Over the last few years I have repeatedly seen the Vendor ShootoutTM for ERP event banner ad appearing on the Technology Evaluation Centers (TEC) Web site and being promoted in TEC’s newsletters. In addition, I would come across mentions of the event in other industry magazines, press releases (PRs), social media feeds, Web site banners, and so on.
Needless to say, I was curious about an event (not to say dismayed by my lack of insight) that even carried the Moderated by TEC tagline on its official logo. Every now and then, various software vendors’ staff and other industry contacts would ask me about the event (probably expecting some in-depth knowledge), and I would somewhat embarrassingly have to pass them on to my selection services colleagues at TEC’s Montreal headquarters, since they are the ones who have been directly involved with the event.
But in mid-August 2011, the 11th Vendor Shootout event took place in my neck of woods (Boston, Massachusetts [US]), and I was able to experience it first-hand as a neutral (and yet very active) observer.
Plex Systems, IQMS, and abas-USA presented directly, while Infor ERP SyteLine, Epicor ERP, Microsoft Dynamics AX, SAP Business ByDesign, and Oracle JD Edwards were represented respectively by Merritech LLC, Cre8tive Technology, ePartners, Navigator Business Solutions, and Terillium. For my report on how several of these vendors/products performed, see my blog post The 11th Vendor Shootout for ERP: Observations – Part 1.
What follows now is my report on the event and how I felt about attending it.
Co-opetition to the Fullest Extent
Let me start by allaying some misconceptions. First, TEC is not the organizer, and we are not financially compensated by the event organizer. To be fair, we hope to benefit there from our exposure as an unbiased software evaluator, knowledge broker, and moderator of the event. Frankly, we will gladly provide professional services to any attending company that needs help with regard to selecting the most appropriate software package (and some do). After all, TEC needs to pay its bills every month as well.
Who is the organizer then, you must be rightly asking? Well, it is North Carolina (US)-based brij (pronounced “bridge”), a leading value-added reseller (VAR) of former JD Edwards enterprise resource planning (ERP) solutions, now branded as Oracle JD Edwards. From a business model perspective, the company does keep the event and its software sales efforts separate, which can be validated by the fact that hardly anyone knows about who really is behind the Vendor Shootout event (ironically, even many Boston event attendees thought that TEC was the organizer).
As explained in my selection service colleague Paul Kininmonth’s blog post from 2008, brij (which was working with TEC in 2007), wanted to create an event where qualified manufacturing enterprises could come and witness multiple ERP packages in action (including its own).
The concept of a live event had a brij sales executive thinking this at the time:
I am SO confident that my product stands up against the competition that I would be willing to line it up alongside those competitors and in front of some project-minded individuals to demonstrate what it can do in a controlled environment. Our competitors will do the same thing, and the attending audience will be allowed, without bias, to make up their own minds as to what products look good to them in terms of functionality, usability, and efficiency.
Call it ballsy or foolhardy, but time and again there has been collaboration amid various fierce competitors who come together on an invitation-only basis (and trust me, these folks do not necessarily like each other, but these feelings are put aside at least for a day or two) in one event full of “show me” demos and presentations to quite clued-in audiences. It simply makes you wonder why these zealots in the US Congress cannot think along similar lines for the benefit of everyone (or the majority, at least), but I digress…
In order to make the event meaningful and credible to the end-user community, brij realized that it would need to create a single script for all of the participating vendors to follow (see this high-level demonstration script). In addition, the firm wanted to bring in a third-party impartial moderator so that there was no evident bias and so that all vendors could and would be viewed as equal in billing and opportunity.
TEC agreed to be involved and assist in the marketing effort, providing that we had the opportunity to present our selection services methodology, and also providing that we had access to all of the attendees. This event just had its 11th edition in Boston, and TEC has been billed as the moderator for each of them.
The title “shootout” might not be the best choice of words in light of the recent outbursts of violence worldwide, and with many folks feeling trigger-ready in these days of anger and insecurity (in fact, in the hotel elevator and corridors, I had to repeatedly explain to other bemused conference attendees what the event was really about). And yet, nothing could be further from the truth: time and again, brij has reached out to its competitors, thus creating a VAR community of sorts, with the sole goal of attracting hot leads and opportunities (and may the best solution win). Moreover, the event title notwithstanding, there is no elimination or “last man standing” scenario involved.
Make no mistake: this was not a Woodstock-like love-fest either, but rather a down-to-earth event with no hard sell by anyone. The Boston event attendees were about 40 employees (IT managers and business users) from about 20 manufacturing and distribution companies, all of which were in the process of evaluating ERP software and all of whom had some preconceptions as to what they wanted to see. These folks were not clueless first-time-ever ERP users liable to swooning over vendors’ dog-and-pony shows and falling for distasteful competitor-bashing.
Quite to the contrary—these folks had only limited patience for each vendor’s introductory corporate slides, and they were eager to dive deeper into the prescribed demo script. Many of the attendees were looking to replace their outdated/outgrown legacy ERP systems (Intuit QuickBooks, Exact JobBOSS, Infor Point.Man, PRMS, and Baan IVc were some names that I heard, but there might likely be many more), and they had very concrete questions for the participating vendors about how their solutions would overcome the shortcomings of these legacy systems.
Reasonable "Pay for Play" Takes Place
Frankly, the event provides some limited opportunities for some "play for play" action, but nothing too tacky or off-putting. For one, the organizer and moderator had the chance to kick off both days' programs with their presentations during the breakfast. But again, there was no hard sell there, and the topics of these presentations were quite vendor/product non-specific. After all, some concepts of software selections and implementations are as universal as the fact that the sun sets in the west.
Along these lines, my colleagues Paul Kininmonth and Michael Thaw talked about TEC’s best practices for a structured software selection project in order to minimize the potential challenges (see screen capture below) and build the foundation for implementation success. There was nothing vendor-specific and controversial there (other than a “subtle” plug for our selection services). After all, who on earth would disagree with the concepts of objectivity, transparency, consensus, risk mitigation, cost reduction, audit trail, and so forth?
Paul and Michael outlined the following checklist for a successful enterprise system selection:
- Gain executive buy-in, and determine project variables
- Structure a project plan to optimize time and resources
- Conduct exhaustive vendor landscape research
- Perform comprehensive collaborative requirement gathering
- Ensure consensus building via clear and consistent communications
- Validate, assess, and score scripted demonstrations and references
- Perform quantitative and impartial vendor capability analysis
- Leverage your efforts to design an implementation blueprint
What caught my attention in the presentation is the point that events such as the Vendor Shootout might be a perfect due-diligence opportunity to validate some of the so-called “extended criteria” for a software selection (see screen capture below). Namely, the event is a great place to put vendors and their solutions through their paces via the aforementioned structured demo script (in addition, attendees can also get some high-level market data on vendors validated here as well).
For more information, see TEC’s previous blog post on these subjective criteria of software selections. In addition, see TEC’s now timeless classic 2001 article series on a concrete evaluation of four ERP vendors’ demonstrations.
While software selection was the breakfast kickoff topic on day one, software implementation was the breakfast topic on day two. After all, participating VARs understand the concerns and culture of the attending companies. Through their implementation and support services, these firms are much more than the products they represent. To that end, Terillium, in collaboration with brij, presented the following “Top 10 ERP Implementation Myths” (in decreasing order):
- One size fits all.
- Your current system defines your needs.
- You will have a no-modification policy.
- All functionality is created equal.
- This is an IT project.
- You can’t afford to spare your best people.
- Everyone should be involved.
- You can implement in a bubble.
- You will document and train later.
- You can ignore business reality.
Many of these misconceptions are quite straightforward, but some might sound as though they run counter to conventional wisdom at first glance. But the presenter fleshed out each bullet point with additional rationale, which made perfect sense. I won’t go into that now, for the sake of brevity, but I would encourage everyone who’s interested to either contact the firm directly or, even better, attend a Shootout event in the future.
In addition, there were sponsorship opportunities for each meal, and coffee/tea networking breaks and cocktail reception. Consequently, abas-USA, SAP, Plex Systems, and Infor had their respective few minutes of fame allotted to bragging about their capabilities during those breaks. Fair enough!
Who Pays for the Event, and Why?
The show is financed and sponsored by participating vendors/VARs and attendees, as well as via some additional media sponsorships. The marketing draw is a joint effort between brij (who takes care of the venue and catering), the vendors or their VARs (yes, they do occasionally invite companies who are on their radar as hot prospects), and TEC. For its part, brij markets the event using a combination of tactics, including e-mail marketing, telemarketing, the TEC newsletter, LinkedIn, press releases, Twitter, the event Web site, TEC’s Web site, vendor/VAR Web sites, etc. Over half of the attendees have reportedly heard about the event via the company’s e-mail blasts.
It is important to note that all “unknown” registrants are screened and qualified by the event coordinator before accepting the registration. In other words, vendors pay for access to prequalified companies who are actively looking for ERP software. This is a big prerequisite for end-user registration. More often than not, consultants will disguise themselves as end-users to gain access to the end user group, but they are very well screened and “weeded out” by savvy event staff members.
At first, I was surprised to realize that the vast majority of attendees were not Boston locals, as I came across companies from Florida, Kentucky, and even Wales (UK). I indeed wondered why they found it worthwhile to spend money on the registration fees, hotel, and travel to see vendor demonstrations. The sentiment was along the lines of the quote by a previous Vendor Shootout attendee, as displayed on the Vendor Shootout Web site:
A project of this magnitude (software selection) is a very long drawn out process. The solution you choose will have a tremendous impact on your business. To review multiple software demonstrations at one time with side by side comparisons saves time narrowing your selections, moving your project forward in a shorter period of time.
Indeed, after thinking over and remembering my involvement in selections over a decade ago, companies’ staff would otherwise have to travel to several locations to be repeatedly shown products by each vendor separately. Alternatively, they could fly vendor teams into their premises, but it all takes much more time and money than seeing all of them at once. In the case of the Boston event, there were five two-and-a-half-hour demo slots over two days, and eight available ERP solutions. Two colleagues from the same company could see all the products by dividing the sessions between them.
I was wondering about how these attendees would react to the event and the ability to watch the same scenario play out up to five times in two days (given that I was brain-fried by the end of the first day, after three demos). Well, after a collective 12 hours or so of information gathering, presentations, keynote speakers, and seminars, the response was overwhelmingly positive and the consensus seemed to be that the scripted presentations create a format that allows for a true “apples to apples” comparison of products and functionality.
I concur with IQMS’ recollection of the event in its subsequent blog post. Indeed, during the breaks, several attendees volunteered to me that they were curious about what other systems had to offer, since they were on the fence with respect to whether to pay for an upgrade with their existing system, or take that money to another ERP system and start anew. Many also were curious about the latest technological advancements - specifically smartphone and tablet mobility apps. Overall, there was a pretty well-rounded collection of reasons for attending the event.
There Is Always Room for Improvement
In the end, everyone—from attendees, to vendors/VARs, and dare I say it, even TEC and the tacit organizer brij—walked away with some value, whether it be a better understanding of the buying “public,” the state of the ERP market in today’s manufacturing world, or the functionality available to the buyer. The event allows the ERP implementation project-minded attendees to make their own conclusions in a low-pressure and bias-free environment about what works for them, given their own understanding and experience of the industry in which they work.
The math is simple: eight ERP solutions were fighting there for 20 prospective customers. Even if each vendor/VAR acquires a single new customer (to say nothing of a few), the benefit of the event already exceeds the costs and effort involved by a large margin. One of my first reactions and tweets from the event was that it was too bad that SYSPRO, Sage ERP X3/MAS 500, ProfitKey, NetSuite (especially in light of its SAP Business ByDesign and Plex Online on-demand counterparts), IFS, Consona ERP, etc., were not participating as well.
Afterwards, I learned that some of these vendors had been present at previous events, and the reasons for their irregular attendance vary. Some have different budget calendars, while other still feel uncomfortable about attending an event that is organized by archrivals.
Since November 29, 2007, at Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., when the doors opened to the first Vendor Shootout for ERP, featuring six industry-leading products, the event has evolved in a number of ways. For one, the number of vendors participating has increased to eight of late, spreading the event into two days, as opposed to a one-day show initially. The script itself has been elevated from a point-by-point detailed individual feature script to a higher-level business area script.
The Vendor Shootout has always been an ERP-based event and specifically for core manufacturing and distribution focused enterprises. In February 2011, an experimental third day was added with a business intelligence (BI) focus. However, this attempt didn't really work, as the main focus of the attendee group was still on ERP. Thus, no standalone point solution events have been planned. Nonetheless, the event organizers are considering creating a focus on some industries for future events (e.g., retail, government, etc.) while leveraging the typical ERP scope.
Basically, the event still sets out to do the same thing it always did, which is to provide a forum for actively searching software buyers to see and meet a number of vendors/VARs who can deliver desired capabilities. Additionally, it provides the opportunity for this group to network with others (including competitors) who are in the same boat at the end of the day. The co-ordination and the event’s format have changed to optimize these intents.
The attendees (both end-users and vendor/VAR staff) with whom I spoke with agreed that this was a useful forum for them. The only drawback was that by the second day, they were having trouble discerning systems from each other. This information overflow is an expected outcome, since they see a brush-fire agenda from at least five different software suppliers, with lots of screens and sales pitches, over a two-day period.
Do some vendors go off topic and/or fail to complete the script’s syllabus? Possibly. But because vendor representatives cannot attend the competitor sessions, it is up to the attendees to keep the vendors honest. At some sessions I attended, some sections (e.g., accounting or human resources [HR]) were breezed through, and others (e.g., order capture, planning, manufacturing, etc.) had much deeper dives due to the audience’s interest and insistence.
In summary, any company that is serious about acquiring a new enterprise system, and any vendor/VAR that has nothing to hide (or be skittish about) in a multivendor competitive setup should benefit from attending Vendor Shootout events. Your comments and suggestions on how to make this event even more attractive and worthwhile are more than welcome.
Look for the 12th Vendor Shootout for ERP, in Dallas, Texas (US), October 12 and 13 (check out the presenters and sponsors).