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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. One 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.
At 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 much 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.
Robert Kugel – SVP Research
Like most vendors of on-premises ERP and financial management software, in moving to the cloud Oracle has focused on developing for existing and potential customers the option of multitenant software as a service (SaaS). (I’m using the term “ERP” in its most expansive sense, to include such systems employed by all types of companies for accounting and financial management rather than only systems that are used by manufacturing and distribution companies.) Oracle’s ERP Cloud Service includes Fusion Financials as well as planning and budgeting, risk and controls management, procurement and sourcing, inventory and cost management, product master data management, and project portfolio management. Although to date our benchmark research has consistently found that a large majority of finance departments do not prefer to deploy software in the cloud, we also observe the balance shifting in this direction. SaaS vendors that address finance department requirements have demonstrated faster revenue growth than those that offer products only on-premises. Like other vendors Oracle must establish itself as a credible vendor of cloud ERP and financial management services to be well positioned as market demand shifts further in that direction. The company made sizable investments in acquiring ERP and financial management software in the 2000s (notably PeopleSoft – which included JD Edwards – and Hyperion), and the investments have paid off as many companies have opted to keep their existing systems (and continue to pay maintenance) rather than replace them. Our Office of Finance benchmark research finds that over the past decade the average age of ERP systems in use has increased to 6.4 years from 5.1 years. The longevity of these systems is partly the result of the slow pace of innovation in underlying technologies used for business computing. Even so, modest year-by-year changes are adding up to make replacement a more attractive option while negative attitudes toward the cloud are dissipating. To retain its installed base, it’s important for any established vendor to have solid customer references and the ability to make sales of cloud products as demand for ERP and financial management software in the cloud increases.
Oracle also has faced a broader marketing challenge because it is seen by some industry observers as being late in having a cloud offering and as not being a “real” cloud vendor. On this last point, some IT analysts (and certainly “real” cloud vendors) draw a sharp line between incumbent, on-premises vendors and the newer cloud-based ones. Yet strict definitions of what qualifies as the cloud are becoming less relevant to the market generally and to business buyers in particular. Moreover, the issue of which company is a “real” cloud vendor will become increasingly less important to users of cloud-based systems over the next five years as software environments evolve to a hybrid cloud model that combines multitenant, single tenant and on-premises deployments. As I’ve noted, I don’t believe that cloud vs. on-premises is a binary situation. Finance departments are likely to take a hybrid approach to sourcing software that best suits their needs. As tools that integrate cloud and on-premises systems improve, more companies will elect to deploy some – but not all – parts of their core financial systems in the cloud. For example, in the early 2000s corporations began to switch deployment of their travel and expense management software to the cloud; today very few run this application on-premises. Moreover, I don’t expect cloud ERP to completely displace on-premises installations. One reason is the substantial challenges that SaaS vendors will need to address to make their software more configurable to reach the widest possible market.
Since it wasn’t a first mover in the market, Oracle has needed to apply its products’ strengths to its cloud offerings and take advantage of its market position to generate new sales. It is differentiating its financial cloud offerings by building on substantial depth and breadth of functionality and existing vertical specialization across multiple industries – although not manufacturing and distribution, which almost always require a much higher degree of configurability than services businesses. Oracle also offers Hyperion Planning as part of its cloud offering, simplifying integration between planning and ERP systems. In the past, Oracle has touted the strong capabilities of its ERP and financial management software, but to acquire many of these meant purchasing the entire stack from Oracle, notably its middleware and database; this limited its appeal. The cloud-based offerings are built on the Oracle full stack, which facilitates provisioning, configuration, synchronization and process and data integration of the cloud-based elements, as well as integration with existing on-premises Oracle systems and, to some extent, other vendors’ systems. Oracle’s architecture also facilitates multidimensional reporting without a separate data warehouse, which provides users with considerable utility without added investment.
In the near term, Oracle is likely to be most successful in selling its SaaS offerings to its installed base, either in adding some process or functional capability or as a “tier two” ERP system used in smaller or remote locations or business units. Selling subscriptions to existing customers also is likely to be more profitable in the near term than attracting new ones because for software companies the sales and costs associated with adding contracted products and services for existing customers typically are lower than adding new customers. Selling to larger companies can be more profitable than selling to midsize ones, which almost always have higher ratios of contract acquisition costs to contract value. Both sizes of companies require about the same sales effort, but contract values tend to be higher for large corporations. From the customer’s perspective, adding or replacing existing on-premises functionality with a cloud-based version may be attractive financially or the result of a corporate decision to offload management of its general portfolio of software from the IT department to concentrate on systems that are strategic to the company. The latter may include, for example, Oracle’s project portfolio management functionality, which can be used to manage professional services organizations. Many industrial manufacturing and business services companies have a consulting group that customers employ to assist in making use of the product or service (such as with design, implementation or engineering consulting). It’s much easier to handle these sorts of operations with a single application that manages in an integrated fashion the operational elements (scheduling, time and costs tracking and task management, for example) as well as the financial aspects. Web-based software for managing professional services is particularly well suited to the needs of companies in which professional services are only part of the overall product line because it may be less expensive than using an on-premises approach. Moreover, since Oracle has integrated mobile capabilities, it suits the needs of professionals who spend most of their time in the field with customers. Other add-on functionality capabilities useful to existing customers and attractive in the cloud include revenue management (Oracle’s software is aimed at high-tech companies), procure-to-pay for nonstrategic (indirect) items, sourcing and contract management and product item master management.
Tier-two systems offer another opportunity. In the 1990s, larger corporations that operate in geographically dispersed areas began to standardize the ERP software they use in remote locations with few employees or in offices they could not support their main ERP system. These “tier two” systems typically were software packages designed for midsize companies because they were easier and less costly to implement and maintain. For global organizations, Oracle’s software has localization for more than 50 countries and supports 23 languages. It is also designed to support country-specific statutory accounting and tax requirements as well as enable management of centralized payments and receipts across multiple legal entities and business units. Cloud ERP is well suited to tier-two use. Often, it is attractive because it requires no on-site servers or software that require maintenance and upgrades. Cloud-based systems also make it easier to maintain financial and IT controls such as separation of duties, change management and IT security because potential intruders don’t have physical access to the applications and hardware. The downside is that they also require integration at process and data levels to operate efficiently.
Stressing Oracle’s opportunity to sell to existing customers is not meant to downplay its opportunity in the cloud ERP market. However, as with all other SaaS ERP vendors, its long-term success will depend on how easy it is to configure a system to the needs of the broadest set of users. Multitenant cloud offerings are inherently more economical than single-tenant configurations, and these savings provide a compelling reason to acquire software in this format. The flip side of that is that many companies – especially those in manufacturing or production of physical goods – find that cloud ERP systems do not offer enough flexibility in their configuration to meet their business needs. (This is one reason why Oracle does not address this market now.) While cloud-based ERP has been a hot market, expanding rapidly over the past 10 years, a majority of ERP deployments remain on premises. So the rapid growth in the cloud segment has been driven by the superior economics for buyers that are able to accept the software’s limited configurability and by growing midsize companies that can migrate from entry-level accounting software sooner than was practical with on-premises software.
The biggest challenge – and greatest opportunity – in the ERP software market lies in developing a multitenant cloud ERP offering that provides ample functionality and configurability to address the requirements of a majority of the market. Just one in five companies in our research said that it is easy or very easy to implement new capabilities in their ERP system; one-third said it is difficult or very difficult. The root cause of the difficulty is the forms-based table structure almost all ERP systems 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 as they wish while maintaining only a single instance of a code base to modify, upgrade, debug and patch. A more configurable system also has the advantage of being easier to upgrade in an on-premises deployment and possibly easier to implement in the first place. To remain a leading vendor in ERP in the coming decade, Oracle, like all other ERP software vendors, will need to evolve its software into an attractive choice in the multitenant cloud for an ever widening market by making the software as configurable as possible to reduce the level of consulting and customization required.
Robert Kugel – SVP Research