UNIT4 Agresso

UNIT4 Aims High in Education

Can Specialized Features for Advanced Research and Grant Management “Pull Along” ERP?

In a recent industry analyst roadshow engineered by the amazing efforts of Judith Rothrock of JRocket Marketing, UNIT4 announced the first of two phases of a new and improved, industry-specific solution for “education living in change.” This integrated solution specifically targets universities and institutions of higher learning. Why? Because these institutions have some very specific needs and UNIT4 has very specific answers to those needs, while also providing a more traditional “core” solution. Can these special solution components for advanced research and grant management, and “constituent” engagement management “pull along” accounting, human resource and other core Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) functions?

Why not? After all, the alternative is to first address these more basic functions with solutions and then go out and buy (or build) applications to manage functions not typically addressed by ERP… and never the twain shall meet. And yet these functions consume resources managed by ERP. While these different solutions might actually “talk” to each other, more often they are completely disparate, frequently homegrown and not integrated, resulting in duplicate or redundant data and efforts. And let’s face it, once basic accounting and human resource needs are met, some colleges and universities just never get around to addressing these other functions with formal solutions that extend beyond the desktop and the ubiquitous spreadsheet.

Most any ERP solution can meet the accounting needs of higher education. Universities make purchases, pay suppliers, send invoices, collect cash and reconcile financial statements just like any commercial or non-profit organization. In many ways, this feature functionality has truly become a commodity. And there has also been a proliferation of human resource management applications (embedded in ERP and stand-alone).

Yet while accounting and human resource applications can lead to internal performance improvements, they seldom provide institutions of higher education with a competitive edge. However, in our post-recession, increasingly competitive, knowledge-based global economy, how colleges and universities go after grants and how well they manage the activities associated with those grants, namely their advanced research, can indeed differentiate them in the field of higher learning, making them more attractive to potential students and supporters. Using general-purpose project management solutions doesn’t necessarily cut it.

These advanced features for advanced research and grant management will be launched in the second quarter of 2013, to be followed by additional functionality for constituent engagement management. Constituents include existing and prospective students and faculty, as well as the surrounding community of companies and professional organizations. With a different twist to more traditional customer relationship management (CRM), this additional module will provide a single aggregated source for managing these relationships.

Advanced Research and Grant Management

This new module provides functionality designed specifically to support pre-award and post-award grant management, and also manage research projects. It takes an integrated approach to managing the entire grant/research life cycle from proposal submission to publication. The result is increased transparency to the research approval cycle in order to better identify accuracy, project trends and the success of research activity. It also provides accurate costing models and fully integrates with financial reporting, extending the control delivered by ERP to the bursar’s office to the research process.

While research teams are seldom exposed to enterprise applications such as ERP, recent efforts by the UNIT4 team to provide a new and improved user experience to all its solutions should make interacting with the solution an intuitive and enjoyable experience. At the same time administrators will be well equipped to make better-informed decisions.

Constituent Engagement Management

This proposed addition is being designed to answer anticipated questions posed by prospective and existing students, including those at the post-graduate level. The overall goal is to help the university to attract, engage and retain these students. While most enterprise applications destined for the post-secondary education market are tailored for administrators, UNIT4’s approach is tailored to both the interests of the students, as well as industry relationships: businesses, professional organizations and the community at large. It does this by embedding the same social media capabilities that are becoming woven into the fabric of the student society. As social media insinuates itself into businesses and professional organizations, this will be an important aspect that helps “social” mean “business.” By replicating the same improved UNIT4 user experience across all its applications, it will incorporate solutions into a more social model, supporting better collaboration and increased visibility and transparency.

Is the World Ready for this Strategy?

“Basics first” has long been the default standard for satisfying the needs of any organization, whether it operates in the world of business or the slightly different world of education. Because many of these needs (like payments and invoicing and general accounting) are quite generic, a lot of the ERP-based solutions start to look quite similar. In fact many have begun to view ERP as a commodity.

There is a hidden danger in making this assumption if you simply assume any ERP will meet your basic needs and you don’t ask the hard “show me” kind of questions during the evaluation. More than one organization has been caught by this, assuming the solution meets all the basic needs, when in fact it has some functional gaps or is simply so hard to use that users spend more time working around the system than with it.

But indeed, there are many good solid solutions out there that do indeed satisfy the basics. Much like a utility that provides electricity, natural gas, water or telephone service to your home, as long as you stick to a truly proven provider, you can safely assume your basic needs will be met. You wouldn’t trust these basic services to some “fly by night” company, but you would – and do – trust one with a good track record, and it probably doesn’t really matter to you which one you use, providing service continues uninterrupted. Using one over another doesn’t add more market value to your home or even make your life any easier.

But adding a home security system, or stunning landscaping does add value. In fact, in purchasing a new home, those differentiating characteristics are more likely the reason you bought the house to begin with. Of course you need electricity to power that security system. And you need water to keep that landscaping stunningly beautiful. But those basics just “came along with” the purchase. In other words, the differentiating factors pulled along the business to the electric company and those other utility providers.

So are organizations ready to treat ERP as a utility and realign the selection team to focus instead on the real “value add” that produces a strategic or competitive advantage? Early results from the first 300 respondents to the Mint Jutras 2013 ERP Solution Study would indicate that many are. More than half (56%) indicated they would indeed consider this “utility” approach to ERP, 27% are undecided and only 17% gave a firm “no.” If these results hold true then the concept of a niche kind of solution to an industry-specific problem does indeed have the potential of pulling along the underlying basics of ERP.

To some, the concept of a utility is immediately associated with “cloud” deployment. That, along with a subscription basis purchase is the most logical delivery option.

Those willing to consider ERP as a utility do not seem to object to that concept with 51% indicating either private or public cloud options might be considered, as long as security is proven. Some (28%) will only consider a private cloud, yet 43% were simply looking for a virtualized environment that would reduce or remove hardware requirements on-premise.

UNIT4 offers the solution both on-premise and as Software as a Service (SaaS). In fact one university in particular, a long time Agresso ERP customer, chose to convert its on-premise solution to the cloud. Sodertorn University, a forward-thinking Swedish college with 13,000 students and 850 employees started using Agresso ERP right from its inception in 1996. Five years later it was in rapid expansion mode, although it still had only one third of its current student population. Amidst this growth however, the administrative team sought to redeploy resources that had been purely supporting internal technology to programs that would directly benefit the student. As a result Sodertorn University became the first Agresso on-premise customer to move to a cloud environment.

It also began to treat its ERP solution as a utility, re-allocating and re-assigning headcount and redefining IT roles to focus on creating competitive advantage to the college. As a result of this, they also tracked the equivalent of more than $500,000 in cost savings and were better equipped to manage change.

Anna Sande, Systems Administrator for the college said, “We’ve had the twin change management realities of rapid student growth, interfacing with changing economic factors that are challenging to plan for. We’ve adjusted from one campus to three and then, in 2012, back to one large one again. We required zero external IT resource help to do it – the change capabilities of the UNIT4 architecture have supported our various decisions seamlessly.”

Education Living in Change

Ms. Sande’s quote brings us back to our opening paragraph referencing “education living in change.” This is a recognizable component of UNIT4’s mantra of embracing change and a variation on its recurring theme of providing solutions for businesses living in change (BLINC). Just like their commercial counterparts, colleges and universities face the reality of constrained resources, economic unpredictability, increased competition (for both students and grants), along with increased compliance requirements and government controls. At the same time, with rapid technology advances, current hardware and software and skills can become obsolete at an alarming rate.

The type of change experienced by Sodertorn University in terms of the expansion and contraction of campuses is certainly not unique. Cranfield University near London has also experienced extensive changes in funding, fees and technical requirements. “It is impossible to understate the massive changes we’ve been through in the past five or six years alone,” said Ian Sibbald, Director of Finance at the university. “Yet, even beyond the scope of mandatory financial, regulatory or economic change components supported by Agresso, the solution helps us to support our own internal process reviews.”

Cranfield University has been able to evaluate the consequences of and undertake a major campus consolidation, closing one of three and moving all academic activities back to the Cranfield campus. “All of this was easily done using Agresso, leaving just the physical building work and moves to be completed.”

Advanced research and grant management is not exempt from this type of change. Mr. Sibbald adds, “Each time a research grant is allocated differently than in the past, that’s a significant reporting change, which we can now support.” Currently Cranfield University is approaching £600,000 in savings with UNIT4 ERP software.

Summary

Higher education is not really a new target for UNIT4. It already supports over 400 institutions globally. Over the past 20 years it has amassed knowledge and experience and accumulated many customer testimonials. Sodertorn and Cranfield Universities are just two examples of educational institutions facing the challenge of change.

UNIT4 has responded by changing the game itself, adding new and specialized functionality not typically associated with an ERP solution. By addressing those areas it shifts the focus to that which can provide a unique competitive edge for their customers. And yet, no successful organization can afford to take its eye off the ball in supporting basic functions like accounting and human resource management. ERP is the basic utility that keeps the back office organized and efficient. So colleges and universities seeking to differentiate themselves will best be served by pulling those basics along. Selecting a single integrated solution and one that enables today’s accelerated rate of change makes it all that much easier to keep pace.

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UNIT4 Agresso Sparks a Debate Over Multi-tenant SaaS

 

Looking Beyond The Label to The Real Value Add

On June 28, 2012, UNIT4, a global enterprise software provider, sparked a debate by announcing that its Agresso Business World ERP has been accredited by Technology Evaluation Centers (TEC) as “reinventing cloud multi-tenancy.” UNIT4 has broken free from the traditional multi-tenant model of housing all clients’ data in a shared database, partitioned for privacy and security. While all clients share a single instance of the software, each has its own database. The debate? Is this non-traditional approach really multi-tenant? In the world of enterprise applications labels have become important because unless you can check the right boxes, you don’t get invited to the party. But a word of caution: Look beyond the label to the real value delivered.

Understanding the Labels

There is still much confusion over cloud and Software as a Service (SaaS) delivery models and much of this confusion is regarding the issue and definition of multi-tenancy. Some industry observers make it a prerequisite for “true SaaS.” Others put further restrictions on it and create their own brand of SaaS.

Cloud versus SaaS

Many use the terms “cloud” and “SaaS” interchangeably, but there are some important differences. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is often quoted as an authority on such definitions. NIST defines cloud computing as:

“…a model for enabling convenient, on-demand network access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources—for example, networks, servers, storage, applications and services—that can be rapidly provisioned and released with minimal management effort or service provider interaction.”

It goes on to describe five essential characteristics, three service models, and four deployment models. SaaS is one of the service models (the deployment models are private, community, public and hybrid.) NIST’s Cloud Computing Synopsis and Recommendations goes on (for 81 pages) to describe many different facets of cloud, but it is clear that cloud and SaaS are not synonymous or interchangeable.

For our purposes here, let’s simplify the distinction between cloud and SaaS in the context of enterprise applications:

  • 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 or any flavor in between.
  • SaaS is exactly what is implied by the acronym. 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.

All SaaS is cloud computing, but not all cloud computing is SaaS.

Multi-tenancy

Some industry observers would have you believe that enterprise applications must be multi-tenant in order to qualify as SaaS or even cloud computing. Some refer to NIST to support that belief. Indeed one of NIST’s five essential characteristics of cloud computing is resource pooling.

The provider’s computing resources are pooled to serve multiple consumers using a multi-tenant model, with different physical and virtual resources dynamically assigned and reassigned according to consumer demand.”

Those insisting on multi-tenancy make the assumption that the application and the database must be among those pooled resources. But NIST doesn’t even list the application in its examples of pooled resources. NIST does list as examples: storage, processing, memory, and network bandwidth. Storage of course could be interpreted as the database, but it also could be interpreted to be the storage devices housing the database(s). So NIST doesn’t insist on the application (or the database) being shared among multiple tenants in order to be considered either cloud computing or SaaS.  But in order to be multi-tenant, there does need to be some resource pooling.

While definitions might vary, Mint Jutras has always distinguished between multi-tenant and single-tenant (also referred to as multi-instance) as follows:

  • Multi-tenant SaaS: Multiple companies use the same instance of hosted software; configuration settings, company and role-based access personalize business processes and protect data security.
  • Single-tenant (or Multi-instance) SaaS: Each company is given its own instance of the (hosted) software, but may share common services, such as an integration platform, and security.

The Debate

Indeed the debate over multi-tenancy seems to be fueled entirely by industry observers and the solution providers. In fact some vendors keep the debate going by accusing other vendors of offering “false cloud” solutions. Their definition of a “false cloud” seems to be any cloud offering that is delivered differently than their own. As with other technology-based debates, end users (those actually subscribing to SaaS solutions), especially line of business executives, often don’t understand the difference between multi- and single-tenancy and don’t seem to care. But they do care about the value delivered by the different options.

Up until now UNIT4 has not actively engaged in this debate, preferring instead to focus entirely on what it feels is the model that delivers the most value to its customers. However, with this announcement, it finds itself squarely in the middle of it whether it wants to be or not.

The Value of Multi-tenancy

So what is the added value delivered through multi-tenancy? The value to the solution provider is clear. It is far easier and more cost-effective to manage one version of the software, rather than a separate instance for each customer. Presumably the added efficiency allows the solution provider to focus more resources on improving the technology and developing more features and functions, which directly benefits its customers. That translates to more frequent and more robust updates, hopefully as “opt-in” enhancements. After all, the customer may not be ready to consume the new features on the same timetable as they are delivered.

Of course simply because the solution provider offers a multi-tenant solution doesn’t guarantee updates will be either more frequent or more robust. Those offering both SaaS and on-premise solutions (and this includes UNIT4) also need to be cognizant of the clients that manage their own upgrade process.

Is there a perceived downside to multi-tenancy? Yes, there can be. The Mint Jutras 2011 Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) Solution Study explored both the appeal of SaaS ERP as well as concerns over this deployment option.

While the upgrade process is viewed by many on the plus side of the SaaS equation (48% see reduced cost and effort of upgrades and 39% value more leading edge technology through more frequent updates), some actually view it negatively. Twenty-six percent (26%) of respondents expressed the concern that they were losing control. Indeed in a multi-tenant environment, the customer typically has little control over the timing of the upgrades. However is there really a negative impact? If the solution provider bears the burden of the effort associated with upgrading and innovation is delivered in such a way that the customer may optionally choose to take advantage of an enhancement – or not – then there is no down-side and a lot of up-side.

In many cases “We want to control our own upgrade process” actually translates to “We don’t have time” or “We don’t want the disruption of an upgrade.” And yet by not keeping current on the latest release of the software you are essentially letting your maintenance dollars go to waste.

Of course in a SaaS environment, those would be your subscription dollars. Even though upgrades at first might feel like a forced march, that forced march is actually good for you. All bug fixes and regulatory requirements are in place. When you are ready to turn on the new functionality, it will be there. So the combination of frequent updates and this “opt in” capability is an important characteristic by which you should evaluate potential solutions.

The perception of the need for customization may also cause companies to shy away from a multi-tenant environment. In fact 25% of our survey respondents indicated the requirement for heavy customization would prevent them from considering SaaS altogether. Yet there are many different ways of “customizing” a solution today and not all of them involve source code changes or present barriers to a multi-tenant SaaS solution.

This is where Agresso Business World’s Vita architecture comes in. UNIT4 specifically targets what it calls Businesses Living IN Change (BLINC) by designing its solution to enable those organizations to embrace change simply, quickly and cost-effectively. This means adapting the solution without the kind of source code changes that can be troublesome in a multi-tenant environment. The Vita architecture dynamically couples data, business processes and the delivery methodology to move forward in lockstep even if the very structure of the organization changes resulting from merger and acquisition, restructuring, new or changed business processes, compliance requirements or financial management driven change.

But what about the database?

Notice the Mint Jutras definition of multi-tenant does not reference the database at all, even though traditionally most solution providers offering multi-tenant solutions co-mingle multiple clients’ data in a single, partitioned database. But the real value of this is not in the co-mingling of the data but in having a single definition of the structure of the data. In this way, the single instance of the software can always find the data it is looking for in the same way.

Think about it like floors in a hotel. The layout is and configuration of rooms is the same from floor to floor. The bathrooms are always located in the same spot and laid out the same way so that the plumbing can run in a straight line through the various floors. The same is true for the heating and air conditioning. This makes for easier maintenance as well. But each room is separate and secured from all the other rooms, not just with a partition, but also with a locked door.

Each Agresso Business World SaaS client has its own database, separate and secure, but all share the same definition and structure. This creates the benefit of portability and security without compromising the multi-tenant advantage of a single instance of the software. The issue of portability becomes important in the event a client decides to move from a SaaS deployment to on-premise.

But security is an issue all by itself. The Mint Jutras ERP Solution Study confirmed that security is still the top concern in considering a SaaS deployment option. Mint Jutras would agree that every company implementing any enterprise application, and especially those including the financial system of record for the business, should be concerned about security. But everyone should be concerned over security, regardless of deployment option.

Many assume an on-premise solution is inherently more secure than a cloud-based SaaS solution. But is it? Unless your data center is completely contained with no possibility of access from outside the four walls of your building you could be vulnerable to unauthorized access. That means no VPN access. It means no external consultant or guest ever connects his or her laptop to your network. It means no laptop ever leaves the building to be potentially connected to any other network, then brought back and connected to yours. There aren’t too many installations, if any, like this in the world today.

So would you rather secure your own data, or have a company whose livelihood and very existence depends on security, one that has passed a SAS 70II audit, secure it?

Furthermore, recent news suggesting that more than 236,000 LinkedIn passwords may have been compromised reminds us that even the most highly visible and tightly secured cloud based data can be vulnerable. A report from the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse (PRC) notes 535 breaches during 2011, involving 30.4 million sensitive records. Records leaked may have contained information such as Social Security numbers, financial account numbers, driver’s license numbers and medical information.

So if these kinds of security breaches are possible, which is a safer environment? One in which a thief needs only hack into a single partitioned database to have access to the data of potentially thousands companies? Or one in which a thief would have to hack into thousands of individual databases?

Conclusions and Key Takeaways

The debate over true SaaS and multi-tenancy is likely to continue as long as solution providers offer different flavors and various industry observers form different opinions. If you simplify the definitions of cloud and SaaS, as well as those of multi-tenancy and single-tenancy you find many of the arguments about what is “true” SaaS disappear.

However there are some real benefits to a multi-tenant environment, benefits UNIT4’s approach with Agresso Business World takes advantage of. The rewards of multi-tenancy are in the ability to manage shared resources in an efficient and cost effective manner, particularly when these efficiencies result in more frequent and robust enhancements. These advantages are not compromised by allowing each SaaS client its own database, providing the definition and structure remains consistent. And in doing so, portability and security is enhanced.

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