microservices

Purposeful Innovation Helps Deltek Turn Challenges into Opportunity

Deltek is unique within the world of enterprise applications. Focused squarely on meeting the needs of project-driven businesses, on the one hand, it is like hundreds of other solution providers offering some flavor of project management software. On the other hand, it is unique in offering an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) designed specicially for projects-based businesses. Yes, other ERP vendors target similar industries and also offer complementary project management solutions, but no other vendor combines these two software categories quite like Deltek. In the realm of (just) project management, Deltek must face the challenge of differentiating itself in a highly fragmented market. But in creating a software category where only a single vendor qualifies, a different kind of challenge looms. Competitors bring validation.

While Deltek is laser-focused on project-based businesses, this “sector” also brings a tremendous level of diversity. Government contractors are starkly different than advertising, PR and marketing agencies. Architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) differs from legal, healthcare or management and IT consulting services. Energy, oil and gas is different than aerospace and defense. Operating a for-profit business is different than running a nonprofit. Some sectors are heavily regulated; others operate under few constraints. Some manage projects that last days or weeks and others span multiple years. And yet Deltek addresses the needs of all these different types of project-driven businesses – and does it very well.

A general-purpose kind of solution can’t do this effectively, and therefore over the years, through internal development and acquisition, Deltek has collected quite an array of products, leaving it with the added challenge of providing continued innovation across a broad portfolio. And yet it has proven over time its ability to leverage this portfolio to go beyond the traditional 80/20 rule of ERP to deliver last-mile functionality.

And of course, Deltek is confronted with some universal challenges all software companies face today. Technology is rapidly changing the way we do business. At the same time, the workforce is undergoing a generational shift and the access anytime, from anywhere, collaborative promise of the cloud is becoming a “must have.”

Can Deltek’s plans to leverage technology for “purposeful innovation” address these challenges and also unlock the potential for more opportunity for both Deltek itself and its customers? Let’s see.

The Challenge of Being “One of a Kind”

In today’s global, digital economy, competition is fierce and every company strives to differentiate itself. So at first glance, being the only software company competing for market share in a particular software category may appear to be a good thing. Yet while it does put that company in a position of strength, it never means winning business is a slam dunk. Every company has competition, and Deltek is no exception. On the plus side, Deltek recognizes this and never attempts to beat its chest and portray itself as truly “one of a kind.” But, the type of competition it faces will vary depending on what the prospect does and what it sets out to buy.

If a Deltek prospect, say a government contractor, is looking for ERP (think accounting, procurement, inventory, manufacturing, etc.), Deltek will face certain qualified ERP providers. The prospect may not even necessarily think, “I need to find an ERP solution to support my project-based business.” Instead it thinks, “I need a software solution to run my business.” And therefore, Deltek’s differentiation as ERP for project-driven businesses doesn’t necessarily narrow the field of competition at the outset. The door is open for any or all ERP competitors. It then falls on the Deltek sales team to educate the prospect on the differentiating features for a project-based government contractor. When that effort is successful, then the tables are turned and that “one of a kind” status will serve to eliminate the other contenders.

But if the prospect, say a professional services organization, is simply looking for a better way to schedule projects, Deltek has moved away from the “one of a kind” challenge. Here it faces a whole different set of potential competitors in the category of project scheduling software. And this field is  highly fragmented, with offerings that range from simple desktop solutions to robust, multi-faceted solutions for budgeting, project accounting, scheduling, risk management and analytics.

Here oftentimes the issue is the age-old debate between a suite-based solution or a “Best of Breed,” and this debate has been hotly contested for just as long. An integrated suite that provides a complete end-to-end solution (including project management) on which to run your business has been the holy grail of the ERP world for decades. For project-based businesses, this is the premise behind Deltek’s ERP. But if the prospect is just looking for something to help them manage the projects themselves, putting a full ERP solution in front of them will appear as overkill.

To better determine where we stand today in this debate, we asked survey participants in our 2019 Mint Jutras Enterprise Solution Study to choose between a “Suite in a Box” – a complete end-to-end solution that is pre-integrated and ready right “out of the box,” or a more “Best of Breed” approach with a strong core, coupled with the ability to purchase or develop additional functionality and easily (we use the term loosely) connect it back to the core. We recognize the choice is not always so cut and dried, and therefore added some options that are more of a mix but leaning in one direction or the other. Figure 1 paints an interesting picture, made even more interesting in the context of project management.

Figure 1: Which approach is most appealing to you?

Source: Mint Jutras 2019 Enterprise Solution Study

Over time the pendulum has swung back and forth between preferences for the two choices, predicated primarily on two factors. When the debate first emerged, the proponents of an integrated suite pointed to the ease of integration. If you used the functionality built into your ERP, there was no added cost or effort in integrating multiple applications. But the “Best of Breed” camp reasoned against this approach, using the “depth or breadth” argument. They implied integrated suites were a mile wide, but an inch deep, pointing out that the functionality built in was lighter and less feature-rich and definitely not “best of breed.” This is the exact assumption Deltek disproves with its project-based ERP.

And yet, Figure 1 shows the Best of Breed approach is favored over the full suite 2:1. There are actually some very good explanations for this preference amongst project-driven businesses.

Take, for example, a small professional services firm with 10 to 20 consultants. This type of small business may think it is too small for ERP. While Mint Jutras would disagree, we do recognize many might be adequately served by solutions like QuickBooks or desktop or cloud-based simple accounting systems. Yet projects are the lifeblood of their businesses and therefore they need robust tools to schedule and manage those projects.

At the opposite end of the spectrum you might also have large enterprises that have invested heavily in a corporate ERP system chosen for its depth and breadth of administrative and financial capabilities. Many of these corporate ERP solutions lack the operational capabilities required to help the business function efficiently. And therefore, divisions or entire corporations turn to Best of Breed solutions to better manage projects. Deltek not only has that base covered, but also makes it easy to integrate back to any ERP.

Deltek’s broad portfolio of products helps it turn the challenge of being “one of a kind” into a strength. Rather than attempting to serve the varied needs of a very diverse market with a single general purpose, horizontal solution, it offers several different suites targeting the needs of different verticals, as well as a more “best of breed” project and portfolio management solution. But the breadth of its product portfolio comes with its own set of challenges.

The Challenge of Last Mile Functionality in a Diverse Market

The ERP market has long been dominated by the 80/20 rule. With few exceptions, most early solution providers cast a wide net. Unwilling to turn any potential business away without a try, they came to market with very broad solutions. By trying to please everyone, they never had a complete solution for anyone. The 80-20 rule prevailed. Nobody expected a solution to satisfy all their needs (an 80% fit was often the goal), resulting in complexity, as well as invasive (and sometimes expensive) customizations that built barriers to further innovation.

Deltek has been unique in never succumbing to this 80/20 rule, choosing instead to acquire and develop purpose-built solutions that address the needs of specific industries, including what many view as the elusive “last mile functionality.” Its latest acquisition of ComputerEase is yet another example of this pursuit. ComputerEase is the recognized standard in construction accounting, project management, and field management software for contractors. 

Earlier in the year, Deltek acquired Avitru to bolster its Specification Solutions with a library of master specifications (MasterSpec®), specification writing software and professional and spec-writing services. These are just two examples of how Deltek delivers true last mile functionality to the AEC industry.

While these requirements are very unique to AEC, even functional areas that might seem quite generic to other businesses have some unique characteristics across different project-based businesses. Procurement for government contracts differs (a lot) from procurement in residential or industrial AEC sectors, and these differences carry over into accounts payable , otherwise typically a pretty generic function.

But as different as these businesses are from each other, they always share some common requirements.  General ledger is general ledger, even though projects may carry into the chart of accounts. Cash collection is cash collection. Currency conversion, tax rates and multi-company consolidations are applied universally.

Both of the acquisitions above are examples of how Deltek extends the functionality of its core solutions, rather than embedding features through invasive code changes. Yet the types of (potentially shared) services are typically built into the core solution, rather than included as extensions.

Embedding core functionality is reflective of how ERP has traditionally been built, and Deltek ERP solutions are no exception here. Early ERP solutions were monolithic structures. They were likely comprised of modules (e.g. general ledger, accounts payable, inventory management, purchasing, order management, etc.) and certainly some were optional, but none of these could stand alone. All modules shared a common database and all were developed using the same tools and technology. The good news: they all moved forward in lock step, data redundancy was eliminated along with any need for separate integration efforts. But this approach makes it hard for different solutions to share commonly required features and functions and means Deltek must develop the same or similar functionality within several different software suites.

Disruption: A Contributing Factor

This wasn’t too much of problem when requirements for this type of core functionality were quite stable. That is no longer the case. We live in disruptive times. The pace of change and the pace of technology innovation has accelerated beyond anyone’s expectations and it doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.

We asked our 2018 Mint Jutras Enterprise Solution Study participants to assess the level of risk their industries faced in terms of the potential for disruption.

Figure 2: What risk do you face in your industry being disrupted?

Source: 2018 Mint Jutras Enterprise Solution Study

While all but 10% acknowledged some level of risk, the majority (84%) feel the risk is low to medium rather than high or imminent. Yet we feel compelled to ask the question: How do you think the taxi industry would have answered this question on the eve of the launch of Uber? Nobody saw that disruption coming and therefore few (if any) were adequately prepared.

This type of disruption is unlike the disruption of the past that was largely due to new innovative products. Not only can it bring change almost overnight, but it can fundamentally change the way we do business. That kind of change has a cascading impact on the core requirements of ERP.

Technology Helps

Fortunately, today technology exists that can help companies like Deltek to address new or changed common requirements once and apply that solution across different solutions. This kind of technology is foundational.

While early ERP solutions were rigid, monolithic structures, today’s modern solutions are more component-based, also referred to as microservices architectures. Every technologist in our audience knows a microservice architecture is defined as an architectural style that structures an application as a collection of loosely coupled services. For those nontechnical readers, think of it as constructing a solution from a set of Lego building blocks. Purists hate this analogy, and yes, it is an over-simplification. But it is an effective analogy that resonates with most business users that don’t have the interest or inclination to dive deep into technical jargon.

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 a hammer, timber and nails.

With this type of architecture, enhancements, customizations and extensions can be built and consumed much more quickly, and companies like Deltek can develop functionality once and deploy it across multiple products. Not all of Deltek’s solutions today are there yet, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be refactored to take advantage of this kind of technology, and in fact its Vantagepoint product already does.

This noninvasive approach was instrumental in bringing a new, modern user interface, Deltek iAccess, to all its applications. While each Deltek customer will likely be running only one of Deltek’s ERP solutions, Deltek has been delivering more and more functionality via cloud-based add-ons, including Deltek CRM, Deltek Resource Planning and Deltek Talent Management. With iAccess providing that front end across all products, users experience a consistent look and feel throughout, making the integration appear seamless. Mint Jutras expects that this kind of approach will eventually be used to bring change and new innovation to the different cores as well.

In the meantime, iAccess is also a step in the right direction to address another challenge – that of the generational shift in today’s workforce.

The Challenge of A Generational Shift

This generational shift is a given today. Baby Boomers are retiring at an accelerating rate, passing the torch primarily (but not exclusively) to Generation X. But it is not the Gen Xers as much as the Millennials that are creating demand for access to data from anywhere, from any device, with a new and improved user experience. This generation never knew a world without the Internet, smart phones and on-demand access to technology. They never used software that came with (or needed) a user manual. And they are more transient. Employees don’t come to a company and stay forever or even for a long time. As more Baby Boomers retire, the tribal knowledge they have accumulated over decades goes out the door with them, contributing to a skills shortage.

Many of the younger generation have developed a dependency on technology. Without decades of experience, they have come to rely on it to guide them through business processes. At the same time, we’re all asked to do more, and we’d love to accomplish this without working longer hours and making sacrifices. Never before has the home/work life balance been more top of mind.

New intuitive user interfaces, like iAccess, are certainly a giant leap in the right direction. But this is just a start. Deltek is also taking two other, equally important steps through adding automation and intelligence.

Robotic Process Automation for the Mundane

Have you ever secretly wished for a personal assistant who could relieve you of the burden of repetitive, mundane and time-consuming tasks that really don’t require the kind of smarts or skills you hope you bring to your job? If you are a Baby Boomer who launched your career in a business setting back in the 1970’s, you probably had access to the services of a secretary or an administrative assistant. After all, you couldn’t survive without one to help navigate the administrative nightmare of a generation that was completely dependent on paper and manual processes. Today technology has made us far more self-sufficient, but we’re also expected to get more done – a lot more. While nobody misses those golden olden days, everyone from every generation sure could use some help today.

Often called “bots,” Robotic Process Automation (RPA) can in fact relieve employees of repetitive, mundane and time-consuming tasks. RPA is part user interface, making use of natural language processing (think Siri or Alexa for the enterprise) and part artificial intelligence (AI) to help people automate and complete repetitive tasks in a fraction of the time it has always taken, without introducing the occasional (but inevitable) human error. Adding bots to your workforce can boost productivity, thereby helping humans get more of the “real” work done. It sure would be nice if Deltek customers could say, “Hey Deltek! Help me out.”

And so…Deltek is partnering with Alirrium, an authorized reseller of UiPath, a leading Robotic Process Automation software provider, to offer Deltek customers RPA for automating processes within and across Deltek solutions, as well as between Deltek and third party applications.

In addition to natural language processing (NLP) for voice communication, it will also use optical character recognition (OCR) and in the future, combine it with machine learning (ML) in order to turn OCR into ICR or intelligent character recognition. For example, if you take a picture of your receipt, that added intelligence can distinguish a receipt for a meal from a parking receipt. In many of the industries served by Deltek even time and expense reporting is compliance driven. Deltek’s goal therefore is to make it easy by combining mobile, OCR, machine learning and GEO location tracking to not only improve efficiency and assure compliance, but also add a level of intelligence.

Building the Company Brain

While automation is a necessary step in making companies and people more efficient and productive today, it is really just the first step in a longer journey. As noted above, Deltek’s innovation strategy also includes adding intelligence to both processes and decision-making. Deltek views this journey as an evolution of the company brain.

Project-based companies today are awash with data from operations, customers, projects, the workforce… The question is: What to do with all this data. The possibilities are endless to augment human decision-making, making it more predictive with AI and ML. Whether they realize it or not, everyone makes decisions constantly that involve prediction:

  • What is the probably of winning a deal?
  • Is this prospect a good fit?
  • What is the probability of project success?
  • What will be the schedule outcome?
  • Will a vendor deliver on time?
  • What makes an employee a “good employee”?
  • Who should we hire next?
  • How can we improve days sales outstanding (DSO) and cashflow?

In order to make the best decisions, with the most predictable outcome, we consciously or perhaps unconsciously look for patterns in data to determine what makes projects, teams and resources successful.  But the human brain is limited in how much it can examine, absorb and analyze. AI and ML know no such limitations and can operate at speeds that can only be described as super-human. This is power Deltek is looking to leverage.

An early example of this is its recently launched Acumen Touchstone , the first product in the next generation of Deltek’s Project and Portfolio Management (PPM) tools and a key step towards its Project Intelligence Cloud (PIC). According to Deltek:

“The Project Intelligence Cloud is a technology refresh designed to solidify Deltek as the industry leader in the PPM space. This web-based technology will ultimately have many functions designed for project-based business, including cost, schedule and risk management, analytics and workflow.”

The immediate benefit of Deltek Acumen Touchstone is in its time-saving capabilities, automating the project schedule process. Schedule submissions are analyzed using schedule diagnostic AI for quality and deliverability. If it does not meet the required standard, the submitter is automatically emailed a report showing the metric score and deficiencies to be corrected.

This is the kind of purposeful innovation that not only helps Deltek overcome its own challenges, but also assists customers in seizing opportunity.

Wrap Up

In the world of project-driven business, Deltek is both unique and one of many. As a pure play project management solution provider, it must differentiate itself in a fragmented market. It does so through its depth and breadth.

But if you are looking for an ERP solution provider that focuses exclusively on project-based business, there is only one: Deltek. Yes, other ERP vendors target similar industries and also offer complementary project management solutions, but no other vendor combines these two software categories quite like Deltek.

However, the market in which Deltek competes is far from uniform. Government contracting, AEC, A&D, professional services, management consulting, legal, healthcare, creative agencies, energy, oil and gas are all very different from one another. A one size fits all solution simply doesn’t work. Deltek’s broad portfolio of products helps it turn this challenge into a strength. Rather than attempting to serve the varied needs of a very diverse market with a single general purpose, horizontal solution, it offers several different suites targeting the needs of different verticals.

This too presents its own set of challenges, but advanced technologies like microservices architecture, cloud-based computing and all the various forms of AI are the key to turning those challenges into real opportunity. But leveraging technology for technology sake is not the answer. Purposeful innovation that effectively leverages technology to produce real, tangible value is Deltek’s answer. But this is a long and evolutionary process – one that we will be watching closely, not necessarily from afar, but from the outside. If you are a project-based business, you might want to consider watching from inside the fold.

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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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