mobility

Acumatica Poised as ERP Trends Converge

 

Partners Attracted by Technology, Innovation and Choice

Acumatica held its annual Partner Summit earlier this week in Broomfield, CO, just outside of Denver. Attendance this year topped 400, with over 100 partner companies represented. Over the past year Acumatica has undergone some management changes, bringing in a new CEO and a new head of partner strategy, a key role considering 100% of its sales are indirect. There was a definite sense of excitement in the air this year, partly as a result of the new management, but largely due to a combination of technology, innovation and choice of cloud-based deployment options offered in response to the latest trends impacting Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP).

Mint Jutras has been writing a lot about four specific trends this year. Its report, 2014 Trends in ERP Converge, looked back over these “big trends” in enterprise software from 2013 and concluded that we don’t need any new or different trends for ERP in 2014. Cloud, mobile, social and big data will do just fine. However, we have concluded that it is no longer sufficient to treat them as independent movements. We need them to converge around a single common goal of making ERP easier to consume, thus bringing more value to the business. Enlisting the aid of OEM and VAR partners, Acumatica has set its sights on delivering on this promise of added value.

The Key Trends

As I have noted before (but it is worth repeating), the 2014 Trends in ERP Converge report talked about four specific trends. These should come as no surprise to anyone following enterprise software:

  • Cloud and software as a service (SaaS)
  • Mobile access and the consumerization of IT
  • “Social” as a way to deliver collaboration, connectivity and visibility
  • “Big data” for intelligence and decision-making

It is impossible to talk about the convergence of these trends without mentioning innovation that is easier to consume in a less disruptive way. This often requires new ways of engaging with ERP in order to change the whole ERP customer experience. So how does Acumatica address each of these trends?

Pure Cloud

Acumatica can be characterized as a pure cloud solution. The Acumatica solution was born in a browser and therefore has always had a zero footprint on the client, making it accessible any time, from anywhere. No legacy issues here. It is built from the ground up with cloud technologies: SOAP, web services, HTML5, Azure, Amazon, etc.

Many use the terms “cloud” and “SaaS” interchangeably, but indeed they are not the same. The distinction is quite simple and need not be over-complicated:

  • Cloud refers to access to computing, software, storage of data over a network (generally the Internet.) You may have purchased a license for the software and installed it on your own computers or those owned and managed by another company, but your access is through the Internet and therefore through the “cloud,” whether private or public.
  • SaaS is exactly what is implied by what the acronym stands for: Software as a Service. Software is delivered only as a service. It is not delivered on a CD or other media to be loaded on your own (or another’s) computer. It is accessed over the Internet and is generally paid for on a subscription basis. It does not reside on your computers at all.

Using these definitions, we can confidently say all SaaS is cloud computing, but not all cloud computing is SaaS. Acumatica is cloud-based but not always delivered as SaaS.

The downside of being “cloud only” often means less choice. Typically a cloud-based solution is only available as software as a service (SaaS). Not so with Acumatica. Lots of choices here: multi-tenant SaaS, single tenant SaaS (more like a hosted model), or even traditional on-premise deployments. You can purchase a perpetual license or pay a subscription. It is designed to be a multi-tenant cloud solution, but that doesn’t prevent Acumatica from offering it in a variety of different environments and Acumatica is quite unique in this regard.

Some industry observers, including those that have their own specific definition of what constitutes “true SaaS,” might argue against this approach. While Mint Jutras is seeing a major shift in acceptance of SaaS solutions, our research also proves that there is  continued interest in other delivery options for the access any time, from anywhere advantages of the cloud. But we see a decided decline in interest in traditional, licensed on-premise solutions (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Which deployment methods would you consider today?

Figure 1 AcumaticaSource: Mint Jutras 2011, 2013 and 2014 ERP Solution Studies

Many are simply looking to unburden themselves from the care and feeding of enterprise apps like ERP. They are attracted by lower costs, easier upgrades, less hardware and IT staff and are less worried about a single prescription of how cloud solutions are delivered. They are looking for business partners they can trust and having more choices in how they address these needs can be very attractive.

However, Acumatica does sacrifice some of the advantages of a pure multi-tenant solution through this approach. For those not familiar with the terminology, Mint Jutras uses the following simple definitions:

  • Multi-tenant SaaS: Multiple companies use the same instance of (hosted) software. Configuration settings will vary per company and data is protected from access by other companies (tenants).
  • Single-tenant (or Multi-instance) SaaS: Each company is given its own instance of the (hosted) software.

Those vendors that only support a multi-tenant environment have the luxury of maintaining one single line of code. By not having to worry about multiple instances at different (potentially customized) version levels, they are better positioned to deliver more innovation, faster.

However, at the Partner Summit, Acumatica announced a new Acumatica Grow Program, which leverages the multi-tenant capabilities of its solution within the partner community. FusionRMS for SMB Retail is one example.

Fusion Retail Management System (FusionRMS) is a suite of applications extending the reach of Acumatica to the SMB retail and wholesale distribution markets. Offering added functionality such as point of sale (POS) and warehouse management (WMS), its solutions are seamlessly integrated with Acumatica without effecting core functionality. Now, through the Grow Program, it is also offering multi-tenant SaaS back office accounting supported through Amazon Web Services (AWS).

While this might sacrifice some of the flexibility of choice other Acumatica customers enjoy, Fusion Retail Management manages a single line of code and can pass along savings to its customers. This helps them support clients that otherwise might not be able to afford Acumatica.

Fusion Retail Management not only sells direct, but also other partners bring them small retail clients that might be too small for Acumatica now. This is preferable to simply losing a deal, particularly in knowing they will get them back if the prospect grows. FusionRMS supports these small clients until they grow large enough to justify the purchase or subscription of Acumatica. At that point, FusionRMS turns the client back over to the partner.

A Mobile Framework

The trend towards mobile goes hand-in-hand with cloud, as mobile access is gained through web-enabled services. We are seeing different approaches to mobility in the ERP market these days. Some vendors are adopting a “mobile first” design approach. Any features and functions are being designed to “fit” on the real estate of a tablet or smart phone. Others are taking a “mobile apps” approach where they are releasing multiple, individual purpose-built apps that complement core ERP. Some are building these themselves and others are leaving this development effort to partners. Some are hosting “App stores” where customers can shop. Others simply bundle them into existing software licenses.

Acumatica is taking the approach of providing a mobile development framework, purposely leaving the actual delivery of the mobile apps to the partners in order to provide them more opportunity. But this framework isn’t built for a developer. According to CTO Mike Chtchelkonogov (aka Mike C), “You no longer have to be a developer to target the mobile market. In the past, partners may have needed to hire specialists to create iOS or Android applications, but with Acumatica’s new mobile development framework, any of our partners can do it.”

This is especially important to the Acumatica channel because many partners are business and implementation specialists and not technologists. According to Mike C, the partner [or the customer] can take any part of Acumatica and expose it on the mobile device. So what kind of opportunity are we talking about? That might be in delivering a customized solution through services, or building an app to be sold through Acumatica’s app store.

What About Big Data and Social?

There was not a lot of direct reference to “social” and “big data” at the Acumatica Partner Summit. But that doesn’t mean either is being ignored, only that these trends and concepts are being worked into the product roadmap naturally, not as separate and distinct efforts. In fact many of the new features of its upcoming new release 5.0 indirectly support the goals of a “social” enterprise.

Social can mean different things to different people. It has some intuitive connotations in the world of consumer goods where social sentiment can have a serious impact, both positively and negatively, when shared publicly. But the real impact in any industry, while perhaps not as intuitive, is quite real.

When you take the view that “social” should mean improved collaboration, visibility and connectivity, then you start to understand the connection with the ERP user experience. Much of the development effort that produced the latest release 5.0 has gone into the user experience. Probably the best testament to the result was the fact that several key top executives put their hands on keyboards, or their own mobile devices, and ran their own demos. Not only were these “real” demos (not mock-ups or a series of screen shots in PowerPoint), but no pre-sale consultant or sales engineer was needed.

Simply by putting access to an ERP directly in the hands of high-level decision-makers improves connectivity, which in turn fosters visibility and collaboration.

Another announcement at the Partner Summit reinforced Acumatica’s commitment to another type of connectivity: a deep partnership with Azuqua, a cloud connectivity platform. On stage Azugua demonstrated its recently launched cloud integration service featuring connectivity between a broad range of popular web services (including Salesforce, Office 365 and Hubspot) to Acumatica’s system. Interestingly enough, the integration demonstrated on the main stage was so dead simple that it led to skepticism from industry observers and influencers in the audience. Was it too good to be true? I suspect it is real, but time and partner experience will tell.

As to “big data,” Acumatica was quick to point out its approach was very different from those of ERP giants SAP and Oracle. Instead of building a “big data” platform outside of the ERP system and requiring retrofitting of existing systems, Acumatica is building this kind of capability into its solution. This speaks to speed and ease of handling large volumes of structured data, but downplays (ignores?) the inclusion of massive volumes of unstructured data. It appears this is also something Acumatica might leave to partners and it will take a special kind of partner to deliver on this.

The Convergence of Trends Toward a Goal

If you recall, in our intro, the goal was to have these trends converge around a single common goal of making ERP easier to consume. The better the experience, the more connected the people running the businesses are to ERP and to each other. In fact over the past few years, we’ve observed an increase in the percentage of employees who actually use ERP. Today that percent is about 55%, up from about 20% less than a decade ago. In addition, 62% of survey participants claim top-level executives have direct access to and regularly use ERP. So Acumatica executives are not the only execs in the driver seat when it comes to using ERP. Another 30% indicate these high level execs have at least some access to ERP.

This, combined with expectations raised by the consumerization of IT, is perhaps the catalyst in shifting priorities in terms of ERP evaluations. While fit and functionality was king for many years, it has slipped to number two in the priority of selection criteria. “Ease of use” has taken the number one spot.

But “ease of use” means different things to different people. In fact it means different things to a single individual (Figure 2).

Figure 2: What does ease of use mean? (top 3 priorities)

Figure 2 AcumaticaSource: Mint Jutras 2014 ERP Solution Study

While many vendors are focusing efforts on “beautiful” software these days, beauty is always subjective. Those using ERP today are more concerned about efficiency and productivity than in a visually appealing user interface. Being a relative new-comer to ERP, Acumatica (founded in 2007) might not have the same depth of features that other more mature solutions have. But the development team seems to be working on a good balance of features and functions, along with better usability and a web platform that helps partners further develop breadth and depth. If the reaction to the main stage demos is any indication, partners and the few customers in attendance at the Partner Summit agree.

Ehrin Dimitry, CEO of AME Corporation, an Acumatica customer said, “I thought I knew what our next steps were until I saw Acumatica 5.0. My wheels are turning!” Customers and partners seemed genuinely excited about this newest release, a clear indication of perceived value.

Summary and Key Takeaways

As a pure cloud solution provider, Acumatica is very well positioned to deliver the benefits of the cloud through a variety of different deployment options. Virtually every partner I spoke with at the Partner Summit was drawn to Acumatica for its technology. Few offer Acumatica exclusively and many of them have experience selling, implementing, servicing or developing other ERP platforms. But that seemed only to strengthen their opinion of and commitment to the Acumatica solution. They like the partner friendliness of a relatively small company that sells exclusively through the channel. They are drawn to cloud computing but like being able to offer choice.

Customers and partners alike were enthusiastic about the latest release and the roadmap forward. Overall Acumatica seems poised to deliver as major trends like cloud, mobile, social and big data start to converge.

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Sage Technology Strategy Leverages Convergence of Trends

Innovation focused on Cloud, Mobility and Data, driving connectivity and collaboration

At the recent Sage Summit 2014 (July 29-31, 2014), Sage North America outlined the strategy driving the company’s technology roadmap, a strategy that leverages three key trends shaping the future of enterprise applications: cloud, mobility, and big data/business intelligence (BI). At the same time it also hit on the fourth trend rocking the Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) world: the connectivity and collaboration of “social.” A roadmap is exactly what is needed for any Sage prospect or customer contemplating these trends and navigating the journey into the future.

A recent Mint Jutras report, 2014 Trends in ERP Converge, looked back over these “big trends” in enterprise software from 2013 and concluded that we don’t need any new or different trends for ERP in 2014. Cloud, mobile, social and big data will do just fine. However, it is no longer sufficient to treat them as independent movements. We need them to converge around a single common goal of making ERP easier to consume, thus bringing more value to the business. Indeed the key messages at Sage Summit – cloud, convergence and intelligence – were very much in line with this way of thinking.

The Key Trends

In 2014 Trends in ERP Converge we talked about four specific trends. These should come as no surprise to anyone following enterprise software:

  • Cloud and software as a service (SaaS)
  • Mobile access and the consumerization of IT
  • “Social” as a way to deliver collaboration, connectivity and visibility
  • “Big data” for intelligence and decision-making

It is impossible to talk about the convergence of these trends without mentioning innovation that is easier to consume in a less disruptive way. This often requires new ways of engaging with ERP in order to change the whole ERP customer experience. Sage’s approach to delivering on this promise is to reduce the footprint of core ERP, replacing those functions (over time) with cloud services, while making both cloud and mobility central to its technology strategy. There are some key advantages to this approach both for Sage itself, and its customers. With a diverse portfolio of ERP products, Sage is able to develop new features and functions once and deploy across multiple product lines, delivering more innovation that is easier for its customers to consume. It also facilitates a more incremental, and therefore less disruptive transition to cloud-based systems.

When Less is More

For some it may not be intuitively obvious why we characterize “reducing the ERP footprint” as a step in the right direction in delivering more innovation. Let’s explore how that works. First of all, Mint Jutras defines ERP as an integrated suite of modules that forms the operational and transactional system of record of a business, including all the master data needed to support the full order-to-cash cycle. This is a rudimentary definition because today ERP is likely to do much more than this.

What we refer to as “core” ERP is developed as a tightly integrated set of modules, using a single data base model; integration is built in and there is little or no redundancy of data elements, except where there is a specific need. Not only do all modules of an ERP solution share a common database, but also all are developed using the same tools and technology and they all move forward in lock step.

This eliminates data redundancy and any need for separate integration efforts. But it also means purchasing can’t move forward until order management, shop floor control and inventory management modules are ready to move. It takes massive efforts of coordination by the vendor to make sure all the pieces of the puzzle more forward together. And it takes similarly massive efforts of coordination for all departments within their customers’ organizations to take those next steps altogether.

But what if a supplier (or, even worse, a customer) demands that your enterprise change the way you conduct business with them? What if your current solution can’t support that new way of doing business? Maybe you need to upgrade, enhance or even swap out the purchasing (or order management) module for a new solution that does. If purchasing (or order management) was a separate application you could, although that would most likely require additional effort (and cost) to integrate that separate application with ERP. And when you make a change, the integration would likely require change as well.

What if, instead, you could take that tightly integrated purchasing module of ERP and loosely couple it, or better yet, deliver it as a service? That way, if you wanted to replace it, you would just have to uncouple it and swap in a new one. Or perhaps you just leave the original module in place and enhance it with new services.

In fact, Sage is taking exactly this approach as it develops much of its new functionality, and it is going one step further and placing those services in the cloud. This eliminates the headaches associated with expanding hardware configurations or incompatible infrastructure requirements and it responds to the growing preferences for cloud-based solutions.

Sage uncovered these preferences in its own survey of customers and prospects, but Mint Jutras data also confirms them. Its annual ERP Solution Studies perennially ask which deployment options would be considered if respondents were to purchase a new solution. For years software as a service (SaaS) lagged significantly behind traditional on-premises options, but today SaaS is more likely to be considered than on-premises solutions (Figure 1). In addition, hosted solutions are also favored over those on premises. Most hosted solutions today are also accessed securely through web-based interfaces, but usually employ a private cloud versus the public cloud of a SaaS-based solution.

Figure 1: Which deployment methods would you consider today?

Sage Figure 1Source: Mint Jutras 2011, 2013 and 2014 ERP Solution Studies

Sage presents this as a “hybrid cloud strategy” intended to help customers move incrementally to the cloud, with all the benefits of lower cost, faster implementation, and easy access. But perhaps the bigger benefit is in helping customers add incremental functionality without the usual cost and effort of a full upgrade.

Whether this is a “cloud strategy” or an innovation strategy or both, the net effect will be to surround ERP with a series of “Connected Services,” with cloud and mobility central to all that is developed and delivered.

 Cloud Announcements

With this focus on the cloud, Sage has made several announcements aimed at different segments of its target market (companies with less than 500 employees).

  • Sage 300 Online was launched at Sage Summit. Sage 300 Online targets the small and smaller midsize SMBs that have outgrown their basic accounting software and “are seeking to increase collaboration, streamline their operations and get a complete picture of their business anytime from anywhere.” Running on Microsoft Azure, it is a multi-tenant SaaS solution.
  • Sage also allowed a “sneak peek” of the new Sage One mobile app for “solopreneurs”, expected later this year.
  • And right after Sage Summit, Sage announced limited availability of Sage ERP X3 Online (for medium-sized businesses) in North America as of September 2014. X3 Online will be offered in a hosted environment.

In addition Sage has created the Sage Data Cloud, which is available to all customers whether they are running applications in the cloud or on-premises. Customers have access to 50 gigabytes (or more, if needed) of cloud storage. Three different types of data might be stored in the Sage Data Cloud:

  • Reference data: this is largely master data that would be defined by applications. If the source of the data is an on-premise application, that application is the master of that data and the data in the cloud is replicated, but automatically synchronized.
  • Transactional data: these are transactions (e.g. orders, invoices, payments, etc.) that might originate in a separate cloud application but may need to be processed by or stored in ERP, applying all the same logic and business rules ERP would use if they had been entered directly there.
  • Cloud-only data: This might be additional data used only by the cloud-based application, perhaps something like a reference to other products of interest that might be used by a sales person in efforts to up sell or cross sell.

What About Mobility?

As noted above cloud and mobility are central to all Sage innovation. According to Sage, it is, “Leveraging consumer trends in mobility, [and] making the cloud more actionable for SMBs.” The first of these applications have been Sage Mobile Sales, Sage Mobile Service, and Sage Mobile Payments. Using the Sage Data Cloud, Sage mobile applications are device-native and enable SMBs to use the Cloud in the way that provides real value to the business while imitating the real life of “mobile” individuals today.

Here at Mint Jutras we agree with Sage regarding the importance of mobility. In fact, we would contend that mobility has the potential to be the biggest game changer to impact ERP in the near term. And yet few of the Mint Jutras survey participants seem to recognize this enormous potential (Figure 2).

Figure 2: How important is the ability to access ERP through a mobile device?

Sage Figure 2Source: Mint Jutras 2014 ERP Solution Study

Why do almost half (44%) think mobile access isn’t all that important? Mint Jutras believes the answer lies in the fact that “mobile access” can be interpreted in many ways and because the real value does not lie in just lifting and shifting traditional ERP functions to a mobile device. The true value is in delivering access that is purpose-built for a particular person, playing an individual role, performing a specific function.

Most individuals that don’t spend the vast majority of their time sitting at a desk all day have specific functions they perform, or questions they are most likely to ask or be asked, or decisions they must make. And they need to make these decisions and answer these questions while not sitting at a desk. They don’t necessarily perceive running ERP as the solution to perform those functions, answer those questions or make those decisions; instead they want an “app for that.” However, that app is most likely to be powered by the data in ERP.

That is exactly what these new mobile apps from Sage do, delivered through the cloud as connected services. This is the convergence Sage is talking about: the convergence of cloud and mobile and the convergence of business skills and personal skills. With the consumerization of IT, individuals have come to expect the same type of ease of navigation and general usability they have become accustomed to in their personal use of smart devices.

 What About Big Data and Social?

While we didn’t see too many specific announcements about either “big data” or “social” coming out of Sage Summit, we did hear about intelligence and data access. In fact we got to see a preview of Sage Intelligence online (or Sage Intelligence Go!), which will leverage existing data inside of Sage ERP with Microsoft Excel to filter, analyze and summarize data. But Sage Intelligence Go! will not be limited to the data within ERP. It will also be able to import data from external sources and summarize it along with internal data. Sage Intelligence Go! will be the cloud version of Sage Intelligence and will be available in 2015.

An emerging trend in ERP discussion lately has been the shift from focusing on process to focusing on data. To that end, Sage presented additional results from its own survey. Sage claims its data shows that access to more intelligence leads to better usability of solutions, resulting in a 10% increase in productivity. Companies with more usable data, with more accessible intelligence grow 35% faster. Without direct access to this survey data, Mint Jutras cannot substantiate those claims, but we point them out because it shows a shift in focus from Sage to reflect these last two of our four trends.

And yes, the discussion of “big data” often leads to the discussion of “social.” Social can mean different things to different people. It has some intuitive connotations in the world of consumer goods where social sentiment can have a serious impact, both positively and negatively, when shared publicly. But does it have the same impact in other industries? The connection is there, although perhaps not so intuitive.

When you take the view that “social” should mean improved collaboration, visibility and connectivity, then you start to understand the connection with the ERP user experience. The better the experience, the more connected the people running the businesses are to ERP and to each other. Mint Jutras is already seeing a shift in the market to higher levels of engagement with ERP. Not too long ago a very small percentage of employees at most companies actually used ERP.

Figure 3: What percentage of your employees uses ERP?

Sage Figure 3Source: Mint Jutras 2014 ERP Solution Study

This percentage has grown to over half (55%). But here we see the cloud having a very definite impact (Figure 3). Those companies using SaaS ERP have a much higher rate of employee engagement (63%), further reinforcing the value of “access any time from anywhere.”

By combining the ability to share data in real time via the cloud with the convenience of mobility, Sage paves the way for better connectivity and easier collaboration – the real meaning of social.

Summary and Key Takeaways

Seldom has an entire market agreed on what trends are most influential, and yet today, here we are. But this level of consensus brings its own set of challenges. With all enterprise software vendors jumping on the cloud, mobile, big data and social bandwagons, the competition will be fierce. Vendors will have to deliver in order to capture the minds and wallets of both customers and prospects. They must accelerate the pace of innovation, while they improve connectivity, visibility and collaboration in order to draw the biggest crowd of willing users.

This makes the consumers of this technology the big winners.

Sage is well aligned with these trends, given its vision for cloud, mobile and intelligence and its “convergence” mindset. But given its long history of acquisition, in many ways it must reinvent itself. That is exactly what it has in mind. If it can successfully reduce the footprint of its (multiple) core ERP solutions and ramp up innovation through connected services, they just might be able to pull it off. At Sage Summit 2015 we’ll be looking to see if the “old” Sage shows up or if this transformation is complete or still underway. Mint Jutras votes for “still underway” since by this time next year, things will have (of course) changed even more.

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Epicor Insights 2014: Epicor Responds to Trends in ERP

Epicor Software held its annual user conference this week. True to its name, Insights 2014 did just that… provided insight into recent innovations and roadmaps for the future. Epicor experienced some management changes this year, bringing in a new CEO, Chief Product Officer (CPO) and new General Managers (GMs) for the Americas for both its ERP and Retail businesses. But there were some familiar faces in the executive ranks as well, some with tenures between 15 and 20 years with the company, striking a nice balance between old and new blood, so to speak. The goal of these management changes is to raise the game in terms of technology-enabled products that turn customers into “raving fans for life.”

Throughout the conference, attendees heard reference to what have emerged as the top trends in the enterprise software industry: cloud, mobile, “big data” and social. In addition I believe Epicor addressed the different components that I have been touting as characteristics of “next generation” ERP: providing better ways to engage with ERP in order to encourage more and better use, focus on configuration to replace customization, more innovation and better integration.

Towards that end, Epicor made four announcements:

  • The availability of Epicor ERP version 10, redesigned for device mobility, deployment choice, accelerated performance and social collaboration
  • Support for SQL Server 2014: Not only is Epicor ERP version 10 fully optimized for SQL Server 2014, but Epicor has “purified the technology stack.” That means it only runs on SQL Server in a Microsoft .Net environment.
  • The introduction of the Commerce Connect Platform, fully integrated with Epicor ERP Version 10, to drive rich B2B and B2C online experiences for consumers, customers and suppliers, supporting mobile access and secure PCI-compliant payments
  • New Epicor Windows Phone 8 touch-optimized apps for time and expense tracking, supporting multiple devices and “bring your own device (BYOD)” strategies

Amidst these announcements and as a result of speaking with both Epicor executives and customers, here are my key take-aways from the event.

Protect, Extend Converge Lives On

This has been Epicor’s mantra for many years: promising investment protection and continued innovation that will extend the footprint of its customers’ solutions, while also converging multiple product lines acquired through the years. The “protect” and “extend” part isn’t unique. Many vendors promise the same, although some do a better job of delivering than others. However, Epicor is unique in having delivered on a convergence strategy. The result was Epicor ERP version 9, originally called Epicor 9, reflecting that it was the result of converged functionality of nine different ERP products. The “9” has now become “10,” but that is not because it has merged a 10th product, but is more reflective of a traditional “version” level.

With the merger of Epicor with Activant a few years back you might have expected Epicor to bring those new products into the fold, so to speak. Yet instead it appeared to diverge a bit from this convergence strategy. The lion’s share of Epicor’s ERP products target manufacturing, and to a lesser degree distribution, largely due to the overlap of the two industries. Manufacturers often distribute their own products and more and more distributors might engage in some form of light manufacturing. But I would call Epicor ERP a multi-purpose ERP. Activant brought multiple products to the party but each was focused squarely on distribution. Not only were Activant products purpose-built for distribution, but also over time each has become even more focused and fine-tuned to specific segments of wholesale distribution.

So it seemed to me at the time that Epicor was diverging from its convergence strategy. Rather than bringing a new ERP to wholesale distributors, instead Epicor began to converge them on a technology level, bringing its ICE technology to the distribution party. This seemed to me to be a smart move. Don’t get me wrong; I applaud Epicor’s convergence strategy. Back in 2012 I wrote:

Thus far Epicor has been not only first, but also unique in promising (and then delivering) a single rationalized ERP solution. Other ERP companies have toyed with the idea and even announced such plans, but then either pulled back upon encountering resistance from their installed base of customers or subsequently decided against such a strategy. While at first glance these decisions may have seemed to be in the best interest of their customers, these ERP solution providers may in fact have done customers a disservice in tacitly encouraging them to remain on old, outdated technology that simply cannot serve them well in today’s fast-moving and connected world.

And yet, the resistance from customers was typically not resistance to new technology (like Epicor ICE), but resistance against a perceived, or real forced march to a new product. Each customer wants to move forward and/or make a change at its own pace and on its own terms. And if its current ERP is not perceived to be “broken” the customer is not in any rush and procrastination is the result. At times this procrastination is the product of an older generation of IT professionals who would be content to manage familiar solutions right up until retirement. In fact many of them would benefit from a gentle push.

While Epicor has never forced anyone to move, by boldly declaring Epicor ERP as the future, it provided more incentive to consider moving to it, encouraging those stuck in the past to replace solutions with aging, legacy architectures. Most saw the value in re-implementing rather than carrying forward decisions that had been constrained by limitations of applications and technology in the past. Instead of a mass revolt, as feared by others, many customers embraced this and saw it as an opportunity to justify moving forward.

I still strongly believe in what they are doing with Epicor ERP and in fact Epicor executives still say they have a long-term convergence strategy that includes distribution and the Activant products. But I am not sure they need to bring the two together into a single ERP for two reasons:

  • Epicor is big enough and strong enough to manage two product lines, particularly if they are supported by the same underlying technological architecture (ICE)
  • ICE provides a framework whereby development efforts can be shared across product lines

There will be features and functions shared by all companies, some shared by distributors (or manufacturers) only and some required for niche markets or micro-verticals. For like needs, the Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) and Web 2.0 capabilities of ICE allow Epicor to build once and deploy across multiple solutions, freeing up resources that would otherwise be required to satisfy those requirements in each product line – freeing them up to work on more targeted functionality which has the potential of helping its customers in wholesale distribution (and possibly other markets) achieve a measure of competitive differentiation. This could also help Epicor reach into more narrow micro-verticals that might require more specialized features and functions. But (at least for now) Epicor will leave that opportunity to partners.

Developing “shared” components is the top priority for Epicor right now, not only to share across manufacturing and distribution, but also to add more value to its suite of solutions for retail. An example might be using the ERP functions to strengthen financial management options for retail. You will hear Epicor talk in terms of developing more “granular” functionality and other vendors and influencers will talk about “loosely coupled.” Regardless of the terminology, the net effect is to allow customers to add more features and functions on top of what they already have (with less disruption) and to allow vendors like Epicor to build features and functions once and re-use them across different products and customer bases.

Why is this so important? The obvious answer: to deliver more innovation.

Accelerating Innovation

I’ve written a lot about “next generation” ERP over the past year and I have also written a lot about cloud and SaaS. When it comes to more innovation, the two are connected. First of all the increased pace of innovation is supported through the use of web-based services, object-oriented data models and component architecture. All these combine to support more rapid development of new features and functions, which are more easily consumed as needed. ICE is a key factor in helping Epicor keep pace. So how does SaaS fit in?

A vendor that delivers a product exclusively in a multi-tenant SaaS environment has a clear advantage in delivering enhancements. Solution providers that deliver on-premise solutions are forced to maintain multiple versions of the software. Very often the software is offered on a choice of platforms and databases, and the vendor must support multiple release levels determined by its customers’ ability to keep pace with upgrades. For every person-day vendors spend on innovation, they spend another multiple of that day making sure it works across multiple environments. So if the vendor only delivers innovation in a pure, multi-tenant SaaS solution it needs only support and develop a single line of code. This means it can spend more time on pure innovation and that raises the bar for all vendors.

Epicor’s convergence strategy has helped it compete, but it does support both on-premise licenses and SaaS deployments and until now has offered its converged ERP on multiple platforms. Purifying the stack and limiting the solution to a SQL Server based Microsoft .Net environment reduces development efforts and allows Epicor to optimize for this environment, which adds (2X) speed and (4X) scalability. So while it doesn’t enjoy the same economy of scale as a provider of a pure multi-tenant SaaS solution, it has helped stack the deck for improved development productivity. In addition, it has honed its skills in rapid application (agile) development. And in case you are wondering how this will be received by existing customers, I am told that 90% of Epicor ERP customers are already running on the Microsoft stack. As a result, I expect user resistance to be low, particularly with the demonstrated improved performance.

So I would expect the rate of innovation to start to accelerate from here, at least in terms of Epicor ERP 10. To effect further gains, it will have to carry this strategy over to the distribution side of the house, or it will need to complete the convergence to include the Activant products.

In the meantime Epicor is leveraging the ICE technology to bring more “next generational” characteristics to all its products. Bringing its Epicor Business Activity Query (BAQ) tool to Prophet 21 (an Activant product) is an example. New features of Epicor ERP 10 like…

  • a social collaboration framework that lets users collaborate with one another and “follow” business activities and events
  • a live-tile-style browser interface that’s touch-enabled for any tablet

are enabled by ICE and therefore it is likely these features will be also made available to other Epicor ICE-enabled products as well.

So while Epicor doesn’t enjoy the luxury of maintaining a single code base, it is positioning itself to more rapidly replicate functionality across those different sets of code, thereby accelerating the delivery of new user experiences, better configuration replacing the need for customization and easier integration… all hallmarks of next generation ERP. Time will tell whether customers will turn into “raving fans for life” but if the mood and tone of Insights 2014 is any indication, Epicor has a clear runway ahead to achieve its goals.

 

 

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The Mobile Executive’s Connection to ERP

 

Making it the Path Well-Travelled

While data collected in ERP has always been important to executive level decision-making, in the past very few executives ever put their hands directly on ERP. Instead they relied on subordinates or super users to collect data and investigate, delaying decisions and sometimes even distorting the view from above. Why? Because the perception (and often the reality) was that ERP was complex and hard to use. Executives simply didn’t have the time or inclination to “figure it all out.” And yet today the pace of business has accelerated to the point where any delay in decision-making can be fatal.

This was bad enough when the typical executive’s day was spent in a plush office, sitting behind a desk. But those days are long gone. Whether on the road or spending time with the family, executives need to be “always on,” connected by mobile devices. Forget the laptop that requires a WiFi connection and VPN access. Today executives rely more and more on smart phones and tablets that simply require a signal to their mobile carrier. The resultant intrusion into their personal lives has made them less patient in waiting for analysis and answers.

But do executives really access enterprise apps via their mobile devices? What % of executive management has access to and actually uses ERP? How many receive ERP-related alerts on their mobile devices? Click here to read more in my guest blog post for Edgewater Fullscope: http://bit.ly/1etLsTx

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ERP, The Next Generation: The Final Frontier? Part 2

This is the second post of a series on Next Generation ERP. If you missed the first in the series, take a moment and read it here.

If you are running an older ERP solution, especially those implemented prior to the year 2000 (Y2K), you may not even be aware of what you can expect from a modern, technology-enabled, next generation ERP. For many, many years ERP selection was largely driven by fit and functionality. Even today, Mint Jutras ERP Solution Study survey respondents put fit and functionality close to the top of the list of selection criteria (ease of use was number 1).

As a result, the footprint of ERP has grown steadily, to the point where it is sometimes hard to figure out where ERP ends and other applications begin. But it isn’t the depth and breadth of functionality that qualifies an ERP solution as “next generation.” It is the underlying technology. And conversely, it is that new technology that enables ERP footprints to expand at an accelerated rate.

Unless you are a technologist (and most business executives are not), you might not know or care about that underlying technology, because you don’t understand it. But it is dangerous to ignore it simply because of what it can do for you. You don’t know how the USS Enterprise achieved warp speed, but you know that it can. You don’t know how the transporter beam works, but you know what happens when Captain Kirk says, “Beam me up, Scottie.” You don’t need to know how the development platform allows your solution provider to deliver more innovation, but it is important that you understand the potential.  It is far less important to understand how this new technology works than it is to know what it can do for you.

The New Basics

The “basics” of ERP used to be defined by basic functionality required by all types of companies. Basics usually referred to core modules of ERP: general ledger, accounts payable, accounts receivable, order management, purchasing and inventory control. For manufacturers it also included MRP and the basic requirements to schedule, create and manage production orders. Those modules are still important today but “basic” functionality has become somewhat of a commodity. Forty-three percent (43%) of survey respondents to the 2013 Mint Jutras ERP Solution Study would consider purchasing core ERP functions like a monthly utility and realigning their selection team to focus on the remaining “value-add” to produce strategic or competitive advantage, or simply to cut costs.

Basics now extend to include some advanced technology modules like work flow, event management (triggers and alerts), process modeling and enterprise portals. Yet, unlike basic functional modules, which are fully implemented by the majority of our survey respondents, these technology basics, including business intelligence and analytics, are still largely under-utilized – even as we gain ground in adoption.

Table 1: Advanced Technology Modules – Fully Implemented

table1 Source: Mint Jutras 2011 and 2013 ERP Solution Studies

Older legacy solutions may not even include these technology options in their portfolios, but any next generation ERP certainly will.

What else should you be looking for? Without fully understanding the technology platform upon which “next generation” ERP solutions are built it may be difficult to recognize them. Here are a few hints you can listen for as vendors describe their offerings: service oriented architecture, object-oriented data models, event-driven and/or message-based technology, semantic layers, mobility, rules engines, in-memory databases, HTML5 and XML. What all these boil down to are new ways of engaging with ERP, ease of configuration versus customization, better integration capabilities and new ways of delivering innovation.

New Ways of Engaging with ERP

Traditionally users have engaged with ERP through a hierarchical series of menus, which require at least a rudimentary knowledge of how data and processes are organized. Hopefully this organization reflects how the business processes and the enterprise itself are structured, but with a hierarchy of menus, there are no guarantees. And therefore there are no guarantees that navigation is intuitive or that business processes are streamlined and efficient.

Next generation ERP attacks this very real problem by making the user interface more intuitive and more personalized. It has been hypothesized that Star Trek’s communication devices inspired the first mobile phones, which of course evolved into today’s smart phones and tablets. Now with the introduction of so many consumer applications on mobile devices, we have all become much more demanding of user interfaces. It’s called “the consumerization of IT” and it is a very real phenomenon. We demand truly intuitive screens and touch technology.

Next generation ERP has responded to these demands with web-based access, making ERP accessible anywhere, anytime with an increasing number of functions available through mobile devices. Touch technology is making its way into the hands of ERP users. Look for this to become more pervasive and for more devices to be natively supported.

And don’t forget enterprise search functions. It is not entirely clear when “Google” became a verb, but that is indeed how we use the term today. We’re very accustomed to conducting Internet based searches on topics and questions. Next generation ERP supports those same search capabilities within its own structured data, adding a level of context not previously available. Next generation search capabilities embedded in ERP can tell the difference between searching for Phillips, your customer, and a Phillips head screwdriver.

New ways of engaging with ERP have put “Ease of Use” at the top of the leader board in terms of selection criteria. But “Ease of Use” means much more today than just an intuitive user interface. Mint Jutras 2013 ERP Solution Study participants were asked to select their top three priorities for ease of use. Results are shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Top 3 Most Important “Ease of Use” Issues

Figure1

Source: Mint Jutras  2013 ERP Solution Study

Yet how an accounts payable clerk or a material handler interacts with ERP is (and should be) very different from how an executive decision maker engages. Line of business executives will likely keep tabs on the pulse of the business through a select number of key performance indicators (KPIs). Next generation ERP will present a customized, graphical view of those KPIs but also allow the executive to drill down to successive levels of detail. Those customized views will combine ERP with other tools including email and productivity tools such as Microsoft Office and even chat functions that can record instant messaging “conversations.” And they will be available on a myriad of devices.

In the next part of this series we will explore customization versus configuration and tailoring to be followed by a section on innovation and integration.

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UNIT4’s Next Generation ERP for Businesses Living in Change

Don’t BLiNC, Change is Coming at Warp Speed

In a recent report, ERP, The Next Generation: The Final Frontier? we had some fun comparing Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) to the successful entertainment franchise, Star Trek and the voyages of the USS Enterprise. The starship Enterprise had at its disposal some amazing technology that allowed it to change course and even reverse direction immediately, while traveling at warp speed. Although Star Trek was, and still is science fiction, next generation, technology-enabled ERP solutions are very real. Yet few can turn on a dime and respond to business change at “faster-than-light” speed. UNIT4’s unique VITA architecture is the key to making Agresso Business World the exception. Not only is business change supported, minimizing the resultant cost and disruption, but changes can be made by those who best understand the business impact: the business users themselves.

What Makes an ERP Next Generation?

Not every ERP solution on the market today qualifies as a “next generation” ERP. While the depth and breadth of functionality has increased over the past three decades, that is not what makes a solution “next generation.” It is the underlying technology and the benefits it delivers. In UNIT4 terms, it is the VITA architecture.

Mint Jutras defines the next generation of ERP in terms of new technology that enables:

  • new ways of engaging with ERP
  • more innovation
  • custom configuration without programming
  • better integration

UNIT4 adds another dimension to this definition with its unique ability to aid companies in adapting when changes in their business occur as a result of new financial or regulatory requirements, organizational restructuring, mergers and acquisitions, or new or changed business processes.

Unless you are a technologist (and most business executives are not), you might not know or care about that underlying technology. But it is dangerous to ignore it, largely because of what it can and should deliver. You don’t know how the USS Enterprise achieved warp speed, but you know that it could. You don’t know how the transporter beam worked, but you know what happened when Captain Kirk said, “Beam me up, Scottie.” You don’t need to know how the underlying platform allows UNIT4 to support business change quickly and easily, but for those dealing with an accelerating pace of change (and who isn’t today?), it is important to understand that it does.

While it is less important to know how technology works than it is to know what it can do for you, understanding a few of the supporting concepts certainly helps distinguish between those that really support change and those that simply profess to.

UNIT4’s VITA architecture is a layered architecture that tightly integrates three components: data management, process modeling and delivery of information (analytics and reporting). This concept of component architecture is not unique. Most modern service-oriented architectures today will support a presentation layer (user interface), an object-oriented data model representing standard business objects (think of a customer or an order as a business object) and business logic. This business logic might be a combination of hard-coded programs and externally defined business rules.

To understand how UNIT4 is unique, consider what needs to happen when a business process changes. In first generation ERP, this always meant mucking around in the source code. In next generation ERP, a process change might or might not mean modifying source code. It might just mean changing some business rules. But it also might mean a change to the data model. And it is very likely it will mean a change to the presentation layer to modify what the user sees. That’s potentially a change to each of the individual layers or components. With UNIT4 you make a single change and it is permeated throughout all the necessary components of the solution.

Even in other next generation ERP solutions, the information technology (IT) staff generally needs to implement the changes. But with UNIT4, these changes are implemented through a graphical user interface (GUI) and can generally be done by a business user. Of course, if the business user can implement them, we’re not talking source code modifications. We’re talking about customizing the configuration without programming, one of the hallmarks of a next generation ERP. Some changes will require some knowledge of the system, but others are simply accomplished by an intuitive drag and drop. Which brings us to the first of the four requirements for next generation ERP…

New Ways of Engaging with ERP

Users of ERP used to be a pretty select bunch. First generation ERP required extensive education and training. And it was always easier to get data into ERP than to get answers out. Most executive decision-makers never laid their hands on ERP and had little knowledge or appreciation of how the data and the processes were organized. So they also had little appreciation for the impact change had on ERP implementations – change like that annual reorg or that new compliance requirement. More often than not, they simply blamed IT for being unresponsive or difficult.

One approach might be to educate those executives as to why change should take so long to be reflected in an application like ERP. After all, ERP essentially runs your business. But that’s not the approach UNIT4 has taken. It has instead eliminated the delay with a “do it yourself” approach. Here’s an example:

Let’s say a reorganization is planned at the end of the quarter which requires many changes in the personnel reporting structure. Groups or individuals might be reassigned to new departments. Perhaps entirely new departments must be created. Think about how that change might be implemented in your own organization, with your current software.

Perhaps all the changes get made on paper first. After all, some of them might be sensitive or confidential. And you can’t really “touch” the employee records until the date of the reorg anyway. The big day rolls around and this paper probably gets turned over to an administrator. And then it is a mad scramble to implement the changes. Murphy’s Law says in the rush something won’t be reflected properly and it will probably take a couple of pay/reporting periods to get corrections made.

Wouldn’t it be nice to instead get all the changes lined up, checked and double-checked, without having to turn them over to administrators that have no involvement in the decisions? Wouldn’t it be nice to have them magically take effect on the prescribed day?

Picture this: The decision-makers bring up a visual representation of the current org chart in a planning meeting. They create a new “leg” in the tree structure. They drag and drop groups from one department to another. They might do it by role first and then move some individuals separately as they tweak the new structure. As they discuss the changes either immediately or over a period of time, they continue to refine the organizational structure. On the big day the changes become effective automatically.

That’s what can happen with UNIT4’s new user interface (UI). These decision-makers don’t have to “figure out” ERP. They just need to “figure out” the structure of the organization.

UNIT4 also intends to add social collaboration capabilities in October 2013, opening up yet another avenue for engaging with ERP. These new collaboration capabilities will allow any user of UNIT4 to connect and be connected to other employees with similar skills, roles and reporting, interests and experience. This is most valuable as organizational reporting structures change as a result of reorgs or mergers and acquisitions when old and familiar ties in the organization may be disrupted.

This new UI is the culmination of a focused effort over a period of four years, starting with an extensive research project. Throughout the project, UNIT4 interviewed users and observed how they interacted with ERP. The research focused on how people work, the processes they complete and the flow of work. It included people in different age groups, people with different jobs, playing different roles. It included people from around the world, primarily in service-based organizations, which is UNIT4’s target market. And service-based businesses have seen more than their fair share of change and the pace of that change continues to accelerate.

The resulting user interface was then incorporated into a new release concept that UNIT4 calls Experience Packs. In fact Experience Packs are not entirely new, but the way UNIT4 is delivering them and the innovation contained therein is both new and very “next generation.”

More Innovation, Easier to Consume

UNIT4’s Experience Packs eliminate the “all or nothing” approach to innovation that is common for enterprise applications. One problem that has plagued software vendors for decades is the fact that they could often deliver innovation a lot faster than their customers could consume it.

Generally speaking, even though most new features are delivered as optional, customers still need to take on a new release in its entirety, and then decide which of the new features to turn on. This upgrade process can be both costly and disruptive and therefore according to the 2013 Mint Jutras ERP Solution Study, almost one in five companies (18%) are likely to skip releases and another 10% never upgrade, leaving new innovation unused.

Experience Packs are delivered in such a way as to allow UNIT4 customers to pick and choose what new innovation they will implement and when. The first wave of Experience Packs includes People Planner and Project Planner, both targeting professional services organizations. Also available is Organizational Modeler, highlighted above. UNIT4 plans to release new Experience Packs every four months. The next wave will feature expenses, time, tasks, absence and travel requests and will be launched in the fall of 2013.

This approach allows UNIT4 to deliver more innovation, faster, while also making it easier for its users to consume it. These Experience Packs can be further enhanced with a series of UNIT4 mobile apps. Many say that the modern cell phone was inspired by Star Trek’s tricorders that allowed crew members to communicate even after they had been beamed to another planet. While employees have yet to venture to other planets, they do need to stay connected even when they are half a world away. Even as we become less and less tethered to a wired connection, we become more and more tethered to the business. UNIT4 mobile apps, natively built for IOS and Android devices, are designed to enrich UNIT4 Agresso Business World ERP and “increase the comfort and efficiency for users,” ensuring they are able to take full advantage of future developments in mobile technology.

Summary

Do you need to change course and even reverse direction immediately, while your business is traveling at warp speed? If you are a business living in change yet still struggling with a first generation ERP solution, change itself may appear to be coming at you at warp speed. Being able to accommodate that change through easy and rapid (non-coding) adjustments rather than exhaustive code modifications may seem as likely as traveling to the far reaches of the galaxy.

  • Changes implemented by business users?
  • Executives that actually put their hands on ERP, working collaboratively with other decision-makers?
  • Business users taking action from mobile devices?
  • The ability to selectively implement new innovation without a long upgrade process?

If this all sounds like the stuff of science fiction, then take a look at UNIT4. You may be surprised to find, the future is now.

 

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NetSuite eCommerce: To Suite or Not to Suite: That is the question

Earlier in the year at SuiteWorld 2012, NetSuite announced “Commerce as a Service” (CaaS), the latest in the growing number of “as a Service” acronyms. At the very core of this new offering is NetSuite SuiteCommerce, which combines an eCommerce platform with a customer experience management system that is uniform regardless of customer touchpoint. Unlike bolt-on eCommerce systems, the integration with back office fulfillment, billing and support services is seamless and transparent, because all are built and designed as an integrated suite. Yet even though built and delivered as a fully integrated suite, the eCommerce capabilities can also stand on their own merit. NetSuite customers have the choice of implementing a full end-to-end solution, or just the pieces they need.

When is a Suite not a Suite?

eCommerce is not new for NetSuite. With its roots buried deeply in the cloud, it has always been about delivering Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), Customer Relationship Management (CRM) and eCommerce as a single platform. While developed as an integrated end-to-end solution, the suite can be implemented all at once or modularly and incrementally. NetSuite reports that 98% of its 12,000 customers take the full suite approach (although many implement in a modular fashion) while only 2% go the route of what it calls CRM+. The “+” refers to order management capabilities added to traditional CRM.

NetSuite views the customer order as the heart and soul of a business. While it provides an application development platform and encourages its channel partners to develop incremental solutions around its data model, NetSuite takes ownership of any piece of the suite that directly manages the customer order.

From ERP to Commerce Engine

So how does Commerce as a Service impact this suite approach? NetSuite’s Commerce as a Service essentially transforms its business management application into a commerce-aware platform that can flexibly, yet uniformly manage the interaction with any and all customers regardless of channel, whether through traditional transactions, a website, a smart phone, social media site or in a store. NetSuite’s business management application essentially combines ERP with CRM, therefore addressing and integrating both front office and back office needs. Yet commerce is the engine that drives business, and customer orders provide the fuel that powers the engine. Hence NetSuite’s insistence on “owning” the part of the application that directly manages customer interaction and orders.

While many industry observers today talk about moving from transactional systems of record to systems of engagement, “from” and “to” is the wrong way of looking at this. You need both. You need to manage and maintain all the transactions that power your business, and at the same time you need to better manage interaction (engagement) with your customer. This used to be relatively simple because business-to-business (B2B) was managed through business documents (often paper-based) reflected as purchase orders and sales orders while business-to-consumer (B2C) transactions happened in stores.

Over the past two decades, this rather simplistic approach slowly evolved to the diversity we see today. Along the way came first generation eCommerce solutions that were largely bolted on to existing business management applications. After all, the customers and products were already stored in these enterprise applications, along with the transactions that formed the system of record of the business. So either these bolt-on applications needed to be integrated into the existing business applications, or (just as likely) they stood apart with their own customer and product masters. Integration, if it existed at all, was usually characterized as an arm’s length interface.  This interface was often manual and resulted in redundancy of data. NetSuite took a different and rather unique approach in building eCommerce right into the business management system.

Taking a suite approach to design and development to address these new modes of commerce insures that both front and back offices are in sync and are not introducing a new layer of data redundancy, requiring off-line synchronization. Taking a modular approach to installation and implementation allows customers to implement new features as needs evolve.

What’s new in the Platform?

The platform consists of three new technologies:

  • SuiteCommerce Experience: the underlying tool that allows NetSuite to deliver rich user interfaces quickly regardless of touchpoint (website, smart phone, social media site, etc.)
  • SuiteCommerce Services: these new services expose NetSuite’s back-end commerce functionality and data as services to the SuiteCommerce Experience and any other commerce front-end application. For the businessperson, this enables customers to apply business logic across multiple touch points. For example, promotions (and also credit limits) can be managed across on-line, telephone and in-store transactions. Think about a customer that orders product across a variety of different channels. Does the system recognize the same customer and apply logic universally?
  • NetSuite Commerce Platform: The commerce platform provides all the business processing capabilities including order management, inventory management and payment processing, as well as personalized promotions, merchandising, account management and support. This combines traditional business processes (transactions) with built-in sales and marketing tools (engagement).

Key Takeaways

NetSuite views commerce, and therefore the customer orders, as the very lifeblood of a business. As a result it closely guards the development of applications that directly manage those customer orders. But it also recognizes the diversity of sources of customer orders. Long gone are the days when only traditional paper-based purchase orders were converted to sales orders and long gone are the days when consumer purchases were only transacted in a physical store. The world of commerce today is much more diverse.

And yet the key to handling this diversity is in simplifying both the customer experience as well as the back end business processes. Instead of merging different pieces together in the hope they will one day all fit together, it has taken the approach of designing an integrated end-to-end process that recognizes diversity but introduces a level of uniformity.

Recognizing that many companies can’t handle a big-bang approach to changing their business and some are intimidated by the breadth and scope of an end-to-end ERP solution, NetSuite is toning down its “suite message.” However it continues to develop an end-to-end integrated solution that supports both front office and back office enterprise activity, along with the commerce that fuels the business. Whether you implement all of it or pieces, all at once or in modular stages, NetSuite has taken on the challenge of making sure it all works together seamlessly.

 

To read more please visit:

https://forms.netsuite.com/app/site/crm/externalleadpage.nl?compid=NLCORP&formid=2425&h=f4ab4d3ed91a39e870ee  (registration required)

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What’s New at Sage?

There were lots of announcements coming out of the Sage Summit in Nashville this week. Some were updates on previously announced plans and strategies; some were familiar themes but new for Sage and at least one was something new for the industry.

Update to Prior Plans and Strategies: Re-branding

Updates to prior goals included the status of the whole re-branding exercise that was announced at last year’s Summit. In fact this caused quite a stir last year with many of the Sage partners attacking it as a strategy.

Over the years Sage has acquired numerous brands, including some with high name recognition like Peachtree, Simply Accounting, Accpac, MAS and SalesLogix. And some partners, particularly those dedicated to a single one of these brands, had wrapped their whole identity around it. With the new re-branding all were destined to be re-named into a series of numbered product lines under the Sage master brand: Sage One, Sage 50, Sage 100, 300 and 500. This process has been chugging along in spite of some early resistance, although a couple of the brands did survive. Most notable in the exception category is Sage ERP X3, which now holds a special place in the overall strategy.

The success to date of the execution of this strategy is largely because it is more than just a name change. The website was revamped and there were a lot of back office changes like a single phone system and other infrastructure convergence. And the single master brand allowed Sage to launch its biggest PR campaign ever, which included television ads.

So, you might ask, what’s in a name? Those opposed to the change would answer: A lot. But money talks and they can’t argue with the fact that Sage is able to spend much more on a single brand than it ever could on any one of many. Maybe the partners that resisted the most just didn’t show up this year (although I doubt it), but I just didn’t hear a lot of opposition to this strategy at this Summit.

New for Sage: Focus

New for Sage is more focus. In the past Sage was organized by product, resulting in 11 different divisions. Now it is organized into four divisions and these center around markets. But more importantly, all products will not be treated the same. Each will be tagged as either strategic or non-strategic and also as core or non-core. At first glance, these might appear to be the same, but in fact they are two entirely different ways of categorizing the portfolio.

The difference between strategic and non-strategic is pretty self-explanatory.  There will be far more investment in strategic products while customers running non-strategic products should probably be thinking about moving to a more strategic solution. Sage is already thinking about this and will be advising them of the most logical path forward. While Sage characterizes this as a “migration” I would caution these customers that “re-implementation” should not be regarded as a dirty word. If all you do is carry forward all those decisions you made back when products were far less technologically advanced and feature-rich, then you will be missing out on a lot of the advantages of moving forward. For those long-time veterans who simply want to retire still running the same solution, it is time to either move forward or get out of the way.

This is not true for non-core products. In fact a non-core product may in fact also be strategic. A non-core product is one that doesn’t fit into the general-purpose mold of the core products. It makes no sense for a solution designed specifically for the construction industry to follow the same product roadmap as that of a general-purpose ERP. And it makes no sense for a general purpose ERP to try to meet the special needs of the construction industry. To do so would simply add complexity.  Distinguishing non-core from core products allows these specialized solutions to continue to concentrate on those specialized needs without trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

New for the Industry: Networthing

Sage brought networking expert Sarah Michel on stage to introduce Networthing. If you click on the hyperlink above she will explain exactly what that is. For purposes here, suffice to say that Sage put networking on steroids.  Everyone knows one of the primary reasons people are drawn to events like Sage Summit is to network: To meet, converse, share experiences with other like-minded individuals facing the same challenges and using the same solutions to meet those challenges. This draw largely explains why many vendors who tried replacing their events with virtual conferences soon abandoned that idea.

Yet apart from Birds of a Feather (BoF) tables at lunch and maybe a session or two, attendees were largely left on their own to connect with others. And let’s face it; some are a lot better at it than others. Sage took a different approach and in doing so took a big risk. Sage took several hours of the conference, a dedicated chunk of time, and organized a networking session.

They set up what they called Sage City, comprised of nine different villages (e.g. Manufacturing, Accounting, General Business, Real Estate and Construction, etc.), each with a “mayor” and a collection of discussion topics. Ideas for these topics came directly from attendees who were polled as part of the registration process. Then they divided the session into chunks of time. Think of it as speed dating where you move from conversation to conversation, although each discussion had more time allotted than a speed date.

This could have been a huge disaster with attendees just walking out after the introduction to wander the 56 acres of the Gaylord Opreyland. Or they could have walked out after the intermission (which served food and drinks). But they didn’t.  They stayed; they engaged, they discussed; they offered ideas and suggestion; they networked. In the end, Sage wound up extending the time allowed and finally had to kick attendees out of Sage City. Think what a gift this was for Brad Smith, Sage’s new EVP of Customer Experience, 14 days on the job, fresh from Yahoo!

These were just three examples of the news emanating from Nashville during Sage Summit. It was a much different event from last year: more energized, more change, more news. There were other announcements as well including the outline of their cloud and mobile strategy, and embedded in that strategy a new way of bringing innovation to customers faster, with less complexity and less disruption. But that deserves a lot more attention than a mere mention in this post. Watch for more on that!

 

 

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SAP’s New Mobile Developer Programs – What Do They Mean to the Business?

On July 30, 2012 SAP announced a free mobile developer license, along with a new Mobile Apps Partner Program and additional support for independent software development frameworks (from Adobe, Appcelerator Titanium and Sencha.) While this will provide easy access to potentially millions of developers and SAP partners, the typical SAP customer might be left thinking, “That’s great, but what’s in it for me? How does this benefit me and my business?” The short answer is: Better, faster, easier access to enterprise data for decision making.

Mobile and Enterprise Data: The Disconnect

According to Sanjay Poonen, President, Corporate Officer Global Solutions, SAP and Head of Mobility Division, “Mobile technology has become the touch-point that unites the workforce across any organization, no matter the size.…” When it comes to staying connected, mobile technology has certainly helped in this regard. Indeed, while mobile devices free us from wired connections, they actually seem to tether us more firmly to our businesses. Professionals are “always on” and “always connected” even when traveling for business, attending a child’s soccer game or on vacation. But do you really have better direct access to the enterprise data you use to make decisions and run your business? If you do, you are probably in the minority.

Mint Jutras research on enterprise applications and mobility surveyed almost 300 companies and found only 4% rated accessibility to Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) from a mobile device as “excellent” while 47% said they had little to no access. Many still view mobile capabilities as “useful” but few categorize them as “must have.”  And a considerable percentage (15% to 40%, depending on the specific capability) indicated they would not take advantage of those capabilities even if they had them. So there is also still some education to be done as to the value.

What was the top priority for their mobile devices (and yes 90% of them carry one or more)? “Alerts and notifications” was very close to the top of the list.

Decision makers want to be notified immediately of business exceptions such as a missed delivery or a big order that was dropped from the forecast. But what happens today even if a business executive is notified through a mobile device? Often the exec turns the “smart phone” into a “dumb phone.” He (or she) uses it to call a subordinate to track down the details necessary for making a decision about what to do.

Why is attacking the problem directly not viewed as a higher mobile priority? Because calling a subordinate or surrogate (maybe a power user?) is exactly what most would do even if they were sitting at their desk, staring at their computers. How many high level decision makers today do you know that ever put their hands directly on applications like ERP? The answer is probably: Very few. Why is that? Because the perception, and often the reality is that applications such as ERP are too difficult to navigate and understand.

Business executives don’t want to “learn ERP.” They want the answer to a question or the solution to a specific problem. The data stored in an enterprise application might indeed hold the answers to their questions or the solutions to their problems, but a general-purpose type of application requires knowledge of the structure of the application or the data, or both.

Mobile Applications to the Rescue

Equipping executives with a mobile device has solved the “connectivity” problem. Now it is time to extend that solution to connect them directly to enterprise data. If business executives are reluctant to wade through applications like ERP in search of answers, perhaps the solution is to anticipate what those specific questions will be and provide direct access to the answers.

And by the way… we noted previously that “alerts and notifications” was very close to the top of the list. At the very top was “authorization and approval” to purchase orders, invoices, expenses and the like. Do you need access to ERP in general for this? No, you need specific purpose-built access or a single-purpose application.

In answering specific questions or addressing specific problems, instead of requiring access to a single all-encompassing application (ERP), executive decision makers need access to potentially many different mini-applications. Executives have lots of burning questions, so this means lots of different (albeit smaller) applications and those mobile devices are the perfect delivery vehicles.

But if you need lots of applications, you better have lots of developers working on delivering them. But the only way to attract lots of developers is to make it worth their while. Hence, Mr. Poonen’s declaration, “We recognize that this presents valuable opportunity for the millions of mobile developers looking for ways to monetize and scale. For that reason, SAP has created an end-to-end support system that helps ensure that mobile developers around the world have easy access to SAP resources – from our developer center and partner program to the extensive options offered by partner solutions like Adobe, Appcelerator and Sencha.”

SAP’s End-to-End Support System

Let’s take a look at this support system SAP is creating with these announcements. The goal is to provide easy access to SAP platforms and tools at no or minimal cost. It has these key elements:

  • Free 30-day trial: This is perfect for developers that have never developed using SAP’s mobile platform or even those that have, but in a more isolated environment. It gives them a chance to evaluate the platform and provides access to a complete hosted landscape, including the SAP mobile platform and the SAP ERP application, with no local installation needed. In turn it gives SAP customers a deeper pool of talent working for their benefit.
  • Free developer license on Amazon Web Services (AWS): This option offers access to a hosted developer environment through AWS and a software developer kit (SDK) local download. There are no developer fees; developers only pay for cloud hosting with hourly fees paid directly to AWS. This is suitable for all types of developers, even an individual developer or a small shop that has not invested in its own development environment, again providing a broader pool of talent developing mobile apps for the business.
  • SAP Mobile Apps Partner program: This offer is an effective engagement model that not only supports the development of mobile applications but assistance in monetizing the effort. A single contract provides all developer licenses needed, comprehensive technical support and the ability for partners to place their mobile apps on the SAP Store. Through this program the partner has visibility into SAP solution roadmaps and protection of Intellectual Property (IP) through enforcement of ownership rights. For this, the partner pays a low annual fee and a small percentage of revenue share to SAP. While the partner gains access to SAP’s vast customer base (via the SAP Store), customers gain more choice and breadth in their selection of applications.
  • New integration options connecting Adobe PhoneGap, Appcelerator Titanium and Sencha Touch with the SAP mobile platform. Why should SAP customers care about this integration to technology they may never have even heard of? In short, because not all mobile devices operate the same way. So how do you provide the same application to multiple decision makers, using different devices and still make each application look and feel like other applications that are native to the device? You either develop for one device and then re-develop for other devices, or you use technologies such as these. And oh, by the way, that “touch screen” technology all you iPhone, iPad and Android users know and love, doesn’t just “happen.”

This also adds to the talent pool because mobile developers are very likely to have experience with these tools in building custom mobile apps. For partners with skills in these environments it is now straightforward to connect these mobile apps to SAP, thereby delivering more standard apps for SAP customers.

Conclusion

Workforces around the world may not be quite as united as we would like them to be. And executives might not be as “connected” to the data needed for quick and effective decision-making. But if mobile developers can be unleashed en mass, then perhaps answers to questions might truly be at the executives’ fingertips, which is a lot closer than “a phone call away.”

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Why Is Infor So Quiet?

We live in a world of extreme hype, a world where technology vendors routinely boast of being the best, the brightest, the fastest, the most innovative. You can’t open your Inbox or your web browser without being inundated by what these technology companies think is the latest and greatest. If this new “thing” is not yet a “hot topic,” rest assured that with all the hype, it soon will be.

So after spending a couple of days with Infor and its partners recently at the Infor Americas Partner Summit, I started (alright, I confess, I continued) to wonder why Infor doesn’t seem to be jumping on the hype bandwagon. Sure there was lots of press when former co-president of Oracle, Charles Phillips took the helm. But that and his management changes are fairly old news now. And otherwise, apart from the occasional press release, Infor just isn’t all that vocal. Those not familiar with Infor (and there are still plenty that aren’t) might suspect it is because after years of acquisitions, Infor really doesn’t have anything new or newsworthy to boast about. But in reality, that assumption is far from the truth.  So in this world of extreme hype, is it possible that innovation can be under-hyped?

The Partner Summit wasn’t the first time this thought occurred to me. During one of the main stage keynotes at Inforum 2012 in Denver last April, Infor Workspace was demonstrated. Sitting down front to one side in the auditorium setting afforded me a great view of the audience. Workspace, which uses Infor’s ION (lightweight) middleware (developed by Infor’s technology Innovation Team), was definitely well received. But I got the distinct impression that this was the first time most had seen it or even heard of it.  I can understand why the customers newly acquired from Lawson might have missed the announcement of Workspace in April 2011, but if the majority of Infor customers did, that tells me Infor just isn’t making enough noise.

And one of Infor’s partners from Columbia echoed this thought during the Executive Q&A, asking if Infor was spending money to raise visibility in order to help the partners compete against the likes of Oracle and SAP. It is clear that Infor is investing. It added 600 new developers last year, which means it is clearly investing in the products. But what about marketing and PR? Stephan Scholl also responded by saying “size and scale matters “ and “we need more feet on the street.” Infor added 130 new sales reps in growth markets alone (including Brazil) in the past year. Management felt they needed to beef up sales (and presales) first because they “can’t market what we can’t sell.” That might indeed be true for countries like Columbia and Brazil, but in the United States?

So what has Infor done that merits a louder voice?  I’ll get to that in a minute, but first I should preface it by saying, while other vendors have been jumping on the “hot topic” bandwagon, Infor has taken a different approach. As Stephan Scholl told the Infor partners, “Big data and other buzzwords are important but we’re focused on reducing cost and time to implement, with solutions that minimize services and requires no modification.” It is combining industry specialization with enabling technology in order to be able to deliver a best-fit solution with no (or minimal) customization. Some might say it is not a “hot” approach but I think their customers will appreciate it.  No need to be shy.

Here are a few things I’ve picked up in my conversations with Infor and at the Partner Summit that just might be worth shouting about.

Built for consistency, durability and speed

If you talk to the Infor folks, this is a phrase you will hear a lot. What does it mean? In a nutshell, it means

  1. Infor developers and its partners can develop functionality once and allow it to be used across different Infor products and product lines. This is a big deal. Its Intelligent Open Network (ION), “lightweight middleware, providing common reporting and analysis, workflow, and business monitoring in one, consistent event-driven architecture (EDA)” is the secret sauce that enables this.  This is important for any enterprise application solution provider today, but even more so for Infor which has accumulated a very broad portfolio of potentially overlapping products.  While Infor has been talking about this concept since 2006, we’re now really seeing it being delivered.
  2. Adding functionality in a way that doesn’t “break” when you go from release to release. Localizations are a perfect example. In the past they have been developed not only for a specific product, but also even for a specific release or version of the product. They often hold customers back from consuming the latest innovations. Local.ly, Infor’s new platform to deliver localized statutory reporting, accounting and tax content by country via a loosely coupled architecture is the perfect example of a way to add durability. Local.ly extracts information from any one of a number of Infor’s core ERP engines, isolating the “special” code from the individual ERP products. As a result, upgrades are unlikely to break the localizations. This alone has a huge potential for changing the game when it comes to being able to support different legal, accounting and compliance requirements around the world. But there is no reason why the same concepts can’t be applied to any custom or standard development effort.
  3. Add new features, functions, modules or entire applications quickly. Infor set out to deliver two years worth of new features, functions, products in one year. Of course the 600 new developers helped, but some of the underlying technologies also contributed and they delivered 5000 new features in 2012 and 200 new integrations. They also released Infor10 Mongoose, a high productivity development framework that accelerates development, minimizes coding and programming and also facilitates the re-use of code.
  4. Consistent look and feel. Let’s face it, with so many acquired products, it was impossible in the past to have a consistent look and feel across all Infor products. This presents a bit of a problem in trying to boost deals involving multiple products (a stated goal). Layering Workspace on top certainly adds a layer of consistency, but even better: Build software on Mongoose and it automatically looks like an Infor product.

What about those “Hot Topics?”

While you don’t hear Infor talk much about “big data” per se, but they do talk about their ION Business Intelligence (BI) applications and they also talk about ION enterprise search: which is an important element in navigating the growing volume of both internal and external data used for decision making today. ION enterprise search can dramatically shorten the time to actionable data. Users don’t have to know where to find data and even poorly constructed queries are extremely fast. More importantly, search results include context of the data. And in accessing enterprise data, search results are secured. So while “big data’ may not appear in the Infor vocabulary too often, the means of handling big data does.

What about mobility? In case you missed it, here’s what I wrote about Infor10 Motion back in January.

And cloud? Infor isn’t any stranger to the cloud or Software as a Service (SaaS). While not every Infor product is available via the cloud, some very strategic offerings are, including Syteline, EAM and of course its Inforce Everywhere, which adds valuable ERP data to Salesforce.com to complete the 360o view of the customer.

Infor has also teamed up with Amazon Web Services (AWS) to provide Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS).  Infor uses AWS’s capabilities to help customers leverage the cloud for any number of purposes including deploying production environments as well as deploying and testing new versions of Infor solutions, or testing customizations before applying the customizations to a production environment. AWS is also available to new customers who may want to start an implementation immediately instead of having to wait until servers are ordered, shipped, and installed for on-premises deployments.

Also, Mongoose also operates in cloud. So Infor can also sing the cloud tune, even though sometimes they may only appear to be humming softly.

So, Infor, with all this  cool stuff going on, with all this new enabling technology, with all the new development…  why are you so quiet? When are you going to start making more noise?

 

 

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