Exploring Epicor Productivity Pyramid - Part 1

About two years ago, Epicor Software Corporation launched its next-generation converged product Epicor 9 (a.k.a. Epicor ERP [evaluate this solution]), which was covered at great length in my 2009 series. Over 250 customers have thus far gone live on Epicor 9, with roughly 1,700 units shipped in 21 months.

If these numbers are not overly impressive to some, they are not too shabby either in light of the current sluggish economic milieu. Epicor has shipped more than 50,000 seats to over 50 countries and has Epicor 9 customers live in every region of the world. I believe there are not too many vendors that have had such success in this global downturn.

Meanwhile, the vendor also launched a later product release, Epicor 9.05, in early 2010. Epicor 9.05's new features can be classified into the following three general categories:

  1. Industry-specific capabilities, such as an upgraded project management module, an improved e-commerce component (including features such as search engine optimization [SEO] and multichannel order management), lean manufacturing, preventive maintenance, etc.

  2. Improvements to global financial management capabilities, as the 9.05 release is currently available in more than 40 countries and should be released in more than 50 by the year's end

  3. A mobile device access and reporting framework, aimed at casual and un-tethered business users

I suspect that at the upcoming Epicor Perspectives 2010 user conference there will be much talk about the recently released Epicor Express [evaluate this solution], Epicor 9’s cloud-based enterprise resource planning (ERP) edition, which is a true multi-tenant Software as a Service (SaaS) offering oriented to job shops and small manufacturers, with subscription pricing.

In addition, there will likely be some sneak previews of what is coming in the next Epicor 9 release (dubbed 9.1, I assume), especially in terms of the so-called Web 2.0 or Enterprise 2.0 social software enablement. But Epicor 9 is only the latter part of Epicor’s overall “Protect, Extend, and Converge” approach of incrementally catering to its existing client base on current individual product lines (without forcing a wholesale “big bang” upgrade).  

“Protect” denotes continued investment in current products and solutions (in terms of periodic enhancements), while “extend” means standardization of key solutions and infrastructure (e.g., portals, analytics, workflow automation, etc.) across all of the existing (not to say legacy) product lines. “Protect and extend” together mean that existing users of any of Epicor’s mature ERP systems (e.g., Epicor Enterprise, Epicor Avante, Epicor iScala, etc.) will be looked after in terms of new customer-driven features, support, regulatory upgrades, and system performance enhancements.

Revamp My ERP

One of Epicor’s main business strategies is to extend the value of its portfolio of existing ERP applications by making enterprise data readily and easily available to all stakeholders. The vendor knows the valuable role that enterprise data plays in decision-making and collaboration, but has repeatedly found that many business users did not have direct access to their ERP system or did not understand how to quickly find the information they needed.

To that end, some of Epicor’s existing ERP users can already leverage the set of tools called Epicor Productivity Pyramid. Pyramids are typically associated with something ancient and venerable. But in case of Epicor, the term “pyramid” was chosen to denote new tools that improve user experience and rejuvenate mature ERP systems.

The idea is to concurrently harness and improve the triad of people, business processes, and applications. Indeed, complex supply chains today require electronic order management, collaborative planning, and performance management. Yet, legacy systems do not allow appropriate supply chain integration of data and processes. To compete successfully, companies need not only advanced software functionality, but also overall business visibility and agility.

Logically, these goals are more easily achievable within those Epicor products that are service-oriented architecture (SOA)-based and written in Microsoft’s .NET managed code, such as Epicor Clientele CRM, Epicor for Service Enterprises, and Epicor9 and Epicor Vantage (the latter two with a combination of .NET managed code and Progress OpenEdge business logic). But how about rejuvenating the mature client-server products in Epicor’s ERP arsenal that still have a mishmash of .NET and its preceding Component Object Model (COM) counterpart technologies, such as Epicor Enterprise and Epicor iScala? It is not too likely that these products’ users will all migrate to Epicor 9 any time soon (althought some have already begun), but they still need to run their businesses efficiently in the meantime.

The Pyramid’s Cornerstones

Prior to the advent of the Pyramid, Epicor had been offering the Epicor Portal, Epicor Service Connect, and Epicor Information Worker solutions. Epicor Portal was written from scratch by Epicor on top of Microsoft SharePoint Server utilizing Microsoft.NET Framework. It was first released in October 2005 as a solution for role-based Web access and business transparency (for more details, see TEC’s 2005 article on the solution).

For its part, Epicor Information Worker (IW) was written from scratch by Epicor as a Microsoft Office Business Application (OBA) solution, again using Microsoft.NET Framework. It was first released in December 2006 to enable a role-based Epicor user interface (UI) within Microsoft Office and to promote visibility and productivity.

Last but not least, Epicor Service Connect began life at a dotcom startup in Europe over a decade ago and was acquired by former Scala Business Systems and named Scala Connectivity. After its acquisition of Scala, Epicor invested heavily in the solution and renamed it Epicor Service Connect. The product is also written using Microsoft.NET Framework and was first released in its current form in early 2006 to enable business processes (workflows) based on integration and automation.

Over time, Epicor envisioned much more powerful benefits for its customers if these three complimentary applications were presented together as a loosely coupled suite. Epicor believed that the combination of Epicor Portal, Epicor Information Worker, and Epicor Service Connect increases productivity throughout the organization, and so the suite was dubbed the Productivity Pyramid.

The 21st-Century Pyramid that Epicor Built

The road leading to the Productivity Pyramid started several years ago when Epicor introduced the aforementioned Epicor for Service Enterprises [evaluate this solution], a modern enterprise service automation (ESA) solution for project-based businesses.  Epicor for Service Enterprises was written using a SOA approach, Microsoft .NET Framework, and extensible markup language (XML), the industry-wide standard language for Web services.

Using the SOA and Web service approach provided an open business model that could be relatively easily utilized by the aforementioned Epicor Portal solution, a cross-platform querying tool that empowers business workers to find and share information within and across Epicor’s diverse line of business (LOB) applications. Epicor now provides database schemas for most of its ERP applications to allow business workers (end-users) to easily create queries or views. Queries and reports can be written with no IT staff intervention and published as Web parts (portlets) on Microsoft SharePoint where they can be accessed by any employee, customer, or supplier who has the proper level of permission.

What Do We Need a Portal For?

While not a panacea for all the shortcomings of old ERP systems, portals can help with addressing the following all-too-common issues:

  • Users spend too much time looking for information that they can actually trust

  • Users don’t have the data they need to make a particular decision

  • Users have trouble working with other groups

  • Users have to communicate this information to the rest of the organization

  • Users spend too much time on repetitive tasks

  • Users have to sign into multiple different systems every day

  • Users are not getting enough value out of their trade partners

  • Users and their trading partners don’t have up-to-date information

Portals are an easy way to leverage SOA to reduce software development costs, while creating stronger trading partner relationships and increasing employee productivity. Within intranets, portals promote transparency, visibility, and employee self-service. Employees within an organization are thus able to more efficiently find, use, and collaborate on relevant information. The resulting benefits are automated processes and swift answering of important inquiries.

On the other hand, extranets and external Web portals enable trading partners self-service and the ability for partners to find, use, and collaborate on information across business boundaries. Potential benefits here are a lower-cost and higher-quality customer contact, enablement of new channels (online commerce), and more effective communication.

Roles + Access + Security + Personalization = Epicor Portal

By using Epicor Portal, users can focus on critical business needs rather than on the underlying infrastructure. The portal solution is a platform based on accepted industry standards for a secure, collaborative, and personalized experience. Role-based secure access enables straightforward end-user authoring and audit trails.

Epicor Portal can help in terms of data mining of a sort by compiling data from multiple sources so that users can get the information (and detect the patterns) they need when they need it. This ability then helps with speeding up the decision-making process and making informed decisions. Finally, users can collaborate safely and communicate (disseminate) information internally and externally.

Epicor Portal provides a guided discovery and business insight, since end-users can create their own personal view of the business or a key performance indicator (KPI) in a simple step-by-step wizard-driven process. To that end, users can simply pick the data they want to view without knowing where or how the data is formed. They can also add filters and prompts to focus on information that is important to them.

In addition to the necessary IT tools, Epicor Portal offers a rich industry- and role-specific portal intelligence, called Content Packs. For example, customer-facing users will likely want to work with the following data fields: Sales Calls, Customers, Invoices, Payments, Quotes, Return Material Authorizations (RMA), Sales Orders, Service Calls, Shipments, etc.

On the other hand, upstream supply chain-facing users will likely need the following data: Invoices, Parts, Payments, Purchase Orders, Requests for Quote (RFQs), Suppliers, etc. Epicor charges US$2,500 per central processing unit (CPU) for Epicor Portal (role-based security and schema exposure within SharePoint) and pre-defined Content Packs (if customers want a jump start and do not have to bother creating their own content).

Next part of this series will explain the two remaining major parts of Epicor Productivity Pyramid. Your views, comments, and opinions about Epicor’s strategy to cater to both early adopter (via Epicor 9) and more conservative customers (via the "extend" tools), or experiences with any above-mentioned Epicor solution are welcome in the meantime.
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