We at diginomica have followed the progress of Infor’s design agency, Hook & Loop, very closely since its inception. Infor CEO Charles Phillips made the commitment to the agency shortly after joining the company, as he believed that enterprise software needed to shift away from the tyranny of super users, towards making products that are so beautiful and intuitive that anybody can use them.
However, to date this has by and large been an internal venture for Infor. Hook & Loop were charged with working with product teams to ensure that Infor’s cloud products were usable and intuitive.
That is until Infor’s annual user conference in New York City this week, which saw Chief Creative Officer Marc Scibelli take to the stage during the keynote to announce H&L Digital - Infor’s new ‘digital-as-a-service’ offering.
Essentially, Hook & Loop is now also a customer facing agency that not only strategises with companies around what ‘digital’ means for them, but also integrates companies’ systems into a structure that works for a digital environment (creating an extraction layer for data). It then also builds and runs the applications for Infor customers as-a-service.
But there is more to this than meets the eye. This isn’t just about Infor building out a new revenue stream from the capability that it has created by investing in Hook & Loop. This is just as much about Infor further creating ‘stickiness’ with its customers, by H&L Digital further co-creating key services with customers that can then be integrated into core products .
This co-creation and reinvestment will not only keep customers with Infor because of the value they bring (if the strategy works), but it could ultimately mean that Infor’s systems are far more sophisticated and specific to verticals than anything else you could find on the market.
Not to mention that customers are desperately struggling to create their own internal digital capabilities in a market that is short on skills - Infor is now providing this for them in the form of H&L Digital. I’m told that the huge Hook & Loop was a key differentiator in securing the huge cloud deal that was announced this week between Infor and Travis Perkins.
During the keynote, Scibelli said:
H&L Digital, we are a client facing, end to end digital provider. The word digital gets thrown around a lot. What’s it mean? How do we define it? At Infor we think about it two ways. First it’s around digitising a business process, it’s about efficiencies and vertical integration. Developing ways to affect the bottom line. That’s really about automation.
The other side of that is really about looking at the business processes and how we can develop ways to affect the top line. How we can help customers differentiate. How can we leverage all the different tools of the internet - network, cloud, IoT, the API economy, design - take all of those things and help our customers really differentiate themselves. That’s what we are focusing on.
Scibelli declared that H&L Digital will work hard with customers to develop new capabilities, things that those customers couldn’t do before. It will figure out how those customers can differentiate themselves, create new revenue streams and figure out how they can do things in a way that they have never done before.
H&L Digital, however, isn’t just about strategy. Scibelli is keen to point out that he has a team of dozens of engineers that are focused on creating ‘linkages’ between a company’s technology estate, which will be used to drive its digital transformation. He said:
So at the bottom of the stack you can see we’ve got the solutions, that’s our cloud suites, or commerce cloud, sometimes they’re not even Infor systems. That’s our digital back-end. Right above that we’ve got our platforms - our API management layer, collaboration through Infor ming.le, CX, our IoT platform.
That’s what we call our digital enablement layer, the piece of the canvas that allows us to paint this digital transformation journey on for our customers. Right on top of that is H&L Digital. What we do is come in and strategise that ecosystem, we design it, we assemble it, we understand the products that need to be assembled, and then we run it for you in the cloud, end-to-end. And that’s our engagement layer.
So what we are really talking about is digital-as-a-service. We’ve bundled that into an offering called Infor CloudeSuite Digital.
But it’s the linkages, or the ‘tissue’, that is key. He added:
We have 80 people in the digital team right now, most of them are the front end engineers that we talked about. A small majority is strategists, designers. We wanted to really focus on the connected tissue part, because that’s the hardest part. We have a smart development team that can go in and figure out what needs connecting.
That is a team of experts in web services models, API management layers and IoT. That’s basically what we’ve put together. They’re experts in leveraging data, taking data out of IoT hardware devices, putting them in the cloud, running data science over it and regurgitating it somewhere. My team is responsible for saying what’s the somewhere, what’s it look like, how does it act, what problem is it addressing?
It’s all about the productHowever, whilst H&L Digital is kind of operating as a consultancy with an enhanced engineering capability, it is doing so in order to further enhance Infor’s industry focused CloudSuites. This isn’t just about individual gain for each Infor customer it works with, but about becoming the research and design engine for Infor’s product roadmap.
In an interview, Scibelli explained:
For a long time at Hook & Loop, we were trying to get new user experience into product. That’s harder, there’s a product roadmap, it’s hard to get into that product roadmap. This connective tissue team, their job is to look at the product roadmap, work with the product team and say these are the things we need you to do to help us extrapolate this information, so that we can render it on this layer over here and run data over it and give it back to the customer’s customer. And add value for them.
As a designer and as a strategist, I can’t really go into a product team and say these are the things that you need to do. So I needed experts.
I’d like to see us take some of our best business partners, like Travis Perkins, partner with them. Start creating these solutions. And start looking at where we can economise that, take a module we have created, bundle it and say okay it’s now no longer intellectual property, it’s now a commodity piece that needs to be used in every industry and put it back into the software. And like I said, work ourselves out of a job.
I put to Scibelli that Infor could take these newly commoditised industry apps and sell them on to other customers as plug ins, but he said that this wouldn’t be “fair’ and that the “fair thing would be to put it back into the product”.
We want to add value, we want to add true value and bundle these things together for these customers. And most importantly for me, I want to bundle them together so that our customer’s customers are happy.
However, H&L Digital does face some challenges. One of course being scale. At the moment it is working with some of Infor’s core and exciting cloud customers - such as Travis Perkins. It is likely that it will identify similar customers in certain verticals to start providing this feedback loop on product development for the CloudSuites, rather than trying to be ‘digital-as-a-service’ for all Infor customers.
In addition, Scibelli worries that some H&L Digital customers will not be willing to make the deep changesto infrastructure that are required for effective digital transformation. He said:
I think I see trouble with how antiquated some systems some organisations are running and their inability to pivot away from those systems. Do I have to constantly write XML layers that are spitting out XML tables? How far back do I have to go back? Do I have to go all the way back to COBOL? How far back are you going to require me to go to serve a new experience?
What are companies’ stomach for making those big sweeping CloudSuite types of changes to get us forward with that? My fear is that not enough companies are ready enough to do those deep infrastructure changes, that automation side part, that bottom line part, so I can come in and help with the top line part.
I’m consistently impressed by Scibelli and Infor’s investment in Hook & Loop. It’s smart.
And if Infor pulls this off, whereby it is providing industry specific cloud software that has been co-created with customers, looks beautiful, and is running on AWS, that could be game changing for many.