service industry

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

The ‘People Platform’ is The Secret Sauce

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

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

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

Business Applications of the Future

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

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

The Unit4 People Platform

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

Figure 1: Unit4’s Platform for Innovation

Source: Unit4

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

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

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

Source: Mint Jutras 2017 Enterprise Solution Study

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

Who (or What) is Wanda?

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

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

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

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

Why Are These Innovative Services important?

While delivering what people want, instead of or in addition to what they need, sounds very appealing, there is more than just a wish list involved here. Agility and the ability to extend current solutions to do more, including providing differentiation, is becoming a “must have” today. Why? We live in disruptive times. The 2016 Mint Jutras Enterprise Solution Study found 88% of companies believe they face some level of risk in their businesses and/or industries being disrupted by new innovative products, new ways of selling or pricing existing products or services, entirely new business models, or some combination of all of the above. And then of course there are still the more traditional disruptive factors like expansion and growth, organizational restructuring and regulatory changes, just to name a few.

All this disruption can have a cascading impact on business application requirements, making agility – the ability to easily innovate, evolve and change – even more important than current functionality.

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

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

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

Key Takeaways and Recommendations

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

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

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UNIT4: In Business for People: Introducing The People Platform

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.

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)

Table 1 Unit4Source: Mint Jutras 2015 Enterprise Solution Study

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.

Personal Experience

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

Fig 1 Unit4Source: Mint Jutras 2015 Enterprise Solution Study

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.

Business Capabilities

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)

Fig 2 Unit4Source: Unit4

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?

table 2 Unit4Source: Mint Jutras 2015 Enterprise Solution Study

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.

Smart Context

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.

Conclusion

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.

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