On the day before the formal kickoff of Infor's Inforum 2019 user conference, a group of press and analysts turned away from the persistent temptations of New Orleans, and got a full day preview on the state of Infor instead.
Infor's leadership team was careful not to issue too many spoilers for today's keynote - but they shared more news than I expected.
Given the leadership change at the top of the company, not to mention how this change impacts Infor's financial (IPO) plans, this is obviously a historically important Inforum for the company.
Probing leadership changes and customer use cases
Today, new CEO (formerly CFO) Kevin Samuelson makes his CEO keynote debut. It's Samuelson's job to show that even if Charles Phillips is no longer the face of Infor's multi-year cloudy transformation, that the investment in next-gen ERP industry clouds - what Infor calls CloudSuite - is delivering for customers.
One thing I really dread about these pre-conference press/analyst sessions: they tend to be heavy on slides and brain dumps and very light on customers. Yes, we got a good dose of product slides, but we also heard from a host of customers in better-than-typical, interactive panels. Small group breakouts in the afternoon fueled more dialogue:
Yeah, slides and panels are ok. But here's the real action - small group customer talk with Auckland Transport on their Enterprise Asset Management cloud project with Infor, managing $1.6 billion in assets, getting users to buy in, measuring success - live from #Inforum2019 pic.twitter.com/q4CirsoU2c
— Jon Reed (@jonerp) September 23, 2019
Infor's positioning challenges
Beyond leadership changes and the $4 billion investment from Koch Industries, Infor has other positioning challenges. Infor's ERP vision got out in front on the importance of vertical ERP, the enterprise UX transformation, and infusing data science and analytics into the ERP stack. Now, many other vendors have the exact same talking points. Even for those who hit the event circuit hard, it's difficult to determine how far one vendor is versus another on each of these, and where the true exceptionalism lies. I can only imagine how difficult it is for customers and prospects.
I'll be curious to see how Infor tackles that messaging in their pending keynotes. But what cut through the noise so far was the candid time with executives and customers. I find press conferences to be rushed, disappointing affairs. But today, there was room to explore. That paid off when Holger Mueller of Constellation Research asked the entire executive leadership panel an open question: tell us your opportunities/challenges in your focus area.
I can't share the entirety of the answers tonight, but here's the gist of what they told us: the Infor transformation is unfinished. Samuelson talked about the surge on the cloud side of Infor's OS platform, even in industries like manufacturing that were slow to embrace the multi-tenant CloudSuite:
We put out very complex software for very complex companies. It feels like it's taken a long time for companies to embrace the cloud. It's really been last 6-9 months that our biggest markets, including our biggest manufacturing submarkets, have finally come to the conclusion that this is the path forward.
Accelerated cloud growth pushes the talent pool:
The core ERP cloud products are growing in triple digits. That's the opportunity, but that's also the challenge... We've got to hire and train appropriately - it's an enormous challenge, and a pretty exciting time for sure.
"It's time for project delivery agility"
Given how much pride Infor takes in the influence of Hook & Loop on its enterprise UX, Rod Johnson, Infor's General Manager, Americas, genuinely surprised me when he acknowledged:
The experience around enterprise software still isn't very good.
Johnson went proceed to hit on the same issue I've been bashing CX vendors with all year: you might have a lovely UI, but if your customer's experience of implementing your software is a root canal, or perhaps a long slog, your CX is nothing and your UI is perfume.
Johnson went on to say that Infor's product is ready for primetime, and so are its cloud services. It's time, he says, to bring that same transformation to project delivery:
Now, it's about delivery agility.
Johnson says Infor's attention to the "nitty gritty of operational realities" in target industries is paying off - something we should hear more about in the keynotes. But:
I think we can go further there.
His view of "world class delivery" includes a shift in mindset - away from unique, time-consuming one-off projects and more towards standard deployments. Johnson also sees a chance to get further involved with customers' change management and operational improvements.
We can improve beyond just software and into productivity outcomes.
Strong statements - and it's the right commitment for Infor to make. Keynote watchers will want to track Infor's "strategic partnership" with Signavio, as it fits right in here. Signavio has the potential to add in so-called process mining, perhaps leading to process intelligence - a state where "AI" can help to identify process gaps, glitches, and inefficiencies. As Information Age's Andrew Ross points out:
All these insights help in qualifying processes for automation, which are not obvious choices otherwise.
Infor also hopes to use process mining to bolster its Implementation Accelerators, with more pre-configured content. Though it's early days with this partnership, applying Infor tech to the goal of better implementations is a message customers should welcome. SAP has worked extensively with Signavio in the past also, so this is another area where Infor will need to demonstrate how their collaboration is different.
Whenever the marketing noise is deafening, it helps when customers carry your torch. I always hear about interesting projects at Inforum, but in past years, most of these were on older releases - or were not mature enough on CloudSuite to speak to benefits.
Though we're only on day one, that's already changed this year. On a monster customer panel with around six customers (one joined late), I heard a more mature discussion on CloudSuite benefits that before. A partial list includes:
- reduction in accounts receivable
- automating processes that are paper-driven
- great gains with Birst, hopefully add AI/Coleman and predictive once data is under one roof
- cloud a game changer over on-premise environment, we were behind on patches - now we're getting frequent updates for the first time in ten years
- much better visibility into inventory
Into Birst, predictive, and beyond
Several customers were eager to get further into Birst analytics, and beyond into AI, machine learning, and Nexus for supply chain networks:
We want to get machine learning and Nexus into the mix. We want to see the weather in our supply chain. If a Typhoon is coming in Hong Kong, we can react to that, and get alerts out about the delay
Speaking of Birst, one of Infor's potential strengths is embedding Birst across their product line, rather than surrendering their analytics business to the mercy of Tableau and Power BI as other ERP vendors have basically done. A customer panel that featured three employees from Miller Industries allowed an in-depth view of their Birst project. Miller Industries CFO Debbie Whitmire spoke to the benefits to date:
Every year, we have an executive meeting to go through projections for the upcoming year. Birst had just been implemented last year when we started our revenue projection process. So instead of having downloads of information again, like I mentioned a minute ago, every time someone has another question, you go back, run another report.
This time, we actually sat around the table, and within three or four hours, we had pretty much predicted the entire year, because you could drill it down to the type of product, the average annual price for the product, what customer it went to. So if there were any anomalies for the year, you could see all that information.
The project is far enough along to quantify some results. As Whitmire told us:
It cut about 80 percent of the time out of what we would normally do, just in meetings - not to mention the time the accounting group and myself would spend getting that information together. So that's just more of a practical day to day, but it made a tremendous difference.
And speaking of results, the Miller Industries team shared this money slide:
My take - buckle in for the keynotes
Not all of the customers could quantify benefits yet; Auckland Transport, referenced above, is still moving toward their Enterprise Asset Management (EAM) go-live. But another EAM customer, CERN, has quantified their benefits extensively (PDF). Today, CERN spoke to us about their AI and machine learning EAM project with Infor as well (we can expect more AI/Coleman platform news in the upcoming keynotes).
There are even bigger benefits for cloud ERP customers as they get further down a strategic use of data and better automation of their routines, but so far, this is big progress from prior Infor shows. CEO Samuelson nailed it when he talked about the B2B branding challenge, especially for companies looking to modernize their brand:
It's very hard to build a B2B brand... We've done everything from TV commercials to sports team sponsorships, and nobody has a clue to who we are.
But if you get the customers where they need to be, you're going to be good:
This is part and parcel of building our brand - if we do right by our customers.
Indeed. Now it's keynote time - and time for me to hit the show floor, and push further into these questions. Another big question: is Infor's partner community on board with cloud implementations, or are they still chasing the on-premise customization money pit? Let's see what I learn.