: born in 1982 or after

This is most apparent when we compare what is most important across different generations participating in our 2015 Enterprise Solution Study (Figure 1). While perceptions vary, minimizing time to complete tasks is right at the very top of the list across all generations. So Unit4 is right on track in automating manual tasks and reducing the amount of input required. In fact complete automation of many of these repetitive tasks is really the ultimate goal.

Business Capabilities

The second layer is business capabilities. Mint Jutras research confirms this as an appropriate focal point. Our latest study confirms that the most important selection criterion for choosing an ERP solution today is “fit and functionality,” followed closely by “the completeness of a solution.”

Expanding the footprint of its ERP remains a priority for Unit4, but it will pay particular attention to individual vertical markets. Some of these business capabilities will be developed by Unit4, some will be acquired, and some may in fact come from partners. The recent acquisition of Three Rivers Systems is a perfect example of how Unit4 can take some giant steps in business capabilities, in this case, significantly expanding Unit4’s solution for higher education.

Who is Three Rivers Systems and what does it do?

Three Rivers Systems’ solution is called CAMS Enterprise. CAMS is short for Comprehensive Academic Management System. As the name implies, it is a comprehensive higher education solution that automates the entire student lifecycle into a single system. It can be run on-premise or hosted in the cloud.

A few facts about Three Rivers:

  • Founded in 1985
  • 55 employees
  • Serving over 200 clients in North America, South Africa, Europe, Middle East, Asia
  • Serving all institution types from under 1000 students to over 40,000

 Smart Context

The third layer is called Smart Context. This is perhaps the toughest to explain and yet its name provides some clues. “Smart” implies intelligence. So the Smart Context layer adds some intelligence, but in the context of a specific task, question or problem. Think about the following:

  • You’re preparing your expense report. Smart Context can suggest the majority of the line items (mileage, airfare, meals, etc.) You simply confirm the amounts.
  • You leave your customer’s site where you have been working on a project. Smart Context asks you if you just spent three hours working on project XYZ. A simple click on yes or no completes your timesheet.
  • You are asked to deliver a detailed project plan (for resources and costing) before the close of day. You enter several characteristics and Smart Context reveals the closest fit to previous projects. You select one as a model and create the plan in a fraction of the time it would take if you built it from scratch. And you even have a complete workforce assignment.

Smart Context is all about removing the clutter, making complex things simpler, and requiring your input only for exceptions. By making suggestions where possible, enriching data with additional context, the information you do see is more relevant and complete. This is the real engine behind the concept of “self-driving” ERP.

Unit4 delivers this type of intelligence by bringing the latest technology together through a variety of components:

  • An alerts engine to keep you up to date with smart business feeds
  • A rules engine establishes and configures the rules to be invoked during data entry, allowing for dynamically altering the UI based on conditions, or proactively assisting the user in entering consistent data. Adding machine learning even makes it self-configuring.
  • Definition of communities (defining who cares about what) and the capture of conversations within the communities (no more lost threads after you hang up the phone). This creates a social context.
  • Mobile context, through technology that can detect location with a time stamp. This allows for location-based filtering and time tracking and can push information automatically (e.g. customer configurations pushed to a field service technician arriving on-site).
  • Predictive analytics, capable of pattern detection. This can involve complex analysis, bringing together technologies such as machine learning and event stream analysis for sensing problems, bottlenecks or opportunities. Or it can be as simple as pre-populating an expense report or suggesting a project plan.
  • Cloud and crowd context through capture of peer analysis and customer sentiment.
  • A workflow engine.

The net result is filtered, contextualized data that can be presented in a simple, relevant and complete experience.

Elastic Foundation

At the base, the fourth layer is the Elastic Foundation. The concept of elasticity is commonly associated with cloud and software as a service (SaaS). Unit4 does offer a variety of cloud options, including what it calls “cloud your way,” which lets the customer choose the deployment option without compromises. Used in this context, the elasticity comes from the ability to grow and consume resources as needed, without additional purchases of hardware, middleware and the associated maintenance.

But Unit4 takes elasticity one step further and uses it in the context of the application itself, which can easily be changed and/or extended without disrupting the installed solution.

The elastic foundation has evolved from the architecture on which Unit4 Business World (formerly Agresso) was built. This is where you define your organizational structure, information requirements, and the relationship between the two. Traditionally these types of structures, relationships and processes tended to be hard-coded in solutions or embedded in codes like the general ledger account, using a “once and done” approach that made future changes difficult and costly. But reality says they need to be fluid, and that is the elasticity that the People Platform delivers.

With Unit4’s Elastic Foundation, no source code changes are required and even if it means changing the business rules, the data model and how the data is presented, this does not constitute multiple changes. You make a single change and it is permeated throughout all the necessary components of the solution. All are on the same page. No delays. Nothing can be out of sync.

Nothing Tells the Story Like an Example

While all this discussion may provide good background, nothing illustrates what Unit4 is doing better than an example. Let’s explore the project plan example mentioned earlier in a bit more depth.

Projects are common in many services organizations. For some, projects are simply internal. But in many companies, particularly in professional services organizations, these projects are core to their business. Unit4 has been listening to these types of customers as they expressed a desire for better ways of winning profitable business. When your business is project-based, that means coming up with more accurate estimates faster. This is one of the scenarios Unit4 has been working on that will showcase all the layers described above.

To better understand this endeavor, put yourself in the shoes of a project manager at a project-based business that has identified a new opportunity. You need to come up with an estimate of cost, resources and schedule in order to propose a price that is both competitive and profitable. And you need to do so quickly and efficiently or either your window of opportunity will close, or your current projects will suffer, or both. If you are smart you don’t start completely from scratch. Instead you find a similar project, hopefully one that was successful, and start from there, modifying it to reflect the current needs of your prospect.

Sounds simple, but in reality, how do you go about finding the right project to use as a starting point, especially if it was a project in which you had no personal involvement or experience? Unit4 is developing a scenario where you will be able to enter a few key characteristics of the project including the customer (if you have done business with the prospect before), type of project, time frame required, cost range, etc. Using these parameters, Unit4 will present you with potential reference projects, each assigned a rating of how closely they match your criteria. They do the legwork; you pick the closest, most profitable and start from there.

But have you ever managed a project that looked great on paper, but in reality it was the project from hell? You can’t tell everything from the numbers. So Unit4 uses sentiment analysis to assist. The solution will be able to look at conversations and pull up up the five most positive things and five most negative things said. What is the most common word used? Perhaps you find it to be “team.” It can look for certain words used in comments and conversations, including words like “complaints” or “excessive overtime.” Perhaps the team is complaining about too much overtime.

Projects under consideration may also not yet be completed; in which case, Unit4 will simulate a completion to predict schedule and cost accuracy, along with projected margins. While all of this might seem relatively simple, when done manually, there are numerous assumptions and opinions that get inadvertently filtered that can result in overlooking the best model, choosing the wrong project or making bad predictions.

By automating the process, Unit4 delivers on all of the pillars of a “self-driving” ERP, from automating manual tasks to reducing input and asking only for input at the moment of action. It can sense problems, as well as potential opportunities and give intelligent recommendations.

This is just one of many possible scenarios. Mint Jutras anticipates more and more of these types of scenarios will be identified through working with actual customers. Once some are delivered (later this year), this could have a snowball effect, with one idea generating many more. Then it will be up to Unit4 (and possibly some select partners or customers themselves) to deliver against the promise of “self-driving” ERP.

Summary and Key Take-aways

Unit4 has truly transformed itself into a new company, one that is energized, fresh, innovative, confident and aggressive. And yet it has done so by building on the strengths it has exhibited in the past. It has always targeted people-centric businesses, particularly those that are “living in change.” It has a strong, modern architecture and understands the trends rocking the world today. We are truly entering the digital age. Social, mobile, cloud and analytics all play a key role. Unit4 is leveraging all of these and delivering a solution with a simple goal: to empower people in service organizations.

But probably most importantly, Unit4 is now focused on execution. That focus is centered on:

  • Delivering vertical solutions for service industries
  • Building applications for people
  • Designing its underlying architecture for agility
  • Delivering cloud solutions “your way,” with no compromise

The recent acquisition of Three Rivers Systems is evidence it is indeed moving into major execution mode. Don’t be surprised to see others and expect some very significant partnerships to be announced soon as it aggressively builds its partner ecosystem.

During the past two years, as this transformation was underway, Unit4 was quite “quiet.” Expect the company to significantly turn up the volume, particularly in North America, where there is tremendous opportunity that has yet to be tapped.

Expect the pace of product innovation to accelerate as it starts to aggressively leverage its prior investment in architecture and technology.

If you are a services organization with an ERP solution that seems to just get in the way, Mint Jutras would agree with Unit4 when it says, “To adapt to the speed of change, ignore the old restrictions.” Perhaps you need to get into the driver’s seat of a new “self-driving” ERP.

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