Exploring Epicor Productivity Pyramid - Part 2

Part 1 of this blog series introduced Epicor Software Corporation’s set of tools called the Epicor Productivity Pyramid. The Pyramid enables one of Epicor’s main business strategies: to extend the value of several of its mature enterprise resource planning (ERP) applications by making enterprise data readily and easily available to all stakeholders.

My blog post then zoomed on to the 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 the database schemas for most of its ERP applications to allow business workers (a.k.a. information workers and end-users) to easily create queries or views and communicate their findings.

Epicor Service Connect

Once Epicor Portal had been proven in action, the next step was to re-architect (extend the usability and flexibility of) Epicor’s manufacturing solution using the service-oriented architecture (SOA) and Web services approach and standards. While Epicor Portal was an appropriate tool to query the Epicor Vantage system, the Epicor Service Connect integration solution (mentioned in Part 1) proved to be invaluable to manufacturing customers for orchestrating workflows and automating business processes, with no programming required.

Epicor customers were reportedly able to automate business processes, eliminate non-value-added processes, interrupt the process flow to obtain approvals, or simply alert users when specified processes were coming up or were completed. To that end, Epicor Service Connect can orchestrate and improve business processes within the Epicor application in support of initiatives such as Lean manufacturing and Six Sigma.

In addition to process orchestration (via task assignments, logical routing, and human intervention), both Epicor’s manufacturing and non-manufacturing customers have found that Epicor Service Connect is a useful integration tool. The Extensibe Markup Language (XML) messaging and mapping solution can be used to integrate Epicor and non-Epicor applications and to import data into the relevant application database tables (with a complete audit history), including electronic data interchange (EDI) processing.

To that end, a graphical workflow tool eases application-to-application (A2A) and business-to-business (B2B) integration by applying business rules and conditions (without the need to write pesky code) to create and assign tasks and end email notifications. The visual tool that monitors process activities step by step reduces the cost and complexity of integration needs, reduces errors, improves business processes, and supports collaboration.

In summary, Epicor Service Connect is a real-time, event-driven business document connectivity solution between distributed applications, operations, and enterprises. The aforementioned capabilities make me think of Epicor Service Connect as Microsoft BizTalk Server on steroids. The solution also has many similar traits with the recently unveiled Infor ION interoperability layer. As of today, Epicor provides the Epicor Service Connect runtime environment for free, whereas a developer edition costs around US$20,000.

Epicor Information Worker (IW)

The final step on the road to the Productivity Pyramid was to blur the lines between the desktop productivity tools that business users know (and truly use) and Epicor ERP applications. The vendor accomplished this context-driven content with Epicor Information Worker (IW). Via this solution, Epicor ERP database information basically becomes consumed by the Microsoft Outlook, Microsoft Excel, and Microsoft Word office productivity applications.

That is to say, Epicor IW allows business users to access enterprise data from within their Microsoft Office applications without having to interrupt what they are doing. Microsoft Office Task Panes provide document templates and Excel mapping and updates. As explained under Epicor Portal in Part 1, comprehensive Content Packs allow users to create their own data import and views based on pertinent data fields.

Epicor IW in Outlook

One can hardly debate the fact that Outlook has become the desktop organizer for most users. Epicor ERP systems are seamlessly integrated to Outlook’s built-in entities such as Contact, Task, and Appointment. Alternatively, customized business entities’ integration mapping forms are available as needed.

The Epicor Toolbar that is added to Outlook’s screen makes it easy to get ERP data. Users can use the Import feature to download their Epicor ERP data, and they can choose to synchronize all data or specific records. The views allow users to enter filtering criteria, and they can again select all records or subscribe to specific records.

Optionally, users can import related business entities using the same import process, since the Epicor Outlook folders contain subfolders for the business entities. While contextual navigation within Outlook to different LOB units is available either online or offline, contextual navigation from Outlook to LOB ERP systems is possible only in the online mode. Epicor IW can journal the correspondence by existing LOB ERP systems.

Data can be downloaded straight into the Office application or used offline (and then any changes can be synchronized with the ERP database), as there is offline transaction support. Users can work in a disconnected and mobile mode, track communication, and synchronize either automatically when connected or on demand (as required).

Offline data slices provide information for users on the road, whereby new data can be added and edited while maintaining contextual awareness. Outlook provides rules for filtering lists in a disconnected mode. Companies can maintain (and later synchronize) their LOB data within an offline Outlook data storage.

Epicor IW in Word and Excel

The Epicor IW Ribbon button makes it easy to use Epicor ERP data in Microsoft Word documents. One can use the Import feature to download the ERP data in the Epicor Information Panel and leverage a Forms package for sophisticated data entry.

Users can insert multiple columns either in a blank document or in a template. Mass mailings can be generated based on a template and an Epicor List via integrated IW mail merge data sources. In a similar fashion, users can “liven up” the existing static documents by binding Epicor IW fields to the document.

Along similar lines, using the Epicor IW Ribbon it is possible to import Epicor data into Excel. Users can take advantage of all of Excel's features, such as mail merge (publishing lists into Word mail merge), pivot tables, and charting. Users can conduct analyses over data lists, monitor simple metrics, mine into related data, and leverage Microsoft SharePoint Server or Windows SharePoint Services (WSS) for Template Libraries, Collaborative Document Libraries, and Updatable Workflow Libraries.

Epicor IW: Epicor ERP + Microsoft Office

In summary, Epicor IW provides an intuitive and standardized user interface (UI) that can be personalized, has an easy navigation, and conforms to Microsoft standards. The product looks and feels like other Microsoft applications, especially Office 2007, making it easier to adopt (with less required training), use, and become productive with.

Epicor IW exposes the entire ERP schema in a secured read-write fashion through Microsoft Office, and thus extends existing Epicor applications via easy access to data, current work context, disconnected user support, and role-based security. Epicor provides IW as an Office Business Application (OBA) for no additional license fees to existing customers, which is not the case with the equivalent Duet and Atlantic products by SAP. Because of the Epicor Everywhere Framework in place, new Microsoft’s UI technologies (e.g., Silverlight) should be adopted with ease when necessary.

How It All Fits Together

Epicor IW can utilize Epicor Portal views or Epicor Business Activity Queries (BAQ) for Epicor customers using the latest Epicor 9 SOA to make the enterprise data available in Office, while Epicor Portal Foundation provides access and executes actions from within Office. Moreover, Epicor IW and Epicor Portal utilize Epicor Service Connect to make updates to the ERP database. Thus, one can see how these three productivity tools, while quite useful as standalone products, can be even more powerful when used in combination.

As said in Part 1, all three of the Productivity Pyramid solutions were architected as what Epicor calls “extend” components. That is, these tools were created to enhance the value of Epicor customers’ existing investments in ERP systems.

Therefore, the current Version 9.x of Epicor Productivity Pyramid actually works with the following Epicor product generations: Epicor 9.x, Vantage 8.x, Enterprise 7.x, iScala 2.x, and Clientele 8.x. Epicor has built these products to make the most of SOA and that they provide value to all its major ERP product lines. If a company is using the Pyramid (or some of its elements) in, say, Epicor iScala and it upgrades to Epicor 9 and migrates its data over, the Productivity Pyramid remains unchanged and goes with the new system instance, at no extra charge.

A Glimpse into the Pyramid Future

Knowing Epicor’s zest for innovation and in light of ever-evolving market needs, Epicor IW might likely be bundled with enterprise searchpresence informationReally Simple Syndication (RSS)data feeds, and other Web 2.0 features into a consolidated Enterprise Social Software (Enterprise 2.0) suite. For its part, Epicor Service Connect will likely become ever more intrinsic to the Epicor Business Process Management (BPM) offering.

Last but not least, Epicor might embark on a longer-term undertaking to merge the Epicor Portal schema and theaforementioned Epicor BAQ technology to create a single Epicor Business Glossary (XML metadata). This glossary should help with the demand for more model-driven architecture (MDA, see related Microsoft Oslo and Dublin codename projects), and over time, for the context-driven architecture (CoDA) concept.

None of the above capabilities are currently generally available (GA) and represent only my speculations and educated guesses. Let us see what might transpire at the upcoming Epicor Perspectives 2010 user conference.

Dear readers, what are your views, comments, and opinions about Epicor’s strategy to cater to both early adopter (via Epicor 9) and more conservative ERP customers (via Productivity Pyramid, etc.)? If you are an existing user, I would appreciate you sharing your experiences with any Epicor solution mentioned above or the company in general.
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