May a New Day Begin for Mature Enterprise Applications - Part 1

While attending a number of vendors’ annual user conferences and/or by being briefed by vendors about their future directions, I’ve lately discerned this trend: virtually every vendor is attempting to win its users’ hearts and minds (as well as wallets) via a more intuitive and appealing user interface (UI). But it would be a real understatement to attribute everything to improved screens without talking about improved (i.e., “rich” and targeted) user experience (UX) design as a whole.

Namely, a UI is a means to an improved UX end, and the recipe for success is to deliver forms and screens designed for a particular user’s role in the organization. In other words, employees can now log into their own role-tailored user profile and personal place in the business management system. The role-personalized UI displays only the selected tasks, metrics, alerts, and activities they need to perform, providing the users with an overview of what they’ve done and what’s next in line.

One of the most common problems plaguing business software users has been the deluge of data coming from all directions, especially in complex and expanding global supply chain networks. In addition to complex integration and disruptive heterogeneous system upgrades, a major global network’s challenge is confusing UX due to multiple views of information that come from independent resources (e.g., trading partners’ systems) and disparate business processes. Confusing UX means that users spend much more time interacting with business applications, searching for the right information, and consolidating data manually, rather than on actually acting on that information to create value.

The Role of Role-tailored UI and UX

One way to reduce this unproductive time is via a configurable interface that allows users to focus on key tasks, presenting current information from virtually any data source onto a tailored home Web page. Each user’s homepage is then replete with pertinent (contextual) reports and key performance indicators (KPIs) based on the specific user’s role in the company. This means that a modern functional UI has to create a holistic view of dispersed pieces of information that are drawn from various sources such as financial systems, Web storefronts, warehousing management systems (WMS), time & expense (T&E) management systems, and so forth.

Moreover, underlying enabling technologies like workflow management, event management, business intelligence (BI), enterprise portals, etc., bring information and action together. Actionable content means that users can drill down into disparate source systems for further analysis or to enter transactions (as necessary further actions).

The result is that employees have a central repository to find the information that they need in real-time to make decisions and complete their work. Each person then more clearly understands the progression of work in a way that is personalized to their specific job, regardless of whether they belong to the board room, the shop floor, human resources (HR), sales, warehousing/shipping, and so on.

As an illustration, employees in the procurement and sourcing departments can use the system’s consolidated data reporting to make business decisions that reduce excess expenditures and maverick spending, manage vendor compliance and viability risks, and identify opportunities to consolidate multiple vendors and suppliers. On the other hand, tailored reports could provide users in the sales department immediate visibility into trends in sales volumes and customer service levels, as well as the costs of servicing customers. Finally, finance and accounting can gain greater insight in less time into cash flow, total cost-to-serve customers, and other germane metrics that will enable them to make more informed decisions that improve profitability and productivity.

As a result, this modern UI and UX design reduces end-user dependency on assistance from the IT department. That is to say, programmers no longer have to build customized reports for each end user, who now can personalize their own views and the system outputs. In short, this UX approach enables everyone to focus on their tasks and organize their time in the way that works best for their company.

Enter Infor MyDay (Not Mayday, Folks!)

At the Inforum 2008 annual user conference in late 2008, Infor outlined its painstaking effort to incrementally build upon its vast portfolio of acquired products. I concur with Ray Wang’s estimate in his recent blog post that the vendor has moved on from collecting disparate (and sometimes antiquated) products to build a more cohesive strategy and value proposition for customers.

At the core of this ambitious endeavor is the Infor Open SOA architectural framework. Infor Open SOA is an event-driven architecture (EDA) and service-oriented architecture (SOA) that leverages a standards-based approach to distribute data between Infor solutions and non-Infor systems and data sources.

The grandiose idea behind Infor Open SOA is that Infor’s customers can relatively rapidly and economically add future Infor, third-party, and in-house software applications (and component-based enhancements) without the need to “rip-and-replace” software or interrupt other systems during operations. I should commend Infor for being quite up-front about how huge undertaking the delivery of the total Infor Open SOA (sometime also referred to as Infor Network) framework is.

The vendor frankly admits that it is only perhaps halfway done three years after embarking on the journey. This candidness has even lately warmed up some “doubtful Thomas” observers that are known for their customary harsh skepticism towards vendors. I refer here to a relatively positive blog post by ZDNet’s blogger Dennis Howlett.

Most of the Infor Open SOA framework's components have been delivered by now (or will be delivered soon) and are free of charge to customers who are on active maintenance contracts. The major SOA platform’s parts start with the Development Studio that consists of the following components:

Then, the Administration Environment caters to Security Administration, User Logging & Auditing, Component Registry, Licensing Monitoring, Packaging (in accordance with the OSGi Alliance guidelines), Deployment, and User Management. Finally, the Run-Time Services module consists of the following components:

  • Core Application Services – provide Master Data Management (MDM), Business Information Services (BIS), Infor MyDay, Hierarchies, and Resource Control;

  • Core Platform Services – provide Monitoring, Workflow, On-Ramps, Configuration Software Infrastructure (CSI), Component Framework, and Enterprise Service Bus (ESB).

To explain some of these “ominous-sounding” components, Infor MyDay role-based user home pages are enabled by BIS, another major Infor Open SOA component that helps enterprises capture and consolidate data in a centralized and secure database for reporting processes. The analytic and reporting services come with built-in contextual analytics and support the ability to drill down to the original data source from the user's home page (into both Infor and third-party applications).

For its part, CSI is a configuration infrastructure for messaging (not CBS’ famed TV series) that entails the technical details of how Infor provides standards-based connectivity. "On-ramp" is a term Infor uses for the connector or adapter for a specific Infor application. So, there will need to be an "on-ramp"--e.g., for Infor BIS database, Infor ERP LN, Infor ERP Syteline, Infor Warehouse Management, Infor EAM Enterprise Edition, and so on.

Given the several dozen Infor software assets that will require their own on-ramps, one can imagine the magnitude of the still outstanding development work when it comes to Infor Open SOA. Still, Infor can do some interesting things with on-ramps. When configured, an on-ramp essentially creates peer-to-peer (P2P) network messaging.

This network architecture has a fairly distributed (via a number of lightweight on-ramps) and "standardized" approach. In my opinion, however, "standardized" is a relative term, since standardization requires that you have other industry players who buy into that standard. We will have to wait and see if Infor will be successful there and exert some clout in the industry.

I also noticed a shift in the Infor Open SOA approach toward a P2P network, away from ESB, as initially stated and intended. As an explanation, a service bus is a hub-and-spoke architecture where the processes and decisions are made at the central hub, which undermines the supply chain nodes’ autonomy that network architecture promotes.

Moreover, Infor is moving to use OSGi to do the packaging of its software components to simplify the deployment and management of the environment, and current ESBs are not compatible with the standard (although Progress Software is moving to support it). In addition, the requirement to offer the SOA platform to customers as part of maintenance (the vendor has lately seen increase in maintenance buybacks from once off-maintenance customers) is simplified if Infor provides all parts of the solution, and is not dependent upon third parties’ ESB offerings.

Open SOA, So(a) What!?

So, why did I dwell this much on this SOA technobabble? Well, for the simple reason that without this ambitious framework, it would be difficult (if not even impossible) for Infor to viably deliver any refreshing value proposition to its customers (beyond merely milking the recurring support and maintenance revenue).

In addition to enabling flexible buying and deployment options for customers, the Open SOA framework is instrumental to taking companies’ current IT assets beyond transactional systems, to extended directive and prescriptive systems that can respond proactively to prescribed business rules and handle exceptions. The noble idea here is that the software can adapt quickly as business conditions change.

Infor Open SOA offers solutions to the abovementioned global supply chain network challenges (and remnants from inflexible enterprise-centric client/server architectures) via directive and prescriptive UX, a single network view of information, collaborative resource sharing, agile business processes, standard-based integration, and non-intrusive upgrades.

Such a platform is the “secret sauce” foundation onto which Infor hopes to plug its upcoming next-generation of paid for, value-add components. These upcoming solutions will mean new revenue streams for Infor while, either individually or bundled together, they could make possible the rejuvenation of customers’ existing software assets. This is a win-win combination of a sort.

Part 2 of this blog series will analyze some of these software components that were recently delivered. In the meantime, what are your views, comments, opinions, etc., about the concepts of improved UI/UX in general, and about Infor Open SOA per se? Also, how do you think Infor will fare against its formidable competitors in light of its lofty strategy and recent moves?
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