Just 18 months after his last interview with Financial Systems News (FSN), Charles Phillips, CEO of Infor, the world’s third largest ERP vendor, talks to Gary Simon about the company’s progress in rolling out its strategy aimed at building a worthy competitor to Oracle and SAP built around deep industry specialisation, a more innovative culture and a determination to reverse the software industry’s mistakes of the past.
Despite a lacklustre global economy, Gary Simon discovers an Infor which is buzzing with creativity as it carves out a distinctive position, overturning what is mistakenly assumed by many to be a mature and lifeless market for ERP.
Editor: How has the market changed since our last meeting?
CP: “The market has moderately improved after the Eurozone crisis and the fiscal cliff debate in the US. We’re seeing better activity. We’ve been in crisis mode for so long that business can no longer put off investment in systems that are going to lower its costs and improve automation.
“One of the big changes is that is that businesses are no longer tied to one or two databases – there are alternatives – and that choice is creating movement. The other big development is the rise of the social business platform. In the past nobody wanted to use business software and new projects were limited to implementing a few new features but essentially doing the same thing in the same way. But once people see mobile capability and social tools in action they become excited by new projects. And when business software acts and works like an IPad, everybody wants to be involved. As a result we are seeing a broadening of the user base and almost exponential growth in numbers of users.”
“The other thing we have been focussing on is the roll out of our ‘micro-verticals’ strategy aimed at delivering specialized functionality out of the box to sub- segments of the traditional verticals. For example, this year we have delivered dedicated features for the packaging/cardboard box industry and we plan to add to this with the release of a couple of micro-vertical solutions each year.”
Editor: Back in October you said that Infor wants to make “beautiful” software a core competence – what does this mean and have you achieved it?
CP: “I use the analogy of the telephone. When it was just a standard appliance with a number pad and handset nobody was concerned with model numbers or what it was called but the iPhone changed all of that. The iPhone is a beautiful device that provides an outstanding user experience. Suddenly everybody knows what make and model of phone they use. So beauty is about giving people access to something they really want to use.”
“When we started this initiative we acquired a creative agency called Hook & Loop and brought it in-house. This agency is now central to what we do and has been so impactful on our software design that it has grown rapidly to 50 people. Something that we did not predict is the impact on customers who also want to use this unique design capability to enhance their software and vertical applications. Everybody is asking to use them and we are seriously considering providing additional services in this area.”
“But all of this has had the effect of promoting good design in everything that we do, from the look of our business cards and presentations through to our office buildings. People really value good design because it generally makes them happier and more productive.”
Editor: How is Infor’s strategy playing out a year down the line?
CP: “Infor’s strategy continues to be centred on three main elements, namely; micro-verticals, “beauty as a competence” and loosely coupled integration (based on Infor ION), but a year on we are filling in ideas, discovering better ways to execute on the strategy and finding that all of these concepts are bleeding into each other.”
“Take for example “Sky Vault”, a business vault or data mart. We are seeing that organizations are having difficulty getting to business critical information on the move. So we are using Infor ION capability to extract and normalise the data from different applications and put it into the Cloud. Then we have used Hook & Loop to design beautiful front-end dashboards for monitoring performance.”
“We’ve also created a collaborative environment, which we’ve branded Infor Ming.le, in which users can mingle together within the application, with talking, messaging, alerting and tweeting providing a complete history and audit trail of the progress. Customers who have seen it have been blown away.”
Editor: So why are CFOs so sceptical about social business tools?
CP: “I think most of the CFOs who are sceptical have not seen and understood the capabilities of social tools. In the majority of cases they have probably viewed ‘version 1’ social tools which are not integrated and deeply embedded in business applications. This is what differentiates our platform. It is essential that the data is not separated from the workflow and communications. You don’t have to leave our applications to go somewhere else. Added to which you get a timeline of activity, e.g. who approved a requisition, when and how long it took.”
“In the foreseeable future we see this capability spreading beyond the boundaries of the company to its partners, customer and other stakeholders, i.e. the extended enterprise. We just have to work on the security to limit what external users can view.”
“As an example of this extended capability we have a couple of early adopters in the hospitality industry providing downloadable apps to hotel guests so that they can ‘follow’ their room, for example, being notified when housekeeping has cleaned the room or turned down the beds. Another app enables guests to ‘follow’ the beach to get status reports on surfing and wind conditions based on sensors placed on buoys.”
“In fact we are seeing rapid growth in mobile applications as well, even to the extent that we are sometimes demonstrating software based entirely on mobile devices. At the moment it’s executives on the move asking for information and dashboards to be delivered on mobile devices but there is also interest from anyone involved in field service applications.”
Ed’s footnote: So 12 months down the line Infor is clearly in its stride. Attendance at its user conference this week will be around 6,000 delegates, a 1,000 more than last year – a formidable achievement in the most challenging economy for a couple of generations - a clear indication that Infor’s reputation for exciting innovation is gaining a foothold.