Wanted: Lawson Users to Develop New Applications: No Programming Experience Required

In the fall of 2010 Lawson Software released Lawson Mashup Designer for its M3 Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) solution and announced its upcoming availability for its S3 product line in April 2011. This is  a new tool that helps Lawson’s customers build their own mini-applications without having to write software code. The resulting applications are composites constructed from existing Lawson code as well as other web-based applications, allowing information from multiple data sources to be combined on a single screen.The net result is increased productivity and accessibility to information for data-driven decisions. The reuse of existing business logic and application of existing security results in better and more customized solutions that support horizontal business processes and improved decision making.

 Going Horizontal

“Horizontal” is a new term in the Lawson vocabulary. For the past several years, the company has been vertically focused on several industries which have very specific needs. A few examples are:

  • Food and beverage manufacturers and distributors that must deal with shelf life constraints, grades of product, different units of measure, variable weights and characteristics, requirements of full traceability for safety compliance
  • Healthcare providers such as hospitals and both non-acute care and long term care providers, as well as health information exchanges
  • Equipment dealers and OEMs which must manage not only equipment but also its component structures,  stock availability for parts and components, configuration, delivery schedules, service and warranties… all in the context of manufacture, sale, service and/or rental
  • The fashion industry including the manufacture and distribution of apparel, footwear, home textiles and fashion accessories, or really anything that must deal with the added complexity of a matrix such as color, size and style.
  • Public Sector organizations such as school districts, local governments, public authorities and utilities

So is “horizontal” a new direction for Lawson? No. It is a new dimension to the same businesses it has always addressed. In this case the term horizontal refers to a cross-functional process or view. Enterprises comprised of different departments and functions run the risk of developing silos, and very often enterprise applications tend to support this silo effect.

A typical Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) application will have a purchasing module, an inventory module (including the receiving function) and an accounts payable module. And perhaps an electronic invoice presentment and payment (EIPP) application has been purchased as an extension to ERP, but is in fact a separate application. But a process such as “procure-to-pay” will span all these and will also be an important factor in overall cash management. Lawson Mashup Designer will allow the executive who has overall responsibility for the procure-to-pay process and the executive in charge of overall cash management to have specially constructed views that will combine all the different transactions, queries and reports necessary to monitor the overall “horizontal” process and still support features such an enterprise search. And if the company deals with foreign currency exchange, perhaps it is also necessary to add a currency conversion application to the view (not a Lawson application at all, but available through the Internet).

How easy is it?

Constructing these horizontal views doesn’t require any specific programming or technical skills, but in order to make effective use of the Lawson applications (either M3 or S3) it does require knowledge of the application. In making use of Lawson Mashup Designer, you are essentially customizing the application. Very often you will be combining different views of data on a single screen in order to put a wealth of data at the users’ fingertips. For example, you might combine data from item records with warehouse data, as well as order details and availability. Or perhaps customer records with credit limits, past and current orders and payment history.  If you don’t know what views are available, you may wind up with an incomplete view.

 In some cases you might be hiding fields that would ordinarily appear, or perhaps making an optional field mandatory or adding an image to the view. Understanding the content you are manipulating is essential to minimizing risk and maximizing the value of potentially very rich content. 

Much of this tailoring can be done by what Lawson calls a “super user,” someone with intimate knowledge of the application. These super users need not be programmers or even part of the IT staff, and need not necessarily understand the data structures that support the application. But they do need to know the structure and inter-relationships of the business application.

To make Lawson applications completely interoperable with non- Lawson solutions may require some programming skills. You must at least be able to think like a programmer and a Software Developers Kit (SDK) is available.

A hidden benefit – Making Data more accessible

Lawson lists increased end user productivity, customization without modification and more robust applications without coding as the three primary benefits of Lawson Mashup Designer. Yet a fourth benefit might also be connecting the executive decision-makers directly to the data and knowledge contained in the Lawson applications. How often do you see a C-level executive actually put their hands on the keyboard to access ERP directly? More often, they rely on subordinates to extract that data for them.

By putting a customized view in front of these top executives, you have a much better chance of getting them directly accessing the data. And once they are directly connected, their support for the ERP implementation is strengthened. With added executive support, metrics are better monitored and measured, yielding better management and more derived business benefits.

While it is unlikely these executives will create their own views, they should play an active role in designing the view, with the help of IT or a super user. However, there is one caveat that might limit the active participation of top management – for now. All of us are more mobile today and climbing the executive ladder often requires access to data from anywhere at any time. Whether traveling overseas, or attending a child’s soccer game, key decision makers need access to data easily and immediately. So the next logical step to draw them in would be making all the results of the Lawson Mashup Designer available on a mobile device. While not available today, Lawson sees this in the future.

Availability

Lawson Mashup Designer is based on Lawson Smart Office (LSO), which was released back in March 2008. The original goal of LSO was along the same lines of thought as Mashup Designer is today. It was meant to be an intuitive, personalized user interface that allows users to directly access Lawson and Microsoft applications and update data pervasively and instantly across the applications. But the emphasis of LSO initially was on those Microsoft productivity tools such as Microsoft Excel, Outlook, Word and PowerPoint. Mashup Designer builds upon LSO and extends beyond the realm of Microsoft.

Today Lawson Mashup Designer is generally available for use with M3.  LSO, being the foundation for Mashup Designer, is a prerequisite and is available to any M3 customer on release 7.1 or later. The vast majority of those users that have upgraded to (or purchased) 7.1 already have LSO. As of the beginning of May 2011, over 340 Lawson clients had licensed LSO.

The Mashup Designer further requires M3 customers to be on M3 10.1 which was released in April 2010. Since then, 54 new Lawson clients have implemented this release and over 100 existing M3 customers have upgraded or are in the process of doing so. The Mashup Designer is proving to be a major factor in upgrade decisions and over 50 customers are now live.

Lawson also plans to make Mashup Designer available for S3 in May 2011.

Looking to the Future

So how does this news play in light of the recently announced planned acquisition of Lawson by rival ERP vendor Infor Global? Interestingly enough it appears that great minds (at great software companies) think alike. On March 31, 2011 Infor announced Infor Workspace, calling it a new “consumer grade user interface designed to revolutionize the experience of doing business using enterprise applications.” The concepts behind Infor Workspace are indeed very similar to Lawson Mashup Designer. According to Infor Workspace: Work Without Leaving the Comfort of ‘Home’,  “The role-based user experience is akin to setting up a home base of operations from which a business user can comfortably operate all day long, without ever leaving ‘home.’ More than a portal, and more than just a common look and feel for Infor’s products, its power lies in further blurring the boundaries of applications and carrying context between applications of all types.” Sound familiar?

Infor has made use of its ION integration technology as well as Microsoft SharePoint and Microsoft Reporting Services and all applications will have to be browser-enabled in order to take advantage of Infor Workspace.  Most of Infor’s key go-forward products are browser-enabled, as are M3 and S3. For existing Infor customers Workspace is available through their annual maintenance agreement and Infor has tried to minimize the cost and impact of upgrading through means such as pre-built migration kits. So the combined Lawson and Infor will have to compare and contrast the underlying architectures as well as licensing requirements and work out whether to consolidate or keep the two products separate – for now or forever.

Recommendations and Key Takeaways

The key benefits of Lawson Mashup Designer to either M3 customers (now) or S3 customers (soon) are:

  • Increased end user productivity by combining data from different sources all in one view, customized by role and by individual
  • The ability to customize views and even processes without affecting the underlying source code. By keeping the code standard and “vanilla” you remove roadblocks to upgrades and innovation.
  • The ability to bridge the horizontal gap between functions and remove the silo effect produced by the inherent structure of ERP and enterprise applications in general
  • New applications that are faster and easier to build

In spite of the announced acquisition, Lawson Mashup Designer appears to be a safe and logical step for M3 customers running M3 10.1 right now. For those M3 customers looking for more incentive to upgrade, this could be justification enough to move. For S3 customers, it would be prudent to take advantage of some significant incentives that are currently available from Lawson to prepare by acquiring LSO (contact your customer service representative for details) .

As to the future, both Infor and Lawson have committed to the same concept and the synergy of the combined companies should only accelerate the feature/function and technology innovation.

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