What is Unit4’s “Self-Driving” ERP?

Empowering People in Service Organizations

Today we live in a world where automobiles can drive themselves across the United States. These same cars can parallel park far more skillfully than their human drivers. Airplanes spend most of their time in flight on autopilot. Small, self-directing vacuum cleaners systematically clean our floors while we are at work or play. Fitness devices tell us when it is time to move and warn us when we are over-exerting ourselves. Some of those fitness devices are smart phones equipped with apps – the same smart phones that keep us constantly connected. We get spoiled by all this automation in our personal lives and then we go to work and wonder why the software and technology that is used to run the business doesn’t empower our work lives like consumer technology empowers our personal lives.

Enterprise applications like Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) are meant to capture transactional data and streamline and automate business processes. Yet while ERP was originally meant to make our business lives easier, many old ERP systems just can’t seem to get out of their own way. Unit4 is setting out to change that, at least for its customers. While it has always prided itself in its modern and flexible architecture and its solutions’ ability to accommodate change, it is now taking a page from consumer technology. A revitalized Unit4 is intent on delivering “self-driving” ERP, where user interaction is minimized and limited to activities where people make the difference.

People Are at the Core of all Unit4 Does

Unit4 has always targeted people-centric businesses, where services are the primary product delivered. These targets include professional service organizations, governments, higher education, not-for-profits and real estate. In each case, the key ingredients are people; processes are fluid and dynamic. By its very nature, outcomes are unpredictable. The last thing you want is your people doing manual tasks that add no value to the service delivered.

And yet that is exactly what happens when ERP can’t get out of its own way. What do we mean by that? Legacy ERP solutions that are rigid and cannot adapt as business changes, or that don’t allow business processes to evolve, or that force people to work in very unnatural or counter-intuitive ways, are more of a hindrance than a help to your business. They get in the way.

This has never been more true than it is today as we enter the digital age. Everywhere we look we see the pace of business accelerating and business models being disrupted. This is all fueled by digital communication. And yet many ERP solutions installed today lack the ability to participate in this revolution. They still force companies to transact business the way it has been transacted for the past 50 years. And they don’t contribute much insight in how to break that cycle, or insight into how to more profitably grow the business.

Unit4’s products have always been designed for change, but now they have a new goal: to help companies transform themselves in the digital age. This new goal is actually a natural progression, but is also fueled by the transformation of the company itself. Jose Duarte, Unit4’s current Chief Executive Officer (CEO) took the reins about two years ago. He made a clean sweep of his executive committee. A few very key players remain one level down from the top, which makes the transition smoother, but in the end, the Unit4 of today is very different than it was two years ago.

Today Unit4 is clearly energized, innovative, confident and aggressive. And it is on a mission: To empower people in service organizations.

The 6 Pillars of “Self-Driving” ERP

So what is this thing called “self-driving” ERP? Can software really make business decisions to drive the business? Of course not. Even an airplane on autopilot still needs a pilot. That car driving itself across the United States still has a driver. The homeowner has to decide which room to set up the little roaming vacuum cleaner in. Those fitness devices don’t do your workout for you. But all these technological wonders have a common theme: they make people more efficient and productive. People with these devices can do more, accomplish more. That’s what self-driving ERP is all about: better productivity, improved efficiency and better, more insightful decisions.

Unit4 likes to refer to the following as the six pillars of self-driving ERP:

  • Automation of manual tasks. Don’t make the human driving ERP do repeatable, repetitive tasks if they can be automated.
  • Drastically reduce the amount of input required; eliminate it entirely if possible. Ask for input only on an exception basis.
  • Use the moment of action to ask for the input. Ask a person when that exception actually occurs, not hours or days later.
  • Sense potential problems or bottlenecks.
  • Sense potential opportunities.
  • Make intelligent and sensible recommendations.

 How Does Unit4 Do This?

If you ask Unit4 how it will deliver on the promise of these pillars, Unit4 will talk about the four layers of its People Platform, announced back in April. After you hear the folks at Unit4 describe these layers, you may still not understand, particularly if you are a businessperson and not a technologist. Don’t feel bad. It’s not you. Some of these are tough concepts. But that’s okay. It is much more important to understand what it can do for you than to understand how it does it. You didn’t know how the transporter worked on Star Trek’s USS Enterprise. But you knew exactly what would happen when Captain Kirk said, “Beam me up Scottie.” If you understand the potential conceptually, a myriad of potential use cases might immediately spring to mind.

So here are the layers, as concisely as we can present them:

Personal Experience

The very top layer is the personal experience. This is all about a new, improved and modern user experience, which Unit4 has been working on for the past two years, improving existing functions; efforts will continue as new and different ways of engaging with ERP and new functions are introduced. This includes access through mobile devices of all sorts. But Mint Jutras believes the best user interface is often no user interface, and Unit4 is also heading down this path in automating those manual, repetitive tasks. But ultimately it is all about making software easy to use.

Of course ease of use means different things to different people.

Figure 1: “Top 3” Factors Influencing Ease of Use

Unit4 Fig 1Source: Mint Jutras 2015 Enterprise Solution Study

Note on defining generations:

  • Baby Boomers: born between 1943 and 1964
  • Generation Xers: 1965 to 1981
  • Millenial: born in 1982 or after

This is most apparent when we compare what is most important across different generations participating in our 2015 Enterprise Solution Study (Figure 1). While perceptions vary, minimizing time to complete tasks is right at the very top of the list across all generations. So Unit4 is right on track in automating manual tasks and reducing the amount of input required. In fact complete automation of many of these repetitive tasks is really the ultimate goal.

Business Capabilities

The second layer is business capabilities. Mint Jutras research confirms this as an appropriate focal point. Our latest study confirms that the most important selection criterion for choosing an ERP solution today is “fit and functionality,” followed closely by “the completeness of a solution.”

Expanding the footprint of its ERP remains a priority for Unit4, but it will pay particular attention to individual vertical markets. Some of these business capabilities will be developed by Unit4, some will be acquired, and some may in fact come from partners. The recent acquisition of Three Rivers Systems is a perfect example of how Unit4 can take some giant steps in business capabilities, in this case, significantly expanding Unit4’s solution for higher education.

Who is Three Rivers Systems and what does it do?

Three Rivers Systems’ solution is called CAMS Enterprise. CAMS is short for Comprehensive Academic Management System. As the name implies, it is a comprehensive higher education solution that automates the entire student lifecycle into a single system. It can be run on-premise or hosted in the cloud.

A few facts about Three Rivers:

  • Founded in 1985
  • 55 employees
  • Serving over 200 clients in North America, South Africa, Europe, Middle East, Asia
  • Serving all institution types from under 1000 students to over 40,000

 Smart Context

The third layer is called Smart Context. This is perhaps the toughest to explain and yet its name provides some clues. “Smart” implies intelligence. So the Smart Context layer adds some intelligence, but in the context of a specific task, question or problem. Think about the following:

  • You’re preparing your expense report. Smart Context can suggest the majority of the line items (mileage, airfare, meals, etc.) You simply confirm the amounts.
  • You leave your customer’s site where you have been working on a project. Smart Context asks you if you just spent three hours working on project XYZ. A simple click on yes or no completes your timesheet.
  • You are asked to deliver a detailed project plan (for resources and costing) before the close of day. You enter several characteristics and Smart Context reveals the closest fit to previous projects. You select one as a model and create the plan in a fraction of the time it would take if you built it from scratch. And you even have a complete workforce assignment.

Smart Context is all about removing the clutter, making complex things simpler, and requiring your input only for exceptions. By making suggestions where possible, enriching data with additional context, the information you do see is more relevant and complete. This is the real engine behind the concept of “self-driving” ERP.

Unit4 delivers this type of intelligence by bringing the latest technology together through a variety of components:

  • An alerts engine to keep you up to date with smart business feeds
  • A rules engine establishes and configures the rules to be invoked during data entry, allowing for dynamically altering the UI based on conditions, or proactively assisting the user in entering consistent data. Adding machine learning even makes it self-configuring.
  • Definition of communities (defining who cares about what) and the capture of conversations within the communities (no more lost threads after you hang up the phone). This creates a social context.
  • Mobile context, through technology that can detect location with a time stamp. This allows for location-based filtering and time tracking and can push information automatically (e.g. customer configurations pushed to a field service technician arriving on-site).
  • Predictive analytics, capable of pattern detection. This can involve complex analysis, bringing together technologies such as machine learning and event stream analysis for sensing problems, bottlenecks or opportunities. Or it can be as simple as pre-populating an expense report or suggesting a project plan.
  • Cloud and crowd context through capture of peer analysis and customer sentiment.
  • A workflow engine.

The net result is filtered, contextualized data that can be presented in a simple, relevant and complete experience.

Elastic Foundation

At the base, the fourth layer is the Elastic Foundation. The concept of elasticity is commonly associated with cloud and software as a service (SaaS). Unit4 does offer a variety of cloud options, including what it calls “cloud your way,” which lets the customer choose the deployment option without compromises. Used in this context, the elasticity comes from the ability to grow and consume resources as needed, without additional purchases of hardware, middleware and the associated maintenance.

But Unit4 takes elasticity one step further and uses it in the context of the application itself, which can easily be changed and/or extended without disrupting the installed solution.

The elastic foundation has evolved from the architecture on which Unit4 Business World (formerly Agresso) was built. This is where you define your organizational structure, information requirements, and the relationship between the two. Traditionally these types of structures, relationships and processes tended to be hard-coded in solutions or embedded in codes like the general ledger account, using a “once and done” approach that made future changes difficult and costly. But reality says they need to be fluid, and that is the elasticity that the People Platform delivers.

With Unit4’s Elastic Foundation, no source code changes are required and even if it means changing the business rules, the data model and how the data is presented, this does not constitute multiple changes. You make a single change and it is permeated throughout all the necessary components of the solution. All are on the same page. No delays. Nothing can be out of sync.

Nothing Tells the Story Like an Example

While all this discussion may provide good background, nothing illustrates what Unit4 is doing better than an example. Let’s explore the project plan example mentioned earlier in a bit more depth.

Projects are common in many services organizations. For some, projects are simply internal. But in many companies, particularly in professional services organizations, these projects are core to their business. Unit4 has been listening to these types of customers as they expressed a desire for better ways of winning profitable business. When your business is project-based, that means coming up with more accurate estimates faster. This is one of the scenarios Unit4 has been working on that will showcase all the layers described above.

To better understand this endeavor, put yourself in the shoes of a project manager at a project-based business that has identified a new opportunity. You need to come up with an estimate of cost, resources and schedule in order to propose a price that is both competitive and profitable. And you need to do so quickly and efficiently or either your window of opportunity will close, or your current projects will suffer, or both. If you are smart you don’t start completely from scratch. Instead you find a similar project, hopefully one that was successful, and start from there, modifying it to reflect the current needs of your prospect.

Sounds simple, but in reality, how do you go about finding the right project to use as a starting point, especially if it was a project in which you had no personal involvement or experience? Unit4 is developing a scenario where you will be able to enter a few key characteristics of the project including the customer (if you have done business with the prospect before), type of project, time frame required, cost range, etc. Using these parameters, Unit4 will present you with potential reference projects, each assigned a rating of how closely they match your criteria. They do the legwork; you pick the closest, most profitable and start from there.

But have you ever managed a project that looked great on paper, but in reality it was the project from hell? You can’t tell everything from the numbers. So Unit4 uses sentiment analysis to assist. The solution will be able to look at conversations and pull up up the five most positive things and five most negative things said. What is the most common word used? Perhaps you find it to be “team.” It can look for certain words used in comments and conversations, including words like “complaints” or “excessive overtime.” Perhaps the team is complaining about too much overtime.

Projects under consideration may also not yet be completed; in which case, Unit4 will simulate a completion to predict schedule and cost accuracy, along with projected margins. While all of this might seem relatively simple, when done manually, there are numerous assumptions and opinions that get inadvertently filtered that can result in overlooking the best model, choosing the wrong project or making bad predictions.

By automating the process, Unit4 delivers on all of the pillars of a “self-driving” ERP, from automating manual tasks to reducing input and asking only for input at the moment of action. It can sense problems, as well as potential opportunities and give intelligent recommendations.

This is just one of many possible scenarios. Mint Jutras anticipates more and more of these types of scenarios will be identified through working with actual customers. Once some are delivered (later this year), this could have a snowball effect, with one idea generating many more. Then it will be up to Unit4 (and possibly some select partners or customers themselves) to deliver against the promise of “self-driving” ERP.

Summary and Key Take-aways

Unit4 has truly transformed itself into a new company, one that is energized, fresh, innovative, confident and aggressive. And yet it has done so by building on the strengths it has exhibited in the past. It has always targeted people-centric businesses, particularly those that are “living in change.” It has a strong, modern architecture and understands the trends rocking the world today. We are truly entering the digital age. Social, mobile, cloud and analytics all play a key role. Unit4 is leveraging all of these and delivering a solution with a simple goal: to empower people in service organizations.

But probably most importantly, Unit4 is now focused on execution. That focus is centered on:

  • Delivering vertical solutions for service industries
  • Building applications for people
  • Designing its underlying architecture for agility
  • Delivering cloud solutions “your way,” with no compromise

The recent acquisition of Three Rivers Systems is evidence it is indeed moving into major execution mode. Don’t be surprised to see others and expect some very significant partnerships to be announced soon as it aggressively builds its partner ecosystem.

During the past two years, as this transformation was underway, Unit4 was quite “quiet.” Expect the company to significantly turn up the volume, particularly in North America, where there is tremendous opportunity that has yet to be tapped.

Expect the pace of product innovation to accelerate as it starts to aggressively leverage its prior investment in architecture and technology.

If you are a services organization with an ERP solution that seems to just get in the way, Mint Jutras would agree with Unit4 when it says, “To adapt to the speed of change, ignore the old restrictions.” Perhaps you need to get into the driver’s seat of a new “self-driving” ERP.

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2 Responses to What is Unit4’s “Self-Driving” ERP?

  1. Pingback: Unit4’s Self-Driving ERP Gets a Digital Assistant | Mint Jutras | Making Enterprise Business Systems Pay Dividends

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