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Can low-code ERP free SaaS from the vanilla constraints of ERP standardization? Acumatica's Ali Jani says yes

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed May 13, 2021
No-code and low-code are riding the hype train - and low-code ERP is on deck. But what is the underlying value we're after here? And how are such benefits achieved? Acumatica's Ali Jani sees a way out of the cloud ERP standardization dilemma. Time to dig in.

Freedom to communicate and work with cloud technology © Romolo Tavani -
(© Romolo Tavani -

For years, I've argued that the most important cloud ERP benefits come after go-live. I've also argued they don't magically happen:

Extracting full value from cloud ERP is not about flipping the go-live switch. It requires organizational will - and a fierce collaboration with the vendor and/or consulting partner(s).

Call it digital transformation or business model evolution; call it self-disruption or agility. Those customers getting the most out of cloud ERP are doing much more than moving off legacy systems.

In my 2018 diginomica piece, Cloud ERP isn't a handshake deal - it's a value extraction challenge, I laid out what I've seen. Three years later, does the piece hold up? For me it does, but with one glaring exception: I should have done more with automation and workflow creation.

Low-code ERP - a solution to the customize versus standardize dilemma?

These days, you can't get away from these topics. It's a marketing tsunami of "low-code" and "no-code" vendor hype. I have some issues with the low-code hype festival. But: since that 2018 piece, I've also seen compelling examples of business users designing/automating their own workflows - without need for IT.

That brought me back to midmarket cloud ERP player Acumatica. Why? Because long before the low-code hype train got rolling, Acumatica loaded their release demos with these kinds of workflows. Often, Acumatica showed them on mobile devices, where ERP vendors feared to tread. No, Acumatica isn't the only vendor with good ERP automation tools. But they were shipping product in this area earlier than most. So I invited Acumatica's Ali Jani, Chief Product Officer, to weigh in on what we've learned.

Jani started with a hugely important point: SaaS ERP has been great for moving customers out of the legacy customization trap, but: SaaS has been too vanilla. Keeping SaaS to standard comes at a user-unfriendly cost. Customizing your SaaS workflows is a potent way of changing that. As Jani explains:

It's exciting that this has been resonating. Honestly, when customers contact Acumatica, that's one of their big pain points. They customized their existing ERP solutions, and they end up on these older versions. Maybe they lose the person who did the customization; that person is retiring. They feel like they're at risk. Technology debt is a big issue in the ERP world.

And yet, going to standard SaaS functionality isn't a differentiator. Ali continues:

People want to get out of technical debt as much as possible. But the reality is: for them to be in front of their competition and to mold the software to their business, they need to be different - they cannot afford to be the same as everybody else. There's something about their unique business that's got them to be successful.

When you talk to them, and you figure out what that is, it's usually some innovative thing; they've figured out how to do this "x thing" in productivity gains, or they've changed this process, or that process. Even the small companies these days, they need to compete with the bigger ones. So they need a system that's flexible. The challenge has always been, how do you deliver flexibility?

That's the SaaS ERP challenge: deliver us from customized-old-releases purgatory, but don't relegate us to vanilla. Ali:

When we started this whole process, we wanted to deliver a SaaS solution with all the benefits of SaaS, without the drawbacks of traditional SaaS. The traditional drawback with SaaS has always been flexibility. As the technology matures, we built this notion of future-proof... Because we can keep the technology current, we're able to take advantage of the things that allow us to provide flexibility in the cloud.

Okay, but how does the low-code/no-code push fit into that?

Actually, that translates directly to low-code/no-code, because you shouldn't have to write code to get flexibility.

Low-code ERP isn't just about workflow automation - it's about personalized ERP

We tend to lump no-code and low-code together. But the way Jani thinks about it, the two have different enterprise aims. Low-code might be akin to the Excel power user, who is happy working in complexity even as others use Excel more simply. In the Acumatica world, this super-user is the low-coder. So, you want to support them - but within the context where they are still eligible for upgrades, and thus, "future-proof."

We've applied the concepts to ERP, where the power-user, if you want to code, how can you do coding safely, so that they can propagate from version to version? But really, you shouldn't have to do it.

Jani says the verticalization of ERP plays a key role here. Industry-specific SaaS functionality means the so-called power-users don't need to flex their low-code chops as often:

The more we've gone down the vertical route, as we've released these industry editions, like construction, distribution, and manufacturing - if the functionality depth is there, in a year, they're 90%. So you really only need to modify 10%. And even that 10%, you need to do over time; you don't have to do it immediately.

Low-code is useful, but no-code is the ideal. No-code means any business user can tweak their ERP system, without incurring tech debt - or another round of user acceptance testing. Jani:

We've figured out ways to allow you to do that - without having to code.

For example? 

It's a theme of our releases. Things like the side panels we introduced - you can put the information you care about right in front of you. You don't need to write code to activate multiple views in one screen, and pull data from different areas and have them there. With our modern workflow engine, you can define with drag and drop.

One winner? Using business rules to define workflows:

The average user can create rules like, 'I don't want the somebody to close the opportunity, if it's past this stage, and the amount is less than x, and it requires an approval.' These processes that you can do, that traditionally, you needed a lot of coding to do.

Cutting out third-party reporting is another gain:

Reporting is a very good example; People use report writing tools like Crystal Reports. You shouldn't need to use them - you should be able to slice and dice the data you need within the framework itself.

One no-code aspect of SaaS ERP isn't very sexy, but has a jugular relevance to users: reducing the number of screens per transaction. This is one area where the customization sins of the past were committed. Ali:

People who want to customize, one of their big pains is they want to be more productive. That's why they do it in the first place. To be productive, they want fewer clicks; they want fewer steps to make a particular action happen.

The way we've done it now, with navigations and notifications, you're in control of the navigations; you're in control of when you see this display. You see these three fields of data; well, if you push click, where should it navigate? Should it navigate to the customer screen, or should it navigate to the customer details? Or should that go to the AR history? It becomes configuration, so you don't have to write code to change the system's behavior to meet what the end user needs.

My take - building beautiful apps isn't the low-code goal, let's automate ERP workflows

Empowering business users without incurring technical debt, or IT investments? It's the right conversation. But: I believe, despite the no-code/low-code marketing exhilaration, we're still in the early days of what's possible. We need to keep pressing - and pressing vendors for more.

This no-code/low-code conversation is far preferable to the PR hype about "building beautiful no-code apps." Business users probably don't have the skills to build beautiful apps - quit fantasizing that no-code gives them that ability. iOS and Android still thrive on device-specific development. That said, Ali pointed out that even the best developers are increasingly using low-code building blocks, and why not? The lines are blurring; duplicating code that works perfectly makes no sense.

But business users don't need to build beautiful apps themselves. What SaaS ERP users need is a mix of workflow automation and personalization - without twisting themselves up in testing and IT tickets. Whether it's no-code, low-code, or just the way modern software should be built - that's all fine by me. As Ali puts it:

Every user uses the system differently. We've come to an age where people don't just have the preference of colors and themes. They have the preferences of what they see on the screen, what things they click - where do they want the item on the screen?

No more generic ERP. Time to design for industry personas. Free individuals up to personalize from there.

Understand the persona, and let them configure it, and provide them best-of-breed pieces. But then let them tailor it and personalize it without having to write code.

Jani's standout quote was about an Acumatica partner that pushed the low-code extreme:

I was on a call the other day with a partner. I couldn't even recognize the system. They had tailored it so much to the specific needs of this customer who was in genetics; they were doing some testing on chromosomes and things like that. And, you know, the amount of data they would capture was just enormous. And the processes they use, then what forms they printed. For the automation, they needed it to flow quickly. And this was a small business that only wanted to spend, I don't know, $30-40,000.

When a partner can customize your system (and solve an industry need) to the point where you don't recognize it - without becoming ineligible for upgrades - that's the kind of ERP story we need more of. Acumatica's Sean Chatterjee sent another one, via their customer Fabuwood:

I know that with minimal training, they used their own staff to do integrations with nine custom applications, that were all mission-critical to their business. What impressed me most about the story was how quickly their team learned the platform, and then turned around and actually did all the integrations on their own. [Author's note: for more on Fabuwood's forward-thinking project, see my prior story, Speed as a competitive edge - how Fabuwood Cabinetry uses modern ERP as a data platform].

We can't become intoxicated by tech innovation either. This doesn't eliminate the need for rigorous testing, or the importance of guiding users (and third-party providers) on the best approaches to keep systems upgradeable. In Acumatica's case, they continue to fine tune how customers can test new release compatibility ahead of an upgrade - and how partners can build third-party solutions with "future-proof" confidence.

The specifics of that are beyond the scope of this article, but it bears mentioning: all ERP customers should press their vendors on these details. When it comes to SaaS, customers will want to create workflows that cross multiple vendors and applications. That's why we shouldn't pat ourselves on the back too much about low-code ERP; there's too much work ahead.

But it's refreshing to talk about a personalized type of SaaS ERP. When you have industry-specific personas to tweak as you need, that's a long way from the endless IT change orders that used to clog up ERP implementations. It's the right goal - and a cloud ERP benefit to strive for.

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