Unit4 retires legacy brands in 'people platform' launch

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright March 26, 2015
Unit4 brings data science smarts to its rebranded ERP flagship, taking Agresso and Coda clients into a digital future built on the Unit4 'people platform'

Jose Duarte CEO Unit4 at launch in London March 2015
European enterprise software giant Unit4 upgraded its flagship products with the launch today of a new technology platform that emphasizes the use of machine learning to personalize the user experience and help automate repetitive tasks.

The longstanding ERP and financials brands Agresso and Coda are consigned to history with today's launch, replaced by new versions named, respectively, Unit4 Business World and Unit4 Financials.

Today's launch comes on the heels of a new $110 million funding round announced overnight for FinancialForce.com, the cloud-native joint venture founded in 2009 by Unit4 and Salesforce.

Unit4's upgraded technology builds on social, mobile and cloud functionality that was originally unveiled early last year, shortly before the group finalized a $1.6 billion buyout by private equity investor Advent International. Today's announcement relaunched it as the 'People Platform' to emphasize the contrast with traditional enterprise software products that focus on transactions and processes rather than the people who use them. As CEO Jose Duarte told today's press launch in London:

Enterprise software is almost anti-people. It's not easy to consume, it's not easy to adopt.

It doesn't have to be like that. We need to make software that is engaging, pleasant to be used by the people that have to consume it. So we focus on software for people not just software for business processes.

The people element also reflects Unit4's strategic focus on what it calls "people-centric" industries including professional services, education, public services, not-for-profit and real estate. These are growth sectors where the top three ERP vendors — Oracle, SAP and Microsoft — command a third or less of the market, compared to more than 50 percent in many other sectors that are less fragmented, said Duarte.

So you can actually be a much bigger fish in this pond — and we have our natural competences in this space. So this is why we have decided that services in people-centric industries are the core [of our strategy] for the future.

Digital innovation

Unit 4 CEO José Duarte-300px
José Duarte, Unit4

Innovation will be key to competing in these markets, he said, because organizations are complaining about the "digital downgrade" they have to contend with and are eager to take advantage of new digital capabilities.

There is a true digital revolution happening out there. You can think of the cloud, mobile, the Internet of Things, all of these elements coming here today.

I truly believe there is going to be a wave of replatforming, a change of systems within the enterprise world within the next few years to come. Because the landscape that it is today is pretty ropey, it's very much not delivering the service that it can deliver with the technology of today.

In front of us we have a junction. We either decide to stick to our course and keep on operating as we were doing, or we decide to double down on innovation and try to be one of the market leaders in the new reality that we believe is going to exist. So the choice was not very hard to join the road of innovation.

Duarte gave several examples of how the addition of machine learning to the Unit4 platform would help minimize the time spent on administrative tasks by pre-populating data taken from mobile devices or by surfacing exceptions by analysing historic behavior.

For example, a timesheet could match location data to client records in order to prefill the time spent at each client's site during the week. A payroll process could automate calculations and provide alerts when it found exceptions that stood out from established patterns. Project planning and forecasting could use historic patterns to predict the most likely future outcomes. The system would make it easier for users, he said.

We want to drive simplification of tasks by having a self-driven ERP, an ERP that actually works for you rather than you working for the ERP, which has been the norm.

Product evolution

Logo for Unit4 - In business for people
New versions of Unit4 Financials (previously Coda) and Unit4 Business World (previously Agresso) are available as of today.

The new Financials release is the first to incorporate the new platform's user experience and ready extensibility, which had already been rolled out in the vendor's ERP product last year. Although it does not bring in all of the functionality of the new platform in this release, it does add custom fields with the ability to bring data from other sources into the financials application. In-memory analytics enable real-time data analysis. The new features were "long-time asks from clients that now come into reality," said Duarte.

The ERP product, Unit4 Business World, takes full advantage of the new platform, along with several domain-oriented add-ons for smart budgeting, communities, "self-driving" payroll, appraisals and requisitions. Customers can choose either a cloud or an on-premise implementation, said Duarte.

For an Agresso client, it's an upgrade. It's a number of innovations that you can consume at your own pace. If you want to go to the cloud, fantastic, we bring you on the journey to the cloud. If you want to stay on-prem, fine, you can stay on-prem.

What we have really spent time thinking was, drive innovation but don't make it too big that you lose contact with your clients.

As part of the relaunch, Unit4 is bringing several products into the new platform that had been successful in individual countries, although some others will continue separately in their national markets. Thus its ERP offering for the real estate market is based on a product that comes out of Sweden, while its wholesale distribution product was developed in the Netherlands. The travel and expense application is based on the Current product which has 500 clients in Norway. Some of these products do not have all the functionality of the platform in today's release but are on a roadmap to converge over time.

Other products, such as ekon in Spain and TETA in Poland will remain separate from the core platform, as Duarte explained:

They are domestic products, they are national champions, we will keep them as such.

The idea is not to rewrite everything and bring it in here. That would make absolutely no sense.

Many of the products will have the same UI for the client and they will be leveraging this to the extent that it makes sense.

Some of them, we have identified already a number of products that we will simply rewrite and embed into the platform. Those announcements will come when we're ready.

Duarte also said that the transition to a more open platform strategy was designed to encourage a more active partner ecosystem and that this aspect would be further strengthened in the next iteration of the platform.

My take

This is a significant repositioning and upgrade for a brand that is not well known in the US but is an important player in Europe, especially in public sector, education and professional services. The addition of powerful machine learning and intelligence functionality is especially important in maintaining competitive edge against the likes of Microsoft, Infor and others that are introducing similar capabilities and that play in the same sectors.

It was interesting to see how the rebranding is being used to converge many separate products into a single positioning as well as — ultimately — the same technology foundation. But other more peripheral products are being cut loose in a manner that may not bode well for their long-term sustainability. This is essential to give the vendor the opportunity to prosper but may prove painful in the short term for some.

I personally feel Unit4 faces headwinds with its "Cloud your Way" strategy of supporting both on-premise and cloud implementations of its software. The more digitally advanced that software becomes, the harder it will be for its customers to maintain it on their in-house resources. For all the modernity of its latest offering, so long as it has to depend on customers biting the upgrade bullet, it will continue to suffer from the drag of having to support and defend an ageing installed base.

Meanwhile there's FinancialForce.com, which as Den Howlett described in his post earlier today, continues to grow like gangbusters. The joint venture didn't get any airtime in today's Unit4 launch and I wonder how that tension between its cloud pureplay approach and the distinctly hybrid cloud mantra of the core Unit4 business will play out when it comes to real-world sales conversations on the ground.

Having said all that, there was still a lot to like in today's announcements. Unit4's reinvention continues apace and the capabilities on show today are certainly of a caliber to allow for it to continue to punch its weight in an increasingly digital world.

Disclosure: FinancialForce.com, Oracle, SAP and Unit4 are diginomica premier partners.

Image credits: by Unit4.

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