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.
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.