Can ERP systems look beautiful?

25th October 2012

ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) has its roots in manufacturing, but the notion that ERP systems have to look grey and industrial was quickly dispelled by Infor which unveiled the progress of its strategy since Infor10 was launched last year. Charles Phillip’s Infor’s CEO was in London to front the Infor Road Show  - a good chunk of which focussed on the new interface being rolled out as a common component across Infor’s extensive offerings. Gary Simon, FSN’s managing editor was there.




“We want to make beauty a core competence” said Phillips, to the astonishment of several hundred people gathered in the auditorium.  What was he talking about? Had he gone barking mad?

It turns out that “Beauty as a Competence” is a key strand of Infor’s strategy to make its ERP software as accessible, intuitive and productive as using social media networks such as Facebook, Linkedin and Twitter.  And why not?   After all it is thought that half of the adult population in the United States spends up to two hours a day using social media.

But in Infor’s case beauty is more than skin deep. Many software houses embarking on the development of a new user interface (UI) would go to a swanky design agency and get a bunch of cool youngsters to develop a pretty looking front end. Infor’s management decided to go against the grain.

As Duncan Angove, Infor President, put it, “If we are serious about beautiful software being a core competency shouldn’t we be doing it ourselves?” And he’s right – for two main reasons.  Firstly, interfaces are important, in fact more important than people give them credit for. There is competitive advantage in having a UI which can enhance navigation, smooth out communications, reduce the learning curve, enhance the user experience and improve productivity.  Secondly, the UI is where social business crystallises, i.e. where social networks, social tools and social business coalesce in a way that can profoundly change the way that individuals work.  And if you are committed to creating a leading edge user experience that’s going to permeate the whole product set then you had better ‘own’ it, to ensure that any solution is enduring and adaptable.

So rather than approaching a fashionable New York design agency, Infor decided to set up its own creative agency populated with media-type engineers.  This resulted in “Hook and Loop” an internal agency that to all intents and purposes looks like a fully fledged agency.  Phillips mocked, “We took a different approach and believe me they are different from us!”

Nobody would deny that they have done a brilliant job with the UI.  It’s Apple’esque in the sense that it’s simple, sleek and you really want to use it.  There was a palpable sense of “gosh that looks fantastic” in the audience as everyone drooled over the interface and wished they had it tomorrow.

But like one of Infor’s most famous customers, Ferrari, who build beautiful cars, there is serious stuff under the bonnet. Yes, the UI has a contemporary feel, offers a better user experience and fewer clicks but it also combines context sensitive information and social business.

“Context” means that the system is designed to serve up information that is not only relevant to the particular screen or transaction, but is also tailored to the individual’s role.  For example, the user might see a ‘Task’ feed ( a little like  a tweet deck) of all of workflow tasks needing attention; an ‘Alerts’ feed alongside it showing exceptions that need urgent action and an ‘Activity’ feed displaying snippets of conversation arising from transactions in the business. In Infor, users follow ‘objects’ in the system, such as a product item, a customer, an invoice or an order in much the same way that they would follow an individual in Facebook.  The system then alerts the user anytime that the object changes.  But critically, a user can ‘share’ an object, such as an invoice, with other individuals working in the business (just like other social tools).  But when sharing, the context follows the shared object so that the receiving party knows the context in which the information is being supplied and can act accordingly.  This sequence of “Follow-Share-Act” forms the backbone of the new UI.

The advantages of sharing information this way are compelling. The audience in London could immediately see that this was the way forward – so much better than emails, ad-hoc meetings, walking the corridors and telephone conversations.  It is indeed a beautiful solution.