May a New Day Begin for Mature Enterprise Applications - Part 2

Part 1 of this blog series outlined the trend of enterprise applications vendors’ attempts to win their users’ hearts and minds (as well as wallets) via more intuitive and appealing user interface (UI) and user experience (UX) design. What that means is that users can now more quickly obtain all of the relevant information they need in a personalized way, with drill-downs and other slick navigational Web 2.0 gadgets.

For users, personalized screens and forms provide immediate access to issues that require immediate action or reassurance that situations are under control. Such intuitive UI allows users to diagnose the most critical business situations they face and immediately drill into the source transactional systems to get the data they need and decide on appropriate actions.

The analysis then focused on Infor and its Open SOA framework, which is the enabling linchpin for the vendor’s delivery of next-generation interoperable value-adding solutions. About two years ago, Infor espoused its so-called “Three E’s” strategy (“Enrich, Extend & Evolve”) to deliver agile and adaptive software components on top of the Infor Open SOA platform.

Infor’s “Three E’s” Approach

The “enrich” part of the strategy refers to adding value to Infor's raft of current products (solutions or assets). Infor has released over 100 product upgrades and feature (service) packs free of charge for customers on active maintenance contracts. It is also important to note that there is no forced march imposed upon customers here; these feature packs can be enabled or disabled by turning the appropriate switches “on” or “off” in a parameterized setup.

The “extend” part of the strategy refers to extending functional footprint via OSGi standards–based interoperability within Infor’s portfolio of applications in order to meet the growing complexity of global supply chains. Customers will receive ongoing service-oriented architecture (SOA) integrations. On one hand, these product connections represent cross-selling opportunities for Infor, on the other hand, they should also enable customers to extend their current solutions and build a broader foundation for future capabilities that might be required.

For example, Infor’s enterprise resource planning (ERP) users will be able to leverage, e.g., Infor’s supply chain management (SCM), business performance management (BPM), or enterprise asset management (EAM) products. But in contrast to the “extend” feature packs (and new individual product releases), these new functional capabilities are logically available for an additional license fee.

Finally, the “evolve” part of Infor’s Open SOA strategy follows along the lines of developing brand new products that will solve some particular business problem and improve users’ competitiveness (and thus will not become obsolete for quite some time). These new components promise to feature universal interconnectivity to major Infor products.

Depending on their nature, they will either be free of charge (e.g., Infor MyDay) for eligible customers or for a commensurate license fee. For more details, see TEC’s previous article entitled “Ambitious Plans and Promises: An Enterprise Software Provider Keeps Its Word.”

At the Inforum 2008 user conference, Infor touted about 20 new “evolve” components to be generally available (GA) , i.e., tested on limited release with real customers for several months) by the end of 2009 (and many more to come afterwards). In addition to the MyDay role-based portal (which will be described soon), are Infor Decisions and Infor Order Management are already GA.

Infor Decisions brings real-time, enquiry-driven business intelligence (BI) to line of business (LoB) managers. These folks have been inundated with data coming from disparate sources such as financial management systems (e.g., actual vs. budget), customer service systems (e.g., customer and product profitability), external systems (e.g., a customer’s financial performance) and operations (e.g., inventory status).

But this overflowing data has unfortunately not traditionally been linked to the context of business. To that end, Infor Decisions drives a “train of thought” inquiry, which transforms users from transactional to information workers and facilitates informed decision-making and action.

For its part, Infor Order Management provides multi-model pricing and time-phased inventory reservation right across supply chains. The solution was built to enable the true and unified order experience, i.e., how companies really sell and how customers buy (and not how the system “thinks” the trade happens).

For example, order capturing and inventory reservation can take place centrally, while the actual delivery and customer service takes place in a certain local division. Infor Order Management was designed with flexibility in mind to accommodate ever-changing business practices.

Evolution Continues

The upcoming Infor Advanced General Ledger (formerly also known as Multi-Books Accounting) module is an “evolve” component that should give global companies the ability to conform to multiple, country-specific accounting standards and currencies. The module can either run concurrently with an existing general ledger (G/L) system or serve as the primary accounting module.

The idea behind the multi-books accounting capability is to enable the system to work alongside financial management systems to help companies cast their financials in multiple ways. If, for instance, a corporation has an operation in China, India, or Brazil, and it has to follow these governments’ rules on what one precisely refers to local accounting concepts and regulations, like “salary,” “wage,” or “value-added tax” (VAT) or “sales tax,” how do users get a system without having to rip and replace what they already have in order to work in China, Latin America, the US, and Europe? Advanced G/L and about a few dozen other upcoming “evolve” components, such as, e.g., Pricing, contracts & promotions; Actual costing; Multi-echelon inventory control, and Sales & operations planning (S&OP), are slated for delivery by the early 2010s.

So, What’s The Big Deal with Infor MyDay?

Typically, when I attend vendors’ annual events, I ask their staffers to tell me what in their mind is the highlight of the conference. I was a bit dismayed after hearing the strangely named MyDay feature as the major theme of the Inforum 2008 event.

Namely, IFS Enterprise Explorer (IEE, part of the ongoing Project Aurora), Microsoft Dynamics Client for Office (DCO), Lawson Smart Office, Epicor Productivity Pyramid, IQMS Smart Page UI and so on revolve around themes like role-based portals, contextual analytics, KPIs, alerts, dashboards, shortcuts, favorite/recently used pages, etc. In addition, the role-based UI was implemented with common controls and gadgets, and delivered for basically all of the Microsoft Dynamics enterprise resource planning (ERP) products after introducing it and testing first in Microsoft Dynamics GP.

Thus, I wondered what I was missing at the time within MyDay that was making me a bit indifferent (and why I should not have been indifferent). To be fair, Infor MyDay is designed to deliver persona-based content to over 150 roles Infor has identified in its customers’ businesses. Infor’s blog post explains as follows:
“…What do we mean by persona-based? A persona is a composite of a user within an organization. A lot of vendors talk about role-based interfaces. A persona takes this concept to the next level. A role is generic, designed for a departmental role such as the “finance user.” A persona is specific to an individual user within that department, such as the VP of Finance or Controller. A persona also adds texture to that individual. At Infor, we’ve given them names and faces and built stories around their life. These are imaginary people, but they are based on the hundreds of users we studied to understand the real needs that real people need to get their jobs done. From conception, design and development to sales education and marketing, this gives us the understanding we need to build and deliver great content for people.

Let’s take a look at one of the 16 persona roles we are delivering with this first release, Bob the Production Planner. Bob is a composite of the typical production planner.  He is the choreographer of the manufacturing shop floor, managing planning and production. He determines what to produce, how much and when it’s needed. He acts as the go-between between the shop floor and the corporate side of the firm. He has a degree, probably business or engineering, and about 10 years experience with manufacturing. He knows how to use applications but he’s not an IT gearhead.

Bob has to deal with unexpected events – late purchase deliveries, machine downtime or last minute work orders. He wants to be more proactive, but the reality is that he is in ‘reacting mode’ much of the time and plans are always changing. He has to deal with inaccurate inventories and bill of materials, and he has an avalanche of unstructured information that he needs to gather, format and assimilate to take action on.

From our research, we have learned Bob’s typical responsibilities, his skills, his working environment, pain points and goals. We have learned how he uses his ERP software, the other applications he uses and the value he needs to get from them. We learned all of this because we’ve done our homework. A lot of it. We started in early 2007, logging thousands of hours of research into the personas of the people using our software. We’ve built-in the content they need to make their lives a little easier, so they can focus on strategic activities instead of looking for information…”

While an impressive and thorough exercise, persona-based profiling (and subsequent UI tailoring) is not necessarily a unique practice. Namely, TEC’s recent article entitled “Application Giants in Duel—and Duet—for Users' Hearts, Minds … and Wallets” explains at great length Microsoft’s rationale for its elaborate approach to UX, including role centers (based on numerous interviews of real-life users and their needs).

It’s About Making the Users’ Day  (and Less about Impressing Analysts)

The just-announced availability of Infor MyDay for Infor ERP Adage [evaluate this product], the renowned process manufacturing ERP solution, has given me an answer to my quandary. After Infor MyDay was unveiled at Inforum 2008, this represents its first GA for one of many Infor ERP solutions.

As the recent Infor blog post explains, one issue that almost all of the process manufacturing companies can relate to is cost to service customers. In most process ERP systems, actual cost of production, post invoice rebates, disallowed discounts, non-salable allowances, and return data are just some of the data captured over time.
“…This data often resides in ERP modules or disparate, standalone systems. Most companies struggle to pull this information together with customized reports, spreadsheets or complex general ledger allocations. The problem is, by the time you sort through all the noise, the information is months old and the impact is diluted.

With Infor MyDay, the information is immediately at your fingertips, without having to call IT to develop a custom report. This information is built into the Infor MyDay personas for finance and sales managers, who receive these reports on their personalized page and can now better control cost to service and ensure their most profitable customers get the most profitable products…”

For all this time, I was thinking as an industry analyst (rather than a user of a specific product), and comparing MyDay to what other vendors are doing, thinking about the possible market differentiation. On the other hand, to a user of an aged Infor ERP Adage instance, which has been a very functional product but with a rudimentary UI (to put it mildly), MyDay will likely feel like time travel to at least two decades in the future (or as if they were participants in ABC’s Extreme Home Makeover show).

And who might then care about what other vendors might be doing in this regard? The Infor ERP Adage MyDay Datasheet is available at the company’s web site here.

Now I get that MyDay, being free of charge and exhibiting a unifying, dynamic, and snazzy UI, should resonate with Infor customers on antiquated and diverse products. The UI enhancement has also very recently been made GA for Infor ERP LN, Infor ERP SyteLine, and Infor ERP Visual to provide these users as well with visibility into the “why” and “when” and not just the “what” of business operations. As mentioned in Part 1, Infor MyDay does this by filtering data by job function and relevancy and delivering it in a condensed home-page format.

Dear readers, what are your views, comments, opinions, etc. about the concepts of improved UI/UX in general, and about Infor MyDay per se? Are these capabilities worth staying on a maintenance contract for (or being reinstated on one)? What do you think about how Infor will fare against its formidable competitors in light of its lofty strategy and recent concrete moves?
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