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2019 highlights - IBVI puts the blind and visually impaired to work, and Oracle Cloud Applications fuels their efforts

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed July 26, 2019
Next up in my 2019 highlight series: a talk at Oracle MBX 2019 with one of the most impressive projects I've seen all year. IBVI's mission to employ the visually impaired brings a new angle to cloud ERP.

ibvi at Oracle MBX 2019
IBVI (middle) with iteria.US team at Oracle MBX '19.

Yes, we can all get weary of "organizational mission statements." But how does IBVI's grab you?

IBVI provides the best, most cost effective industrial supplies and services for all government supply needs - while creating jobs for the blind and visually impaired.

How about this for a core value?

Be the leading voice in educating businesses on how to create, design, and build accessible workplaces for the blind and visually impaired.

At Oracle MBX 2019, an unprecedented thing happened: fellow miscreant/analyst and diginomica contributor Brian Sommer waved me over and insisted I join his session, already in progress. Sommer was meeting with IBVI and their implementation partner iteria.US.

"IBVI needs performance metrics the likes of which I've never heard"

It's not typical of Sommer to wave hands about an ERP use case, but as soon as IBVI Innovation Officer Emmanuel Vouvakis laid out IBVI's ambitions, I knew this was going to be a keeper (Vouvaki is pictured in middle above). We've done plenty of diginomica pieces on how impactful organizations like IBVI scale on modern ERP. But something stands out here: IBVI's unique - and demanding -  workforce requirements. A Sommer said to me when I pulled up a chair:

They need performance metrics, the likes of which I've never heard of before. They need to know the number of blind employee hours per year as a key KPI.

These days, we talk up the power of data visualizations. Well, those are of limited use here. Sommer added:

They have a diverse workforce, and they have to be able to translate things. Things that aren't going to work well for some of their audience would be the traditional performance dashboard. Pie charts and all that kind of stuff aren't going to cut it. Even row and column stuff gets screwed up, because they need systems that speak in a tabular fashion. You have others who will need a Braille display.

That poses a big challenge for any ERP vendor. Despite that, Oracle was able to move quickly. With the help of iteria.US, IBVI put in the entire Oracle Cloud HCM suite in five months. Then in seven months, IBVI went live with Oracle Cloud Financials, Supply Chain and Manufacturing.

Customer service is where new software gets put to the serious test. Vouvakis said that before they went live on Oracle, their customer service reps lacked access to basic functions. They couldn't look up orders; someone with sight had to read it to them. That's all changed. Vouvakis:

Now, with the deployment of Oracle, it took all that away, and gave them the control and the power to go in and look at the POs, and do all those things that they normally wouldn't be able to do.

Vouvakis made one thing clear: this isn't about hiring folks who are limited. The blind and visually impaired who work at IBVI are exceptionally skilled:

Again, they're high functioning. Most people assume that people that can't see, they can't think. Whereas they have a tremendous capacity for things - for calculation, spatial awareness, or memorization. All those areas of the brain are much more developed than ours.

It's not just about Braille anymore either. As Vouvakis told us, the younger generation is iPhone ready. They're used to hearing their world:

Older folks are born blind with know Braille. Younger kids, you know if they're born blind, don't, because they have the iPhone - that'll read everything out to them.

"If it doesn't create jobs, we don't do it"

The move to Oracle Cloud Applications was not just about more accessible software. As Sommer said:

They're doing this because what they had before will not scale. This move was to basically put in far better infrastructure that will allow them to scale - and therefore employ more individuals with some kind of disability or handicap.

But scaling is a bit different for IBVI. They are a not-for-profit, except they don't take donations. They fund their operations through what they sell. So IBVI is a not-for-profit company that functions as a for-profit. But "scale" is only allowed if it benefits the employees. Vouvakis:

As Brian alluded to, our performance measures are a bit different. We basically look at blind hours at the end of the year, not necessarily top line or bottom line. That makes it a little more challenging from a management perspective and from a performance perspective, because you still need to bring money in.

I can't go to my board and say, "I need to do this because it's more profitable, but it doesn't create jobs." Because if it doesn't create jobs, then they'll say "don't do it."

IBVI isn't exactly a small operation to begin with. Brian Schell, president of iteria.US, added context: IBVI now has approximately 250 employee equivalents, and a little over $100 million in revenue. You can't grow without savvy talent management. So how is Oracle Cloud HCM helping? Vouvakis:

Before, we couldn't even have blind people applying for a job. Typically, when you apply for a job, what I'm going to do is send you an application, then you fill it out. We live in a visual world. Once you take that away, then you have to figure out a way to adapt that. In our system that we had in the past, things like benefits were not accessible for them.

Now, a blind person can go online and make changes to their own profile, address, whatever. In the past, that never happened.

With IBVI's government sector focus, one word jumps out: compliance. Sure enough, that shows up in IBVI's core values:

Balance job creation, capital investments, and profitability while adhering to regulatory requirements supported by an ISO 9001 Standard and Quality Policy.

That means IBVI needs a "closed loop" ERP system with traceability. Other systems must also connect in a transparent way. Ravikumar Krishnamurthy, partner at iteria.US, explained how this was done. A customer-facing e-commerce system enables orders via credit cards, and provides a status via the warehouse. Krishnamurthy:

All that information is in that front end tool. Now, if you imagine, Oracle is the back end, but we pretty much capture every single transaction, because ultimately we need that to be costed. We need that to be seen from a compliance standpoint.

Procurement gets one version of that info; the customer service reps get another. The "closed loop" includes Oracle order, packing and inventory information. All told, about twenty steps are involved in the loop. Tying in IBVI's other systems - many of which are open source - involved the use of Talend cloud integration.

The wrap - designing for inclusion, and testing for AI

IBVI had an interesting change management twist. Sommer caught me up:

When it comes to change management, it's actually the people with vision who are struggling to adapt the most to the new processes, the new technologies. It's the visually impaired who adapt the quickest.

Every go-live brings challenges. One tricky area: the integration of JAWS screen reader content with Oracle. As Vouvakis said, the stakes of that integration were high: "Most of my employees are relying on that Jaws integration working. That means every screen."

Vouvakis was able to joke around with Schell and Krishnamurthy of iteria.US about sensitive issues in their collaboration. It's the kind of good-natured ribbing you only hear from partners who have been in the pressure cooker, and come out the other side.

One principle of inclusive design is that when you design for inclusion, the better the design will be for all users. Conversational interfaces are a great example. I could see IBVI being a huge "AI" asset to Oracle, testing conversational chatbots for example.

IBVI's thorough regression testing is already a potential benefit to other Oracle customers who want to provide accessible/inclusive software - not to mention accessible software that is fully compliant with the U.S. government's constantly changing regulations.

Vouvakis told me he'd love to get more attention from Oracle as new features and functionality are rolled out. That seems fair, given the unique mission and feedback IBVI is capable of generating back to Oracle. IBVI obviously wants to make absorbing Oracle's new cloud functionality as easy as possible, so there's a clear win-win possible here. Vouvakis:

We're basically a free test lab for this, and based on people that live it. Not some guy that's sighted, that's testing JAWS, but the people that live it every day - and know exactly where the nuances of the thing is.

Vouvakis and the IBVI team aren't stopping there. They already run as many Oracle Cloud Applications as just about any Oracle customer. They'll lean on that infrastructure as they look expand their facilities and plant locations (IBVI is based in West Atlas, Wisconsin). But it's always about the people - hiring more visually-impaired talent. Vouvakis made it clear: he didn't come to Oracle MBX 2019 for the publicity.

My intent was never really to come here necessarily to make a big publicity thing. This is another avenue for us to talk to our mission, to talk to the good things that they're doing, and hopefully raise some awareness.

Job done.

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