A vision for integrated applications
By Rich Schmitt
What if you invited 6,000 people to a party and everybody came? That’s what happened for the folks at Infor this April in Orlando. As the third largest supplier of enterprise applications and services in the world, when Infor hosts a meeting for all of their users, it is going to be big.
In April, I attended their Inforum conference, a huge event that brings together users from all Infor’s business units. Users come from all over the world to meet with Infor’s team and to attend an amazing array of technical, educational, communication and marketing sessions. By my count there were somewhere around 1,000 sessions presented at the meeting.
While many of us, in this industry, may use or at least may know about Infor’s distribution products (Infor Distribution SX.e, Infor Distribution A+, Infor Distribution FACTS, Infor M3, SHIMS and others) most of us don’t know that they are a $2.8B operation with 12,400+ employees. They have 70,000+ customers in 194 countries with 160 direct offices in 38 countries. They provide solutions outside distribution to some big-name customers like J. C. Penny, Ferrari, L.L. Bean, Boeing, etc. Their solutions include major offerings in healthcare, manufacturing and the public sector.
Infor is definitely a company with a bold strategy. About 3 years ago, Infor’s private investors recruited Charles Phillips, the President of Oracle, to take Infor in a new direction. Also recruited around the same time was Andy Berry as VP and GM Global Wholesale Distribution Business Unit. Andy is responsible for most of the Infor software sold into our industry. Before Charles and Andy came on board, some of my industry friends who are Infor customers were concerned that the company was in a holding pattern. Infor had purchased a group of similar companies but, seemingly, lacked a vision for creating any sort of synergy between the acquisitions or a unifying strategy for the company.
From where I sit, Infor is definitely NOT in a holding pattern. They have a global view of the markets they serve and want to serve. They have an aggressive plan for connecting their offerings in order to provide the best customer value for their development dollars and they are making big investments (in the neighborhood of $500M so far) to deliver on their plan. (I would be remiss if I didn’t also acknowledge that while bold strategies have tremendous upside, they are often difficult to execute.) It would take several columns to even summarize all of their initiatives so I will just focus on some of the strategic moves that may be of interest to our industry.
A little over 2 years ago, I had the opportunity to talk with Andy at the TUG (TheUserGroup.org) Connects conference. He had been in his new job several months but it was his first major user meeting. From the opening session at TUG several of the attendees commented on the perceived “sea-change” for the distribution unit. The changes were evident on many fronts:
1. The entire executive team from the distribution unit was in attendance. They were circulating among the attendees, introducing themselves and listening.
2. Andy had just completed introductory meetings with hundreds of their customers. Andy commented then, “The first 15 minutes of some of the meetings were pretty intense and, sometimes humbling. I listened to the customers, discussed solutions and told them that I would be accountable for fixing the problems.”
3. Andy offered his personal cell phone number to all in attendance says, “If you have a problem that isn’t getting resolved, call me.” (That impressed just about everyone.)
4. Infor presented a product plan for their distribution products that, in general terms, outlined where the various ERP packages were headed going forward. He committed to creating and publishing a “roadmap” for all of their packages so users of would know the score.
5. Fast forward to April 2013…Andy and I are sitting at a table in the massive booth area (big enough for 6,000 people) of the Inforum meeting. Andy had carved out some time for me between his presentations and customer meetings.
Schmitt: It seems you have had a busy 2 years. When we talked in 2011 you were just rolling out your strategy so there were lots of promises but not much to show. At Inforum 2013, you are actually showing delivered products.
Berry: When we talked in 2011, we had created a vision and just gotten the go-ahead to hire the people required to implement the vision. So our first challenge was to hire more than 1,000 engineers to deliver on the promises. 2 years later, we have hired a lot of the people and have delivered a bunch of the promised software and announced even more initiatives as we flesh-out the vision.
Schmitt: When we talked 2 years ago, you mentioned an integrating strategy named ION. At that time, I assumed that you were talking about integrating your various distribution packages. At the opening session, I was surprised by how broad Infor’s integration strategy really is. Am I understanding your vision correctly?
Berry: Yes, Infor is creating integration, not just within the distribution unit but across all of our products and verticals. We created an underlying middleware technology, we call ION. It’s our platform for integrating our Infor applications within verticals and also across our verticals. So enterprise applications we develop will be available to all of our customers. Just as important ION will allow us to connect our applications with non-Infor systems.
Schmitt: In the presentations people have been referencing Infor10x , what exactly is it.
Berry: Infor10x is a release level for our suite of integrated applications. It represents a set of standards for an application that indicates the level of ION functionality that is supported. So, for example, we are working to get our various distribution products certified under Infor10x.
Schmitt: Can you give me an example of what that means to the wholesaler?
Berry: Sure, after an application, say our SX.e ERP software, supports Infor10x, we can connect our Infor Analytics product to it. We don’t need to create a special connector in the Analytics tool for SX.e since through ION they speak a common language. As our A+ and FACTS packages get Infor10x certified, they too will be able to use Infor Analytics.
Schmitt: So you will have a single analytics tool across all distribution products?
Berry: Yes but we will be able to use Infor Analytics across any Infor product in any of the verticals we serve. And, since we have SAP and Oracle connectivity within ION, Infor Analytics can also be sold to customers with those non-Infor ERPs.
Schmitt: So a global company with several ERPs provided by multiple ERP vendors can use Infor Analytics?
Berry: Even better, that global company can create reporting that consolidates data from those different ERP packages. So the president of that global company could view all of today’s orders even though some locations use SX.e, others use A+, others use Oracle and still others use Eclipse. Large complex companies need to connect their operation and ION will be the key technology for it.
Schmitt: As we talked 2 years ago, your attitude to 3rd party solutions was somewhat unique in that you showed an openness to allowing 3rd parties to connect through ION.
Berry: For our customers to remain competitive, they need best-in-class solutions. So our applications must be able to compete with those available from other providers. There are some application areas that we intend to “own” either by developing them or by acquiring them. There are others that we intend to provide through partnerships. Finally, since we cannot provide everything, there will be some third party applications that will connect to our applications using ION.
Schmitt: How will your customers know your plans going forward so they know when to buy from you and when to work with a 3rd party?
Berry: I would suggest that they call us. We can provide information that they will need to make informed decisions.
Schmitt: I think one of your most unusual announcements was the creation of Hook & Loop.
Berry: Hook & Loop is our own in-house creative agency. We assembled a group of talented, creative people to build standards for what used to be called “the look and feel” of our products. Hook & Loop is helping us to build the total user experience into our software under the name “SOHO.” Of course, function is first but users are also interested in attractive and easy-to-use products. Their work includes building social business into our products from the ground up.
Schmitt: Talking about social business, you also are developing a platform called Infor Ming.le™. Talk about what Infor Ming.le™ is.
Berry: Infor Ming.le™ is collaborative platform that will change the way people interact, with customers, vendors and prospects as well as within their own company. Infor Ming.le™ will connect social business through ION to the backbone systems of the company. It will go beyond business conversations with business documents and support business workflows.
Schmitt: This is really the implementation of the ION vision we discussed 2 years ago.
Berry: Yes, it’s what we discussed and more.
Inforum 2013 was a good conference where Infor provided a lot more information than I could possibly discuss here. As I said before Infor has developed a bold vision but what impresses me the most is that they are putting their money where their vision is.
As final note, this column should not be considered an endorsement of any kind. I did not conduct an in-depth technical evaluation of Infor’s software. Wholesalers should carefully evaluate any software vendor as they consider that vendor’s software for their business. In the coming months, I will be discussing some of the work being done by other software vendors. (I should disclose that Infor paid for my hotel and conference attendance.)
Rich Schmitt is president of Schmitt Consulting Group Inc., a management consulting firm focused on improving the profitability of distribution and manufacturing clients. Rich is also the co-owner of Schmitt ProfitTools Inc. (SPI), a business producing print, CD-ROM, web and palm-based catalogs as well as pricing management and analysis software for wholesalers. Go to www.go-spi.com for more information.