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Unit4 is a global business software vendor focused on business and professional services, the public sector and higher education. Recently company executives met with industry analysts to provide an update of its strategic roadmap and to recap its accomplishments since being acquired by a private equity firm in 2014. Unit4 is the result of successive mergers of ERP and business software companies, notably CODA and Agresso. The company is also a part-owner (with salesforce.com and others) of independently run FinancialForce, which sells a cloud-based ERP system built on the Force.com platform.

All vendors of business applications – especially ERP – are challenged today by a more disruptive technology environment than they have faced over the past 15 years. Unit4 is in the beginning phases of a planned evolution of its product and go-to-market strategy designed to gain share in the global ERP market. Parts of what it presented to analysts are already in place while other parts lie ahead still on its multiyear roadmap.

From a technology standpoint, the ERP software market has been in period of relative stasis since the Y2K bubble burst in 2000. Other than the arrival of cloud-based software as a service, the pace of innovation in this category has been relatively slow, especially relative to the pace set in the 1990s. Now this market is in the process of changing and organizations are deciding when to replace their ERP as I have written. The accumulation of more than a decade of small but steady incremental technology advances is giving vendors new possibilities for designing their applications. For its part Unit4 has been evolving the architecture underlying its applications to make them easier to implement (the company calls it “an elastic foundation”). It is also using Microsoft’s Azure platform to enable it to offer, for example, predictive and prescriptive analytics, mobile application functionality and intelligent process automation.

Unit4’s product and marketing strategy aims to seize opportunities provided by technology disruptions to gain share in a consolidating market.  We see three main sources of technology disruption that increasingly will be driving buyer preferences in the ERP market over the next decade.

One is the use of technologies to provide new more valuable capabilities. Here are some examples.

User efficiency is increased by greater automation of repetitive tasks (especially in finance and accounting departments). In addition, many legacy ERP systems have gaps in their architecture or their design that require manual process steps, process interventions (that require input rather than requiring it by exception) and manual data transfers. Another aspect of automation is reducing the need for data entry. For instance, an individual’s appointments booked in Microsoft Outlook can be reused for billing. Some of the built-in automation will be designed for vertical industries to reflect their specific requirements.

Overall effectiveness can be enhanced by use of more advanced predictive and prescriptive analytics as an integral part of a transaction-processing application such as ERP. These techniques can improve the quality of decisions that individuals make in executing transactions. Unit4’s strategy is to create vertical-specific advanced analytics to address the needs of these businesses. Effectiveness also can be improved by embedding in-context collaboration capabilities, which I have written about. That is, such software is “aware” of what an individualvr_bti_br_technology_innovation_priorities is doing and, for example, provides ready access to the specific colleagues that the user may need to contact at that moment and enables them to share all underlying data and documents that might be relevant under the specific circumstances (such as a master contract or previous instant messages). Our benchmark research on business technology innovation shows that collaboration ranks second in importance behind analytics as a technology innovation priority. Collaborative capabilities in software will multiply over the next several years as software transitions from the rigid constructs established in the client/server days, which force users to adapt to the limitations of the software, to fluid and dynamic designs that mold themselves around the needs of  users. Business is an inherently collaborative process anyway, so such capabilities are important to the productivity of business software users.

The user experience is improved by rethinking its design and organization of the screens. Unit4 aims to improve the mental ergonomics of working with its applications. The redesign reduces screen clutter, facilitates navigation across screens to complete a task and enhances graphics to make interactions more pleasing and efficient.

vr_Office_of_Finance_01_ERP_replacementUnit4 encapsulates these existing and prospective improvements in the slogan “self-driving ERP.” One element of this metaphor is reducing the amount of effort and attention required of individuals to handle mundane repetitive chores. The other is that by using built-in analytics that can spot potential issues and opportunities in the data, individuals will be able to spot and take action on situations that have the highest payoff. The company hopes to extend the capabilities of its ERP software beyond a simple transaction processing engine to include differentiated capabilities to run businesses more -intelligently.

In addition to providing scope for product differentiation, offering organizations far more than a like-for-like replacement of their existing software may provide an incentive to replace existing software sooner. One impact of the slow evolution of technology on the ERP market is that, as shown in our Office of Finance research, on average, companies are holding on to their ERP software a year longer than they did a decade ago.

A second technology that is already disrupting the market is the increasing adoption of cloud-based or hybrid-cloud-based ERP systems by Unit 4’s key target buyers: larger midsize companies in business and professional services, government and higher education. These sorts of organizations tend to have less capable IT staffs and smaller IT budgets than large public companies. This affects the performance of their systems because the software and hardware are not always kept up to date. For these buyers, a cloud-based product can deliver better performance than they currently have at a lower total cost of ownership.

The third disruptive technology approach is permitting end users to configure the ERP application without having to modify its code. Cloud-based applications that are designed to be used in a multitenant environment must be flexible enough to appeal to the widest possible audience. This requires an architecture that enables individual organizations to readily configure processes and make adjustments without altering the underlying code. It also means having industry-specific or even micro-vertical capabilities built into the system. Vendors that want to offer their software in a multitenant environment have to do this, but it is useful even in an on-premises or private cloud deployment because it can reduce the effort and expense of deploying the software. Properly executed, this approach makes the software more adaptable to how a company does business, rather than forcing an organization either to live with the software as is or pay significant fees to modify it to meet specific requirements. Unit4 was already heading in this direction before the change in ownership and management.

The management team also has been tackling internal issues and revamping its go-to-market strategy, essentially completing the integration of the various software companies. The company will invest in promoting a single master brand for visibility.  Product naming has been simplified to “Unit4” plus a functional label construction (such as “Financials,” “Professional Services” and “Consolidation”). This will apply across the board except for “Business World,” which has good recognition on its own. Some once local or regional products such as Travel and Entertainment are now available worldwide. Unit4 is increasing its exposure in North America, increasing its sales coverage where it has had a limited presence, as well as focusing its European sales efforts in the U.K., France and Germany.

Technology and innovative software design will drive consolidation of the ERP market over the coming decade. Unit4’s  management team has made necessary changes to its sales and marketing management. Its strategies are sound and essential to its long-term success in this market environment. Combined they reflect a formula that successful business applications vendors will use to gain advantage in the newly dynamic ERP market. The company is well-positioned to achieve its objectives from product and market standpoints. At the least, Unit4 has the potential to grow faster in its fragmented markets by taking share from smaller vendors that do not have the critical mass to make the necessary investments in products, sales and marketing. (By analogy, this is similar to what happened with a long list of DOS business applications that did not have a recurring maintenance revenue stream to fund redevelopment on Windows.). However, its strategies are not unique. For that reason (and I hate to state the obvious), Unit4’s management will need to execute its strategy well. To ensure that it gains sufficient market share to sustain a competitive position, it will need to innovate faster than its competitors in shorter product cycles and execute in the field consistently.

Regards,

Robert Kugel – SVP Research

Recently, Infor held its second innovation conference with industry analysts at its New York City headquarters. Infor’s products include the major categories of ERP, human capital management and financial performance management applications. Behind the marketing aspects of its use of “innovation” is a business strategy for retaining existing customers, migrating a sizable percentage of those customers to the cloud and gaining new customers. (Because of the relative size of the installed base, renewals and migrating customers to the cloud are likely to be more important to Infor’s future revenues than adding new customers.) I think it’s useful to assess the content of the event in the context of the company’s business strategy.

To echo what I wrote last year, the company’s aim is to accelerate revenue growth by offering companies a lower and more predictable cost of ownership than its rivals in the business software market as well as innovation that improves productivity and organizational effectiveness. Infor is trying to innovate by focusing on improving the user experience and lowering its customers’ costs through its software design and architecture. One of the most important aspects of Infor’s approach to innovation is rethinking how users work with its software by simplifying and streamlining user interfaces, adding collaboration–in-context capabilities and providing a modern user experience (UX) akin to what people have grown accustomed to in their personal software. After two decades of development, the bulk of the core features and functions of most business software, especially ERP, have become commodities, which is why UX is increasingly important in vendor selection.

Infor adopted its current strategy because the software markets it serves are mature and offer limited growth using the traditional on-premises, perpetual licensing model. Our benchmark research finds that companies are keeping their ERP systems longer than they did a decade ago – on average 6.4 years vs. 5.1 years.vr_Office_of_Finance_01_ERP_replacement Migrating existing customers to cloud services will enable Infor to increase annual revenues from them. It can charge more than it currently bills for maintenance and still offer existing customers an all-in cost that is at or below their  total cost of ownership for the on-premises software. A software-as-a-service (SaaS) approach eliminates the need for customers to operate and maintain the software, and it minimizes the need for third-party consultants and systems integrators to set up, update and modify the application. A significant portion of Infor’s installed base is entities in verticals such as higher education and government that traditionally have underinvested in IT equipment and staff. They are likely to find a SaaS offering an attractive option because of improved performance and even responsiveness to user issues. Infor also will benefit if its SaaS customers buy additional capabilities, adding “edge” application services such as expense management or planning.

Meanwhile, almost everything that Infor – or for that matter any vendor – does to make its software an attractive option for a multitenant environment has the potential to lower the cost of ownership for an on-premises customer. For example, eliminating the need for customization is a prerequisite for any multitenant SaaS offering, but it also reduces the cost of buying and maintaining software that will be deployed on-premises or in a private cloud. Infor’s ION architecture simplifies application and data integration for cloud and on-premises customers.

To achieve superior cost-effectiveness for all customers and make it suitable for use in a multitenant cloud environment, Infor has redesigned its software to be more configurable and reduce the expense of integrating and customizing it. One component of this is building in richer functionality for narrowly segmented micro-verticals so that buyers do not have to pay a consultant to create customizations to provide these necessary capabilities. To lower the total cost of ownership, it has been building multitenant cloud versions of its software (currently there are 33 business-specific offerings) and 15 CloudSuites that automate industry-specific core processes from end to end. Another contributing factor to a lower cost of ownership is Infor’s use of less expensive open source infrastructure and third-party commodity services, which provides savings that can be passed on to the customer.

Innovation in general and a focus on the user experience are essential to the success of Infor’s strategy because they improve the company’s ability to sustain high customer renewal rates and provide a differentiated offering that can enable it to gain market share in adding net new customers. Of course, “user experience” is a bit of a buzz word. When applied to business computing it covers the totality of the effects of an individual’s interactions with the software. Assessing some aspects of the UX are quantifiable (for instance, the number of clicks and screens required to execute a task), while others such as the user’s alertness, attitudes and emotions when using the software are far more subjective and (thus far) usually difficult to quantify. Because the totality of the user experience depends on a variety of elements, many of which are not quantifiable, and – even with the same individual – can vary widely according to context and circumstances, this remains an inherently fuzzy term. Yet, to paraphrase a Supreme Court justice writing of obscenity, we know a good personal user experience when we see it. User experience is not just a pretty face. Data availability, for example, is a constraint that defines the capabilities of any business application. Infor’s ION architecture is designed to facilitate data integration to broaden and deepen the scope of information that its systems can present to individuals as they perform business functions. The user experience in business software involves a more complex set of factors than in smartphone apps; it’s not just the graphic design. Having an information architecture that facilitates collecting and combining all or most of the data to present to a user in a business process can provide a differentiated UX.

To achieve a differentiated user experience, Infor’s Hook & Loop internal design studio has been working for several years to overhaul the design and organization of the screens in Infor’s applications to improve the mental ergonomics of working with business software. Among the more obvious changes have been the reduction of clutter, better graphics and easier navigation. In general, improving the user experience builds on decades of research to better understand how people work with software and therefore how to lay out screens and page flows to make interactions more pleasing and efficient.

vr_Office_of_Finance_16_next-generation_technologiesAnother element of the user experience is how individuals are able to collaborate. Because business is an inherently collaborative process, collaboration capabilities are important to the productivity of business software. Infor’s Ming.le collaboration platform is designed to deliver collaboration in context; that is, the software must be “aware” of what an individual is doing and can provide ready access to the specific colleagues whom the user may need to contact at that moment. This approach is superior to instant messaging and email because the work product is easily incorporated in the discussion. For example, if there is an issue with an invoice, the underlying data about it is viewable and searchable. The discussions around the invoice are saved so that if later some other issue arises about that invoice, the original discussions are readily available to anyone who has permission to see them. That noted, initially Infor may find it difficult to convince finance departments of its utility. In our research only 16 percent of participants said that collaboration features in software will affect performance. This may be because in their initial marketing of collaboration features vendors focused on Twitter-style feeds or a Facebook-style approach that broadcasts widely. As I’ve noted, this style is inappropriate for many parts of a business, especially finance and accounting. However, I expect that as companies use collaboration in context it come to be viewed as an indispensable capability.

The evolution of the user experience is under way, and we believe it will be an increasingly important source of competitive advantage and product differentiation in business applications over the next five years. Smartphones and other mobile devices have opened the eyes of many people to the possibility of being delighted by software, even in accounting and shop floor applications. The next generation of UX will promote the longstanding objective of having software that readily adapts to how individuals work rather than forcing individuals to adapt to the limitations of information technology.

I’ve been covering Infor’s transformation from its inception. The company has made significant progress in creating software that is more efficient to operate, supports better visibility and insight into how a business is performing, is easier to manage and has a lower cost of ownership. It is also setting the bar for improving the business software user experience. That noted, Infor is still a work in progress in a dynamic market with well-financed competitors, and its long-term success will depend on a steady stream of innovations in addressing the requirements of its targeted microverticals, affordability and the user experience.

Current Infor customers should look into whether it makes sense for their company to migrate its existing on-premises applications to the cloud to lower the total cost of ownership or improve software performance. Those considering purchase of ERP, HCM and performance management software should have Infor on their list of vendors to consider.

Regards,

Robert Kugel – SVP Research

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