When Unit4 talks about people it does so in a variety of different ways. First of all, its products are designed specifically for people-centric businesses. These include those in sectors like professional services, education, government and public services, not for profits, and real estate. This industry focus however has also led the company to put people first in the design and development of the software. Unlike some other enterprise applications that require people to adapt and conform to the way the software works, Unit4 strives very hard to allow users to personalize the software to the business and the way they work – naturally. And because we live in a world where change is the only constant, the ways businesses run and the ways people work also constantly change.
Supporting businesses living in change has been a consistent mantra for its Agresso Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) product for years, but Unit4 is now bringing the platform that facilitates change to other Unit4 products, in order to deliver agility and flexibility, along with an improved user experience. And so… along with the launch of its new People Platform, Unit4 recently announced new releases of two of its flagship products, while also re-branding and renaming them:
- Unit4 Business World Milestone 5 (formerly known as Agresso)
- Unit4 Financials, Version 13 (previously known as Coda)
The People Platform
The term “platform” can mean different things to different people, or even different things to the same person when used in different contexts. In this case, it might best be described as a technology stack, or perhaps middleware that does a lot of the heavy lifting in delivering more business capabilities, and an improved, personalized user experience. Unit4 also likes to say it delivers “smart context.” All of this is built on Unit4’s Elastic Foundation.
The Elastic Foundation has evolved from the architecture on which Unit4 Business World (formerly Agresso) was built. So for this product, and for any new products that will be built on it in the future, it really does provide a true “foundation.” It includes the information/data model that feeds all the reporting and analytics. But it also defines and drives much more. The Elastic Foundation is where you define your organizational structure, information requirements, and the relationship between the two.
Traditionally these types of structures, relationships and processes tended to be hard-coded in solutions or embedded in codes like the general ledger account, using a “once and done” approach that made future changes difficult and costly. But reality says they need to be fluid, and that is the elasticity that the People Platform delivers. With Unit4’s Elastic Foundation, no source code changes are required and even if it means changing the business rules, the data model and how the data is presented, this does not constitute three (or more) changes. You make a single change and it is permeated throughout all the necessary components of the solution. All are on the same page. No delays. Nothing can be out of sync.
Today Unit4 Business World, built natively on the People Platform, takes full advantage of the Elastic Foundation. For Unit4 Financials, it will be more of an evolution.It will immediately be able to take advantage of the user interface framework that will open doors for mobile and social capabilities capabilities. It also immediately leverages some elements of the Elastic Foundation including one key component: “Flexifields.”
Think of Flexifields as user-defined fields on steroids. Let’s say you want to track your primary competitors. Most modern systems today will allow you to add user-defined fields, although often you are restricted to a certain number of them. But where do you add this competitor field? Do you put it in the product master file? What if you compete across many products? Perhaps you want to attach it to a region. If you add it to both in traditional, rigid systems, the solution won’t “connect” the two; there is no real relationship implied.
With Unit4 Flexifields, you can associated it with products, regions, customer types, etc. It’s possible to not only create this new data field, but also the relationships. It is even possible to create an entire master file around this competitor field, with data such as:
- Any known contact data
- key verticals or regions they operate in
- their unique selling points
- key sources of information about them
- a table with their products
Without this foundation upon which to build, adding something like this would have traditionally required programming and invasive source code changes to existing programs. With the Elastic Foundation, a tech-savvy business user, that fully understands the relationships between competitors, products, regions and/or customers, would be able to add this as a new attribute and start using it immediately. And even better, change it as the competitive landscape evolves.
It is clear that the Elastic Foundation has the potential of delivering a lot of value to Unit4 customers. However, is it what people want? All indications point to this, but few business users will ever look under the covers of their solutions. How will the value manifest itself in such a way that the people using the software can immediately see this value? We can tell a lot about what people expect by the priorities they assign in selecting solutions to run their businesses.
What do People Want? Selecting a Solution
Mint Jutras has been collecting data on these priorities for years now. In days gone by, “fit and functionality” always topped the list. But over the past few years another selection criterion crept up in importance and appeared to be running neck and neck with “fit and functionality.” That criterion was “Ease of Use.”
Given the pervasiveness of consumer technology today, this comes as no surprise. And in many ways, it makes sense. All the features and functions in the world won’t do you any good if you can’t figure out how to use them. But the ranking of “ease of use” and “fit and functionality” were so close, we started to wonder what the priority would be if users were forced choose between them – hypothetically of course.
So in 2015 we changed the format of the question, again listing the different criteria, but this time forcing the participants to stack rank them from 1 (least important) to 10 (most important).
Table 1: Selection Criteria Priorities (ranked from 1 to 10)
It is quite clear from Table 1 that “fit and functionality” is still king. The top three criteria are all related to features and functions. User experience (a broader criterion than ease of use) is still in the top half and the importance of reporting and analytics rose significantly from prior years. While ERP and financial solutions have long been famous (or perhaps infamous?) for being easier to get data into than to get information and answers out of, people today obviously want more. They want information and answers. Solutions need to be smarter.
The additional three layers of Unit4’s People Platform align quite nicely with what people seem to want most:
- Personal experience
- Business capabilities
- Smart Context
While Unit4 separates these layers, it is the convergence of all three wherein lies the real value.
While the overall user experience was trumped by fit and function, that doesn’t mean it is not important. Of course “ease of use” means different things to different people. And with all the talk of the impact of the millennial generation recently, Mint Jutras suspected this had become somewhat of a generational issue. Figure 1 proves that to be the case.
Figure 1: “Top 3” Factors Influencing Ease of Use
When asked to select the top three factors in defining “ease of use” we found responses quite different in different age categories. While minimizing time to complete tasks still takes the lead for all three generations, it does so with a much wider margin in the Baby Boomer generation. Two out of three Baby Boomers selected this, compared to only one out of two Millennials. “A visually appealing user interface” was virtually tied for first in the youngest of the three generations but far down the list for Gen Xers and Baby Boomers.
The easiest way to satisfy different people, across different generations, is to deliver a user experience that is personalized to the individual’s preferences. A Millennial will seek and immediately adapt to screens that look very much like, and deliver the same kind of “social” experience as they are accustomed to. They will want to dive in and make tweaks on their own. While Baby Boomers might feel more comfortable with a more traditionally organized dashboard set up for them by a super user or the Information Technology (IT) staff.
The UX (UX is short for user experience) framework of the People Platform can satisfy both ends of the spectrum and do so on any kind of device. But perhaps even more important than the look and feel iare some of the more advanced features that can be derived from the organizational structure that was established through the Elastic Foundation. The Personal Experience layer is not only intuitive and easily navigable, it also draws from other layers in the People Platform to make it “smart.” Data, which is always up to date, is pre-populated and context is provided. By making the user interface smarter, Unit4 directly addresses the top concern for ease of use: minimizing time to complete tasks.
The same capabilities that facilitate change can be used to speed the development of new features and functions in both Unit4 Business World and Unit4 Financials. Unit4 Business World is already a step ahead in this since it was natively built on the platform, but more and more of these capabilities will be available to Unit4 Financial over time, particularly as Unit4 plans to deliver an SDK (software development kit) that will be available to both customers and partners.
However, the types of new business capabilities being delivered in Unit4 Business World Milestone 5 are representative of what can be delivered (Figure 2). Note the inclusion of “smarter collaboration.” Collaboration is an important flavor of social capabilities.
Figure 2: Unit4 Business World Milestone 5 (formerly Agresso)
While “social capabilities” were dead last in terms of selection criteria priorities, Mint Jutras believes this is because of a lack of appreciation for what these capabilities can bring. We also believe “social” to be a misleading label for some very important capabilities. For the traditional businessperson accustomed to traditional means of communication, “social” has an unfortunate connotation. Traditionalists distinguish between a business event and a social event, between a business conversation and a social chat, between a business colleague and a friend or social acquaintance. Which is why the “social” tag is unfortunate, even though it is really just shorthand for new and improved means of getting and staying informed. “Social” is also about engagement, collaboration and connectivity. The ability to “follow” and “converse” online brings a whole new dimension to “real-time.”
Table 2: Would these capabilities be useful?
If you ignore the term “social” and look at the value delivered, a good businessperson can’t help but be interested. This is quite evident in Table 2, which shows survey participants more than twice as likely to categorize these social capabilities as “must have!” or “Useful” than “Nice to Have.” And 10% or less wouldn’t use them if they were available.
The combination of the Elastic Framework and the UX Framework of the People Platform will be key in allowing Unit4 to deliver more of these types of features and functions. And the introduction of an SDK will only accelerate the delivery.
While a personalized user experience and more business capabilities are both intuitively seen as valuable, the concept of “smart context” might require further explanation. To get a handle on this, recognize that smart is often a synonym for intelligent. Can the Unit4 People Platform deliver, not only reporting and information, but real intelligence? To do that, you need to put data into context and provide a tool for analysis. These requirements are clearly desired by more and more people, as evidenced by “quality of built-in reporting and analytics” making the “top 3” selection criteria.
So what’s the difference between reporting and analytics, and what makes it “smart?” Reporting is quite straightforward. It presents you with data to answer your questions about your business. In order to be truly effective, it has to be flexible and agile, because over time your questions change. And it needs to be able to handle a growing volume of data.
But reporting is only part of the solution. Reports are useful in answering questions you already have. Analytics can help you go one step further in helping you ask the right questions. Analytics implies analysis and any real analysis of data is iterative. You need to start poking at data, changing your view, looking at it in different ways, in order to recognize patterns and causal relationships. You need to transition from reporting of data to real analysis and intelligence.
Unit4 delivers this type of intelligence by blending social, mobile and visualization tools with in-memory analytics that add rapid data analysis and predictive capabilities. The components of the “smart context” layer of the People Platform are:
- An alerts engine to provide smart business feeds
- A rules engine establishes and configures the rules to be invoked during data entry, allowing for dynamically altering the UI based on conditions, or proactively assisting the user in entering consistent data
- Definition of communities (defining who cares about what) and the capture of conversations within the communities (no more lost threads after you hang up the phone). This creates a social context
- Mobile context, through devices that can detect location with a time stamp. This allows for location-based filtering and time tracking.
- Predictive analytics, capable of pattern detection. This can be as simple as pre-populating an expense report, suggesting a project plan or for much more complex analysis.
- Cloud and crowd context through capture of peer analysis and customer sentiment
- A workflow engine
The net result is filtered, contextualized data that can be presented in a simple, relevant and complete experience.
Unit4 has been developing software that can easily, quickly and cost-effectively respond to changing business conditions for years now, not only at the applicvation level (feature/function) but also in the underlying architecture. It is now leveraging that investment, combining it with more innovations and releasing what is truly an innovative platform. Much of that innovation is under the covers, but never does the company lose sight of who it is developing software for.
Unit4 develops software for people in people-centric organizations. By focusing on the people that use the software instead of the software itself, Unit4 can avoid the all-too-common trap of technology in search of a problem to solve. There are plenty of business problems out there to solve and Unit4 seems willing, able and anxious to solve them.
For the customers running Unit4 Business World (formerly Agresso), this will feel much like any other release, adding new functionality and enriching the technology. Yet packaging this as a platform and broadening its use to the Unit4 Financials is smart in leveraging its strengths across a broader portfolio of products, which can only serve to present new challenges and more innovation.
Those customers running Unit4 Financials will see more fundamental change (in addition to the new features provided in version 13), but given the added flexibility, automation and agilty that this advanced technology brings, these should be welcome changes.
The launch of the People Platform is a big step for both Unit4 and its customers, but its not setting a new course. It is simply accelerating the journey down the current path to the next generation of Unit4. One would expect no less from Unit4. Afterall it is in the business of people.