Star Trek

Next Generation ERP: Kenandy’s Approach

Changing the World of ERP, One Click at a Time

It has been a while since I last posted in our Next Generation ERP series. If you haven’t been following, you might want to catch up on the 4 part generic series of posts. This one features the approach of a relatively new entrant into the ERP market: Kenandy Inc. Some of you will immediately recognize Kenandy’s founder, none other than Sandy Kurtzig of ASK and MANMAN fame.

By way of introduction or reminder….

What do Star Trek and Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) have in common? Apart from each being a bold adventure, both have experienced a rebirth as a next generation. In our four part series, we describe the next generation of ERP in terms of new technology that enables:

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

The next generation of Star Trek continued the original journey but was faster, more technologically enabled and more in tune with the evolving needs of the galaxy. When Sandy Kurtzig came out of retirement in 2010 and founded Kenandy, she may not have been thinking about Star Trek but she clearly wanted to explore new worlds in her entrepreneurial journey and boldly go where no ERP for manufacturing has gone before. Using new technology, Kenandy designed its new ERP from scratch with a singular purpose in mind: to deliver a robust solution quickly that would also keep pace with the rapidly changing world in which we live.

Does Kenandy Qualify as Next Generation ERP?

Not every ERP solution on the market today qualifies as a “next generation” ERP. The depth and breadth of functionality has increased over the past three decades, which makes it harder for a new entrant to compete in the market. The “basics” are table stakes, but they aren’t so basic anymore, particularly in the world of manufacturing where Kenandy hopes to compete.

While other industries might be able to survive with back office functionality that is limited to accounting or human resource management, manufacturing requires a much broader set of features and functions. Indeed, ERP for manufacturing has evolved from material requirements planning (MRP) to manufacturing resource planning (MRP II), to the full operational and transactional system of record of the business. Even the manufacturing of a simple product can be quite complex when you run lean, but strive to be responsive to your demanding customers.

Any ERP vendor today must compete on functionality, but that is not what makes a solution “next generation.” It is the underlying technology and the power it delivers.  But technology and functionality are closely related, because it is the power of the technology platform that allows solution providers to deliver more features and functions faster. Selecting the right platform on which to build ERP is therefore critical.

While the platform may not be immediately visible to the end user of the software, it is dangerous to ignore it and the power of technology. You probably never knew how the USS Enterprise achieved warp speed, but you knew that it could. You didn’t know how the transporter beam worked, but you knew what happened when Captain Kirk said, “Beam me up, Scottie.” While neither were the only ways to get from point A to point B, both added speed and efficiency.

While Kenandy chose to build an ERP solution from a clean sheet of paper, in order to compete, it needed to find a way to add both speed and efficiency to the development process. Kenandy chose to build on the Salesforce Platform to deliver both. And in doing so, its customers also benefit from speed and simplicity, which together yield efficiency.

ERP: Empower Real PeopleTM

Speed and efficiency are prerequisites for delivering on the first element of next generation ERP: providing new ways of engaging with enterprise software.

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 that navigation is intuitive or that business processes are streamlined and efficient.

When processes within ERP are clumsy and inefficient, employees spend more time trying to work around the system, rather than working with it. Cynics like to refer to ERP not as “enterprise resource planning”, but as “Excel runs production.” Sandy Kurtzig strives for a different goal where ERP stands for “empower real people.” For that to happen you need to reach both up and down the corporate ladder.

Traditionally, a small percentage of employees of any company ever put their hands directly on ERP, and this select group almost never included top-level executive decision-makers. But the speed of required decision-making and the consumerization of IT are making this unacceptable.

So how does Kenandy empower real people? It relies on the Salesforce Platform to deliver a user experience that is appealing to the younger work force that has grown up on the Internet. And in making the solution appealing to the millennials, it also makes it easier for the older crowd to use. It recognizes there are “mobile” and “social” users as well, both of which are addressed by the platform.

The Salesforce Platform also enables collaboration by connecting people to the business and to information. For years, salesforce.com made a big deal out of its “social” capabilities but the manufacturing community is just now appreciating social. While a hot topic among pundits and industry “influencers,” the perceived value was lost on many, particularly in manufacturing. 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. Many didn’t “get” that social is really just shorthand for new and improved ways of getting and staying informed in a collaborative way. And who doesn’t want that?

By building an ERP on the Salesforce Platform, these social and mobile aspects are built in.

Personalizing with Clicks not Code

While all manufacturers face similar challenges, they also have unique ways of dealing with those challenges, and in doing so, actively seek differentiation in their individual markets. What company today doesn’t believe it is unique in some way?

Being different used to mean customization and with traditional, older generation ERP, this meant programming changes, mucking around in source code and building barriers to upgrade and innovation. To qualify as a “next generation” ERP, most, if not all of this customization must be done without ever touching a line of source code. Configuration, tailoring and personalization should replace customization.

Kenandy likes to say it can personalize with “clicks, not code.” This means adding fields, changing workflows, rearranging the screens. This is an absolute necessity in a Kenandy environment because it is delivered only as multi-tenant software as a service (SaaS). In a multi-tenant environment, multiple companies use the same instance of (hosted) software. Of course, data is protected from access by other companies (tenants), but any “customization” is generally delivered through configuration settings, which vary per company.

Kenandy’s architecture allows you to modify business processes and the user experience, including screens, dashboards and even the device. This doesn’t require programmers. Simplicity and this “Do It Yourself” aspect were among the primary reasons Blue Clover Devices selected Kenandy. These features became obvious to Blue Clover during its trial run of the system.

“I immediately saw how easy it is to add and extend capabilities with Kenandy,” said Pete Staples, President and Co-founder. “I was convinced that this was something we could manage pretty much on our own, and that had a strong appeal to us.” While the other system Blue Clover was considering had many positive features, “We felt like we would have to hire them to do everything for us, and that just made us nervous.”

Beyond the Initial Implementation

While this level of personalization and configuration is important when Kenandy is first being implemented, it becomes even more so as life goes on. Today’s manufacturers are bombarded with change, whether as a result of growth, regulatory requirements or just the desire for continuous improvement. Change doesn’t halt once you implement ERP. In fact, the need for change may accelerate as new functionality and new technology opens doors for growth and improvement.

And yet managing change has traditionally been an obstacle to achieving the goals of an ERP solution. The 2014 ERP Solution Study found this to be the number one challenge with the vast majority (82%) rating it as moderately to extremely challenging.

The ability to handle this kind of change was the primary reason Big Heart Pet Brands (formerly Del Monte Foods) selected Kenandy to support its recent acquisition of Natural Balance Pet Foods. “One of the many reasons Del Monte selected Kenandy was that we wanted a flexible system that easily adapts to business changes, such as acquisitions, while also offering enterprise-class capabilities,” said David McLain, Senior Vice President, Chief Information Officer and Procurement Officer, Big Heart Pet Brands.

Kenandy attributes this post-implementation agility to the flexibility and extensibility of the platform and Stuart Kowarsky, Vice President of Operations at Natural Balance seems to be a big fan. “At Natural Balance and in our corporate systems, we’re replacing a patchwork of applications with one unified, extensible solution that will grow and scale with Big Heart’s needs.”

But Kenandy’s ability to accommodate change is not only attributable to the platform, but also to how it has architected the solution on top of that platform, with a unified data model that takes full advantage of the power of business objects.

“Wide-Body” ObjectsTM

Legacy ERP solution data models consisted of an extensive number of tables. Joining those tables together reflected relationships between data. For example, a sales order header table might need to be joined to line items. In turn, those line items needed to be joined with the products being delivered, and any number of associated tables for validation, like units of measure, product categories, inventory locations, planning and replenishment codes, etc. The sales order also had to be joined with customers, shipments, and invoices. It didn’t take long for the number of tables and joins to proliferate almost exponentially, making a change to any one element a labyrinth of changes.

Kenandy replaces that myriad of tables with what it calls a ”Wide-Body” ObjectTM architecture.  These objects will sound quite familiar: orders, invoices, customers, etc. But by packing lots of information into each object, it significantly reduces the number that needs to be managed. Kenandy has less than 100 Wide-Body Objects.

For example, invoice, credit memo and adjustments share similar data structures and therefore can be expressed as a single object, distinguished by embedded fields. Adding fields is a simple process and only has to be done in one place. Changing workflow steps is equally simple because the workflow connects directly to the objects. Also, these Wide-Body Objects are reusable and it is a simple process to make these changes by pointing and clicking. No database administrator (DBA) required.

More Innovation to Come

The ability to enable change this rapidly also has implications for the on-going development of the product, which impacts the third requirement for next generation ERP: more innovation.

In deciding to build a new product from scratch, Kenandy avoided a lot of the headaches other longer-tenured companies face. In developing a new product, you don’t have to worry about keeping any existing customers happy with product or implementation decisions they may have already made. You can start from a clean slate. It is sort of like building a new house. It is much easier to start with an empty lot and a design plan, than it is to remodel an existing structure.

And yet Kenandy set out to build a very big and complex structure. As noted earlier, the depth and breadth of functionality needed to compete today, particularly in manufacturing, is extensive.

The platform itself comes with an extensive toolbox that accelerates the development process. The power of the platform, combined with its SaaS-only delivery model, supports agile development, managed around “sprints,” a concept familiar to proponents of rapid application development. Innovation doesn’t have to be packaged up to be delivered every 12 to 18 months, but in shorter cycles that include scripting a scenario, designing a solution, building and testing. Think of these more as a series of short proof of concept projects, which are continually being delivered. As a SaaS model, no customer is left behind running an older release.

In an interesting twist on “agile” and “sprints,” Kenandy applies these same concepts to the implementation process. New customers gain access immediately to an instance of the software. They can add data, experiment and test it out in a series of pilots. At the end of the process, teams not only have a working environment, but also have learned how to make changes to business processes, again with clicks, not code. Nothing is cast in concrete as the first (or any) “go live” milestone is achieved, therefore it encourages and supports the popular manufacturing concept of continuous improvement.

These were some of the benefits Del Monte saw in its recent acquisition of Natural Balance. Indeed, Sandra Kurtzig was so confident in Kenandy’s ability to respond quickly, she made a commitment to Del Monte to go live with Kenandy at Natural Balance just 90 minutes after the acquisition was complete. No, that’s not a typo – that’s 90 minutes, not 90 days. In fact, the system was up and running in less time and represented a complete implementation including order-to-cash, planning and production, procure-to-pay and financials.

Summary

Like the starship Enterprise, whose five-year mission was to explore new worlds and “to boldly go where no man has gone before,” early versions of ERP charted new territory for enterprise applications. It evolved from MRP (material requirements planning) to MRP II (manufacturing resource planning) and then boldly set out to conquer the “final frontier” of ERP, managing not a small piece of the enterprise, but the enterprise itself.

The new journey Kenandy has embarked on, this next generation ERP, is a far cry from legacy ERP solutions of the past. Not wanting to be constrained by legacy code or preconceived notions, it started with a clean sheet of paper to design a whole new solution. But this new company knew better than to take a further step back in designing its own development platform. Instead it chose a platform that has already proven itself in terms of power, flexibility and reliability.

When Sandy Kurtzig stepped down from her first venture (The ASK Group) she left behind a loyal following within the manufacturing community, where trust is not easily given, but is hard earned. Can she attract the same kind of following in her new venture? In order to compete in this new era she will need:

  • A proven technology platform that allows users to engage with ERP in new and different ways, with intuitive and visually appealing user interfaces, which don’t rely on intimate knowledge of how the system or the data is structured. She’ll need a platform that opens doors to a whole new level of executive involvement… Check
  •  A system that is easily custom-configured, eliminating invasive customization that prevents companies from moving forward with updates and upgrades… Check
  •   To deliver innovation at an increased (and impressive) pace, supported through the use of web-based services, and object-oriented data models… Check
  •  Good integration capabilities that provide a seamless user experience across the enterprise… Check

Manufacturers stuck on older technology with limited functionality might well consider saying, “Beam me up, Sandy.”

This post was derived from a white paper entitled Next Generation ERP: Kenandy’s Approach. Click here to read the full report. The report is free, but registration is required.

 

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Infor’s Next Generation ERP: Energized and “ION”ized

Yet another post in our series on ERP, The Next Generation: The Final Frontier, this time featuring Infor’s Purpose-Built ERP and Lightweight Middleware

Best Article: ERP, The Next Generation: The Final Frontier?

Best Article: ERP, The Next Generation: The Final Frontier?

In the original series ERP, The Next Generation: The Final Frontier, we described the next generation of Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) in terms of new technology that enables:

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

We predicted the core functions of ERP would retreat “into darkness,” surrounded by newer, easy to consume, intuitive consumer grade apps that would deliver innovation and competitive advantage. For Infor Global, the future is now. Over the past two years new management has come in to re-energize the business and raise the bar for innovation. At the center of Infor’s next generation solutions are Infor 10x, a collection of purpose-built ERP suites, and ION, a modern, lightweight middleware.

Delivering New Ways of Engaging with ERP

In the past ERP was used by a fairly select subset of employees within a company. These users were responsible for maintaining the master data and entering the transactions that form the system of record of the business. Middle management might use the reporting capabilities, but seldom did executives ever put their hands on the system.

Yet times are changing. The latest 2013 Mint Jutras ERP Solution Study found (on average) 50% of employees actually use ERP, a significantly higher percentage than in years gone by. In addition, 47% of companies claim their executives have access to and regularly use ERP. As a result, expectations are rising. Clerical tasks are more automated, which means knowledge workers are replacing clerical workers. Executives are more comfortable with technology and more impatient for data for decision-making. All these changes combine to make old ways of engaging with ERP obsolete. Next generation ERP must provide new ways either through evolution or revolution. Infor’s path to engagement combines a little of both.

In March 2011 Infor announced Infor Workspace, calling it a new “consumer grade user interface designed to revolutionize the experience of doing business using enterprise applications.” Built on Microsoft SharePoint with significant investment, Infor Workspace delivered the next generation user experience by blending a common user interface across a mix of enterprise applications, web services and business intelligence. It is an evolutionary step because Workspace sits on top of existing applications.

This was an important step since Infor had grown primarily through acquisition. These acquisitions added new ERP solutions to its product portfolio, as well as other complementary solutions that filled functional gaps. As a result of these acquisitions Infor will never have a single tightly integrated suite with a single data model. But that doesn’t mean the end user can’t have a single user interface.

Infor Workspace also accommodates how people work today. Nobody spends his or her day in a single application anymore. Automation has eliminated that kind of “heads down” data entry job. Most people jump from applications to email to desktop productivity tools (like Microsoft Office), to the Internet and back to the same or different applications. Infor Workspace allows the user to establish a home base of operations from which to operate all day.

But the “user experience” is more than just a unified user interface. Ask an executive why he or she doesn’t engage directly with ERP and chances are the answer will be something like, “I don’t have time to figure ERP out.” Even if navigation through the menu structure or any particular screen were intuitive, traditionally you would still need to generally know where to look. That means having some idea of how the application and the data is structured. And no, most executives won’t take the time to learn that. To avoid that requires a completely different, revolutionary way of engaging.

That’s where Infor’s latest product, Ming.le comes in. Infor describes Ming.le as a “next-gen enterprise collaboration platform” and a social workflow tool embedded in core business applications, connecting structured and unstructured processes. Ming.le was designed primarily with the Gen-Y folks in mind, using a lot of the concepts and approaches popularized by social media. Those concepts and the description above might not mean much to Baby Boomer managers – until they see it in action that is. Figure 1 is a screen shot of a Ming.le home page. As a manager, at any level in the organization, you will have a few key metrics upon which your performance is measured. If you have a graphical representation of those metrics on your own personal home page, it’s a pretty sure thing that’s where your attention will be.

And while you’re on this home page, why not put your entire “to do” list on it? Ming.le alerts you to potential problems and reminds you of specific tasks. You prioritize your actions. And oh by the way, if you have direct access to ERP from here, you can actually take action yourself. You don’t have to wait for the proverbial, “I’ll have to get back to you on that.”

Figure 1: Infor Ming.le Home Page

Infor figure 1 Source: Infor

When one of your metrics starts to stray outside of an acceptable range, you’ll want more information. You will want to reach out and touch the offending number in order to learn more. You will want to immediately contact others in the organization that can help get that number back on track. You will want to tap into conversations that (you hope) are already underway. And you will want to follow those conversations. “Keep me in the loop” takes on a whole new meaning when a major order is in trouble, or a customer threatens to take business elsewhere, or a supplier doesn’t deliver on time, etc., etc., etc.

Figure 2 is an example of a “feed” from all the business objects you have chosen to “follow,” including customers, suppliers, customer orders, production orders, purchase orders, products, employees, etc. Click on links in those activity streams and conversations and suddenly you will be in ERP without ever really knowing how you got there.

In fact with a personalized view and the mobile capabilities of Infor Motion, it won’t “feel” like you’re in ERP at all. The more untethered devices become, the more tethered you become to work. With a customized view and a strong connection back to the enterprise data in ERP, the constant connection is less disruptive to your personal life. Instead of waiting for data critical to decisions, you access the data, take action and move on.

Figure 2: Infor Ming.le “Feed”

Infor figure 2Source: Infor

Customization versus Configuration

“Customizing” ERP can mean many different things and today configuration is often confused with customization. As noted in ERP, The Next Generation: The Final Frontier, customization used to mean mucking around in source code, resulting in hard-coded logic that was difficult to change. Source code modifications also made it difficult to keep up with updates and upgrades offered by your ERP vendor. If you couldn’t take advantage of innovation delivered, you were essentially letting some of your maintenance dollars go to waste. And as ERP (and your competitors) moved forward, you were stuck.

Infor is taking a dual-pronged approach to customization. First of all, with projects and products like Workspace and Ming.le, it is making it much easier to tailor the solution without customization. When Mint Jutras ERP Solution Study survey participants were asked what kinds of customization were needed, custom reporting, personalized screens and tailored workflows dominated the responses. Combine Workspace and Ming.le with a good report-writing facility and you satisfy the vast majority of requirements without touching a single line of code.

But 24% of respondents indicated “custom logic” was required and sometimes this does require programming. But Infor has publicly stated that its goal is to reduce this type of customization to zero. How does it expect to accomplish this? First of all, it offers multiple ERP suites targeting different vertical markets. That means it is willing and able to build in industry-specific functionality. As some of its advertisements say today:

  • Building plumbing parts is different than serving hotel guests
  • Packaging peas is different than designing shoes
  • Making tires is different than processing milk

This is what Infor means by “purpose-built” ERP. And it doesn’t stop at the typical vertical. While others might view “food and beverage” as a target, Infor will dive deeper and distinguish solutions for dairies, breweries, meat packagers or bakers. A feature that might require customization to a general-purpose ERP can be built in to a solution that is purpose-built. But if you really need something that is not already built in to the selected ERP suite, Infor says, “Tell us and we’ll put it in the product.”

Infor has quite a backlog of such requests right now, but has been gearing up to deliver on its theme of “moving faster.” In the past year alone it has hired 1,700 new employees, including 600 engineers, and it has produced 5,293 new product features… which brings us to the next defining factors of next generation ERP: innovation and integration.

More Innovation, Easier Integration

When it comes to innovation and integration, Infor’s secret sauce is its innovative Intelligent Open Network (ION), a lightweight middleware, which it also refers to as “purpose-built.” Why purpose-built? Because Infor isn’t in the middleware business; therefore ION wasn’t designed to be sold as a stand-alone middleware product. ION was designed to easily integrate Infor and third-party software applications.

So how does ION help Infor deliver more innovation? The answer lies in understanding Infor’s commitment to moving from tightly integrated solutions to ones that are more loosely coupled. ERP, The Next Generation: The Final Frontier introduced this concept and talked about the benefits, not so much from a technical perspective, but the benefits it brings to the business.  In short, the biggest reason “loosely coupled” might be of very significant value to a business is because things change. Markets change. Companies expand (or shrink). Customers make new demands. Compliance requirements change. Software is enhanced. Technology innovation happens. Yet responding to change is hard.

Think of enterprise applications as different cars in a train. Each of those cars is separate and distinct, but when coupled together they all ride smoothly together and you can easily pass from one car to the next. Need to replace one of those cars? No problem, just decouple it and replace it with another one. But that assumes all the cars use the same standard coupling. ION provides the mechanism by which they are coupled together. But that means they all need that “standard coupling.”

Infor has spent the past few years making sure all its strategic products are adequately equipped with that standard coupling. You might say it has been IONizing its products. That means when Infor develops a new component of functionality, that functionality can be added to not just one of its ERP products, but to many. So Infor can develop functionality once and re-use it across multiple products. This amplifies the volume and accelerates the pace of innovation.

Sometimes that functionality can simply be layered on top of existing products. That would be the equivalent of linking a new car to the train – sort of like adding a cocktail lounge linked to the dining car. However, if there is already a bar in the dining car and you want to significantly expand it to be a cocktail lounge, then you could suspend service in the dining car while you make renovations in place, or you could replace the entire dining car with a different (larger) one. Both options are quite disruptive. More likely you will add the cocktail lounge as a separate car and just stop serving liquor in the bar in the dining room once it is connected.

Traditionally ERP has been one of the cars in the train. If you need to make a significant change, you need to replace the whole car, which can be costly and disruptive to your business. Some of the functionality that is being developed by Infor is already deeply embedded in its current products in some form. Infor doesn’t necessarily need to remove that functionality. We didn’t need to remove the bar from the dining room. But as Infor starts to deliver new features as components (like the new car with the cocktail lounge), the number of features deeply embedded in ERP that are actually being used will shrink. Passengers on the train won’t go to the bar in the dining room for a cocktail; they will go to the new cocktail lounge car.

On the other hand, if the dining car in the train has no bar, if the owners of the train want to add this “feature”, they can certainly add a new car for the bar. But what if the real objective is to enhance the dining experience? That means they need to add this feature to the dining car.

Look for Infor to do some of each. By adding external components to ERP, it will essentially shrink the footprint of the ERP itself. But because it has multiple, purpose-built ERP solutions targeting specific markets, expect it to add enhancements directly to an ERP product that might be specific to an industry (enhancements that would not be used across different verticals or micro-verticals).

So the industry-specific functional footprint will expand even as the general-purpose footprint might shrink. We anticipated such a move in ERP, The Next Generation: The Final Frontier, predicting ERP might appear to slip into the background: “the darkness” of uniformity, of non-differentiation. Yet we also noted: While all companies have common needs, specific industries create specialized needs and it also becomes increasingly important for companies to seek competitive differentiation. But it is not in the core functionality where this source of differentiation lies, but in the services and functions that surround the core – like the industry-specific enhancement requests Infor is encouraging.

In fact Infor is now working off that backlog of these requests, a backlog that has been growing while it was IONizing products. In fact for some products this backlog might extend back to the time before Infor acquired the product. By growing its engineering staff, it has positioned itself to truly “move faster.”

Not All Infor Products Are Created Equal

All of the products in Infor’s extensive portfolio will not necessarily move faster at the same pace. With Infor’s long history of acquisition came ERP solutions that could accurately be called “legacy” applications, or some might prefer the term “heritage applications” (legacy apps you are proud of). Either term you use, these are applications that are built on older, technology. This means not all of Infor’s products can legitimately be called “next generation.”

Outdated technology makes it much harder to IONize them and this imposes some limitations on how much of Infor’s strategic initiatives customers running these applications can leverage. Getting these customers running a next generation ERP solution would be ideal, but many of them are quite loyal to the (legacy) products and many are running highly customized versions. These customizations date back to a time long before solutions were as feature-rich as today and as highly configurable.

But that doesn’t mean Infor is abandoning them. In fact, Infor wants to help. And with over 600 customers having come back on maintenance after previously letting their maintenance lapse, it would appear a good portion are receptive. Of course migrating to one of Infor’s other solutions that are already next generation is one option. But another option on the table: upgrade to the latest release of your current product, get rid of any customization, move it to the cloud and let Infor run it for you.

This may not be as difficult as it sounds because a newer release is likely to eliminate the need for many of those customizations and added configurability of newer releases could very well take it the last mile. Make no mistake, though; this will not be an easy transition for most. But then Infor takes over and the burden of on-going maintenance becomes Infor’s problem, not the customer’s.

All this is new and still “futures” so it is not yet possible to compare costs between current maintenance and the subscription fees paid to Infor. But chances are, if the customer takes into account internal costs and the cost of lost opportunity resulting from being “stuck” in the past, there should be a break-even point, if not a gain in terms of return on investment.

 No ERP is an Island

In order for Infor’s ERP solutions to qualify as next generation, it is not enough to just integrate with each other. While Infor would love to have every customer be an “Infor only” shop, that is not the reality. And even if it were, its customers would still need to interoperate with their customers and suppliers. Professional services from Infor Consulting Services will be available to integrate additional third-party and custom applications via the ION Factory and Infor is actively seeking partners to help meet demand.

Moving Faster: Means Time to Decision As Well

In ERP, The Next Generation: The Final Frontier, we had some fun with comparing ERP’s next generation to Star Trek and the USS Enterprise. ERP is becoming more agile, allowing it to navigate and change direction much more quickly. Yet unlike the starship Enterprise, it still can’t operate at warp speed. However, new advances in in-memory databases and technology are starting to dramatically speed up run times. We are now entering a new phase of ERP’s evolution.

But if Infor remains a business application company, and not a middleware and technology vendor, can it keep up? The answer is yes, but it will need to rely on some other commercially available technology in order to make that happen. That is exactly what it is doing with its “big data initiative” called Sky Vault.

Sky Vault leverages ION, extracting transactions from Infor ERP, formatting them in industry standard (XML) documents and sends normalized data to the cloud for further analytics. Once in the cloud Infor uses Amazon Web Services (AWS) to enable customers to accelerate time to decision from transactional data streams. Among the planned features Infor lists for Infor Sky Vault are:

  • Pre-built, domain-specific business analytics, reporting and dashboards powered by Infor ION BI (business intelligence) that incorporate industry and role-based best practices built on Infor ION Business Vault (a repository of standard business documents and transactional data)
  • Cloud-optimized data repository powered by Amazon Redshift (a fast and very reasonably priced petabyte-scale data warehouse service in the cloud) to more quickly, easily, and securely go-live and scale as data volumes grow
  • Industry-leading workflow and integration platform with Infor ION to support application interoperability and data transition between on-premise and cloud
  • Services from Infor Consulting Services to XML enable applications via the ‘ION Factory,’ which provides for rapid development of integrations to third party and custom systems and applications

Infor Sky Vault is planned to launch in the second half of 2013 with pre-defined content for sales, finance, and production, with more to come in the future.

But what about competing directly with its two biggest competitors: SAP and Oracle? Both are touting the exponential increase in speed with database products and platforms like Oracle Exadata and SAP HANA. Many of Infor’s products already run on Oracle’s data base. There is no reason why this should not extend to Exadata and Infor is actively considering supporting SAP HANA. For now Amazon Redshift provides a very economical alternative and Infor is currently experimenting with massive data volumes well beyond those its customers are dealing with in production environments today.

Summary and Key Takeaways

Among Infor’s extensive product portfolio are next generation ERP suites, technology enabled by its lightweight, scalable middleware, ION. Here are just a few ways Infor lives up to the Mint Jutras definition of “next generation”:

  • It has launched new products and new initiatives to dramatically change the user experience in accessing and interacting with ERP
  • Infor is moving from “tightly integrated” to “loosely coupled” enterprise applications to better equip its customers to adapt to changing business conditions and technological advances
  • ION facilitates the development of (external) components of functionality that can be re-used across multiple ERP solutions. This expands the volume and accelerates the pace of innovation.
  • Infor has and will continue to shrink the footprint of the general-purpose core features of ERP, surrounding it with these external components
  • Yet its micro-vertical approach will coincidentally expand those footprints to include specialized functionality, paving the way for zero customization
  • And along the way, Infor is keeping its eye on new database technology that will help accelerate ERP to warp speed

Armed with purpose-built ERP, modernized with technology enabling middleware, Infor is energized and its products are IONized in preparation for the future. While the core features of ERP may be moving into the darkness, look for Infor to move more into the spotlight. For IONized Infor products, the future is now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Sage’s Approach to Next Generation ERP: From Starship to Space Station

In our recent blog post series (ERP, The Next Generation: The Final Frontier?) we’ve had some fun comparing Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) to the USS Enterprise, the starship made famous by the extraordinarily successful Star Trek entertainment franchise. Like the USS Enterprise, whose five-year mission it was to explore new worlds and “to boldly go where no man has gone before,” early versions of ERP charted new territory for enterprise applications. It evolved from MRP (material requirements planning) to MRP II (manufacturing resource planning) and then boldly set out to conquer the “final frontier” of ERP, managing not a small piece of the enterprise, but the enterprise itself. As a participant in the ERP space (pun intended), Sage is certainly a player.  It doesn’t just have its own ERP starship; it has a whole fleet of them.  But is maintaining a fleet of starships the right approach to conquering the final frontier of ERP exploration? Maybe not. Can Sage find another way without abandoning the fleet? Read on to find out.

Sage ERP:  A Fleet of Starships

Even with a fleet of ERP solutions and a massive base of installed customers, Sage has not dominated the ERP horizon. In fact it may very well be that fleet of starships that has prevented Sage from achieving the dominance in ERP that you might expect from a company of its size and reach. Sage spent many years acquiring a vast portfolio of products, although not all of which would be categorized as ERP. And throughout those very active years of acquisition, Sage also preserved many of the brand names it had acquired. Names like Peachtree, Simply Accounting, ACT!, SalesLogix, MAS, Adonix and ACCPAC might have better name recognition than Sage. And yet, they are all Sage. Or at least they were until recently.

This past year, Sage not only engaged aggressively in re-branding its products to fit under the Sage umbrella, but also made some divestitures (including ACT! and SalesLogix) in order to achieve more focus. And ERP is a prime target in that focus. But competing in the ERP market today is not for the faint of heart. Technology and innovation is advancing at a rapid rate and it takes a lot to compete.

 Does having a fleet of ERP starships help or hurt?

While a fleet of starships gives you more reach, there is an inherent problem. Innovation is key to achieving and maintaining a competitive position. Let’s say someone develops a new propulsion system that allows a starship to move at twice the warp speed previously possible. If your starship can’t achieve that speed, you become a sitting duck, just waiting to be attacked by those that are newer and more advanced. But with a fleet, if you need to innovate, it means each starship needs to be maintained and improved separately. Even with multiple teams this takes a lot of time. And it might mean in order to upgrade, you need to take the ship out of commission.

Upgrading ERP is similar. Although you should never have to take ERP out of commission (at a customer site) any longer than perhaps a weekend, the upgrade process can be very disruptive. As a result many customers delay implementing an upgrade. So even if the vendor innovates on an annual basis, consumption of the innovation lags behind.

Making matters worse, if a solution provider maintains multiple and disparate sets of code, it needs to enhance each separately. Let’s say it wants to add the same functionality to each. With multiple development teams, you may be reinventing the wheel several times over. Instead you might form a specialized development team that brings this new functionality to each product. These developers get very good at that piece of functionality. But they lose a lot of efficiency in moving from one development environment to another. And of course, this team can’t work on all products at once, so a queue will form. Customers will start to lose their competitive edge and the solution provider becomes vulnerable to attrition.

But this is a weakness only because new functionality has traditionally been built into ERP. What if it wasn’t? Just like a starship, which is a self-contained environment that sustains the life of a community (its crew), ERP has traditionally been developed as a tightly integrated set of modules that sustains the life of the business. In ERP, The Next Generation: The Final Frontier? we compared traditional “tightly integrated” to next generation “loosely coupled” solutions and concluded that adding components as a “service” made it much easier to add new features and functions to ERP with less disruption. It might even make it possible to develop functionality once and then re-use it across different ERP solutions. But that means it is no longer like a fully-contained, independent and self-sustaining starship. For this we need a new metaphor.

Transitioning From Starship to Space Station

In fact in ERP, The Next Generation: The Final Frontier? we introduced a new way thinking. Instead of thinking of ERP as a starship traversing the galaxy, think of it instead in the context of a solar system. Imagine ERP in the center. In a solar system, planets orbit around the sun.  In our ERP-centric system, picture loosely coupled applications surrounding it. In a real solar system it is gravity that holds the planets in orbit, and the source of gravity is the sun at the core. In our software solar system with ERP at its center, the gravity is drawn from the platform on which the ERP is built.

When you have a single ERP, gravity is strengthened by building ERP and all the surrounding applications on a common platform. Loosely coupled applications draw sustenance from data collected and managed by ERP. Combine this with standardized business objects (e.g. customers, suppliers, orders, etc.) and you insure a strong connection but with a loose coupling that can be easily disconnected and reconnected.

What happens though when you have multiple ERP solutions developed on different technology and architectures? This is the situation Sage finds itself in, with its “fleet” of ERP solutions. You don’t have a single ERP in the center. You might think we’ve “broken” our analogy because there is typically a single sun in any solar system. But with a little tweaking, the concept still works.

Imagine instead a Sage solar system, and each of its ERP solutions as a planet. In a real solar system, you find one or more moons circling each planet.  The planet and the moons are all made out of essentially the same “stuff” so they circle naturally. After all, these orbiting bodies are really nothing more than chunks of rock.

The moons in orbit around an ERP might be those made of the same “stuff” as the ERP – the same (or compatible) architectures and technology. But our moon isn’t the only satellite circling the planet Earth. We have a plethora of man-made satellites, including a space station, which is not only in orbit, but also sustains life. The space station requires some additional life-support systems, but it is orbiting and functional.  But it isn’t perpetually self-sustaining. It needs supplies (like food and other consumables) delivered on a regular basis. So it needs a means of connecting and communicating back to the “home” planet. Much like our space station, loosely coupled applications must be supplied on a regular basis with data from ERP.

In order to add functionality across a whole portfolio of products, a company like Sage will need to first build a standard space station. But in order to launch it into orbit around several, or all of its planet ERPs, it will need to clone it. Each of these clones might require a slightly different connector back to the planet it will orbit. Taking this approach, that specialized development team can focus exclusively on building the standard space station, while the regular product development team takes responsibility for connecting it to their planet.

Done effectively, this can turn the fleet from a disadvantage into an advantage. Individual ERP solutions can be enhanced and refined to address different markets and where new functionality can be shared, a company like Sage can develop it once and re-use it across multiple product lines. Providing the underlying architectures of the different ERP products allow these new components to be connected relatively easily, products that might otherwise have been relegated to “maintenance mode” might actually thrive with new and added functionality.

In fact, Sage is taking exactly this approach as it develops new functionality and it is going one step further and placing those services in the cloud. While presented as a “hybrid cloud strategy” intended to help customers move incrementally to the cloud, with all the benefits of lower cost, faster implementation, easy access, perhaps the bigger benefit is in being able to develop once and re-use across multiple product lines. In doing so it also brings more life to products that might have otherwise never been significantly enhanced.

Whether this is a “cloud strategy” or an innovation strategy, the net effect will be to surround ERP with a series of “Connected Services.” Sage Payment Services was one of the first of these Connected Services, launched back in 2010. Sage Inventory Advisor was announced in June 2013 and most recently, at Sage Summit 2013 in July, Sage announced new mobile solutions: Sage Mobile Sales, Sage Mobile Service, and Sage Billing and Payment. All are cloud-based subscription services running on Windows Azure, Microsoft’s cloud platform, and designed to easily integrate with Sage ERP systems. Additionally, at the same event, Sage announced two new business intelligence tools.

The strategy is sound, but with such an expansive portfolio, the devil is in the details in keeping track of which Connected Services are actually connected to which Sage ERP products.

For example, Sage Enterprise Intelligence is for Sage ERP X3 and Sage Intelligence Reporting Bundle is for Sage 100 ERP, Sage 300 ERP, and Sage 500 ERP. Sage Inventory Advisor is currently available, while Sage Enterprise Intelligence and Sage Intelligence Reporting Bundle will be available in the fourth quarter of 2013. As for the mobile solutions: They are currently available for those businesses running the latest versions of Sage 100 ERP and Sage 300 ERP. Presumably these would also be applicable to Sage 500 and Sage ERP X3.

This level of detail can be confusing to the market, and this confusion is compounded as Sage continues its efforts to build its brand. Focusing on messaging and marketing the Sage name has the potential of blurring the details product by product. Fortunately this is far less confusing for the customers. Each customer will only be concerned about what is coming down the road for the product they license.

And there is an added advantage to the customer in this approach. Think of these extensions as space station-like satellites that will surround an ERP solution. Many will support functions that were previously not supported by ERP. This may open doors to employees that never went near ERP before. Some of these users will only use these satellite products and never touch the core ERP solution. In other words, they will live on the space station, not the planet. Changes to the ERP shouldn’t affect them at all.

At some point if the size and complexity of the business grows, a company may decide to move to a Sage ERP solution that is better aligned with its needs (e.g. as it grows from small to mid-size). In this move, nothing changes for those living on the space station. It will be circling a new planet, but they might not even notice any difference. This makes the upgrade that much easier and insulates many users from the potential disruption of a reimplementation.

Moving Forward

Sage has some catching up to do in terms of modernizing and innovating its ERP solutions. ERP, The Next Generation: The Final Frontier? presented the next generation of ERP in terms of new technology that enables:

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

Sage is attacking each of these areas, most notably in new user interfaces and new ways of interacting with ERP. By being a bit late to enter the starting block, Sage does have the advantage of learning from others that might have gone before them in terms of what works and what customers want. A good example of this sort of leap-frog approach was demonstrated at the recent Sage Summit 2013. Himanshu Palsule, Sage Chief Technology Officer demoed voice-activated mobile technology to access customer data from ERP using natural language queries. Using a Siri-like interface, he was able to retrieve data such as credit limit, open receivables, and address information. Equipped with the address and web-based mapping functions he was able to get directions and initiate a call to the customer.

But Sage isn’t looking only at the competition to drive its future direction. It has also launched a Sage Listens RV Tour, a 50-day, nationwide tour where Sage executives met with more than 50 customers in order to gain a better understanding of how to develop features and services to better support its customers. While the mode of transportation is a little more mundane (and practical) than a starship, Sage executives literally hopped on the bus, a well-equipped recreational vehicle (RV), and visited 16 cities across the United States.

Sage’s approach to developing new functionality as cloud-based connected services is a smart move that will drive more innovation in a way that inherently provides better integration. We’ll be watching closely as it starts to make the important transition from maintaining a fleet of starships to developing standard space stations. If you are a Sage customer, or considering becoming one, look for a cloned space station launching around your planet soon.

 

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SAP’s Next Generation ERP: HANA and Fiori Help Customers Explore Final Frontier

Continuing our “Star Trek” series, this is the first of several posts specific to vendors offering various renditions of “next generation ERP.”

In previous posts (you can find links to the right), Mint Jutras had some fun using a Star Trek analogy to describe the next generation of ERP in terms of new technology that enables:

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

We predicted the core functions of ERP would retreat “into darkness,” surrounded by newer, easy to consume, intuitive consumer grade apps that would deliver innovation and competitive advantage. We also hinted at even newer technology that would power your ERP to operate at warp speed.

SAP HANA is that newer technology that could potentially propel your ERP into overdrive. Additionally, back in May SAP  announced SAP Fiori, a new collection of 25 apps that would surround the SAP Business Suite, providing a new user experience for the most commonly used business functions of ERP. Can the combination of these two technologies and other innovation being delivered by SAP allow its prospects and customers to explore the final frontier and boldly go where no ERP user has gone before?

Can SAP Really Be Nimble and Quick?

SAP’s competitors love to sell against them by saying its ERP is big and complex and anything but user-friendly. They point to long, difficult, multi-million dollar implementation cycles. Of course they conveniently forget that many of these implementations are massive simply because the large enterprises themselves are more massive. Rolling out a solution to operating locations in multiple countries around the world is easier with modern, web-based solutions, but it is still not an easy task.

Competitors assume all deployments are heavily modified and use words like “monolithic” and “outdated” to imply SAP customers are locked in to a solution that is over-priced and under-delivers. It is true that many of these are very mature implementations that were installed and implemented when all solutions were developed as tightly integrated, monolithic solutions using tools that would seem archaic today. These older implementations are far more likely to have undergone invasive customization than would be required today. But unless the competitor is relatively new on the scene, it too is likely to have customers on legacy versions of older products, facing the same kind of challenges.

Competitors and pundits love to liken innovating SAP’s ERP to steering a battleship: Big and powerful, but difficult to steer and change direction. In contrast, competitors describe their own solutions as lighter weight, flexible, agile, and modern. They will proudly tell prospects that their solutions aren’t the big battleships, implying they can indeed innovate faster. That may or may not be true. All you can be sure it means is that their solutions don’t have the depth and breadth of functionality.

In all fairness, competitors’ customers and prospects might not need that same depth and breadth, particularly if the vendor targets small and/or mid-size companies, or perhaps specific verticals, micro-verticals or even a niche market. SAP Business Suite is a strong solution for mid-size to large to mega-sized enterprises in 21 different industries, some of which can be further broken down by micro-vertical.

But what many of its detractors miss in using this “battleship” attack strategy is the simple fact that SAP stopped innovating the battleship itself several years ago. Does that mean it’s ERP solution is dead or dying? No, far from it.  It means it has all the basics down pat. And the very basic of basic requirements haven’t changed in decades. Basic functions like accounts payable, accounts receivable, inventory control and purchasing haven’t changed and they aren’t rocket science.

Of course, all functions and processes evolve in some ways. Take accounts payable, for example. While we still receive materials, match receipts to invoices and pay suppliers, the options for payment have indeed changed. Electronic payments are fast making printing checks obsolete. And for that matter, we receive fewer and fewer paper invoices that have to be manually matched. Automated processes have allowed us to turn clerks into knowledge workers. So we do more spend analysis and supplier collaboration.

All these new ways of doing things require new features and functions in our supporting ERP. But notice that all these are new tasks to be added to the core basics. They can be developed and delivered as separate components without changing the direction of the battleship or the battleship itself.

And is being a battleship all that bad anyway? An aircraft carrier is a battleship in the context of modern warfare. No it can’t turn on a dime in order to attack. It steams to a strategic location and it can then pinpoint any target within a wide radius. Why? Because the aircraft carrier is simply the base of operations from which the fighter planes can attack in any direction.  The carrier provides support and fuel much like ERP provides data. The planes must “fit” the ship, as they must be tethered on landing, just as components must be integrated to ERP. But, like the planes on the ship, they are loosely coupled rather than tightly bound. And providing the planes use standard fittings, one plane might be swapped out for another with relative ease, just like the next generation ERP modules that use a standard definition of a business object.

This is exactly how SAP has continued to develop new features and functions over the past several years in spite of having stabilized core ERP. The concept was first introduced circa 2006 with the introduction of its enhancement packs. The approach was to bundle enhancements together periodically in feature packs, but allow customers to selectively implement individual innovations without having to upgrade the entire solution.

As SAP’s cloud strategy has developed more recently, so has its object-orientation of development. Take for example its latest release of Cloud for Sales (initially named Sales On Demand).  In order to be an effective piece of customer relationship management (CRM) it needs access to a customer master file. But if you have SAP ERP, you already have a customer master file.

Think of the customer (master data) as a business object. An older ERP solution will build that customer master file (the business object) right into the solution. Instead, SAP treats the customer master as a separate business object that lives outside of the application. By doing this, both applications can point to, access and reference the same business object.

But what about file maintenance? Instead of building the maintenance functions directly into each application, SAP treats that function as a separate function as well. Instead of building that directly into Cloud for Sales and SAP ERP separately and individually, SAP builds it once and puts it in a “business process library” which both (and other) applications can use. This approach allows additional components of functionality to plug into these applications much like the fighter planes plug into the carrier upon landing.

A New User Experience

So far our analogy of a battleship (a.k.a. aircraft carrier) has been sufficient, but a ship on a sea hardly represents a “final frontier.” How do we then turn that ship into a starship? We’re not really as far off as you might think because in some ways, the USS Enterprise operated much like a traditional battleship. You didn’t really see it landing on the surface of those alien planets. Like a carrier, it parked itself strategically (in orbit around the planet) and used another means of transportation for that final approach.

Shuttlecraft were the equivalents of a fighter plane or a helicopter, but they weren’t used very frequently. More often the crew of the Enterprise used Chief Engineer Scott’s transporter beam. In a sense it didn’t add new functionality. The function was to get people from point A to point B – not a new sort of thing. But it certainly added a new user experience. You might even call it the consumerization of space travel.

That is exactly the concept SAP has applied to its newest product, Fiori. SAP estimates that 80% of SAP users “experience” the solution through older technology today. Fiori sets out to change that without necessarily adding any new features or functions. SAP has taken the most commonly used screens and applied what it calls the 1-1-3 rule: one use case, one user, no more than three screens. The screens will typically include one as a “to do” list, a screen with more details and a sub-screen where the user takes action.

These new apps can be run from any kind of device, from on-premises or in the cloud. This potentially opens the door for more users and a different kind of user. These apps are easy to use, but also easy to customize. If you can pretty up a PowerPoint slide you can customize the look and feel of these apps. Executives that have previously been loath to touch ERP because they just didn’t have time to “figure it all out” will no longer have that excuse. Answers to questions will be a few clicks away on their smart phones and tablets.

The selection of which screens to revamp was not random. SAP has the ability to actually measure usage of different functions within the Business Suite, providing its customer grants permission to do this. Many of them have and after analyzing this data, SAP selected a set of 25 apps, which it feels covers the top 40% of usage. This set of 25 is likely to expand but SAP doesn’t expect it to blossom into thousands of screens. It will continue to focus on those functions most widely used in the course of conducting business.

SAP customers will have to pay for this, but a single, modest license fee is charged for the entire set of applications. SAP is not looking to make lots of money but also understands that putting a price tag on it conveys value.

Turning the Battleship Into a Star Ship

All this is great, but adding additional components of functionality and a new user experience doesn’t necessarily turn a battleship into a star ship. A star ship traverses beyond our own solar system; so it definitely needs to travel at warp speed. Otherwise it would take more than a lifetime in order to reach remote parts of the galaxy. Decision-makers need access not only to data from structured applications within their enterprise applications, but also to vast treasures of previously unexplored data from the Internet: news feeds, customer sentiment, social media, etc.

So to conquer the final frontier of ERP exploration, you need speed: Speed not for the sheer sake of speed, but with a functional purpose.

That’s where HANA comes in. Neither the Business Suite nor Fiori require HANA in order to run. Existing customers can benefit from this next generation functionality without transitioning to HANA. But if they don’t, they won’t be on the ERP equivalent of the starship Enterprise.

SAP HANA Enterprise Cloud: Speed, Power and the Benefits of Cloud Delivered Faster provides more detail about the speed HANA brings, along with the benefits of operating in the cloud. But the benefits of speed are equally applicable in a traditional on-premises environment as well. Suffice to say, with HANA, batch processes become obsolete. Processes like Material Requirements Planning (MRP) and sales forecasting that used to take hours to process can be reduced to minutes, or even seconds, without constraining the amount of data processed. This adds a whole new “real time” dimension to decision-making.

Key Takeaways

To operate effectively in the uncharted territory of global competition today, enterprises need vehicles that will carry them into the future.  Monolithic, outdated ERP built on old technology won’t get you there. You need the next generation of ERP to provide new ways of engaging with ERP. You need new ways of tailoring it to your own individual needs, without building barriers to moving forward. You need new innovation delivered as components that can be easily integrated to your core ERP.

SAP has been on this path to next generation ERP longer than most, delivering new innovation in an innovative way. SAP Fiori and SAP HANA are simply the next steps that will help companies venture into the final frontier. The real question: Do you have the necessary vision and are you ready to boldly go where no ERP has gone before?

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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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SYSPRO’s Next Generation ERP: 7-on-7

 

SYSPRO 7 Addresses 7 Manufacturing Market Demands

In a recent report, Mint Jutras described the next generation of Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) in terms of better technology to deliver a new customer experience, custom configuration without programming, more innovation and better integration. You might think that ERP vendors must reinvent themselves or their products in order to offer up a next generation ERP. Companies reinvent themselves by acquiring other companies and technology, and/or scrapping the development of legacy applications in favor of writing new ones from scratch, new ones that take years to mature.  But if you think these are the only ways to deliver next generation ERP, then you don’t know much about SYSPRO. SYSPRO has been around since 1978, but unlike most of the rest of the ERP world, still offers a single ERP which it has evolved to meet all the requirements of next generation ERP, but has done so using an approach that is unique to SYSPRO.

In the aforementioned report ERP, The Next Generation: The Final Frontier? we had some fun comparing ERP to the successful entertainment franchise, Star Trek. Like Star Trek, SYSPRO ERP is a long-running classic. Star Trek, The Next Generation debuted 21 years after the original series first aired. SYSPRO’s next generation ERP took a little longer, 24 years after the company was founded.  It was introduced in 2001 in response to what SYSPRO calls the “Extended Enterprise.” And the parallels don’t stop there.

The original Star Trek crew had a five-year mission to explore new worlds, travelling on the USS Enterprise. Early ERP often was viewed as a five-year investment. The new and evolved starship Enterprise in The Next Generation had an open-ended “continuing mission” to explore “space: the final frontier… to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.” ERP investments today are also seen as a “continuing mission” and SYSPRO views itself on a mission to make its installed base customers for life, helping mid-market manufacturers and distributors to explore new worlds and seek out life after traditional ERP in what has certainly become a strange new world.

SYSPRO 7 is the most recent of many steps along SYSPRO’s continuous journey, more a constant reinvention than the sudden birth of a new generation. While many limit beta testing to a very small sample of customers, a community of 600 early adopters has now tested this release.

Let’s take a look at the SYSPRO “7-on-7” approach to meeting new market demands. The seven categories of advances cited by this community align quite closely to the next generation requirements in ERP, The Next Generation: The Final Frontier:

  1. New personalized customization and role-based optimization
  2. New advanced functionality (like rapid sales order entry)
  3. New device agnostic mobile capabilities
  4. New industry templates for vertical markets (food, medical devices, electronics, machinery/equipment)
  5. New data integration and toolsets that address the “big 3” issues of big data; volume, velocity and variety
  6. New extended scalability to increase transaction throughput and transaction values including (optional) expanded field sizes
  7. New and more powerful server side reporting solutions that speed processing and simplify the embedding of external data

Defining the SYSPRO Customer Experience

When most software vendors talk about the customer experience, you find them talking about the experience of using the software. Today that discussion starts with the user interface (IU) and then goes on to include web-based and mobile access. This “experience” is influenced heavily by the supposed “consumerization of IT.” Certainly with the introduction of so many consumer applications, largely offered on smart phones and tablets, we have all become more demanding of user interfaces. Nobody has to read a manual to figure out a consumer app and we all make the assumption that we shouldn’t have to read a manual to figure out ERP either.

So many solution providers of next generation ERP have redesigned how their customers engage with ERP, making it a “social” (or “Facebook-like”) experience, typically taking a “Gen-Y” perspective and often guessing at what their customers and prospects really want. But here’s the challenge: ERP is not a consumer app. ERP runs your business. And quite frankly, there aren’t too many mid-market manufacturers and distributors that are run by Millennials of Generation Y. So sometimes these approaches don’t resonate with those making the business decisions.

SYSPRO takes a completely different approach to “the customer experience.” Instead of focusing exclusively on how its customers engage with SYSPRO ERP, it looks first and foremost at how those customers engage with SYSPRO, the company.  Many companies talk about customer satisfaction and listening to the voice of the customer, but for SYSPRO, this is deeply embedded in its corporate culture. As a result, the customers have a profound influence over what SYSPRO then delivers by way of the user experience with the product. No guesswork is involved; no wondering how new engagement models designed for Gen-Y folks will be received by the Baby Boomer and Generation X executives at the helm.

This distinction is not lost on its customers. Vann Spices of Baltimore, MD has been a SYSPRO customer since 2009. Being in the food industry, the company had a long list of system requirements including lot sourcing and product traceability. Because it differentiates itself with custom mixes, it needs to be agile and have a firm grip on available ingredients, ordering, scheduling and billing. It has a variety of direct and indirect sales channels in premium markets like New York, Washington DC and San Francisco, plus website sales.

Mick Whitlock, Vann Spices’ president sums it up well: “It’s not just the lot traceability, reporting, UI and food safety certification controls that matter – as good as they are at SYSPRO.  What’s equally and potentially even more valuable to us, is that I always know the SYSPRO team has my back.  The company executives and its service partners consistently show that they have my best interests at heart and will do whatever is necessary to keep my business running efficiently, no matter what happens.

“You ask a small company what that is worth – and they will tell you:  everything.  It’s worth everything.  Because without a technology partner like that, software is just software.“

That said, the software is still important and if the software isn’t easy to use, employees will spend more time and effort working around the system than with it, and executives will avoid it completely. They will rely on subordinates for data for decision making because they don’t have time to figure ERP out. Yet as executives carry more and more mobile devices, expecting to stay connected wherever they are, they become more impatient waiting for data.

New options for the user interface provided in SYSPRO 7 reflect this growing impatience. Custom-configured dashboards, including a choice of graphical representations of key performance indicators (KPIs) are presented in one or more tiles on the screen, much like those provided by other software vendors. But SYSPRO has gone one step further and made those tiles active (they refresh dynamically as data changes) and touch controlled (touch a bar or a wedge on a pie chart to drill down for more detail). They can be presented on any device, using any mobile platform and can be extensively personalized or customized.

These not-so-subtle differences are supported by the Microsoft standards on which the software is based and the use of HTML5 and XML, which might not mean much to your average business executive. But more importantly, these differences come from its intimate relationship with its customers, knowing how they think and what they want.

Customization versus Configuration

“Customizing” ERP can mean many different things and today configuration is often confused with customization. As noted in ERP, The Next Generation: The Final Frontier, customization used to mean mucking around in source code, resulting in hard-coded logic that was difficult to change. Source code modifications also made it difficult to keep up with updates and upgrades offered by your ERP vendor. If you couldn’t take advantage of innovation delivered, you were essentially letting some of your maintenance dollars go to waste. And as ERP (and your competitors) moved forward, you were stuck.

But SYSPRO has long stayed ahead of the pack when it comes to configuration rather than customization. SYSPRO introduced the concept of UI-centric power tailoring several years before this type of configuration capability became mainstream.  It knew its customers didn’t have big budgets for customization and didn’t want to leave them stranded on older versions as new innovation was delivered.

In spite of being a relatively small company, Vann Spices serves very large customers and hence has the same ERP requirements of a large manufacturer. Yet it doesn’t have the deep pockets of a large company. Mick Whitlock believes this is one reason why SYSPRO ERP can satisfy those needs. “The user interface is incredibly easy to use and tailor to our specific needs. It feels just like we built it specifically for our own company and our own purposes.”

More Innovation, Easier Integration

More innovation implies more features and functions. But an extended functional footprint isn’t what makes any ERP “next generation”. The underlying technology infrastructure does. While business executives often know little and care less about the underlying technology, they do care about the value it brings. And it is that technology that also aids in accelerating the development of new features and functions.

When SYSPRO first introduced its next generation ERP, it also introduced the concept of business objects, modern component architecture and a separate presentation layer. It is not important for the typical business user to understand this from a purely technical perspective. The crew of the Enterprise didn’t necessarily understand how chief engineer Scott’s transporter beam worked. But each and every crewmember knew what it did and what “Beam me up, Scottie” meant. Every businessperson using ERP needs to understand what technology can bring to the ERP party or the potential will remain vastly unrealized.

Presentation Layer

By separating the presentation layer from the source code, modifications can be made without impacting the rest of the system (think different languages, company-specific terminology, adding removing fields from a screen, etc.).

Business Objects

If you are not sure what a business object might be: In the context of ERP, a customer is a business object. But as a business object, a customer isn’t just a record in a master file. It also includes the maintenance functions, validation and controls.

Component Architecture

SYSPRO has coupled business objects with modern component architecture in order to be able to develop reusable building blocks on which additional SYSPRO modules or even custom applications can be built. If you need to add a customer relationship management (CRM) solution to SYSPRO ERP, you don’t need to create an entirely new (and different) customer master or programs to maintain it. You simply re-use the existing object. And you bolt the new CRM solution onto your existing ERP in such a way that it all looks, feels and behaves like a single integrated solution. Indeed SYSPRO offers CRM and it looks and behaves as an integral part of the broader solution.

But if you don’t need CRM (yet), ERP will not suffer from its not being there. You still have your customer master file and all the functions necessary to maintain it. Or perhaps you already have a different CRM. It is not unusual for small companies to invest in CRM even before a full-blown ERP solution. If you need to integrate with another third party application, as long as that other application can map to standard business objects, it too can be easily bolted on, data is synchronized and redundancy is reduced or eliminated. The same is true for any new custom-developed applications.

SYSPRO Release 7 includes new functionality, beyond the added features and flexibility of the new user interface. Release 7 builds on this flexibility by also including industry templates. Those in medical device industries might want to see the lot and/or serial number on every screen.  But unless you are in the food industry, you don’t want to see specific gravity or fat content. SYSPRO partners can pre-design the layout for an electronics manufacturer or a food processor. Or customers can fashion their own “customized” screens.

Achieving Warp Speed

To conquer the final frontier of ERP you need speed. The USS Enterprise had at its disposal amazing technology that allowed the starship to travel at warp speed, using a hypothetical faster-than-light propulsion system. While SYSPRO ERP can’t travel faster than the speed of light, the installation and upgrade processes have been re-engineered to move customers to this newest release faster, often in “one click”.

Once there, Release 7 has been enhanced for faster transaction throughput, supporting large transaction volumes and massive amounts of data from sensors, mobile devices and other external sources. Today these massive volumes must be structured but SYSPRO intends to include unstructured data (think Hadoop) in the future.

Summary

Star Trek was and is science fiction. To many, modern technology-enabled solutions might still seem the stuff of science fiction when in fact they are in production environments, producing results that are nothing short of amazing. What generation of ERP are you running today? Have you explored the world of very real possibilities recently? If not, are you missing out and losing ground in terms of competitive advantage?

Next generation ERP from SYSPRO is very real. If you are faced with the accelerating pace of business, growing volumes of data and higher customer expectations, but your current ERP solution has you stuck in the 20th century, maybe it is time to explore the final frontier. Consider joining the federation of SYSPRO customers for a new and improved ERP experience.

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