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The developed world has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to information technology. Individuals walk around with far more computing power and data storage in their pockets than was required to send men to the moon. People routinely hold on their laps what would have been considered a supercomputer a generation ago. There is a wealth of information available on the Web. And the costs of these information assets are a tiny fraction of what they were decades ago. Consumer products have been at the forefront in utilizing information technology capabilities. The list of innovations is staggering. The “smart” phone is positively brilliant. Games are now a far bigger business than motion pictures.

VR Logo Bug Square BufferYet few business users are tapping the full potential of today’s systems. Most organizations have been slow to integrate IT innovation into their core processes. Companies have made considerable investments in information technology, but their business methods have been slow to adapt to the resources available. For instance, software for incentive compensation software and for planning and budgeting has made it possible to improve these processes, but most companies manage compensation, budget and plan in much the same way they did decades ago. To be sure, it’s much easier for individuals to adopt new tools for themselves than it is to align groups and executives in corporations to change proven approaches – even mediocre ones. But it’s also the case that business software must make it easier for individuals to realize more of the potential of information technology. And this part of the evolution of business software is only beginning. This is the context in which I took note of two emerging capabilities of IBM’s business software. One is its Concert user experience software and the other its emerging application (not yet officially named) designed to make advanced analytics more consumable. These are two important capabilities IBM highlighted at its recent Insight user group meeting and Big Data and Analytics analyst summit.

Integrating processes and data across a business has long been a challenge for IT departments. Some decades ago the issue of “islands of automation” emerged as companies implemented stand-alone business applications one by one to perform some function but then realized that it would be handy if these could share data and manage processes from start to finish. Initial progress toward this goal was made in the form of applications such as ERP that offer integrated functionality and enterprise data stores, although these often were difficult to implement and complex to maintain. Lately, software vendors have been refocusing to provide users with ways of facilitating end-to-end process management and making data more accessible.

IBM Concert is such an attempt. Announced in November 2013, it is a user interface IBM designed to be the central touch point across multiple applications and data stores. (It’s possible to link Concert to other vendors’ software, but it’s unlikely that a company would buy it on its own to link other applications.) It’s meant to replace menu-driven interactions between the user and the system with “I want to do this process” and a “day in the life” approach to organizing how individuals access applications and data. IBM Concert is an example of how we are only now beginning to achieve the longstanding objective of having IT systems conform to the user’s needs rather than the opposite. On a single screen Concert organizes personal task lists and presents metrics, conditions and dashboard elements configured to an individual’s preferences so the user can easily monitor conditions and enable more management by exception. Users can organize the data they need to support a given process right in front of them rather than having to go to some other application to fetch that data.

IBM Concert also has a social component that provides the ability for users to collaborate in context. Social applications generally have improved organizations’ connectedness. They offer greater immediacy than “copy all” email, greater inclusiveness than chat software and better communication in a mobile and geographically dispersed workforce. Initially, social applications took a broadcast approach similar to an unfiltered Twitter feed but as I pointed out at the time, that wasn’t a useful approach. As anyone who has used Twitter during an event can attest, the volume of messages quickly exceeds one’s ability to pick out the important ones. Moreover, not everyone wants to share information broadly, especially, for example, finance departments. Concert by contrast “understands” the area in which the individual is working and connects him or her to the conversations of others who are part of the group that needs to collaborate on that specific task. Users also apply hashtags to add a specific context to the message.

I think that Concert has the potential to become the nexus of business people’s computing environments and a sidekick that helps them stay organized and informed, get alerts, collaborate, find answers and explore their workday world.

Both at Vision and again at the Big Data and Analytics analyst summit, IBM previewed Project Catalyst Insight which is a not-yet-named application that is a significant advancement from its SPSS Analytic Catalyst software. Making big data and analytics more useful and consumable by the white-collar workforce (and even some of the blue collars) would be provide a major boost to organizational performance. By itself, a mass of data is not especially useful, and there are significant challenges to teasing out insights from large data sets, especially when that requires sophisticated analytical techniques. Another as-yet-unnamed application from IBM is designed to make big data and analytics more consumable and more useful. Typically large volumes of data are now accessible mainly to those with Ph.D.s in statistics or otherwise highly trained. The main objective of this project is to package advanced analytics routines for use, after limited training, by ordinary business analysts working in any department in any industry.

Big data has always been with us; it is just a question how much “big” is. Today the term refers to data sets so large and complex that organizations have difficulty processing them using standard database management systems and applications. Technology for handling big data has crossed a threshold, becoming more capable and cost-effective. Companies can now to tap into much larger amounts of structured and unstructured data. Big data has potential – and potential pitfalls – for improving a company’s performance, as I have noted. Big data is of little use unless organizations have the ability to use analytics to achieve insights not available through more conventional techniques. The ability to sift through large quantities of business-related data rapidly could set in motion fundamental changes in how executives and managers run their business. Properly deployed, big data can support a more forward-looking and agile management style even in very large enterprises. It will allow more flexible forms of business organization. It can give finance organizations greater scope to play a more strategic role in corporate management by changing the focus of business reviews from backward-looking assessments of what just happened to emphasis on what to do next.

vr_NG_Finance_Analytics_14_innovative_companies_adapt_betterThe challenge for many companies is that big data and advanced analytics are not readily consumable. Our research on finance analytics finds that fewer than one-third (29%) of companies use big data to support their finance analytics, even though this technology can handle the flood of data into today’s businesses and can help produce more useful analytics and advanced techniques. Although analytics is essential to finance departments, their focus remains on the basics. Fewer than half (44% each) use the proven newer techniques of predictive analytics and leading indicators. Nearly three out of four (73%) do not assess relevant economic or market data and trends, and fewer than half assess customer and product profitability; any of these could make analyses more relevant to the overall success of the company. The ability of finance organizations to master analytical techniques – especially advanced ones – ought to be a priority for senior executives because our research shows a correlation between competence in utilizing big data and analytics and the ability to adapt quickly to changing business and economic conditions.

IBM SPSS Analytic Catalyst Insight is designed to make it easier for business users who are not trained statisticians to create predictive analytical models just by answering a few preliminary questions about what they want to accomplish using the data. The new incarnation with IBM Project Catalyst Insight aims to simplify the process even further to bring it into the reach of a wider set of business users. It does so by packaging a range of standard routines that would be applied to data sets and providing even more guidance to analysts and even some business managers that know what they want to know but have a limited grasp of the analytical techniques necessary to find meaning in a mass of data. If IBM can create an application that enables more business users to utilize predictive analytics and other advanced analytical techniques, it would represent a big step forward in making big data a useful tool for many more functional areas than it is today.

Both IBM Concert and the new business analytics tool called Project Catalyst Insight “to be officially named later” reflect IBM’s strategy of achieving product differentiation in a rapidly evolving software market. The first decades of packaged business applications were characterized by a race to create new categories and load them with distinguishing features and functions. In the next decade competitive advantage will fall to software vendors that – in addition to features and functions – can provide business people with a user experience that is easily molded to how they naturally work. IBM Concert is a useful first step that is likely to be further refined. The new analytical environment derived from IBM SPSS Modeler and SPSS Analytic Catalyst Insight looks and sounds like a good idea, and it will be interesting to see how it develops when it is generally available.

Regards,

Robert Kugel – SVP Research

The keynote theme at this year’s Sapphire conference in Orlando was Simple. Top executives from SAP, a software company associated with complexity, stated and restated that its future direction is to simplify all aspects of its products and the ways customers interact with them and the company itself. SAP’s longstanding and commendable aspiration to thoroughness in its software will be giving way to an emphasis on elegance in its engineering. This objective is more than admirable – SAP’s future competitiveness depends on it. Changing the fundamental architecture of SAP’s offerings – already well under way with HANA – is absolutely necessary. The design underpinnings in SAP’s ERP applications, for example, have been shaped by technology limitations that have disappeared, as Dr. Hasso Plattner, one of the company’s founders, pointed out in his keynote. However, the relevant issue facing SAP and the software market is how far the company can progress toward this goal  and how fast.

The stress on simplicity in the keynote addresses may have been more for internal consumption – a stake in the ground to mark an organization-wide turning point – than for the thousands of customers in attendance. This year’s Sapphire marks only the beginning of what will be a challenging but essential journey for the company.

ERP is a core business for SAP. It’s the product where simplicityvr_ERPI_01_implementing_new_capabilities_in_erp is most needed but where it will be most difficult to achieve. The next generation of ERP – the core financials, manufacturing, operations and distribution – must enable line-of-business people to modify the system to adapt to changing business environments and modify business processes to reflect evolving internal requirements and adoption of new management methods. In our ERP research only 21 percent of larger companies said implementing new capabilities in ERP systems is easy or very easy while one-third characterized it as difficult. Because of this, the current generation of ERP software is a barrier to innovation and improvement. To be sure, the initial configuration of and major modifications to a new ERP system almost always require a mix of external consulting, internal IT and business people to achieve the best outcome. But even here software vendors must radically reduce the system’s setup cost. Today, the cost of implementation can be up to five times the cost of software license. In the future, companies must be able to do this at a fraction of the cost. Cloud-based systems are one way to achieve these kinds of savings, and the cloud was a hot topic at Sapphire.

There’s a debate on whether SAP is a cloud vendor. Some IT analysts see a dividing line between incumbent, on-premises vendors and the newer cloud-based ones. If a cloud vendor is one that only (or mainly) operates in a multitenant cloud environment, SAP is not one. But strict definitions of what qualifies as the cloud already have limited relevance to the market generally and to SAP’s business buyers. Moreover, the issue of which is a real cloud vendor will become increasingly less important to users of these systems over the next five years as software environments evolve to a hybrid cloud model that combines multitenant, single tenant and on-premises deployments.

I’ve discussed the business reasons why multitenant configurations have been the dominant architectural approach to software as a service (SaaS). Multitenant is inherently more economical than a single-tenant configuration. The savings that vendors have been able to pass along to customers have provided a compelling reason to acquire software in this format. This has been true for any software category that can be configured rather than customized. That is, the modifications necessary to make the software suitable to the specific needs of the user organization (configuration) can be kept separate from the core code. This is enables the vendor to update and modify the core software used by all of its customers at once without (in almost all cases) affecting the individual customer’s configurations. Sales force automation and travel and expense management software were two of the earliest multitenant categories to be widely adopted because they were designed to make it easy for users to configure the system in useful ways without touching the core code.

However, not every company has found that software in a multitenant environment serves its needs. This is especially the case for complex applications such as ERP, as I’ve noted. While cloud-based ERP has been a hot market, expanding rapidly over the past 10 years, a majority of ERP deployments remain on premises. Growth in the cloud segment has been driven by the superior economics for buyers that were able to accept the software’s limited configurability and by growing midsize companies that were able to migrate from entry-level accounting software sooner than was practical with on-premises software. The pace of adoption has been accelerating as companies have gotten comfortable with this method of deployment; plenty of organizations have found that this approach works for them, and security concerns have ebbed. Yet these multitenant cloud ERP offerings do not have all the functionality or configurability to address the requirements of a majority of the market. This is the biggest challenge – and greatest opportunity – in the ERP software market.

The root cause of the need to customize an ERP system is the forms-based table structure almost all them use. The first generations of all business computing systems were created as analogs to existing paper-based systems, similar to the way that the first automobiles were “horseless carriages” in their configuration. ERP systems also have mimicked the multiple ledger structure of paper-based accounting systems (which is pointless and even counterproductive in a computer-based system) and the paper-based forms that are the information containers used in accounting processes. In the first stages of business process automation, this simplistic automation was the only practical approach since it was the easiest way for programmers to start. But just as the design of cars evolved into a totally new form to reflect the capabilities of the underlying technologies, business computing systems have to evolve to break out of the shackles imposed by paper analog structures.

To break the configurability barrier ERP systems have to be more flexible in their basic design. Ideally, they should eliminate the need for customizing the underlying application.  Companies would benefit if modifications are easier – and potentially less expensive – to make initially and to adjust as business conditions change over time. Easier configurability also can make it possible to reconfigure processes and capabilities faster and more cheaply than is possible today, enabling companies to make their ERP system more adaptable to their business needs. Separating the individual configurations from the core code base means that SaaS vendors can give a much broader set of users the flexibility they need to make the system work their way while still having only a single instance of a code base to modify, upgrade, debug and patch.

So the race is on to make multitenant ERP the appropriate choice for a significantly larger market. One approach that vendors can take to address this issue is to build in adaptations to the specific needs of a broad set of specific vertical or micro-vertical part of the core code. Another is to take a fresh approach to the design and architecture of ERP systems to make them inherently more configurable. Both changes could increase the number of companies for which a multitenant application suits their needs. But both are time-consuming and difficult to bring to market. In theory, a fresh approach is the more sustainable strategy, but it’s better suited to a startup than a huge company like SAP.

In the context of being able to offer an attractive ERP offering in the cloud, the question of whether SAP is a cloud vendor is still relevant because it gets to the heart of the simplicity issue that the company is attempting to address. For SAP to sustain its position in the market, its product must become far easier to implement and configure to the needs of an individual company regardless of how it’s deployed. The design requirement that SAP must meet is to have an ERP system with rich functionality that is as easy to deploy as those offered by cloud-only vendors but that can be readily customized to the specific needs of companies willing to bear the extra implementation and operating costs of a single-tenant or on-premises deployment.

SAP is already rolling out software with names that meet its simplicity theme, including Simple Finance. At first this exercise in branding seems both ridiculous and confusing. Ridiculous because, in reality, finance applications usable by midsize and larger companies will never be simple. Business and regulatory factors keep them from being so. Confusing because, for example, people may think the application is aimed at smaller midsize companies or is perhaps a retread of SAP’s ill-fated ByDesign. On the whole, though, “simple” is not a bad idea for branding if SAP demonstrates substance behind the trademark. The label also can be useful in focusing SAP developers on what the customer wants. SAP’s finance software will never be simple, but it must be as simple as possible.

Simple isn’t easy, especially when it involves moving a large organization in a new direction. Uniting SAP around the objective of “simple” is a good management strategy, but it will require consistent follow-through over the next months and years to make it a reality in the company’s products and processes. This is far from assured but by no means impossible. SAP’s user groups must hold senior management accountable for delivering results that demonstrate measurable progress toward simplification. Results in the software market will demonstrate the extent to which it is succeeding in meeting rising demand for ERP software that’s more flexible and adaptable and easier to deploy, maintain and update.

Regards,

Robert Kugel – SVP Research

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