User interface

“Ease of Use” of Your Enterprise Software: More than Just a Pretty Face

Or is it? It All Depends on Who You Ask.

For several years now I have been listening to enterprise application software vendors touting “beautiful software.” Yes, the whole customer experience and ease of use of software have become increasingly important, influenced in part by the consumerization of IT. However, I am of the firm belief that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and efficiency is far more important than “beauty.”

This belief has been backed up by data. For the last few years I have asked survey participants in my annual enterprise solution study to select their top three highest priorities for ease of use. The options I provide to them are shown in the chart below (Figure 1). A “visually appealing user interface” is my interpretation of “beautiful software” and has consistently ranked close to the bottom while indicators of efficiency (including time to complete tasks and intuitive navigation) were right up at the top. This year we saw beauty ranking a little higher, but it still comes out towards the bottom

Figure 1: Defining “Ease of Use” by Selecting “Top 3”Figure 1 Blog

Source: Mint Jutras 2014 and 2015 Enterprise Solution Studies

However, with all the talk about the influence of the Millenials in the workforce we decided it was time to get a better picture of this influence. So we captured participants’ age and grouped them accordingly as Baby Boomers (born between 1943 and 1964), Generation Xers (1965 to 1981) and Millenials (since 1982). All three categories had adequate representation for us to make some comparisons, with 61 Millenials, 162 Gen Xers and 108 Baby Boomers. And we found that these priorities depend a lot on who you ask (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Defining “Ease of Use” by Selecting “Top 3”

Figure 2 BlogSource: Mint Jutras 2015 Enterprise Solution Study

While minimizing time to complete tasks still takes the lead for all three generations, it does so with a much wider margin in the Baby Boomer generation. Two out three Baby Boomers selected this, compared to only one out of two Millennials. And look what came in second. A very close second for Baby Boomers was intuitive navigation, while beautiful software (a visually appealing user interface) was virtually tied for first in the youngest of the three generations. Yet only one in five Baby Boomers (and one in four Gen Xers) selected beautiful software as a ”top 3.”

Indeed, if you are an enterprise solution provider targeting Millenials, the visual appeal of the user interface is far more important than if your buyer is a Baby Boomer. The truth of the matter is that all groups are important, particularly in selecting software that essentially runs your business. While it is most likely that a Baby Boomer or a Gen Xer is signing off on the final decision, it is equally certain that Millenials will be part of the evaluation and selection process. And once selected and installed, representatives from all generations are certain to be using the software.

So what happens when software is hard to use? We asked survey participants this exact question, asking them to select one of four possible responses (Figure 3). While many associate the demand for a better user experience with the consumerization of IT and therefore attribute it to the younger generation, we actually find the Baby Boomer generation the least tolerant of software that is hard to use. And this from a generation accustomed to “hard.”

Figure 3: What best describes your response when software is hard to use?

Figure 3 BlogSource: Mint Jutras 2015 Enterprise Solution Study

Let’s face it. Early enterprise solutions, including ERP, were anything but user-friendly. They were hard to learn and hard to use. Because early ERP systems didn’t work exactly the way people worked, workers first had to learn how to do their jobs, and then separately had to learn how to enter data into ERP, and/or how to extract it. Depending on how closely (or not) these two were aligned, the same ERP that was supposed to make life easier, sometimes made it harder. While Baby Boomers might not claim to have walked five miles to school in two feet of snow (uphill both ways?), they were accustomed to “hard.” They didn’t revolt. They adapted, but often that meant working around the system instead of with it. And as you can see, they are still more than twice as likely as younger workers to do just that. Why? Because they can. They’ve been around long enough to know the business inside and out. They don’t need a software package to tell them what to do or guide them in how to do it.

On the other hand, the younger generation is much more dependent on technology and much more easily influenced by “beautiful software.” And they have the Baby Boomer generation to thank… or blame for that.

While Baby Boomers might have simply kept quiet and worked around these early systems, on a personal level they also wanted “better” and “easier” for the next generation. And they delivered that, providing all the “modern conveniences” to their children and grandchildren. And of course the electronics of today were a natural progression for these next generations. They took to Xbox and computer games like fish to water. And games led to computers and cell phones and then smart phones, and then tablets. Computers led them to the Internet. Smart phones and tablets led them to “apps.”

When the generation that grew up with consumer technology entered the “real world” and got jobs, they couldn’t understand why the “apps” they used at work weren’t as easy to use as the ones they were using on their smart phones and tablets. Unlike the older generation that knew the business and the business processes inside and out, and therefore knew how to operate outside of the system, the younger generation had become dependent upon technology.

While years ago only a select few employees within a company ever put their hands directly on solutions that run the business, those days are long gone. Today almost half of employees have some access to solutions like finance and accounting or ERP, beyond those self-service functions like benefits administration, paid time off and purchase requisitioning. And this percentage is growing. How easy the software is to use correlates strongly with how well it is used and the benefits derived. It behooves any company to make sure users can and do make the most and best use of the software. The onus is on the solution providers to make sure the applications are not only robust in terms of features, functions and technology, but also easy to use, including all the different aspects. And it’s a lot easier to like a pretty face.

We are continuing to collect more responses to the Mint Jutras 2015 Enterprise Solution Study so the survey is still open. If you are consumer of enterprise software and are interested in receiving a summary of all our results, please participate by taking the survey. Click here to take the survey. We will need your email address to send you a link to results, but rest assured we never share any contact info and responses are analyzed only in the aggregate.

If you an enterprise solution provider and are either interested in surveying your customers and/or getting more insights into the data we collect and our analysis, please contact Lisa Lincoln at lisa@mintjutras.com.

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SAP Business Suite on HANA: Changing the Conversation

It’s Not About the Technology, It’s About the Business

I recently got an update on SAP Business Suite on HANA from Jeff Woods, former industry analyst, currently Suite on HANA aficionado at SAP. Jeff had lots of good stuff to share, including some progress to date:

  • 800+ Suite on HANA contracts have been signed
  • 7,600+ partners have been trained
  • There are 200+ Suite on HANA projects underway
  • 55 of these projects have gone live (and the number is growing)
  • The largest ERP on HANA system supports 100,000 users

So the Suite on HANA is quite real. But the single message that resonated the most strongly with me: the conversation has (finally) changed. While we’ve been hearing about HANA as this wonderful new technology for several years now, for the most part, the talk was about technology and even when the technologists spoke about purported business value, they spoke in very technical terms. But the audience I write for, business leaders in various industries, don’t care about technology for technology sake. Many don’t (care to) understand tech-speak. But they do care about what technology can do for them.

A Year Later…

It was just about a year ago that SAP announced the availability of SAP Business Suite powered by HANA, complete with live and live-streamed press conferences in both New York City and Waldorf, Germany. I don’t think I have ever seen such genuine excitement from SAP folks as was displayed in this announcement, and yet the “influencers” in the audience were a bit more subdued. A year ago I attributed this to the fact that these same influencers tend to be a quite jaded bunch, hard to impress. We had also been hearing about HANA for a few years already. There wasn’t a “newness” or game-changing feel about the announcement. But impressing the influencers is only one step towards the real goal of engaging with prospects and customers.

A year ago I also wrote, “SAP is trying hard to change the conversation to be less about the technology and more about the business value.  What is the real value? In the words of one early adopter: HANA solves problems that were deemed unsolvable in the past.” But uncovering those previously unsolvable problems required some visionary thinking.  Tech-speak is not going to get the attention of the guy (or gal) that signs the check or spur that kind of thinking. And a year ago the conversation hadn’t changed. Just look at how the vision of HANA was portrayed:

  • All active data must be in memory, ridding the world of the “rusty spinning disk”
  • Full exploitation of massively parallel processing (MPP) in order to efficiently support more users
  • The same database used for online transaction processing (OLTP) and analytics, eliminating the need for a data warehouse as a reporting tool for OLTP to support live conversations rather than “prefabricated briefing books”
  • Radically simplified data models
  • Aggressive use of math
  • Use of design thinking throughout the model

Look carefully at those words. They mean nothing to the non-technical business executive. Sure, those words got the attention of some forward thinking CIO’s, and that was enough to kick start the early projects, projects that produced amazing results. But that’s as far as the message got. And even when the message was not articulated in technical terms, it was presented at too high a level of abstraction. Business executives faced with important decisions don’t think in terms of “becoming a real-time business.” Operational managers don’t seek out “transformative innovation without disruption.” They want to get through the day most effectively and efficiently and make the right decisions.

Asking the Right Questions Today

So how do you change the conversation? By asking a different kind of question. Because “faster” is universally accepted as a good thing, in the beginning the HANA conversation might have been kicked off with the question to the CIO: What processes are running too slowly today? But in talking to the business user, you need a different approach. SAP’s “cue card” below is a good start. You are now seeing conversation starters that make more sense to the business leader. Take the time now to read them carefully. If you are a business leader, they will resonate much more than discussions of MPP and column-oriented databases or even speed of processes. I especially like the business practice questions in the rightmost column.

Cue card

Source: SAP

But if I were sitting across the table from a business leader, I might ask questions that are even more direct and down-to-earth. For example:

  • Describe a situation where you have to hang up the phone, dig deeper and get back to your customer or prospect later. (By the way Jeff’s thought was that by hanging up you only encourage them to pick up the phone and call your competitor.)
  • What summary data do you get today that consistently requires more detail before you make a decision? Can you get at that data immediately (no delays) and easily (no hunting around)?
  • What level of granularity are you forecasting revenue? Is it sufficiently detailed? Are you forecasting by region or maybe by product line when you would love to be able to forecast by territory, individual customer and individual product combined?
  • Are there decisions that require you to consult with others? How much time does this add to the decision-making process? How easy or hard is it to keep track of who to contact? How quickly can you make contact? Quickly enough?

The goal really is to improve the business not only in small linear steps, but also to increase speed of decision and therefore efficiency exponentially. The first step is to provide new ways of engaging with the system, which means changing the user experience. But to change the game, you need to make improvements to the process itself. SAP’s new Fiori applications are a good example of this progression.

 Fiori: More Than Just a Pretty Face

Last spring, SAP announced SAP Fiori, a collection of 25 apps that would surround the Business Suite, providing a new user experience for the most commonly used business functions of ERP. While useful in pleasing existing users and perhaps even attracting new users within the enterprise, this first set of apps just changed the user interface and did not add any significant new functionality.

The latest installment has 190+ apps supporting a variety of roles in lines of business including human resources (HR), finance, manufacturing, procurement and sales, providing enhanced user productivity and personalization capabilities. The apps offer users the ability to conduct transactions, get insight and take action, and view “factsheets” and contextual information. The next round of Fiori apps are expected to add even more new capabilities, thereby taking them to the next level in changing the game.

The MRP cockpit is an example of this next generation Fiori app and a perfect illustration of how these new apps can recreate processes, even ones that are 30 years old. If you “know” manufacturing, you probably also know that the introduction of Material Requirements Planning (MRP) software back in the late 70’s was transformational, although nobody really called it that back then. “Transformative” innovation is very much a 21st century term. But it truly was game-changing back in the day.

Last year, even before the conversation had shifted, I saw the parallels between the potential for HANA and the automation of the planning process that MRP brought about. Today the MRP cockpit delivers on that potential.

For those outside the world of manufacturing, in a nutshell, MRP takes a combination of actual and forecasted demand and cascades it through bills of material, netting exploded demand against existing inventory and planned receipts. The result is a plan that includes the release of purchase orders and shop orders and reschedule messages. While the concept might be simple enough, these bills of material could be many layers deep and encompass hundreds or even thousands of component parts and subassemblies. Forecasts are educated guesses and actual demand can fluctuate from day to day. Without automated MRP there is simply too much data and complexity for a human to possibly work with.

As a result, prior to MRP, other ways of managing inventory became commonplace. You had simple reorder points. Once inventory got below a certain point, you bought some more, whether you actually needed it or not. You also had safety stock as a buffer, and the “two bin” system was quite prevalent. When one bin was empty, you switched to the other and ordered more. These simplistic methods may have been effective in some environments, but the net result was the risk of inflated inventory while still experiencing stock outs. You had lots of inventory, just not what the customer wanted, when it wanted it. And planners and schedulers still had to figure out when to start production and they knew enough to build a lot of slack time into the schedule. So lead times also became inflated and customer request dates were in jeopardy.

Once MRP entered the picture, these were seen as archaic and imprecise planning methods. Even so, most didn’t rush right out and invest in MRP when it was first introduced. In fact now, decades later, the adoption rates of MRP in manufacturing still sits at about 78%. Why? The existing practices were deemed “good enough” and, after all, that’s the way it had always been done.

It required a paradigm shift to understand the potential of MRP and the planning process executed by MRP was complex. Not everyone intuitively understood it. And if they didn’t really understand, planners were unwilling to relinquish control. Particularly since MRP runs were notoriously slow.

It was not unusual for early MRP runs to take a full weekend to process, and during that time nobody could be touching the data. This didn’t work so well in 24X7 operations or where operations spanned multiple time zones. Of course over time, this was enhanced so that most MRPs today run faster and can operate on replicated data, so that operations can continue. But that only means it might be out of date even before it completes. And MRP never creates a perfect plan. It assumes infinite capacity and “trusts” production run times and supplier lead times implicitly. So while most planners were relieved of the burden of crunching the numbers, they were also burdened with lots of exceptions and expedited orders.

Yet over time, MRP brought a new dimension to material planning. It brought a level of accuracy previously unheard of and helped get inventory and lead times in check. Manufacturers have experienced an average of 10% to 20% reduction in inventory and similar improvements in complete and on-time delivery as a result of implementing MRP.

But through the past three decades, MRP hasn’t changed all that much. Yes it has improved and gotten faster, but it hasn’t changed the game because it still involves batch runs, replicated data and manual intervention to resolve those exceptions and expedite orders. Now with HANA we’re not talking about speeding up the processes by 10% to 20% but by several orders of magnitude, allowing them to run in real time, as often as necessary. But if it was just about speed, we might have seen this problem solved years ago.

You probably don’t remember Carp Systems International or Monenco, both Canadian firms that offered “fast MRP”. Carp was founded in 1984, and released a product in 1990 bringing MRP processing times from tens of hours down to 10 minutes. It ran on IBM’s RS6000 (a family of RISC-based UNIX servers, workstations and supercomputers). But it was both complex and expensive for its time ranging in price from $150,000 to $1 million). Not only was it expensive and required special servers, in order it to work it needed to replicate the data and then apply sophisticated algorithms.

About the same time Monenco introduced FastMRP, also a simulation tool, but one that ran on a personal computer. While it cost much less than Carp’s product, it was also less powerful and had significantly fewer features.

You won’t find either of these products on the market today. If speed was all that was required they would have survived and thrived. In order to change the game, you also need to change the process, which is exactly what SAP intends with its new Fiori app for MRP.

The new MRP cockpit includes new capabilities, like the ability to:

  • View inventory position looking across multiple plants
  • Analyze component requirements with real-time analytics
  • Perform long term MRP simulations
  • Analyze capacity requirements and suggest alternatives

But this too requires a paradigm shift. Manufacturers, as well as other types of companies, are quite accustomed to making decisions from a snapshot of data, usually in report format, possibly through spreadsheets. They have become desensitized to the fact that this snapshot is just that, a picture of the data, frozen in time.

What if you never had to run another report? Instead, whenever you needed a piece of data or an answer to a question, you had immediate and direct access, not to the data as it was at the beginning of the day, or the end of last week, but to the latest data in real time? Not only will decision-makers need to adjust to thinking in real-time, but will also have to trust the software to automate much of the thinking for them. Will they be able to sit back and let the software iterate through multiple simulations in order to find the best answer to an exception even before it is reported as an exception? I suspect they will if it is fast enough. And HANA is now delivering at speeds that just a few years ago would have been impossible. But with these speeds accelerating by orders of magnitude, the ability to communicate and collaborate effectively must also accelerate.

Making the Human Connection

It is not enough to change the way users engage with the software, it is also necessary to change the way they engage with other people. How often do you or your employees today express sentiments like:

  • If I just knew who to contact for approval/help….
  • I don’t know what to ask
  • I wish I could check with (several) people on this quickly

What if the software could help? As work flows are streamlined, automated and accelerated, so must the lines of communication and potential collaboration. Whether employees are looking to move a process forward, resolve an issue or mature an idea faster, lack of communication and clumsy modes of collaboration can inhibit the game-changing effect of the technology. Which is why SAP has upped its game in the area of Human Capital Management and social collaboration tools. It took a significant step forward with the acquisition of SuccessFactors and JAM and has been blending these capabilities with the HANA platform.

Key Takeaways

Nobody today would disagree that the SAP Business Suite, powered by HANA combines deep and rich functionality with powerful technology. But can it be game changing in terms of how businesses operate? The potential certainly exists, but it’s not just about speed. Changing the game means changing the way we’ve been doing things for decades. Before we can change the process, we need to change the conversation. Are you looking to optimize business processes? Are you ready to talk?

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ERP, The Next Generation: The Final Frontier? Part 2

This is the second post of a series on Next Generation ERP. If you missed the first in the series, take a moment and read it here.

If you are running an older ERP solution, especially those implemented prior to the year 2000 (Y2K), you may not even be aware of what you can expect from a modern, technology-enabled, next generation ERP. For many, many years ERP selection was largely driven by fit and functionality. Even today, Mint Jutras ERP Solution Study survey respondents put fit and functionality close to the top of the list of selection criteria (ease of use was number 1).

As a result, the footprint of ERP has grown steadily, to the point where it is sometimes hard to figure out where ERP ends and other applications begin. But it isn’t the depth and breadth of functionality that qualifies an ERP solution as “next generation.” It is the underlying technology. And conversely, it is that new technology that enables ERP footprints to expand at an accelerated rate.

Unless you are a technologist (and most business executives are not), you might not know or care about that underlying technology, because you don’t understand it. But it is dangerous to ignore it simply because of what it can do for you. You don’t know how the USS Enterprise achieved warp speed, but you know that it can. You don’t know how the transporter beam works, but you know what happens when Captain Kirk says, “Beam me up, Scottie.” You don’t need to know how the development platform allows your solution provider to deliver more innovation, but it is important that you understand the potential.  It is far less important to understand how this new technology works than it is to know what it can do for you.

The New Basics

The “basics” of ERP used to be defined by basic functionality required by all types of companies. Basics usually referred to core modules of ERP: general ledger, accounts payable, accounts receivable, order management, purchasing and inventory control. For manufacturers it also included MRP and the basic requirements to schedule, create and manage production orders. Those modules are still important today but “basic” functionality has become somewhat of a commodity. Forty-three percent (43%) of survey respondents to the 2013 Mint Jutras ERP Solution Study would consider purchasing core ERP functions like a monthly utility and realigning their selection team to focus on the remaining “value-add” to produce strategic or competitive advantage, or simply to cut costs.

Basics now extend to include some advanced technology modules like work flow, event management (triggers and alerts), process modeling and enterprise portals. Yet, unlike basic functional modules, which are fully implemented by the majority of our survey respondents, these technology basics, including business intelligence and analytics, are still largely under-utilized – even as we gain ground in adoption.

Table 1: Advanced Technology Modules – Fully Implemented

table1 Source: Mint Jutras 2011 and 2013 ERP Solution Studies

Older legacy solutions may not even include these technology options in their portfolios, but any next generation ERP certainly will.

What else should you be looking for? Without fully understanding the technology platform upon which “next generation” ERP solutions are built it may be difficult to recognize them. Here are a few hints you can listen for as vendors describe their offerings: service oriented architecture, object-oriented data models, event-driven and/or message-based technology, semantic layers, mobility, rules engines, in-memory databases, HTML5 and XML. What all these boil down to are new ways of engaging with ERP, ease of configuration versus customization, better integration capabilities and new ways of delivering innovation.

New Ways of Engaging with ERP

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. And therefore there are no guarantees that navigation is intuitive or that business processes are streamlined and efficient.

Next generation ERP attacks this very real problem by making the user interface more intuitive and more personalized. It has been hypothesized that Star Trek’s communication devices inspired the first mobile phones, which of course evolved into today’s smart phones and tablets. Now with the introduction of so many consumer applications on mobile devices, we have all become much more demanding of user interfaces. It’s called “the consumerization of IT” and it is a very real phenomenon. We demand truly intuitive screens and touch technology.

Next generation ERP has responded to these demands with web-based access, making ERP accessible anywhere, anytime with an increasing number of functions available through mobile devices. Touch technology is making its way into the hands of ERP users. Look for this to become more pervasive and for more devices to be natively supported.

And don’t forget enterprise search functions. It is not entirely clear when “Google” became a verb, but that is indeed how we use the term today. We’re very accustomed to conducting Internet based searches on topics and questions. Next generation ERP supports those same search capabilities within its own structured data, adding a level of context not previously available. Next generation search capabilities embedded in ERP can tell the difference between searching for Phillips, your customer, and a Phillips head screwdriver.

New ways of engaging with ERP have put “Ease of Use” at the top of the leader board in terms of selection criteria. But “Ease of Use” means much more today than just an intuitive user interface. Mint Jutras 2013 ERP Solution Study participants were asked to select their top three priorities for ease of use. Results are shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Top 3 Most Important “Ease of Use” Issues

Figure1

Source: Mint Jutras  2013 ERP Solution Study

Yet how an accounts payable clerk or a material handler interacts with ERP is (and should be) very different from how an executive decision maker engages. Line of business executives will likely keep tabs on the pulse of the business through a select number of key performance indicators (KPIs). Next generation ERP will present a customized, graphical view of those KPIs but also allow the executive to drill down to successive levels of detail. Those customized views will combine ERP with other tools including email and productivity tools such as Microsoft Office and even chat functions that can record instant messaging “conversations.” And they will be available on a myriad of devices.

In the next part of this series we will explore customization versus configuration and tailoring to be followed by a section on innovation and integration.

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