social

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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Bringing Collaboration, Visibility and Connectivity to Enterprise Applications. Just don’t call it “Social”

If you follow social media, you have been hearing for a couple years now that soon all successful businesses will be “social businesses.” Much of this hype centers on the promotional aspects, creating awareness by establishing a social media presence and engaging in online conversations with prospects and customers. If you cut through the hype though, the reality is that some types of businesses benefit more directly from this type of social activity than others. But on a different note, more recently we’re seeing enterprise application solution providers adding “social” features and functions to their product portfolios.  More traditional businesses, which may not be engaging in social media, may be tempted to ignore these new features and functions. And yet by doing so they will be missing out on significant business value delivered through improved collaboration, visibility and connectivity.

What’s this “social” about?

“Social” is about gaining visibility, not only to transactional data that flows through enterprise applications, but also from other extraneous, far less structured sources. Until recently it has been impossible to keep tabs on all these potential sources of data in a structured and organized way.

“Social” is also about engagement, collaboration and connectivity. The ability to “follow” and “converse” online brings a whole new dimension to “real-time.” All those who participate in this social conversation are getting good at communicating in concise sound bites and they see great value in instant and electronic communication. But what about those that don’t?

If you listen to the technology pundits you might think everyone is engaging in “social.” But if you are not engaged, then you’re not “listening” and chances are you don’t really care. You don’t care about reproducing a Facebook-like experience because you’re not experiencing Facebook…or Twitter, Google Plus, Pinterest or any other kind of “social” vehicle. If you are also a business owner, executive or manager, you probably think of “social” as a distraction, something that should be done on your employees’ personal time. If someone refers to a tool or an application as “social” you are likely to immediately shut down. You’re interested in the business at hand and need applications like Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) and Customer Relationship Management (CRM) to run your business, but you aren’t interested in “social business” or “social ERP” or “social CRM.”

But maybe you should be. First you need to look beyond the moniker of “social” to find the value it brings. 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 in a collaborative way.

If you ignore the term “social” and look at the value delivered, a good businessperson can’t help but be interested. But can we explain that value without resorting to the same social jargon that is meaningless to those not currently participating? Let’s try.

Change the Experience – Expand the Reach

Think about who is most likely to have access to enterprise applications today. Typically for a comprehensive solution like ERP it is either a power user or someone trained in a specific function like sales or purchase order entry, inventory transactions, invoice matching or cash application. It’s not the executives responsible for growth and profits, even though the vast store of data contained in an ERP solution is essential for making sound business decisions. While these executives and even their line managers may rely on that data, they also rely on someone else to bring it to them, often in a distilled format that is easier to consume.

Why is that? Because traditionally you need to understand how both the data and the application are organized in order to effectively access the data from ERP. The perception (and often the reality) is that real decision-makers don’t have time to figure all that out.

So one aspect of bringing social to enterprise applications is to provide a “consumer grade” user experience, the same kind of experience you have in downloading an app to your mobile device. Need directions? Pay your bills online? Want to keep track of your daily caloric intake? Need all the latest sports stats? There’s an app for that. Unlike your typical enterprise application, these apps are intuitive; any consumer can immediately understand and use them.

“Consumer grade” means it’s intuitive and easy to get information out without having to understand how it all works under the covers. Of course implementing the solution still requires you to carefully design and map your business processes modeled by the solution, so yes, someone still needs to understand all that.  Consumer grade doesn’t mean it is not industrial strength. But once implemented, data needed for decision-making should be easily retrieved. Consumer grade means you should be able to just walk right up to ERP, on a laptop, a tablet or any kind of device, and get the answers you need.

Different enterprise application solution providers will take different approaches to providing a new type of user experience. The best way to evaluate the potential value is to see it and feel it. If it is truly “consumer grade” the vendor should be able to put it in your hands and let you give it a test drive. In fact, if it truly consumer grade, the vendor will be eager for you to touch and feel it.

Here are some of the ways solution providers are delivering a new user experience:

Enterprise search:

This approach is through incorporating a simple enterprise search capability. Don’t know exactly what you are looking for? Don’t know exactly where to look? What do you do? In the real world, you start searching and perhaps as you start to retrieve information, you refine that search. Why not apply the same principle to accessing data in enterprise applications? Search by customer, order, supplier, part or product, perhaps combining data residing in your enterprise applications with unstructured data available on the Internet.

Configurable user interfaces:

Over the years enterprise applications have progressed from hierarchical menus and tabbing through “forms” to point and click and drag and drop. Now as we also begin to bring these applications to mobile devices, touch screen technology is emerging. It is important today for the user interface to allow individuals to choose the paradigm they are most comfortable with and customize it to their individual needs.

Personalized workspaces:

These may be called dashboards, portals or even workspaces. Think of it as a home base of operations from which you can easily access the data and tools you need and use every day, all day. The power of a well-constructed workspace lies in blurring the boundaries between enterprise applications, desktop tools like spreadsheets, email, instant messaging, alerts and more. You should be able to reach out and touch any of these without closing down or minimizing one application before firing up another.

Charts and graphs are popular in these workspaces. Click on a chart to drill down into further detail. These workspaces are also a convenient place to insert that enterprise search button. These too should be easily configured and customized by role or by individual.

Push versus pull:

While all of these new consumer grade interfaces can be very valuable, they only deliver answers when interrogated. Why not have enterprise applications deliver data to you without having to ask for it? In its most simple form, this could simply be in the format of an alert.

Event management, which is the underlying technology that triggers an alert, is hardly new, but still not widely used. An event manager can be constantly searching for conditions or for events that occur (e.g. a big order comes in) or fail to occur (e.g. payment of a large invoice does not) while you go about your business.  Alerts can be delivered in any number of ways, but the most common today is still via email.

While the exception management facilitated by these alerts is certainly a plus, executives and line managers can still be blind-sided by a notification that seemingly comes out of the blue. Of course in some cases the sensitivity level can be increased to give a warning, but think how much more valuable it would be to have the ability to monitor a stream of activity surrounding that big order or the efforts made to collect payment from that delinquent account. In order to do that, you need to be “following” the account.

The concept of “following”

If you aren’t already a fan of “social” the concept of “following” someone or something might not seem immediately familiar to you. But chances are, you are already following someone or something either in your professional or personal life. Perhaps you follow the stock price of specific companies, or you watch a stock exchange like NASDAQ or the Nikkei. Or maybe you follow the stats of your favorite sports teams. Maybe you do that through newspapers, online or using an app on your mobile device. Perhaps newsfeeds are delivered to you through email. Regardless of the delivery method, the objective is to stay informed.

What if you could easily apply that same concept to your customers, orders or prospects? Let’s look at that big deal you are expecting to close. The sales rep has it on his forecast and his manager also feels confident. But if you really want to get a feel for the timing and the likelihood of closing the deal, today you probably pick up the phone and talk to the rep or his manager. But do you get the full picture?

Wouldn’t it also be helpful to follow the trail of activity that has already occurred during the sales cycle?  What if you could see the conversations or chatter between sales rep and manager? What documents have been delivered to the prospect? And what if this potential deal is with an existing customer? Wouldn’t you like to be able to scroll through the support activity over the past few months, including the calls, issues, resolutions? Has the customer experienced any quality or delivery issues? Have they been consistently paying their bills on time or is its outstanding balance over 90 days?

And of course you need to keep a watchful eye on any breaking news about that company or the market it serves. What if all that activity was collected for you and presented in a single stream? The result of monitoring these types of activity streams is better visibility, fewer surprises and more proactive versus reactive management.

Collaboration

Simply aggregating all this activity and data and making it available to all interested and involved parties provides an environment conducive to collaboration. Most business today is conducted as a team effort. When all members of the team happen to be in the same location, within shouting (or at least walking) distance, collaboration happens naturally. But more and more these teams operate in more virtual environments, distributed across geographically dispersed locations, often spanning multiple time zones. This makes getting answers, sharing, connecting people and teams much more difficult.

Many collaboration tools have emerged over the past decade to counter the challenges of a virtual environment. We have shared networks, instant messaging and online chats, file sharing technology and document management, to name just a few. But these conversations, documents and files typically exist entirely outside the enterprise applications that should be helping you manage the processes and the transactions that comprise your business.

For example, even though your orders are stored as records in your ERP system, creating a transactional system of record, you most likely also have  paper documents that are signed and counter-signed contracts to accompany the order within ERP. These may be filed away at corporate headquarters, eventually to be archived and perhaps moved to a secure off-site location. Chances are you also store a scanned image of that contract electronically. But can you attach that scanned image to the order in your ERP solution and assign it the same level of visibility and security?

Attaching contracts to an order in ERP is probably the last thing a traditional businessperson would describe as “social” and yet providing a method for sharing all related documents in a secure, yet collaborative environment is actually one of the goals of “social.”

A concept more readily associated with social is instant messaging or organized online meetings. As team members chat online about a schedule conflict, a support issue or a quality problem, can you store that conversation and attach it to the customer or the product in your ERP solution? Or do you lose that conversation once you sign off and resort to searching through email trails and notes to reconstruct it later?

These are just a couple of examples of how social concepts can be applied and integrated with enterprise applications.

Summary and Conclusions

In short, applying social concepts to enterprise applications can unlock the potential of those same applications. By improving the user experience, making data more easily and naturally accessible, a layer of disconnect can be removed, improving transparency and visibility. This added visibility is effective in connecting teams and supporting collaboration. So you see, bringing collaboration, visibility and connectivity to enterprise applications also brings added value… just don’t call it “social.”

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