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Staking a Claim on Innovation Leadership

Posted By Jeff Moad, April 26, 2012 at 12:38 PM, in Category: Transformative Technologies

Can a company that has pursued a strategy based on acquisitions, efficiency, and sales-driven customer retention flip a switch and suddenly start competing successfully as an industry innovator?

I found myself pondering this question after spending a couple of days this week attending enterprise software provider Infor’s occasional customer conference, Inforum, in Denver.

I have to admit that I haven’t been following Infor as closely as I used to. But what I remember from the last time I attended Inforum was then-CEO Jim Schaper flirting with answering questions about what companies Infor might acquire next, knocking competitors SAP and Oracle as proponents of “Big ERP,” and speculating about an Infor public stock offering. Not much on how Infor was competing on innovation.

But the message has certainly changed. Schaper is gone. (Well, he’s still on the Infor board.) And in his chair running Infor is former Oracle Corp. co-president Charles Phillips. Under Phillips, Infor is still keenly focused on delivering software for running companies in aerospace, automotive, food, beverage, and a wide array of other manufacturing verticals. But since joining Infor 18 months ago, Phillips is attempting to rebrand the company. No longer is it just a consolidator of legacy enterprise applications (although it’s still got plenty of those on its books). It now wants to be seen as a leader on two fronts: providing manufacturers and other customers with applications that incorporate deep vertical industry functionality; and leading the reinvigoration of enterprise software through the introduction of emerging technology trends such as social networking, mobility, cloud computing, and contextual business intelligence.

Certainly Infor has a long way to go before it’s widely perceived as an enterprise software innovation leader. But under Phillips, Infor has taken some steps in that direction. Over the past year, Phillips has raised $1 billion from its institutional investment partners. Some of that, no doubt, went for Infor’s acquisition of ERP provider Lawson. But he’s poured some of it into innovation talent, hiring 600 new engineers to bring the company’s total to 4,000. That new team has rolled out 102 new products in 2012, up from 30 in 2010.

Among those new product initiatives are several that show a good deal of next-generation technology innovation leadership in the following areas:

Cloud: Sure, Infor, like many of its competitors, has been making versions of its ERP systems available in the cloud. Some are even available as low-cost, multi-tenant products. But more interesting is work that Infor is doing to create hybrid cloud/on-premises environments that could benefit manufacturers. Recently, for example, Infor announced a partnership with cloud-based CRM provider Salesforce.com. It involves the integration of Salesforce with Infor on-premises applications and a series of new applications, running in the Salesforce cloud, that will enhance Infor applications. A new Inforce Ordering application, due in the first quarter of 2014, for example, will allow sales and customer service reps to provide customers with quotes, proposals, and even available-to-promise information by automatically pulling production schedule, price, and other information directly from Infor applications.

At Inforum, Infor also unveiled Local.ly, a cloud-based service that automatically updates localizations that must be built into Infor’s applications for regulatory and other reasons.

Social: Infor is taking steps to add features such as social collaboration and tweet-like notification to its applications. The company is also inheriting some of these features by virtue of its relationship with Salesforce. (Which also, by the way, includes a Salesforce equity investment in Infor.) Users of the Infor/Salesforce integration-based applications will also be able to tap into Salesforce’s chatter social platform for sending notices and alerts. Infor is also adding to its applications a notification stream capability it is calling Pulse.

Mobile: Infor is beginning to roll out a series of new mobile applications as part of its Infor10 Motion initiative announced a couple of months ago. Infor is building apps that are tailored to specific devices—starting with Apple’s iOS platform—and tie into Infor’s on-premises and cloud-based applications. One such application, due in July, will target shop-floor and distribution workers, allowing them, for example, to check and confirm material deliveries. Also in the works is a mobile “facility viewer” application for warehouse managers that, among other things, provides a graphical “heat map” showing trouble areas.

Infor10 Motion will also include a cloud-based application manager feature for managing things like provisioning and security as well as an SDK for third-party developers.

Contextual Intelligence: Infor is rolling out a new graphical user interface that, besides including things like common navigation, look-and-feel, and security sign-on for all of Infor’s apps, also automatically generates and displays business intelligence and other content based on the applications and transactional information the user is working with at the moment. So, for example, if a user is working on transactions related to a particular product number or customer, the Workspace interface would automatically display a relevant chart showing that customer’s purchasing pattern over the past six months. Workspace could also automatically pull up unstructured data such as a relevant product PDF document.

Infor is also working on a cloud-based development tool called Mongoose for developing such context-aware applications.

The customers I spoke with at Inforum seemed intrigued by Infor’s pronounced shift toward innovation. Many said they are, in fact, taking steps to adopt the Intelligent Open Network (ION) middleware stack that is the foundation of many of the promised innovations. In many cases, however, these customers had more prosaic motivations such as the need to integrate existing on-premises applications.

There’s no doubt that Infor has some holes in its innovation story. The company, for example, has yet to provide the details on how it will build out or partner for a big data analysis platform that must be part of ION. The company also clearly has more work to do when it comes to rebranding its image among existing and potential customers.

But Phillips has the company moving in the right direction.

Jeff Moad is Executive Editor at Manufacturing Executive.

Written by Jeff Moad

Jeff Moad is Research Director and Executive Editor with the Manufacturing Leadership Community. He also directs the Manufacturing Leadership Awards Program. Follow our LinkedIn Groups: Manufacturing Leadership Council and Manufacturing Leadership Summit

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