By Nathan Camp, Liaison Technologies
Last week, Liaison Technologies joined hundreds of Infor Distribution Product users (SX.e, A+, FACTS, and SHIMS in order of representatives) at TheUserGroup.org (TUG)’s annual educational and networking conference in Palm Springs, CA to share and learn. Across these different attendees, there were a broad range of solution needs and requirements. We were interested to learn about the most compelling current needs and Infor’s solution responses.
The Good News:
Infor ION is Here
My favorite presentation at TUG Connects 2014 was Infor’s Story Monforte overview of Infor ION. I have been watching Infor’s developments since 2008. ION promises to connect and unite Infor’s widely diverse range of ERP platforms and tactical applications. With its service oriented architecture (SOA) framework, it will likely require a fair amount of effort to implement. This means it will usually be deployed in step with a product upgrade. And true to that extent, Monforte showed us a demonstration of the new Web browser interface of SX.e as it processed inbound orders, tied in with Infor ION, and connecting data seamlessly across other socially collaborative tool sets like the new Infor Ming.le system.
“Infor ION’s use of an open source XML schema is at the heart of open connectivity to the rest of the world.” Story Monforte, Infor
As Monforte identified in his presentation, SX.e was able to process the inbound sales order via traditional Progress database writing, but Monforte also shared that a complete duplicate of that data was created as a separate OAGIS-based XML document and passed through the ION system. Any time a change would be made to the original sales order, the ION system created a new XML document with these changes reflected. With ION, Infor has the elegant solution to tag and share data across a wide range of Infor applications and services. Yet Monforte confirmed that ION isn’t there to lock customers into using Infor products and services. In fact, Infor ION’s use of an open source XML schema is at the heart of open connectivity to the rest of the world.
Business Intelligence for Distributors
To the previous point of ION being a part of information sharing, data connectivity lay at the heart of many discussions we were involved in or overheard. Several exhibitors included advanced business intelligence (BI) and analytics solutions for Infor Distribution customers. Two that we spoke with at length were approaching BI from opposite ends. Kelly March and “Canadian” Ken Prokopec of Phocas Software are applying a simplified user experience to analytics. You can build what you need, as you need it… no geek necessary.
At the other end of the hall, we had a very interesting conversation with Gary Owen and Mickey Lass of MITS, who are building out pre-built key performance indicators (KPI) and dashboards specific to the distribution market. While Owen is quick to point out that MITS is, “Also designed to allow users to build their own reports and users are not tied to only using our pre-built metrics,” what is interesting here is that advanced insights and functionality is defined for you, the distributor. Owen said their approach stems from their experiences with clients. Says Owen, “What we learned over the years (we’ve been doing this since the mid-nineties) is that even a nice point and click user interface for building your own reports isn’t enough of a time saver. Figuring out what reports to build and how to apply the data to your business can be more difficult and time consuming than actually making the reports. We wanted our customers to get much more than just a tool, but the tool is still included.” And since MITS works extensively with Infor’s SX.e and A+ communities, much of those best practice KPIs are predefined and ready for you to use.
Web Commerce Is Growing In Importance
It’s clear that change is afoot in the distribution world. Mobile technology and myriad sources of data are making it easier for customers to price compare, check on inventory availability, and search catalogs in the office or at job sites. Additionally, these distributors are responsible for sourcing and providing goods from hundreds of suppliers. Their customers are looking to these distributors for product resources and how products from various sources can be combined for the best impact to their clients. Infor’s distributors are keen to compare notes on posting and updating catalog and inventory details online and how Infor’s eCommerce solutions can come into play in these sales channels.
Just as important as distributors’ adoption of eCommerce, the impact of customer side Web store solutions is also having a key impact on data and business execution needs. Liaison’s A+ partner, Aurora Technologies shared how one of their clients is being affected as their traditional brick and mortar retailers begin to execute more eCommerce initiatives. As access to storeroom shelving is disappearing, this distributor is now tied into Walmart.com and Target.com order fulfillment. Now as customers shop online or in-store, they can choose to have goods purchased be delivered to their homes or their local store. The requirements on inventory management, customer fulfillment, and return processing is migrating from traditional retail over to the distributors.
Proceeding With Caution:
Infor Distribution Customers Don’t Necessarily Have Complete Data
In our two presentations titled, “Unification of Data” and “Big Data Demystified,” Liaison Technologies shared details about how we and our partners, like Aurora Technologies, Inc., support our clients’ efforts in unifying their data that is created, consumed, and shared within the four walls and externally with other companies and systems. More and more of our customers are moving to a best-of-breed array of on-premise and Cloud-based services. This surprisingly complex amalgamation of multiple data sources, formats, data repository, and connection methods means a growing reliance on data stewardship within the organization. Allowing the company leadership to make informed path decisions, allowing sales and marketing to target emerging opportunities, and providing procurement with a complete picture of purchase history and buying power is all dependent on access to clean, trusted, and fresh data.
Complete data looks different to each user. In our discussions we noted that every department within a company has their own data priorities and needs. Here are a few of the examples we provided:
- Goals: build measurable traffic increases, drive qualified leads to sales, all while preserving corporate branding
- Activities: Content management, SEO, A/B testing, using marketing automation tools, running heat maps, monitoring FaceBook/Twitter/Amazon review
- Considerations: sharing competitively important data with software-as-a-service tools like SalesForce CRM or marketing automation tools like HubSpot/Marketo, needing to incorporate non-structured data
(2) Web Commerce
- Goals: using new sales channels, staying current with marketplace trends (Amazon, Ariba, SciQuest), reducing or eliminating shipping error and fraud, maintaining fresh information on the Web site
- Activities: using B2C experience in B2B operations, using outside address validation services through API calls before the orders are accepted, PCI compliance, dynamic catalogs and inventory feeds
- Considerations: punchout, data tokenization strategies for customer details and credit card numbers
(3) Supply Chain Access and Visibility
- Goals: need to drive down costs through automation, need to tightly orchestrate inventory with a more internationally diverse range of suppliers
- Activities: EDI (EDI definition)collaboration and supplier enablement, reduction in freight costs through more efficient purchasing processes
- Considerations: EDI expansion needs to include affordable options to get beyond 20% supplier usage, it must contain local language support, suppliers must be encouraged to use EDI if they exchange 5 or more documents per month
Each department in the company is clearly driven by and driving data. But no company we spoke with has a complete connection between these different data pools nor necessarily the depth of data to provide statistically reliable information necessary for proper data analytics. Why this disconnect?
Infor Distribution Users Have Resource Limitations
This explosion of data sources and the need to secure the data as mentioned above is quickly overwhelming the average distribution company. During our conversations with Infor Distribution customers, there were very complex reactions and responses to our ideas we were sharing. One very large distributor had 120 local warehouses across North America. They had over 1,000 suppliers. Yet they didn’t have a Web site, nor a marketing team, nor a solution to encourage more supply chain use of EDI, be it X12 or their own flavor of data integration format for SX.e (yes, with ION, this becomes even more possible). They interpreted the list of integrations their peers are experiencing as more than more work on the shoulders of IT to eek out slightly more revenue or less costs.
And they are right. How can any CEO, CTO, or CIO expect to adopt more technology while IT/IS are already tasked to their limits simply to maintain the current systems and planning for upgrades? Yet the role of corporate leadership is to exploit a company’s strengths, uncover new opportunities, distance itself from its competition, and deliver the best service to its clients. I would argue that without proper, complete, fresh, and truthful data, corporate leadership cannot make those decisions.
Brian Gentile’s article for Wired, Rethinking BI: Why Analytics are the Fabric of the Future, makes the very astute point when he talks of all systems within an organization when he says, “Analytics should be a simple and powerful part of every application, built into the very fabric of the business system or process.” But creating data, refining it, and then making it meaningful for your business is going to need unique elements specifically tied to how you do business.
So what is the bridge between the need for connected data within and without the four walls, used in conjunction with current technical resources? I would argue, based upon my observations and success stories that I’m witnessing with Liaison’s other customer communities, is that a flexible approach to data integration, management, and security should be applied. Liaison’s answer to this has been to provide the scalable tools that can do as little as you want it to or as much data connectivity as you can muster. Then we match our human resources to your projects to extend your bench of IT experts according to project priority. These feats can include on-premise solutions for companies with a desire to self-manage, fully Cloud-based integration and security solutions so these operations become managed-by-experts, to a hybrid of some Cloud and some on-premise, yet managed with the help of Liaison partners that also happen to be experts in the Infor Distribution packages.
We met with many companies well on the path to complete and whole data. We also met with many companies that wanted to find guidance in their journeys. But in every case, the conversations were meaningful, and we all learned more from the time shared. Our gratitude goes out to our business partners, the TUG organizers, Infor, and our clients in attendance.