Mid-market Getting the Taste of Some Emerging Technologies




Looking at Emerging Technologies

Some still emerging and evolving enterprise software categories that the upper-end of the market has been modestly adopting have also very recently been embraced by vendors that cater to the lower-end of the market. One such technology is the suites that envelop a notable combination of technologies, such as document management (including basic document library functionality with version control and check-in and check-out abilities etc.), content management (for example, web content to be published), real-time collaborative team support (groupware, e-mail, instant messenger, calendaring, etc.), a portal framework, and information retrieval. Rather than being typical enterprise applications that "crunch" transactions using a relational database, these systems would go a mile further to support longstanding processes within and outside an enterprise that also entail real-time collaboration, expertise identification, location and management, knowledge management, community technology, business process management (BPM), and multi-channel access. These kind of suites may indicate an emergence of a new category of software that tackles enterprise relationship management (ERM), groupware or workplace collaboration management, and so on. Analysts at Gartner have suggested these be named as the nascent smart enterprise suite (SES) category.

This kind of software recognition is owing to the fact that extensible markup language (XML) and related internet standards have lately made the unstructured data environment sort of semi-structured and more agreeable to IT support, since document management (DM), knowledge management (KM), and enterprise content management (ECM) systems nowadays can also store and retrieve unstructured data. The other technologies that should be credited for the emergence of like enterprise systems are portals, search engines, and categorization systems that get any given information, and integrated report generators used to view and report any data from structured and unstructured data sources.

Traditional enterprise systems typically touch only about 25 percent of an organization, while bundled tools offered by SES could virtually extend it to every employee, bringing all employees into the process and tying them more closely to the company's business goals. In addition to catering to the core processes for service or manufacturing oriented organizations, there has long been a gap of uncovered remaining workplace processes within an organization. So far, enterprise systems have not largely tackled the IT-supported process optimization for things such as the organization of internal meetings, taking and distributing minutes for a given meeting and managing all ensuing tasks from it; the management of internal orders for indirect goods or staples; and the managing and reconciling staff vacation plans, and so forth. One reason thereof is the fact that these processes have not been recognized as revenue generators. Thus, these traditionally ignored processes, which might also contribute substantially to a company's annual operations costs, can now be addressed.

Closely related to SES is the evolving BPM technology, which entails a broad set of services and tools that provide for explicit and complete process management (i.e.,

1) process analysis and modeling, using a graphical process designer targeted for business analysts,

2) definition,

3) execution,

4) monitoring process performance, its degree of completion and out-of-bounds conditions, and

5) administration for process termination and load balancing or rerouting).

BPM technology also includes support for both human (manual) and application-level (automatic) interaction. As the process flow is executed via a runtime execution engine, various enterprise applications (for example, legacy, standard packaged, customized, third-party, and web services) may be invoked, as will the tasks that humans have to complete or intervene. Therefore, BPM has emerged from many sources given the myriad of interconnected components that underpin a full fledged BPM system, such as workflow, enterprise application integration (EAI), middleware, process modeling, process monitoring, enterprise applications, collaborative tools, integration brokers, web integration servers, application servers, applications development tools, rules engines, and so on, which naturally creates a complex environment.

However, mid-market vendors seem to be focusing quite less on complex routing and invoking automated processes across disparate systems (see BPM Weaves Data And Processes Together For Real-time Revenues), but rather on the BPM's aspects of handling exceptions and automating of simpler processes. The term, BPM has long been used (and often misused) in IT industry lingo, since much of the notion had initially been covered by the practice of workflow management technologies. Only recently has it been joined by the application integration vendors which focused more on BPM from the mere aspect of the technologies mentioned above.

This brings us to the also nascent and related area of business activity monitoring (BAM), with a jury still out deliberating whether it is a software category per se or a mere concept that triggers alerts and exception reports on both events and non-events, within and outside the four-walls of the enterprise (for more details on BAM's provision of "stock ticker" view of key business operations, see Business Activity Monitoring - Watching The Store For You). Actionable information is the key to the success of (near) real-time enterprises (such as sharing up-to-date information with employees, customers, and partners in real-time), which would entail not only accessing data, but also pushing it to the right person and ensuring that person knows what to do about the real-time, sizzling hot information.

Examples of the Resulting Products

One example of a mid-market product featuring certain features of all the above emerging categories is Exact Software's e-Synergy. Instead of a deep functional scope, it has a rather broad functional scope, that is difficult to pigeonhole into a single enterprise software category. It could first represent a SES/ERM solution that integrates the functionality of traditional front-office applications into one, providing employees, customers, and partners with virtually a real-time view of activity across an entire organization. It could facilitate the one time recording of data in context and link that data to all the relevant people, products, customers, workflow, and financial transactions. Because of its ability to align people, information, and processes across the enterprise, users of the solution should be able to view the health of the entire value chain, help employees manage time more effectively, and execute business processes more efficiently. It also features a World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) compliant XML interface enabling integration with most legacy enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems.

Since e-Synergy also automatically brings together the customer relationship solution (CRM) with the financial database and other back office databases, users should have a level of visibility into all of the processes that govern the business. Everyone from an administrative assistant to the CEO has access to the information they need to make informed business decisions. The solution allows for the near real-time management of all organizational relationships by encompassing features and functionality of human resources management (HRM), catalog, product, and price management, CRM, electronic workflow, DM, project management, financial management, and portals into a single web-based application. Also, a built-in, native workflow or BPM capability enables, for example, the e-HRM module to track applicants, delegate tasks, count absences and expenses, link to payroll, and so on. Also, e-Synergy's document management capability allows for employees' resumes and skill-sets to be stored, which eliminates traditional dreaded shuffling through stacks of paper for HR administrators.

Furthermore, many mid-market vendors have embraced the BAM capabilities, although they might refer to them as event management or event server tools, IFS, Unit 4 Agresso, Lawson Software and Exact Software being only some mentioned here. To that end, Exact Event Manager BAM capabilities can be expanded to its and third-party diverse ERP product lines and to include software that is designed to help businesses identify early warning signs before they become full-blown problems. Beyond most enterprise solutions that typically offer just alert messaging, workflow management, or report distribution capabilities, such a BAM application integrates all of these processes (plus the ability to monitor incoming e-mail) within a single solution. For example, when a defined exception occurs, the product can simultaneously update database records, generate and distribute related reports and also notify key employees, partners and customers.

Any ERP solution which includes BAM should be able to better address the challenge of not knowing, or of knowing too late about existing and potential business problems by providing a way for organizations to define and respond to critical, time-sensitive data across the entire enterprise. As a proactive approach to an early warning sign it is much more effective than trying to contain a situation once it becomes a full-blown problem. For instance, the proper people can be notified whenever a regular customer breaks their traditional buying pattern, and this notification can then be delivered to a sales person for follow-up. Further escalation and notification can occur if the sales call is not made quickly, thereby increasing the likelihood of retaining a hard won customer.

This solution is typically a service that runs on an organization's database file server and monitors the database for situations and events the organization has defined, and it comes with a library of pre-defined business events commonly used by businesses. Each event can be tailored to an individual company or copied and modified into new events, making the setup quick and easy. Using such a product can result in resolving more situations quickly before they escalate out of control. There are also fewer reports to print and analyze, saving valuable management time, and most importantly, improving customer satisfaction.

The Value Proposition

Mid-market ERP solutions have traditionally lacked the workflow, document and account management capabilities that allow organizations to truly view in context the processes that run the business. These premises reinforce the value proposition of a SES or BPM tool extended to BAM, giving mid-market organizations the ability to integrate core requirements into their workflow in order to create more efficient processes. The disparity between the front- and back-office systems presents difficult challenges to maintaining efficiency across the entire organization and can negatively impact a company's ability to effectively interact with customers, employees, and business partners.

Again as an example, e-Synergy, a suite of diverse web-based solutions, such as CRM, HRM, professional service automation (PSA), project management, and so on, although admittedly not nearly as deep as some of the individual, best-of-breed CRM, HRM, PSA, or BPM products in the market, it offers most of the nifty functionality a small or medium enterprise may need without the superfluous integration headaches. Owing to its inherent workflow or BPM as an applications glue, e-Synergy furthermore often becomes bigger than the sum of its parts, since, by being able to manage the customer's web site and by including the buy side and the sell side of e-business, DM, and logistics functionality, it borders on the capabilities of still evolving above systems that expand the edge of traditional ERP systems. One might even say that e-Synergy was a virtue made out of necessity, given it was originally developed by Exact to enable its globally dispersed offices to better collaborate and share information in near real-time.

A truly integrated workflow and BPM tools allow users to achieve long coveted IT objectives the paperless office, management by exception, and workflow as electronic framework to guide employees. The software lets users define business rules, processes, and exceptions as an integral part of their distribution, manufacturing and other operational activities. The solution is not a mere alert producing application, since users can define both the event and the outcome (action), whereas prescribed actions that are not taken within defined guidelines will be escalated so that crucial tasks are neither left undone nor unattended (due to the well-known phenomenon of e-mails ending up in a "cyber haven," for example). The above prevents events and tasks from falling through the cracks. In other words, while most traditional ERP solutions are task-driven, the new BPM/BAM-enabled products are process-driven, by adding structure to processes that are typically handled inconsistently or manually.

Some worthwhile examples of how such a system would work is by defining business rules so that the buyer is alerted when goods do not arrive on time from the supplier, and even escalating the alerts to the higher levels (such as sending high priority ones to the VP of purchasing) if the proper corrective action has not been taken by the buyer. This could eliminate the need to generate costly and time-consuming batch paper reports that are typically created after-the-fact anyway. All the above should bridge a proverbial gap between the IT department and other departments, and allow the IT folks to focus on more strategic issues rather than solving mundane IT-related requests.

While secure role-based portals, single sign-on, service automation, HR self-service, front office functions, event management, document management, and BPM features are increasingly becoming a matter-of-course of tier-one ERP solutions, most smaller ERP providers have yet to introduce these into their software suites, particularly in such an integrated and closed-loop manner. On the other hand, workflow and BPM are highly complex and difficult systems to implement within most tier-one solutions.

Sure, large vendors offer much more comprehensive BPM solutions, given the above-mentioned raft of interconnected components that underpin a full fledged BPM system. However, it naturally creates an overwhelmingly complex environment for small and medium enterprises (SMEs) with up to $250 million (USD) in annual revenues and with up to 500 employees that are in need of enterprise application solutions that are intuitive and, consequently, easy to use and implement. Such a solution would have to meet this market's requirements of competitively and scalable priced, functional products, ease of modification, relatively short implementations, and dependable service and support. The modules could be implemented in a gradual fashion to tackle the most burning issues first. Also, the simplicity and flexibility of the product, bundled with the experience within financials or accounting and manufacturing or distribution, should not impose serious business process re-engineering (BPR) but still produce benefits like pervasive information sharing and process efficiency.

SME customers continue to increasingly realize the importance of seamless integration between front-office and back-office applications, and to consequently look for one strategic vendor (the "one throat to choke") to fulfill and be solely accountable for the vast majority of their business application needs, particularly in the lower end of the segment. Thus, having a broad impeccably integrated horizontal offering with selected vertical enhancements via original equipment manufacturer (OEM) partnerships or via value adding resellers' (VAR) add-on products, on top of nurturing resellers network, providing well-attuned pricing, and catering for evolving scalability and migration needs of customers are all necessary tenets of the success in this market segment.

However, there is a challenge of properly positioning and marketing products like e-Synergy, which is a mile wide in scope but an inch deep in terms of individual functional modules. Thus it is

1) difficult to identify the likely buyer, and

2) at a disadvantage when competing against best-of-breed packages within the aforementioned individual categories with prospects' deep functional needs.

Further, the full-fledged BPM area is not easy to compete within either. With wealthy and viable competitors coming also from the EAI specialists, the infrastructure (platform and tools) providers and packaged applications vendors. Therefore, BPM aspirants, such as Exact Software have to position themselves clearly to avoid strong competition from many directions such as best-of-breed BPM vendors (e.g., Intalio, Fuego, Handysoft, Savvion, Longview, Cartesis, Comshare, etc.), business modeling players (e.g. IDS Scheer), workflow management vendors (e.g., Filenet and Staffware), infrastructure providers (e.g., IBM, Microsoft, BEA Systems, Sun Microsystems, etc.), EAI or middleware providers (e.g., webMethods, Tibco, SeeBeyond, and Vitria), and many large enterprise vendors' (e.g., SAP, Siebel, PeopleSoft and Oracle) intrusion into the BPM arena, in the manner they have done with the CRM or supply chain management (SCM).

There are also some indications that BAM and BPM tools still, ironically, have a low penetration in areas where they are most needed — measuring and monitoring business activities and processes to improve operational performance management — which will require a strong evangelistic effort.

SES, BAM, and BPM tools hold significant potential for end user organizations, as they can accelerate the velocity of the business and deal with the details of everyday needs. The challenge is to fine-tune the system to dynamically combine event and contextual data. If done correctly, these tools can enhance the value of existing data warehouses by analyzing data even while it is being loaded into the warehouse and enable users to detect critical events in near real-time, initiating possibly the optimal response. Users should determine if these applications have a role in their business and if so, develop a plan to learn about the concept and launch a pilot operation as to better understand the benefits and limitations of the concepts.

 
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