Enterprise Systems and Post-implementation Agility-No Longer an Oxymoron?

Agresso Asserts Itself

In mid-2006, Agresso, one of the top five providers worldwide of people-centric enterprise resource planning (ERP) solutions, made a more aggressive entry into the North American software market, where it currently has about a hundred customers. This was largely because the vendor saw an untapped opportunity in the vulnerability of most current peer ERP solutions, which cannot really address rapid change within a company. With a focus on service organizations in rapid-change mode, Agresso is deployed in 100 countries, with more than 10,000 sites in 2,400 user organizations and some 1.1 million users.

Part One of the series Enterprise Systems and Post-implementation Agility—No Longer an Oxymoron?

For information on the opportunity Agresso is addressing, see The Post-implementation Agility of Enterprise Systems: An Analysis and The Modelling Approach to Post-implementation Agility in Enterprise Systems.

Agresso North America is a wholly owned subsidiary of Unit 4 Agresso, based in Sliedrecht (the Netherlands). Agresso's North American offices are in Victoria, British Columbia (Canada); Dallas, Texas (US); and Los Angeles, California (US). In brief, the Unit 4 Agresso parent company has been an international producer of business software and a supplier of security software since 1980, at which time a dozen pioneering professionals joined forces, sharing a passion and vision to develop platform-independent and standard-based software that revolves around the business processes of the customer. Since then, Unit 4 Agresso has grown to nearly 2,300 professionals, and now provides business software to more than 30,000 clients in nearly 100 countries. The company has been listed on the Dutch Stock Exchange (EURONET: U4AGR) since 1998. With branches in eleven European countries, the US, and Canada, and with sales activities worldwide, the vendor achieved about $450 million (USD) in revenues in 2005.

The parent company's activities are split into two independently run divisions: business software, and Internet and security, respectively stemming from the former Norwegian ERP vendor Agresso Group and the former Dutch Internet security and business software specialist Unit 4 (the merger between these two vendors having taken place in 2000). The business software division develops, sells, implements, and supports business software for the management, support, and optimization of business processes, and for the optimization of operational management. The Internet and security division sells security solutions from third parties, and provides services for the implementation and maintenance of data security. In the market for business applications, Unit 4 Agresso has a leading international position in the public sector, and in the provision of business services, with the flagship product Agresso Business World (ABW). This division, which organically grew 16 percent in 2005, also contributed about 52 percent of revenues, with a whopping 82 percent of company earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA), and 78 percent of the company's employees.

In general, Agresso wants to distinguish itself in the market by means of a combination of specialized, in-depth knowledge of a number of selected markets, with product standardization on the basis of tried-and-true technology that is interoperable with other leading enterprise business solutions. Thus, since Agresso does not intend to ever offer "everything to everyone," it exhibits specialization in chosen business sectors, which to a large extent eliminates the need for excessively customized software. On the other hand, its leading product ABW helps give people-oriented organizations (in which the provision of services, projects, and many different sorts of client relationships are of primary importance) the necessary functionality for the management and control of their business processes, which thereby become more efficient, more transparent, and more easily manageable.

ABW is the strategic international product suite within the Unit 4 Agresso group, built organically from the ground up (as opposed to being the result of acquisitions of disparate products and technologies). The homogenous and organic nature of the suite provides a common "look and feel," and each role has a single user interface (UI) and unified security. The product features an innate analytical capability, since (contrary to many peer packages that have to rely on third party tools to extract and manipulate management information) it is fundamentally a powerful data warehouse with built-in capability to satisfy complex financial and non-financial information needs. The analytic capabilities are achieved with "attributes," which will be explained later in this series. For now, it suffices to say that its native information warehouse, business process model, and analytics and reporting delivery models are inextricably linked in a virtual cycle.

To best leverage the intertwining of these three components, Agresso's go-to-market strategy is aimed at dynamic people-centric businesses in the mid-market (the vendor's sweet spot) which, because of regulatory, industry consolidation, management change, and rapid-growth business objectives, requires post-implementation agility. Agresso calls this target market BLINC, for "Businesses Living IN Change."

Public Sector Savvy

ABW has found significant acceptance within the private services sector (for instance, IT services, technical services, business services, and marketing and media) and the public sector (local government, government agencies, health care, higher education, etc.). A lesser-known fact is that Agresso has a dominant position in the public sector in Sweden, Norway, and the UK, while it is successful in the public sector of other countries too, albeit primarily in Europe so far. The company has experience in nearly 2,400 people-centric organizations (of which over half are in the public sector), and displays unrelenting dedication to supporting the challenges and ambitions of people-centric organizations. In 1992, Agresso gained its first live customers in the public sectors of Norway, Sweden, and the UK, to reach 250 customers by 1997. The early 2000s saw its first cross-boundary shared services implementations and marquee implementations in Oslo and Stockholm (the capital cities of Norway and Sweden, respectively). Also projects of note included implementations for the Ethiopian Water project in Africa, and for the House of Commons in the UK.

Agresso has certainly learned through its vast experience that the public sector has quite different goals and needs from the private sector, since the public sector is mission- rather than revenue-driven. Its mission is to service the public (rather than management and shareholders), and to provide services to the citizens in its jurisdiction—be it via schools (elementary and higher education), police or fire services, local governance, road works, health care, or leisure or serious social services. From once being a gravy train with unlimited taxpayer funds, today the public sector almost everywhere faces painful scrutiny and constraints in terms of limited funds, and unavailable or expensive skilled personnel, concurrently with citizenry demanding ever more services. Every agency is expected to achieve its goals without impacting taxes or tariffs, and a "do more with less" attitude to continuing improvement is the order of the day. The best example is in the UK, where each public entity is expected to measure performance against nationally determined standards. This expectation has mandated delivery of all government services online, since such an initiative was viewed as crucial to Great Britain's international economic competitiveness.

Increasingly, central governments worldwide are mandating the use of computers and Internet automation to link and manage the agencies under their authority, and to enable better employee empowerment and better provision of local services and accountability to local authorities, boroughs, cities, towns, and ultimately, end users (citizens). In addition, local authorities, health care, and emergency services have an obligation to report back to their larger governmental units, whether they be states, provinces, cantons, or the central governing bodies (which, in turn, have to publish the results to the electorate). Thus, public officials not only must provide online services to their clientele, but must also be able to retrieve, amalgamate, and report data with respect to the success of their agencies and the status of their progress toward information automation. They require a complete view of management information at all times to make effective judgments about resources and service delivery. Therefore, software applications in support of the public sector must be integrated across all the processes, and they must support the internal aspects of the agency or governmental body in its management of data, people, finances, and its particular mission—as well as of the public that should, at the end of the day, benefit from the body's charter.

Agresso's focus on people-centric businesses and its deep understanding of their inherent business challenges and opportunities has led the vendor to achieve the top market leadership position (or close to it) in several European countries. Outside the public sector, the business software division has a strong market position in Europe, as the top European player (in the top five worldwide) in the project portfolio management (PPM) market, and as one of the top eight European financials players (among the top twelve globally) according to Gartner.

Agresso Business World (ABW) 5.5

With the latest release of ABW, Unit 4 Agresso directs itself at the international market for medium and large people-oriented companies and institutions. In this sector, project-based working, a great deal of human interaction, and constantly changing data flows are central. To that end, ABW 5.5 is a tightly integrated multicurrency, multilanguage, and multicompany suite of modules which include financial management, human resources (HR) and payroll, procurement management, project cost and billing, reporting and analytics, and business process automation (BPA), with information management and document management at its core. The idea behind the product is to empower all departments and employees (since within people- and service-centric organizations, departments are often small businesses in their own right, with delegated responsibility), and to facilitate business transformation as required. The result should be improved decision-making within different departments, thereby giving everyone more time to think and act strategically. On a higher level, the product manages the following processes of its target customers:

  • report-to-record
  • hire-to-retire
  • order-to-cash
  • budget-to-forecast
  • procure-to-pay

As for the product genesis, 1987 saw the introduction of the core functionality, financial management, which still contributes about 50 percent of license revenue. HR capabilities were introduced in 1995. Later years saw the introduction of PPM functionality (see Project Portfolio Management for Service Organizations: Bridging the Gap between Project Management and Operations), which currently contributes approximately a quarter of ABW license revenues. The early 2000s saw enhancements to support delegated responsibilities and decentralized accounting; the first marketplace integration; and support for a more proactive way of working (including constant change accommodation).

The vendor has been making more strides in product internationalization, in terms of localization, languages, and font sets, whereby Asia, Central Europe, and East Europe are on the radar screen. Its offering is currently available in nineteen languages. For already delivered localizations, owing to Unicode support, a single centralized Agresso installation will deliver required local statutory requirements to each client. The company will thus likely be competing in the mid-market space ($50 million to $1 billion [USD] organizations, although it can scale upwards if necessary), squarely against the traditional vendors in this space, such as Lawson Software, Deltek Systems (see Enterprise Management Software Vendor Welcomes Additions), Microsoft Business Solutions (MBS), SAP, and Oracle. In some regions, sound competition can also come from the likes of CODA, Maconomy, Exact Software (see Global Software Aspirations), Epicor iScala, etc.

While developing ABW 5.5., Agresso tried to focus more on the empowerment and alignment of people. To that end, there have been significant investments in HR processes such as recruitment and deployment, and in the improved user interface (UI), as well as in information delivery via executive desktops and enhanced reporting and analysis tools. As for the focus on optimizing workplace and service delivery mechanisms, the vendor ensured that workflow was enabled in as many business processes as possible, with integration to include more data types in real time, and with improved ease of use and deployment. Last but not least, for information quality, and the completeness, speed, and relevancy of performance measurement, the focus was on financial and project control capabilities (such as project estimating, budgeting, and forecasting) and intelligence in shape of notification and alerts, through its new IntellAgent capability.

Looking from the other angle, Agresso wanted to future-proof the offering and lower its total cost of ownership (TCO) via such considerations as improved architecture, workflow modellers, data models, portal independency, interoperability, Unicode, avoidance of customization, look and feel, and so on. The vendor also wanted to help customers embrace changes by better modelling their organization, and the business model, information delivery (reporting) model and process model are thus unified, and act as a whole. Better empowerment of people should come via role orientation, adaptable workflows, simpler controls, ease of use, more proactive delivery of information, and a high degree of personalization. Last but not least, broadened user participation come from encouraging involvement of external audience (citizens, students, etc.), distributed accountability, and corporate governance.

The Agresso technology platform uses open standards, and allows IT staff to leverage their preferred choice of popular and readily available industry components, rather than being locked into technology solutions that might be fashionable today but out of favor soon. Agresso offers an n-tier (with a data layer, business logic layer, extraction layer, and presentation layer) Web-based scalable architecture that is compliant with Microsoft .NET Framework and extensible markup language (XML)-based data sharing, and is thus in tune with service-oriented architecture (SOA) concepts. (For more information, see Architecture Evolution: From Mainframes to Service-oriented Architecture). The technology platform leverages popular and readily available industry and open standards in relation to databases, with support for Oracle, Microsoft SQL Server, and MySQL. It also supports a smart (rich) client as well as a web-based (thin) client (for outpost deployment), or a mixture of the two. Business logic is maintained centrally and separately from the UI, so that web clients are updated and rendered without manual intervention, thereby also enabling portal and browser independency. The web client is highly configurable, allowing a wide range of self-service possibilities.

The technical architecture is compliant across a broad range of industry standards for interfacing, interoperability, and integration. Additional capabilities are provided via unified secure access to information via Web services (for corporate centralized access to ABW via portals, for instance). This simplifies integration with other systems, and provides the groundwork for future developments, such as portal-based integration to basically any middleware platforms (including IBM WebSphere, Microsoft SharePoint, Oracle Application Server, or BEA WebLogic). When it comes to deployment, no configuration (registry, initialization [INI] files, or environment settings) is needed on the client, due to the centralized management and deployment capabilities, although there is a role-based, security-minded presentation. Security is integrated at all levels, starting with a single (unified) logon with user name and password authentication and Microsoft Windows integrated authentication. Authentication might involve client-based digital certificates, fingerprint authentication (biometrics), public key infrastructure (PKI), and smart card support, and is open to fairly simply integrate with other methods of authentication. All executables (as with the .dll or .exe extensions) have a digital signature to avoid hacking or any other unauthorized manipulation.

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