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There were two noteworthy themes in SAP CEO Bill McDermott’s keynote at this year’s Sapphire conference. One was customer assurance; that is, placing greater emphasis on making the implementation of even complex business software more predictable and less of an effort. This theme reflects the maturing of the enterprise applications business as it transitions from producing highly customized software to providing configurable, off-the-rack purchases. Implementing ERP will never be simple, as I have noted, but as companies increasingly adopt multitenant software as a service (SaaS), vendors will need to make their implementations as repeatable as possible and enable flexible configuration of parameters and processes that substantially reduce the billable hours required to complete a deployment. “Customer assurance” is an important stake in the ground, but it will be an empty concept unless there is complete overhaul of the entire value chain to take it beyond good intentions. Otherwise, customer assurance will be an ongoing rearguard action to overcome technology-driven challenges and disincentives for improvement. Business applications must be re-engineered to facilitate implementation, substantially reduce the likelihood of implementation errors and facilitate subsequent changes to adapt to changing business conditions. Moreover, software vendors’ partners will need to demonstrate that they can reliably cut a substantial number of billable hours per implementation engagement. This will require partners to restructure their business models. Neither of these changes will be easy to accomplish. To its credit SAP has set a course for increasing the simplicity of using its core ERP and financial management software. Getting there soon would greatly enhance its ability to retain if not gain customers in these mature markets.
McDermott’s second notable touch point was the “digital boardroom,” a wall-size set of monitors displaying a broad array of current company data (including some in real time) in easy-to-understand visualizations and in alphanumeric format. The digital boardroom demonstration contained not just the standard set of drill-down and drill-around capabilities but also the ability to work interactively with data to do what-if scenario planning and analysis. While some might view it as only eye candy, the immediacy of the data and the ability explore potential outcomes based on different conditions or actions would represent a substantial breakthrough in the use of data and analytics by senior executives.
The idea behind the digital boardroom is sound: Boards of directors, executives and management need up-to-date information to help them understand the current state of the business, its opportunities and challenges. However, in our benchmark research on the Office of Finance fewer than one-third of companies said that the information they receive is timely. In the past, somewhat timely information might have been the best one could expect but no longer. Analyses and plans based on out-of-date information may not be actionable. However, the business value of the digital boardroom will be an empty promise unless companies address the root causes of the timeliness issue. They include scattered information, a heavy dependence on desktop spreadsheets for aggregating and analyzing data, and limited penetration of advanced analytics. Our research also shows that fewer than half of finance departments use relatively straightforward analytic techniques such as product and customer profitability, only 22 percent employ economic and market data and trends in their analysis, and just 12 percent use predictive analytics. SAP’s existing and planned software can help address these shortcomings, but it cannot overcome the data management issues that prevent companies from having timely information or the lack of analytical skills and training that also hamper a company’s ability to present incisive, action-oriented analyses and prescriptive models in a digital boardroom.
One of SAP’s objectives in demonstrating the digital boardroom is to make senior executives aware of what’s possible. Ideally this would be a potent source of “demand pull” – directives from the top to enhance a company’s systems and modeling capabilities by addressing data, training, process and systems requirements. SAP’s enterprise software generally and its Universal Journal in particular can begin to address the technology and some of the data issues. But experience makes me reluctant to assume the best. It seems likely that for the time being the numbers and analyses that wind up being displayed in a digital boardroom will be created using the same crude, time-consuming methods. Our next-generation finance analytics research finds that two-thirds (68%) of individuals spend the greatest amount of their time on data-related tasks in preparing for analysis while only 28 percent are able to focus on the analysis itself. One can hope that data environments will improve and that users will switch to dedicated analytic software from desktop spreadsheets, but applications vendors should focus on adapting to shoddy IT environments rather than hoping that customers will change their behavior. SAP also will need to ensure that the full range of its analytics and business intelligence software is readily integrated with the digital boardroom. Doing this must include its newly acquired technology from Roambi, which provides mobile support for smartphones and tablets.
The ERP and financial management software categories are currently in a process of transformation, as I have written, one that will be as sweeping as the shift to client/server applications in the 1990s. The trend to cloud-based multitenant architectures gets the most attention, but real-time information availability, a more productive and pleasant user experience, improved in-context collaboration and a lower total lifetime cost of ownership will be key factors in determining winners and losers. Aware that they are vulnerable to disruption, established vendors – including SAP – have been adapting. Statements of direction are useful for communicating with customers and the market generally. However, SAP needs to accelerate its pace of development to arrive at the transformed state it promises if it is to remain competitive.
Senior Vice President Research
Infor recently held its annual Innovation Summit at its New York City headquarters. The company has shown leadership and creativity in business applications on two fronts: focusing its development efforts on enhancing the user experience and collaboration and building an application architecture that will deliver a rich set of functionality for ERP, financial management, CRM and HRMS and business analytics in a multitenant cloud environment. All of these advances were necessary to remake a disparate portfolio of aging software into an up-to-date set of applications. The Innovation Summits have been useful indicators of Infor’s future product and market direction. And while there has been a lag between what’s demonstrated and what’s actually available in the software, it’s not clear that this really matters. Any negative impact is limited by the slow replacement cycle for ERP (our research shows that on average companies replace their systems every 6.4 years – longer than they used to take) and conservative attitudes when it comes to core enterprise systems. Innovation doesn’t seem to be a big factor yet in selling business software to mainstream buyers, but it is likely to become more important within a few years. Changes in buyer preferences will come about as technology puts more of the design and operation of these systems in the hands of business users rather than their IT departments and outside consultants. Increasing the configurability and reducing the need for customization will cut costs, reduce the time to value in purchasing replacement applications and increase the flexibility of these notoriously inflexible systems.
Infor is pursuing three major areas of innovation that are central to the emerging next generation of ERP and financial management software.
- One is the addition of analytics, reporting and performance management capabilities to what had been a purely transactional system, which I’ve commented on. Companies now are able to create analyses, reports, dashboards and scorecards directly in the ERP system and in real time rather than having to transfer the data to an analytical application (such as a financial performance management suite) or to a data warehouse where analysis and reporting could be done using a business intelligence tool. This can greatly simplify data management and provide executives and managers with more timely information.
- The second is using in-memory processing and advanced data processing techniques to eliminate batch processing and accelerate the execution of core finance and business functions. Period-end processes that until now have required hours to complete can be finished in minutes; those that have taken minutes can now be done in seconds. Consequently, information that might have been available only monthly can now be presented on a daily or weekly basis. Advanced processing also enables finance organizations to distribute workloads more evenly and help accelerate their close process, potentially by several days.
- The third source of innovation is adding functionality that either extends a business process further upstream or fills in gaps to achieve complete end-to-end automation of a core process. This functionality may take the form of highly configurable enterprise applets offered by vendors that plug into the core application. Or it may be a special-purpose application built on a vendor’s platform that enables a company to fill in functional or process gaps in the vendor’s multitenant ERP offering.
Infor’s product strategy embraces all three sorts of innovation. At the event it showed its matrix of CloudSuite offerings. which combine any or all of three stand-alone applications:
- CloudSuite Financials, which is aimed mainly at services (as opposed to product) companies, supports financial, project, lease and asset accounting.
- CloudSuite Supply Management is purchasing software that manages the full procure-to-pay process and is designed to address the needs of services organizations rather than manufacturing or distribution businesses.
- CloudSuite HCM provides human capital management capabilities.
These products are available today in a single-tenant deployment and will be available in multitenant form in the near future. In addition to a general purpose corporate edition, Infor will design versions of these stand-alone applications to support healthcare companies and public sector entities. Those two industries are important parts of the company’s existing customer base and are likely to benefit from moving to the cloud because of better service (especially faster implementation of patches and upgrades) and greater efficiency.
CloudSuite Financials incorporates the first two types of ERP innovation mentioned above: more capable and flexible data processing structures and in-memory data processing. Because it’s built on a multidimensional data structure, CloudSuite Financials simplifies accounting in companies that have global operations with legal entities that span multiple currencies, accounting standards, tax regimes and regulatory environments. The software also combines transaction processing with computational analytical tasks such as statutory consolidations. To simplify the need to conform to different global requirements, the multidimensional structure and analytical capabilities permit parallel accounting, consolidation and reporting for any of a corporation’s legal entities (including regional parent subsidiaries) as well as the global parent corporation. For example, a company based in the U.S. that has British, German and Japanese subsidiaries can automate the production of financial statements expressed in U.S. dollars that apply this country’s Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (US-GAAP), while simultaneously accounting for the subsidiaries in their local currencies and applying International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) in preparing their financial statements. Moreover, by statute all Japanese companies have a fiscal year ending March 31. This, too, is handled in a highly automated fashion by the software entirely within the ERP system. Today, to accomplish these multilevel accounting tasks companies must move and manipulate large amounts of accounting data using multiple applications. Even when they employ a high degree of automation in processing data the process is tedious – even more so when accounting departments use time-consuming and error-prone spreadsheets to perform allocations or calculate adjustments in period-end accounting and closing.
Even companies with less complex and far-reaching corporate structures are likely to find the Financials application easier to use than their existing ERP because, for example, the use of role-based process management and dashboards, the ability of individuals to configure reports to suit their needs and the availability of a range of real-time transaction data for reports and dashboards. The applications also incorporate in-context collaboration using Infor’s Ming.le software.
The third area of innovation in ERP and other applications such as enterprise asset management (EAM) or marketing automation is extending their reach into adjacent or complementary functions that are specific to an industry or a company. Doing so enables companies to manage processes with a higher degree of end-to-end process automation and to collect a broader set of data to use in descriptive, predictive and prescriptive analytics. These extensions can increase the value of an enterprise system for the user organization without its having to heavily modify or rewrite the core software. The extensions could be designed to appear to be an integral part of the core application or served up as a stand-alone enterprise applet that passes data to a core application. Some examples of such extensions come to mind:
- An application that enables a sales or marketing department to quickly create weekly or monthly a personalized electronic sales brochure containing special offers derived from the individual recipient’s specific type of business and items that the customer purchased in the past. Customers would select items and, in so doing, kick off a sales order process that includes all necessary downstream tasks including inventory management, credit approval, order fulfillment and billing.
- An Internet of Things (IoT) data analysis tool that assesses incoming data streams for specific types of equipment and, when certain conditions are met, kicks off one or more business processes in one or more core enterprise applications. For instance, sensor data indicating a maintenance event might start a process in an asset management application and a purchase order workflow related to parts and services that are required.
- A predictive analysis tool that, based on purchases to date, alerts individual customers that they may not achieve minimum requirements under a purchase volume agreement. In addition to generating the reminder, the application might also create a list of offers based on the customer’s past buying behavior.
For this type of software to be useful in a multitenant software-as-a-service (SaaS) environment it must be highly configurable with respect to data elements and process definitions so that it meets the requirements of as many types of business as possible. Greater configurability will make it easier for businesses to set up and modify these extensions without much IT or consultant involvement, making the software more adaptable to changing business conditions. Software vendors that can offer a portfolio of prebuilt, highly configurable extensions to their commodity enterprise applications will have a market advantage.
Infor is developing applications that extend the functionality of its core enterprise software using a cooperative development process with customers that it calls a “hackathon.” Software vendors routinely work on development projects with customers to add significant functionality, often for a specific need in an industry. In this way Infor is attempting, in effect, to productize cooperative development efforts. To facilitate the creation of these sorts of applications, Infor has created (and is enriching) a toolkit that is straightforward to use and streamlines and shortens the process of creating extensions. Through the company’s loosely coupled ION architecture, these extensions can exist separately and be incorporated in one or more types of business applications. Hackathons engage a cross-functional team from a customer, including all relevant business and IT roles, to ensure as much as possible that all requirements are met. So far, the hackathons are aimed more at achieving innovative breakthroughs for the customer rather than incremental enhancements. Their value lies in both the development of differentiated offerings that can attract buyers for a broader suite and a bit of a halo effect that demonstrates the value of innovation in ERP.
Business people have long viewed many enterprise applications, especially ERP and financial management, as IT’s concern, not theirs. They view the system as a given, something whose limits one has to work around because it cannot change. Over the next five years the market for core back-office business applications (such as ERP and EAM) will evolve as buyers become more aware of the new, extended capabilities of these systems. Innovation can create useful product differentiation that leads to a competitive advantage in what has been a relatively hidebound set of software categories (especially ERP). For Infor, innovation has been a way to change the image of its products, which were assembled through the rollup of flagging or failing software companies. Innovation has likely had a positive impact on the company’s ability to retain its installed base and increase its revenue from customers, which is essential to its business model. Gains can come from migrating them from on-premises deployment to a multitenant cloud and by expanding the number of Infor applications that these customers use. This is important. Innovation can help, but in a slowly moving market, sustaining a competitive advantage through innovation is likely to be difficult.
Buyers of enterprise software must keep abreast of what’s possible and available. ERP and financial management applications are undergoing the most significant changes in their structure and capabilities since the 1990s. Infor’s customers in particular should stay on top of what’s happening. For the first time in decades, there is a lot.
Senior Vice President Research