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Infor recently held its annual Inforum user group meeting, along with a series of sessions with analysts. The $2 billion business software company has products in the major categories of ERP (including enterprise financial management), human capital management, customer relationship management and performance management among others.

In their presentations, executives stressed three key themes. vr_NG_Finance_Analytics_08_better_software_delivers_numbers_soonerOne was the company’s focus on microverticals – that is, providing software that meets the needs of 10 specific types of business (for example, fashion, aerospace and defense, distribution and food and beverage). This focus on microverticals is an important part of the company’s strategy for differentiating its software from that of other vendors, even those that also have vertical industry applications with a broad offerings; Infor aims to make it faster and less expensive for companies in the microverticals to deploy its software.

The second was theme architecture. Infor’s ION  middleware facilitates the integration of Infor’s and third-party applications, potentially lowering the cost for companies to implement and maintain a suite of business software. Its Business Vault serves as a central data repository of transactional and other data from multiple systems to enable immediate reporting and analysis from them. It enables integration of financial and operational data to use, for example, in business planning and performance management. Our benchmark research on finance analytics shows that companies whose software facilitates the use of analytics are able to obtain performance metrics sooner than those with less capable systems.

Third, Infor executives emphasized attention to making the business user experience more productive by (to paraphrase the speakers) “throwing off the tyranny of the superuser.” Toward this end, rather than presenting screens that offer every conceivable option, Infor attempts to simplify interactions by drawing on decades of experience in how work is actually performed. It utilizes the capabilities of today’s IT systems and an evolved palette of man/machine interactions to simplify training and speed process execution without sacrificing comprehensiveness; infrequently used commands and functions are hidden until they are needed.

In addition, to improve productivity Infor continues to refine Infor Ming.le, its social collaboration platform, which offers contextual interactions. In some of its applications, Infor is adding rewards, a component of what is generally called gamification, which I have written about. One example would be using it in purchasing to encourage policy compliance, such as choosing preferred vendors. By bringing a modern look to its applications – in many respects superior to its competitors’ designs – Infor also is attempting to deflect a perception sown by its competitors that Infor offers an amalgamation of old technology.

All three of these themes support the company’s cloud applications strategy. This year’s Inforum provided further evidence that Infor is at the end of its beginning, as I have put it. I mean it has completed the first stage of transforming a collection of discrete companies and applications into a coherent whole. From my point of view, Infor’s major challenge now is to accelerate its revenue growth, which increased just 6 percent in the quarter ending in July, even as its software license sales were up 22 percent. That is, the impact of rapid gains in new software license sales was diluted by the much slower growth in maintenance revenues, which were up just 2 percent. To increase revenue faster, Infor wants its existing customers to move from their on-premises deployments to its software-as-a-service (SaaS) offerings. The company insists that it can deliver substantial savings to customers by lowering their total cost of ownership (including hardware and the costs of operating and maintaining the application) and improving performance (often, these systems are running on older servers and may not have been optimally configured) while charging a subscription fee that can double the current maintenance charge. It’s no coincidence that the three main themes of Inforum are essential to make migrating to the cloud an attractive option for customers and a profitable one for Infor.

It is likely that even modest success in migrating its installed base would have a major impact. If Infor can convert 4 percent of its existing customers to SaaS each year, its annual revenue growth could increase to around 10 percent. Companies that operate their systems in Infor’s cloud would also find it easier to add more Infor applications (such as a performance management suite), further boosting subscription revenue growth. If Infor is able to demonstrate sales growth in low double digits, it would be able to go public and replace relatively expensive debt with equity. This, in turn, would substantially increase its net income and cash flow, enabling it to increase spending on sales and marketing to acquire new customers to further accelerate growth. Although converting a small fraction of its on-premises customers to a cloud deployment each year may not seem especially ambitious, it’s still too early to assess the feasibility of that happening.

One important factor in determining Infor’s near-term success is will be how well it executes its microvertical strategy. As I’ve noted many types of business find that cloud-based ERP systems do not meet their precise needs because of peculiarities inherent in their specific business. Infor’s success in migrating users to its SaaS offerings will be linked to how well it expands the capabilities and configurability of the software to meet the needs of these businesses.

To attract new customers and to provide its existing customers with a cloud alternative, Infor announced three offerings at Inforum. CloudSuite Financials brings together core financial management, consolidation and closing (including reconciliation management), treasury and cash management as well as “business intelligence,” which in this case means the ability to create reports and dashboards from the data stored in the system without having to purchase additional applications. CloudSuite Business comprises financials, human resources, supply chain management, project management, sales force automation and customer relationship management. These integrated suites of functionality can significantly reduce the time and cost required to implement a system. As names Financials and Business sound generic, but they incorporate the requirements of the targeted microverticals. For instance, CloudSuite Healthcare is designed for hospitals and other health delivery organizations. It comprises financial management, supply chain management, enterprise asset management, enterprise performance management, expense management, business intelligence and analytics tailored to the needs of this microvertical. Each of the suites incorporates Infor’s redefined user experience. Because the suites all run on its ION middleware, adding capabilities such as performance management is designed to be straightforward and well suited to operating in a multitenant environment.

vr_sparse_use_of_advanced_analyticsAt the conference, Infor executives reported early success with converting healthcare and government customers to its CloudSuite offerings. Our research shows that these types of organizations have far less mature information technology environments than most other kinds, so it makes sense that their business managers and executives would be eager to offload the management and support of their business applications to a third party for total cost and performance reasons.

A new development featured at the conference was Infor’s investment in creating more advanced analytics applications in its Dynamic Science Labs program. The idea is to build more easily consumed analytic applications tailored to the needs of the installed base of microverticals and business users that lack backgrounds in statistics or data science. Our research finds that two-thirds of companies make little or no use of advanced analytics and that a lack of training and data availability and inadequate software are among the reasons why. One of Infor’s pilot efforts is a price optimization application specifically aimed at distributors (one of the  microvertical targets). Pricing software is a well-established category, as I have discussed, but applications in this category must be business-specific because of differences in the products sold, the information available to buyers and sellers, personal preferences and company cultures. For example, the requirements of travel and hospitality companies are different from those of retailers, and both are different from financial services. The factors driving value to customers, the availability of pricing information to sellers and buyers, time sensitivity and the determinants of buyer behavior patterns are just four of the considerations that determine the structure of the application and construction of the analytics that support users. It also matters that set prices are a feature of western cultures while negotiation is more the norm elsewhere. Our recent finance research shows that outside of specific verticals (such as hospitality and retail) price and profit optimization software has achieved limited adoption. From discussions we’ve had in the past several years, there are a range of reasons why companies have been reluctant to adopt price optimization software, including skepticism that the approach works, a lack of awareness of available software, ambiguity over who “owns” pricing in an organization and the related difficulty of implementing any change management initiative.

Infor has come a long way in its transformation. Yet there’s still vr_Office_of_Finance_01_ERP_replacementmuch more to accomplish in executing its strategy, especially in migrating existing customers to its multitenant SaaS offering. Building out its microverticals will be harder than it sounds. Adding new customers is also essential, but the market for its on-premises and cloud offerings is highly competitive, and Infor needs to build brand recognition. In addition the replacement cycle for ERP systems has been getting longer. Our research finds that the average age has increased one year in the past decade. Companies are reluctant to replace their systems because of the expense, risk and disruption. Until there is a long list of successes, most are likely to be reluctant to migrate an existing ERP system to the cloud.

The measure of the success of Infor’s strategy and execution will be its ability to accelerate revenues over the next six quarters. Although the company is closely held, its financial statements are public. Infor is quite profitable when amortization of acquisition-related costs and intangibles as well as restructuring costs are excluded. I expect that achieving low double-digit revenue growth would enable the company to issue equity at a valuation attractive to its owners and in sufficient quantity to retire all or most of its debt. Being private has been advantageous because software companies in transition usually are shunned by public investors, but having its shares publicly traded now would enhance brand recognition, and eliminating interest expense would enable Infor to step up its sales and marketing efforts.

Regards,

Robert Kugel – SVP Research

FinancialForce’s 2014 summer release incorporates improvements in mobile and collaboration features and provides enhancements to the planning dimension of its professional services automation (PSA) suite. In the last couple of releases the company emphasized expansion in the functional capabilities of its ERP suite, as I noted, focusing on human capital management and professional services automation as well as some supply chain automation capabilities.

vr_Office_of_Finance_16_next-generation_technologiesThe latest release uses the Salesforce1 platform to extend its mobile capabilities. These are increasingly important to executives and managers for reviewing information and drilling down into data such as orders, invoices and payments  to deepen understanding of the information. Mobile access also is useful for approving tasks or requests (such as expense report approvals or process review signoffs) regardless of where the users happen to be. Mobility is especially useful for anyone who is not always sitting at a desk or for connecting customers to the company in a secure and controlled fashion as they place orders or check on the status of their accounts. It is a capability that supports today’s “any time anywhere” management practices. However, FinancialForce has its work cut out in convincing finance departments that they need mobility. In our new Office of Finance benchmark research only one-third of participants said that mobile technology will significantly influence their future performance. (Only half have that opinion about cloud computing generally.)

Even fewer finance professionals are interested in technologies that promote and simplify collaboration, which is odd since most finance and accounting processes require collaboration. For that reason, I have argued that applications that support finance departments need a social media capability. Salesforce.com has been enhancing Chatter, its social business application, and FinancialForce has been adapting it to the needs of its target customers. Initially, social applications emphasized their broadcast capabilities, which is suitable for corporate-wide information, but collaboration requires narrow casting – making connections and information available to suit individual needs. This capability prevents people from being deluged with information (which substantially dilutes the collaborative value of a social application) and ensures that sensitive information is shared only with those approved to see it. FinancialForce also is making the actions more context-sensitive, able to understand which role or activity an individual is currently engaged in and which group or colleagues are relevant at that moment.

One important objective in managing a modern professional services organization is to minimize administrative overhead, for example for billing professionals (such as time and expense tracking). Professional services automation software is designed to do that as well as make it easier to manage the process of selling and fulfilling professional services from end to end. PSA also facilitates billing and accounting, ensuring accuracy and speeding up the receipt of funds. The enhancements announced in FinancialForce’s recent release aim to improve professional services group’s ability to manage staffing.

PSA suites that include resource and capacity planning also make it possible for professional services managers to monitor the availability of people to deliver contracted services. Resource utilization is especially important in determining the effectiveness and profitability of a professional services group. Lean staffing can generate fatter margins, but it can disappoint customers if resources are not available; an inability to optimize professionals’ time can quickly generate losses. Training is usually essential for new hires, so they’re not immediately profitable and companies are slow to let go of trained individuals when demand is slack. So it’s important for executives to have visibility into potential demand for services. Since FinancialForce’s PSA software runs on the Salesforce1 platform, professional services managers can look beyond already contracted services. They must be able to monitor potential resource demand (or lack of it) by extrapolating sales funnel data into forward-looking capacity calculations. As deals enter the pipeline, it’s possible for a manager to determine whether enough people with the requisite skills are available to fulfill the services demand. Where there is more demand than supply, these organizations can achieve a balance by adding people or determining how best to spread workloads. An important advantage in making these calculations based on the pipeline of business is that it provides necessary lead times to identify and hire the talent needed to meet demand. Not having such forward visibility can produce delays in starting projects because of a lack of resources (creating client satisfaction issues and limiting revenues) or guesswork about hiring needs (potentially diminishing profitability by underutilizing services personnel).

FinancialForce is a cloud-based application, so it’s particularly well suited to the needs of companies that have outgrown their small business accounting software packages and can benefit from having the ability to connect sales, marketing and customer service capabilities with their back-office functions. It can help midsize businesses – especially those selling business services – grow while minimizing the need to add administrative staff. Many companies with 50 to 500 employees still use basic accounting packages even though they have outgrown their process management, reporting and analytical capabilities because they hesitate to make the investment in an on-premises accounting package and the resources necessary to support it. Maintaining an existing accounting package might appear the safe choice, but it foregoes the operational and management benefits that more capable software can deliver. Cloud-based software usually entails a smaller upfront commitment and does not require ongoing reliance on staff to support a system. FinancialForce also is well suited for larger companies that have a professional services group with 30 or more employees who bill their time and expenses, especially those who engage in discrete projects. Salesforce.com users of all sizes can find FinancialForce components useful in automatically connecting their Salesforce.com processes with other enterprise systems in a managed and controlled fashion, without having to re-enter data. I recommend that they consider how this vendor’s products can help meet their needs.

Regards,

Robert Kugel – SVP Research

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