machine learning

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!

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Introducing Aera’s Cognitive Technology

Enabling The Self-Driving Enterprise

Cognitive capabilities are highly valued in human beings. They make people smart, and smart is good. According to the Oxford Dictionary, cognition is “the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses.” Yet as automation becomes more and more prevalent, we expect more and more functions and processes to be performed without human assistance. Can technology really imitate human cognition? Why not? After all, we live in a world where self-driving cars, although not yet ubiquitous, are a reality. And in a world where terabytes of data are being replaced with zettabytes, is it even possible for a human to process data at the speed and granularity necessary for timely, data-driven decisions?

Enterprise applications have been used to streamline and automate transactional processes for several decades now, particularly where simple and straight forward rules can be applied. When inventory falls below safety stock, order more. But how do you know when to change safety stock? How do you balance inventory across your distribution network or work off excess inventory? How accurate is your forecast? Is it possible to automate the cognitive functions that understand (recognize patterns and learn from the past), predict the future, and not only make recommendations, but also take action? Aera Technology not only thinks it is possible, it is delivering on that promise today to enable the Self-Driving Enterprise.

Aera is quite a unique kind of company. Headquartered in Mountain View, California, it serves some of the world’s largest enterprises from its global offices located in San Francisco, Portland, Bucharest, Cluj-Napoca, Paris, Munich, London, and Pune. Using proprietary data crawling, industry models, machine learning and artificial intelligence, Aera’s goal is to revolutionize how people relate to data and how organizations function. It offers what it calls a “cognitive operating system.”

The Self-Driving Enterprise

Aera starts with the premise that if built-in intelligence can drive a car, then it should be able to drive a company. Like a self-driving car, a self-driving enterprise must connect all the different data points both inside (engine, accelerator, steering wheel, brakes) and outside (roadways and road conditions, other vehicles, pedestrians). It must do all this in real-time, because speed and direction changes must occur immediately as any of those conditions change. And it must be always on and always thinking. No snoozing at the wheel allowed. It also must be able to operate autonomously. With no driver, a self-driving car has to take action without being told what to do.

A self-driving enterprise will still have humans at the helm. Aera is not setting out to eliminate the decision-makers, but it is trying to make them smarter and more effective, able to use all the data available, not just the usual subset contained in an enterprise resource planning (ERP) solution.

If this has you curious to learn more, click here to read the full report.

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Leaders Rule with Sage Intacct

Sage Plus Sage Intacct “Lead The Future”

Sage Intacct describes itself as a “best in class cloud financial management software company, 100% invested in meeting the needs of financial professionals.” Bringing cloud computing to finance and accounting, Sage Intacct’s applications are the preferred financial applications recommended by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) and are used by more than 11,000 organizations from startups to public companies. The solution has evolved over time and today the company has a broader impact on its customers than just transactional accounting, bringing not only governance and control, but also insights necessary for effective tactical and strategic decision-making.

The theme of its most recent user conference, Sage Intacct Advantage 2017, is reflective of this evolution of both the company and its solutions. The theme: “Lead the future.” Let’s take a look at what this means for Sage Intacct, its customers, and the finance leaders in those organizations.

Leaders Are in For the Long Haul

Intacct was acquired by Sage in July 2017, becoming Sage Intacct. All the top executives from Intacct remain in place post-acquisition. They are led by Rob Reid, former Intacct Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and current Executive Vice President (EVP) and Managing Director (MD) of Sage Intacct. Mr. Reid and his direct reports remain commited to leading the company, not just through the transition, but for the longer term, providing stability and continuity. But not content with the status quo, Mr. Reid is inspired by Abraham Lincoln’s famous quote, “The best way to predict the future is to create it.”

It would appear that both Intacct and Sage gained from the acquisition. According to Sage President Blair Crump, Sage was attracted to Intacct because of its leadership, not only in terms of the people, but also in terms of growth within North America and in customer satisfaction. It was also a good strategic fit with respect to Sage’s commitment to being “cloud 1st.Born in the cloud and offered exclusively as a multi-tenant software as a service (SaaS) solution, Intacct’s portfolio of products makes a nice addition to the newly announced Sage Business Cloud. While Sage itself is already strong at the low end of the small to medium size business (SMB) market, with its Sage 50 and Sage Live products for small businesses, Sage Intacct’s cloud financial management solutions are complementary. With very little overlap in target companies, Intacct should help Sage be stronger up market. While it is quite easy to outgrow those low-end solutions, it is much harder for companies to outgrow Sage Intacct. Together Sage and Sage Intacct intend to offer the “only financial management solutions a company will ever need.”

Good for Intacct = Good for Its Customers

Obviously Sage benefits tremendously from this acquisition. But can the same be said for Intacct? We believe so, if for no other reason that it paves the way for global expansion. Expansion into new global markets means customers must deal with the complexities of new tax, regulatory and compliance requirements, and potentially new accounting standards. With its focus on finance, this is not entirely new territory for Sage Intacct. Yet it has mostly been successful in North America, while Sage is more global, bringing both functional experience as well as global reach, including expanded local support.

And a side benefit to Sage: While it has become almost a household name in the United Kingdom and parts of Europe, it does not enjoy that level of brand awareness in North America. So the strengths of Sage and Sage Intacct are complementary.

As part of Sage, Intacct also has access to more resources and technology. For example, Sage Intacct can benefit from the experience gained by Sage in natural language processing (NLP) through the development and introduction of its virtual assistant (chatbot) Pegg.

However, this type of technology transfer is hardly a one-way street. Intacct appears to have been far ahead of its (now) parent company in developing artificial intelligence (AI) through deep machine learning. But because Sage can also benefit from this effort, Intacct will likely be able to draw on more resources than it could afford on its own.

The third component in terms of “leading the future” is helping people evolve as leaders. More specifically, helping the finance leaders that are playing key roles in the companies that are Sage Intacct customers. Sage Intacct is not stopping at just streamlining and automating tasks in the accounting department. Those are table stakes in today’s financial management applications. Mr. Reid feels, “Our job is to transform the way people think and work, removing barriers to achieve success and lifting them up so they can achieve more.” A lofty goal indeed, but what does that really mean?

Mr. Reid acknowledges three different styles of leadership within the community of finance leaders: the historian, the business analyst and the data scientist. The historian relies on traditional reporting, while the business analyst leverages data and analytics to drive decisionmaking. The data scientist takes that analysis to a whole new level in terms of cognitive, predictive and prescriptive analysis.

Mint Jutras takes a slightly different view, looking at these, not so much as styles of leadership, but rather skills sets that must grow and evolve progressively. The business analyst can’t afford not to be a historian. And the data scientist can’t afford not to be a business analyst. Can finance leaders today be all three? Not without the right set of tools. While analytical skills might be a common trait amongst good finance leaders, they are not data scientists. Which is why Sage Intacct must build business analysis and data science into the solution. That takes aggressive innovation.

Leading with Innovation

As the pace of change accelerates today, the need for more features and better functionality doesn’t stop once you get a new solution up and running. We live in an age of disruption. As a result, the pace of innovation must accelerate. We asked participants in our 2017 Enterprise Solution Study how the pace of innovation had changed since they had first implemented (Figure 1). Indeed, 39% report that upgrades are now delivered more frequently.

Figure 1: Change in Pace of Innovation Since Implementing?

Source: Mint Jutras 2017 Enterprise Solution Study

However, it is one thing to deliver innovation more frequently, but quite another to consume it. If we average the frequency of delivery across all our respondents, we find upgrades being delivered just about every 6 months. We also asked our participants how often they upgraded and found they consumed those upgrades about once every 13 months. If we contrast SaaS deployments to those licensed, we found upgrades consumed far more frequently (Figure 2) when delivered through SaaS. And yet we know this can vary quite significantly from vendor to vendor.

Figure 2: How frequently are these upgrades “consumed?”

Source: Mint Jutras 2017 Enterprise Solution Study

Delivering more innovation through more frequent (and robust) updates not only delivers more value, but is also one of the most differentiating factors in comparing cloud solutions. While some of the potential benefits of a cloud-based solution are inherent in the cloud itself, the cadence and method of delivery of innovation are not among them, varying significantly from one solution provider to another.

With four releases a year, including about 30 enhancements in each, Sage Intacct is keeping pace with the top SaaS solution providers. Below are some highlights by industry of the 150 product enhancements that have been delivered over the past year.

Nonprofit Organizations

Sage Intacct, along with new partner GuideStar, introduced the Sage Intacct Nonprofit Financial Board Book. The concept of a “guide book” or “Intacct Digital Board Book” was introduced back in 2015. They are designed as vehicles of communication , making enterprise data easier to consume, with instant access organized for action.

These Digital Board Books are very industry-specific and the first one off the shelf was designed for software businesses that, like Intacct, deliver software as a service (SaaS). This new one is designed specifically for nonprofits along with the assistance of GuideStar, the world’s largest source of nonprofit information.

The Nonprofit Financial Board Book is based on the framework developed by GuideStar to monitor the financial performance of nonprofit organizations. It uses real-time transactional data from the system of record in Sage Intacct to automate the calculation of key financial and operational metrics that GuideStar uses to not only demonstrate the financial health of nonprofit organizations, but also ensure the organization is on track in accomplishing its mission – a key element in attracting donors for funding.

Professional Services and Project-based Businesses

Sage Intacct also recently unveiled its new Project Manager Digital Board Book, which also includes new project budgeting capabilities. It is designed to empower project managers with better insight into project status and performance, keep projects on track so resources are available for the next highest priority, and uncover key insights to eliminate waste and improve productivity.

Software and SaaS Businesses

For software and SaaS companies, the contract is at the core of managing the lifecycle of the relationship with their customers. Sage Intacct recognizes the transition to the new ASC 606 revenue recognition guidelines is making the contract the new “unit” of Accounting. Back in May 2016 Sage Intacct Contract and Revenue Management was one of the first solutions to address the new complexities in revenue recognition created by the upcoming changes. Further enhancements were announced to enable companies to more fully integrate and automate the entire sales and finance process.

These are are just some highlights from the 150 product enhancements delivered over the past year by Sage Intacct via four quarterly releases. While these continue to supply Sage Intacct customers with a steady stream of useful and consumable enhancements, it was a preview of the future that was perhaps the most innovative and the most exciting of all.

Vision of the Future: Taking Intelligence to the Next Level

To sweeten the pot even more, Sage Intacct introduced its vision for a new digital assistant to the CFO. Its name is Pacioli. Think of it as a Siri or Alexa for enterprise applications. Pacioli will dramatically change the way the user interacts and interfaces with the software.

What’s in a Name? Pacioli

Fra Luca Bartolomeo de Pacioli (sometimes Paccioli or Paciolo; c. 1447–1517) was an Italian mathematician, Franciscan friar, collaborator with Leonardo da Vinci, and a seminal contributor to the field now known as accounting. He is referred to as “The Father of Accounting and Bookkeeping” in Europe and he was the first person to publish a work on the double-entry system of book-keeping in this continent.”

Like da Vinci, Pacioli was a polymath.

Source: Wikipedia

On the surface, Pacioli might look a lot like some other “virtual assistants” offered by other vendors recently, including Sage’s Pegg. Sage calls Pegg “the world’s first and only accounting chatbot,” but it’s not the only virtual assistant that can capture expenses from your mobile device and give you some visibility into cash flow.

While Pacioli is not yet ready for prime time and Sage Intacct may very well leverage Sage’s work with NLP, it is far ahead in terms of true AI – a good example of how the acquisition could have mutual benefits to both parties.

Although Pacioli makes use of advanced new technology, including deep machine learning, Sage Intacct doesn’t want to deliver it as a general technology tool, but instead will look for problems to solve and develop specific solutions to solve them. This is smart since its typical customers will not seek out or purchase technology for technology’s sake. Other vendors, far bigger than Sage Intacct, have struggled to gain traction when they released elegant new technology in search of a problem. Current and future Sage Intacct customers start with a problem and search for a solution.

Pacioli will have to start out with fairly simple questions, much like Siri, Alexa and even IBM Watson do. All these digital assistants must be trained to answer anticipated questions. Current AI technology isn’t good at coming up with brand new answers to questions nobody has thought of before. It is good at recognizing the question as one with a (stored) answer. Even with current limitations it can add tremendous value because we’re not talking about a few questions and answers; we’re talking thousands or more.

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, one Sage Intacct customer, Meals on Wheels doesn’t fear it. The nonprofit’s chief financial and administrative officer, Don Miller welcomes it, “If it saves us time and gives us more time to work strategically, that is useful progress. Some might worry about job security. But if it takes five hours to pull data together and AI can do it in minutes, I’m all for it.” This is consistent with the objective Mr. Miller had when he came on board: It’s all about eliminating “stupid work.”

For Intacct, it’s all about delivering a tool that will 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.

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

Sometimes software companies must take a leadership role 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.

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.

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 Pacioli 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 Sage Intacct is setting out to do: take the lead in weaving these technologies into the fabric of the software we use to run our businesses.

Key Takeaways

Sage Intacct, with the backing of its new owner, Sage, has indeed set its sights on “leading the future.” The global reach and resources of Sage, combined with the stability and continuity of a strong leadership team positions it quite well. It will need to continue to aggressively provide innovation, continue to listen to its customers, while also leading them in new and innovative directions. It must continue to support the historians, while making them better business analysts. If it can deliver on its vision of the future, effectively incorporating artificial intelligence into decision-making, it can bring data science into the world of finance, without requiring its customers to be data scientists.

 

 

 

 

 

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Workday: Getting Smarter and Smarter

Enter the Age of Intelligence

In a recent Mint Jutras report, “How Smart Are Your Enterprise Applications?” we outlined some of the different ways solution providers are adding a new level of intelligence to their offerings… or not. While “intelligence” has become the holy grail of enterprise applications of late, not all vendors are delivering on the promise of smarter applications. For some, it’s just the latest buzzword added to their marketing collateral and some are simply playing catch up to current next generation applications. Others are taking their first baby steps, but a select few are truly entering the “age of intelligence.”

Where is Workday along this progression? Since its inception in 2005, it has never been a company that over-inflated its capabilities with bravado and marketing spin. Born in the cloud and built on a next-generation platform that continues to evolve, Workday also never had to play catch-up. And the first steps it took in moving into the age of intelligence were not baby steps, but instead bold ones, including some strategic acquisitions.

Workday’s acquisition of Identified in 2014 was an important step in incorporating predictive analytics and machine learning into its portfolio. In 2015 it acquired Gridcraft and last year it acquired Platfora. With both of these acquisitions, Workday sought to build insights [read intelligence] directly into its applications. More recently its benchmarking capabilities take insight and intelligence to another whole level by putting Data as a Service (DaaS) in the context of your business performance, in comparison to your peers. And Workday has opened the doors to more innovation from a broader community by making its Workday Cloud Platform available beyond its own development team.

It is clear Workday is getting smarter and smarter with each new release.

Smart, Smarter, Smartest

So, what does it take to make an enterprise application smart? In our previous report we distinguished different levels of intelligence:

  • Smart: We concluded any enterprise application is smart in that it’s not dumb. It can follow instructions – instructions like, IF <this condition> THEN <do this> ELSE <do that>. Business applications have been built on IF THEN ELSE statements since the earliest computer programs were developed. Workday applications are no exception and indeed, they can now go beyond simply following specific instructions. They are starting to learn to take some simple rule-based actions on their own. For example, the recruiting module is smart enough to decline any outstanding applicants once a position is filled, and yet keep them on file to review when other vacancies open up.
  • Smarter: To make an application smarter, you need to make it easier to use and better at communicating. Progressive releases of Workday have made the user experience very compelling while also adding more and more insights. Workday has also borrowed concepts from consumer technology, putting more power in the hands of users using mobile devices, not only alerting managers to exceptions, issues and required approvals, but allowing them to take immediate action. Workday Talk provides a “chat” capability modeled after social media. Participants can follow conversations attached to business objects like sales orders, customers or products. Groups and teams can be assembled to foster collaboration. When people are better informed, they can make more intelligent decisions, faster.
  • Smartest: But the smartest applications today combine the pattern recognition capabilities of machine learning to produce artificial intelligence (AI) and predict the future. The highest level of intelligence will be achieved in combining a variety of technologies together: AI, deep machine learning, Natural Language Processing (NLP), image recognition and predictive analytics are all at the forefront of this movement. And Workday has all these technologies in its kit bag. It has already taken some initial steps in leveraging them. For example, it has embedded machine learning capabilities into its Talent Insights to identify retention risk. Look for more use cases to be delivered using data from both inside and outside of Workday.

It is quite clear that Workday’s Human Capital Management (HCM), Financial Management, Student Management and Planning solutions are smarter than your average enterprise applications. Let’s dig a little deeper into some ways they will get even smarter.

Building Insights In: Prism Analytics

Good reporting is a necessary backbone of applications like HCM and financial management. Reports provide a historical perspective, help you assess your current position and answer questions you have about your performance. But analytics provide a deeper level of understanding and help you ask the right questions. Analytics are iterative by nature. You start with a question, issue or problem: Sales are down. Reports might tell you what regions or products are problematic, but you won’t really know why until you drill down, and you are never quite sure what path you need to take until you find out more. And you won’t even be prompted to investigate until you already have a problem.

Predictive analytics help you anticipate conditions, prompting you to investigate a situation before the problem rears its head. You would like to be able to conduct this kind of investigative work right in the familiar environment of the solution running your business. But it is even more powerful when you can look beyond the structured data that resides within your enterprise applications. Workday has woven the technology acquired from Platfora, into the fabric of its solution, rather than bolting on components. And yet Workday Prism Analytics will not be limited to Workday data, but will also bring in non-Workday data, which can then be presented through Workday reports, scorecards, and dashboards for analysis.

Typically this type of mix of data requires data preparation to be done by a data administrator with the technical skills needed to load the external data, cleanse and prepare it and then create reports, queries and/or dashboards. This activity doesn’t go away with Workday Prism Analytics, but it is simplified enough for a technical business user to perform – and perform quickly enough to be of value. And the data can be blended with, transformed and enriched by your transactional system of record (Workday data). In doing so Workday has struck a nice balance between having a super powerful tool on the back end but also super easy to use on the front end, avoiding the usual trade-offs.

Workday is in the early stages of delivering this, and also has plans down the road for data discovery. Data discovery typically goes after big data in search of patterns that may not be intuitively obvious. Using the right visualization tools, it helps you understand which data is most relevant to your problem, even if you don’t know exactly what to ask for.

Benchmarking Performance with Data as a Service (DaaS)

It takes a different kind of intelligence gathering to understand your business performance in relation to others in similar roles or industries. As a multi-tenant SaaS solution provider, Workday is in a unique position to provide you with access to this kind of comparative data. But of course, you must be willing to give, in order to receive. Workday needs permission to use this data, but paraphrasing the words of Workday leadership: We don’t take customers’ data. They give it to us.

Workday sits on a large volume of data collected from hundreds of customers subscribing to its software. This is data that can be invaluable to the entire Workday community for benchmarking against peers. Customers must opt in to contribute secured aggregated data. In turn, they receive benchmarks. Today this Data as a Service (DaaS) is available for customers to explore Workday usage and HCM results, including workforce composition, diversity, turnover, etc. Financial management data is coming soon. Within the first three weeks of this service being available, Workday reported 100 customers had opted in and contributed data. Obviously, as this number grows, so will the value of the data.

Expect more from Workday along these lines in the future, including data from other sources (private and public) not included in Workday.

Machine Learning and AI

Of course the availability of a growing volume and diversity of data opens the door for machine learning and therefore artificial intelligence. Workday’s acquisition of Identified in 2014 was an important step in incorporating predictive analytics and machine learning into its repertoire of capabilities. Identified’s patented SYMAN (Systematic Mass Normalization) technology mines Facebook for social data and then uses artificial intelligence to transform that data into professional intelligence. The “learning” comes from continued use, validating predictions with outcomes from Workday employee data on performance and retention.

Workday released Workday Talent Insights in 2015, identifying retention risk and delivering a talent scorecard. Through this introduction Workday learned that customers prefer an embedded experience, not a standalone application and that the overall user experience is paramount, along with access to data for training algorithms.

The Power of a Platform

Since it was founded in 2005, Workday has always insisted it was (and is) an applications company, rather than a technology company. It has always offered cloud-based business solutions. While it built these applications on a solid and modern platform, it always resisted the urging of pundits and industry observers to become a “platform” company. Until now.

The Next Chapter for Workday

Now it will be both a “platform” player as well as a business solution provider. The Workday Cloud Platform was soft launched a few months ago with selected service partners. Built on the principles of openness, Workday will provide the tools needed to manage the complete application life cycle, with data modeling and a single Application Programming Interface (API) point of integration.

So how does this make Workday applications smarter? Of course there are no guarantees, but by opening up the platform, along with all the presentation services, conversation services, and analytics Workday uses to make its solutions smarter, the level of intelligence is more likely to deepen. The Platform will include both Workday Talk (NLP) and BOT for anomaly detection.

So, what are developers building on the platform? Here are a few examples:

  • Talent Mobility, allowing employees to visualize career opportunities and connect with employees across globe.
  • ID Services to manage security badges
  • Supplier requisitioning that allows suppliers to directly populate data in Workday
  • Safety services management

Summary

The Innovation Keynote at the 2017 Workday Rising Event was entitled “The Age of Intelligence.” The Keynote was presented by Mike McNamara, the CEO of one of Workday’s largest customers, Flex (a contract manufacturer formerly known as Flextronics). In his opening remarks, Mr. McNamara summed up this new age by saying, “Today it’s not about controlling land and resources, but rather about applying intelligence.”

In many ways, intelligence is a new currency in the global, digital economy. And yet, when most solution providers today talk about intelligent applications, they often simply mean new ways of interacting with the solution and analytics that help you derive more and better insights from the data. But this is the minimum you should expect today. Workday has aggressively taken steps towards real intelligence, through acquisition and its own development efforts. Workday Prism Analytics, Benchmarking and DaaS, machine learning, natural language processing and the Workday Cloud Platform all combine to provide powerful insights and intelligence, not through separate bolt-on tools, but embedded in a single solution.

If your current solutions are not headed down the path towards intelligent applications, if you are starting to look for new, smarter ones, Workday is a good place to start.

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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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