Infor 3.0 is all about people and the future of work - an interview with CEO Charles Phillips

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez April 3, 2019
Summary:
I sit down with Infor CEO Charles Phillips to discuss how he’s tackling the next phase of Infor’s strategy, which places people at the centre of business systems.
An image of Infor CEO, Charles Phillips
Infor CEO, Charles Phillips

Infor is entering its third era under the management of CEO Charles Phillips, who took on ambitious strategy of reforming the enterprise software company back in 2010. Prior to Phillips taking on the leadership role, Infor had an impressive customer base, but its apps had been ignored for years and there was no fresh thinking in the company (Infor 1.0).

Enter Phillips and a number of new keen executives, who brought in the era of Infor 2.0, which has been all about rewriting Infor industry apps for the cloud, running on the new Infor OS, hosted on Amazon Web Services, created with UX front of mind, and centred around a strong API strategy. Other developments have been introduced over the years - such as a new BI platform (following the acquisition of Birst), a new AI platform (Coleman), and the acquisition of GT Nexus (now Infor’s supply chain network). However, the focus has always been the same - multi-tenant industry vertical applications, hosted in the cloud, beautifully designed.

Phillips has maintained a strong position on that customisation should be kept to a minimum (hence pursuing the industry vertical investments) and that operating in the cloud should be easier as a result.

Being private has helped Infor invest where it needed to and it now has some impressive cloud numbers to boast about. Not only this, but it has attracted some seriously high profile customer names in recent years (the likes of which its competitors would kill for), and has had two multi-billion dollar investments from Koch Industries, which is likely gearing the company up for what could be one of the largest tech industry IPOs on the east coast.

So, as Infor’s 2.0 strategy has embedded, I attended the company’s EMEA event in Amsterdam this week asking the question - what next? What would an Infor 3.0 look like? And CEO Charles Phillips did not disappoint.

I got the chance to sit down with Phillips to ask what was front of mind for Infor over the coming years and where investments would be made - the answer was clear, it’s going to all be about the future of work and people.

The productivity problem

The basis for my questions for Phillips was helpfully framed during his keynote presentation at the event, where he described how despite the technology advancements over the past decade, productivity in Europe and the US has increased by as little as 8% or 9%. He said that this means that economies don’t grow and prosperity slows.

Phillips said that this can be helped by either boosting the amount of people available - which doesn’t seem like a popular choice at the moment, given the state of politics - or you can make people more productive. However, he argued, business application providers don’t often put people at the centre of their development plans. During his keynote, he said:

We touch a lot of different people who go into an office every day, or into a factory floor, or a hospital. We think we have probably over 100 million users. And what’s happening is that the definition of work is changing, with technology and automation moving at such a fast pace.

Can you make people more productive by designing it differently? Lowering the barriers to entry for people to learn complex tasks? Taking mundane tasks away with robotic process automation? Can you change the way people work? It’s not just a UX problem - you need to look at the totality of how people work every day.

Phillips put up Infor’s Business Graph on the screen (see image below) and said that Infor has a 360 degree view of how people impact work. He said:

We know how productive they are. Who needs training. Inside Infor applications, we built something called a Business Graph. We can connect people. We can connect assets. To work orders. To products. To opportunities. To everything.

This all connects how an organisation works. In the past, every one of these areas was built as a silo. They didn’t talk to each other. But we need to look at this holistically. We have built this. We have access to this. So you can begin to ask unique questions - such as, if I’m collecting sales, engagement, employee, production and manufacturing data - which shifts that I’m scheduling help create the most high quality products? And which people working on what product line have the most safety issues?

 

An image of Infor’s Business Graph
Infor’s Business Graph

A deeper dive

The above only formed a small part of Phillips’s keynote, but I had a hunch that this would be framing a broader conversation inside Infor. When I sat down with Phillips, I was keen to understand more and to understand whether or not this was front and centre of Infor’s future strategy plans.

He explained that software providers usually forget that it’s not just about business systems, it’s also about people. He said:

It’s forgotten that it’s people using these systems and they’re making decisions. If you optimise around them, all the other systems should be serving them to make them better at their job.

At the same time, you get a lot of people who want jobs, who don’t seem to be moving into those occupations, for a lot of different reasons. Unless you can make these jobs easier to do, with less training, and the software can be a big part of that. Unless we give them more tools, more visibility and more information, so that a broader set of people can participate - economic growth is going to continue to slow.

When I talk about productivity, everybody is struggling with that. They say they can’t find the right workers, it’s harder to train them, it’s harder to retain them. And yet there are so many people that are not in the workforce, because they don’t have the relevant skills.

As such, Phillips said that Infor could work to help to solve this by making people better at their jobs, by make it easier to do their jobs, and reducing the barriers to entry. He explained:

If I can make individuals more productive, I can make companies more productive. Which is what they all want. They just haven’t been thinking about it that way. If you want to get more productive, you have to measure the productivity of each individual.

We can do that, we can actually see how they are using the software now. We can make it easier to use, we know what information they need, we can see how much time they’re spending on each screen, we can start automating some of that stuff away. They get more productive, you get more productive.

Phillips said that he’s noticed that this is a particularly pertinent issue when selling to lines of business, rather than to CIOs, as they’re fully aware of the problems facing the people they’re managing and the need to progress them in their careers.

Infor’s approach to this is via the Business Graph detailed above, using Coleman, Infor’s AI tool, to make recommendations about how employees are working. Phillips said that whilst this is easier if a customer is all-in with Infor, it’s still possible if they use other providers too - it just becomes a data cleansing problem.

The beauty of Infor too is that the recommendations will also take into consideration industry context (e.g. compliance, training, etc), because of the vertical approach.

Phillips said:

In addition to regular transaction data, we have every click you’ve done on a screen - we know where you’re struggling, how many times you log in a day. We can see how you’re actually benefiting or not benefiting from a system, where you likely need training. We know if someone who has the same job as you is doing it 50% better, we know what that looks like as well.

We can map you to say, we’ve watched someone else in your job, this is how they’ve progressed, and make recommendations on training. It’s all about observing all these systems and pulling out the patterns for success for these employees. They want to grow, but don’t necessarily know how to grow and get to the next level.

What else can we expect?

As noted above, Infor is considering a path to IPO. However, whilst there has been a lot of speculation about that, I was more interested to find out from Phillips where he thinks Infor still lacks and what strategic moves the company may make to stay ahead.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Infor is going to progress its industry approach by adding more micro-verticals. Phillips said:

We’ve been very careful not to add too many new verticals, because it’s a big commitment and expensive. But there are adjacent ones that are close enough to what we do that we can start to add, now that we have built all of this. We can start to expand horizontally and start to add more verticals, more quickly. That will probably be by acquisition, then we will build on top of that.

However, beyond that, and perhaps more interestingly, Phillips cleverly recognises that Infor could have more gravitational pull with companies in certain industries, if it owns more data that they regularly use. He explained:

We want more content. In almost every industry there is industry data that gets shared. If you’re in the auto industry, there’s one database that has all the accident auto claims data in one place, so everybody can see it and share it. They can learn from that, design cars differently. It makes no sense for each company to collect that on their own.

So there are companies that do that and then you buy it, subscribe to it. Whether it’s credit card data, or whatever, you name it. Usually that data is loaded on one of our applications because we are using it to make some decisions, so it would be good if we had more content. By industry, those content databases become part of our platform.

We would probably want to own it, be the source for that data. That would be great data to put into the data lake.

My take

It’s always a pleasure to sit down with Phillips. He’s a CEO that cares less about bravado and PR, and is more interested in a considered and thoughtful conversation. I’ve been covering Infor since Phillips joined in 2010 and the progress the company has made has been remarkable. The strategy has been cogent and they’ve stuck to their guns. Infor obviously has a huge task in getting the majority of its on-prem install base to the cloud, but it has made huge progress in winning net-new big names, and is also making the transition for on-prem customers as easy as possible. Whilst its competitors begin to think about industry verticals and continue to build out all their hardware, Infor is scaling at speed on AWS and refining its industry vertical apps at a detail others in industry are nowhere near. IPO or not, Infor 3.0 looks set to be very interesting indeed.