Dreams of a SAPPHIRE Keynote: What’s Your Innovation Path?

SAP’s ginormous SAPPHIRE user conference/sales event kicks off in a couple of weeks, and if you’re in any way involved in the SAP ecosystem, you’ve been caught up in the frothing frenzy that typifies the run-up to gathering over 15,000 souls into that soulless cauldron called Orlando.

In case you don’t know the drill, SAP’s biggest challenge of all is to funnel everything that’s good and true and important to the company into CEO Bill McDermott’s keynote. The process is simple – start with a blank sheet, put some ideas on paper, and then watch as the jostling, politicking, and pitching begins to fill out Bill’s time on stage.

While we can’t really know what will emerge until the bell tolls at 9 a.m. on May 17, I can’t resist playing the game of “what should Bill say” in his 75 minutes of fame. Here’s my take:

The first and foremost imperative for SAP is to synchronize its messaging around its major initiatives, which are almost too numerous to count. At the risk of missing something, in no particular order, and with overlapping concepts left in, these initiatives include: S/4 HANA, HANA Cloud Platform, talent management, contingent labor management, customer engagement and interaction, business networks and direct procurement, everything cloud, IoT-wannabe (it even rhymes!), next-gen training and education, next-gen services excellence, growing and enabling the partner ecosystem, building digital stores and creating developer outreach, digital transformation – and I’m sure I missed more than a few. There are also SAP’s 25 industries, a zillion geographies, support for open standards, open source tools and services like HADOOP and Cloud Foundry, and on and on.

Bill could just stand there and enumerate all the initiatives under way at SAP and easily use up the full 75 minutes. It might take off some of the pressure from the back-door politicking, but in doing so Bill would waste a lot of everyone’s time, and probably annoy/piss-off/scare/bore enough of his audience that they’d all decamp to Disney World and hang with Mickey and the gang.

Or… Bill could elaborate on a relatively simple, straightforward theme that ties it all together. Because behind this almost ADHD-like testament to techno-overachievement there’s a unique, unifying theme to what SAP is doing. That theme not only helps make sense of its efforts, but also helps connect SAP to a widely disparate customer base that is facing down an unprecedented set of business and technology challenges with more than a few questions about what to do and how to do it.

That theme can be summed up in a simple question, one with a simple answer, from which all of SAP’s efforts and, hopefully for SAP, all of its customers’ buying decision derive.

The question: Where do you want to take your company?

The answer: Wherever you want to go, SAP can help.

Pretty simple, no? Better than simple, it’s what customers really want to hear from SAP, much more than “HANA solves everything” or “no more aggregates” or “S/4 HANA solves everything” or “the cloud solves everything”, or, my personal favorite, “time to re-platform.”

The reason the above themes haven’t lit the collective customer fire is simple: One of the problems of being on the inside, inhaling the fumes of so many initiatives, is that it’s easy to pretend to know what’s right for all customers, all the time. That pretension means that at some point the conversation with the customer becomes didactic at best, dictatorial at worst. This “we can fix it” hubris is endemic to all tech companies, and has been baked into the engineering mindset since the modern tech era emerged from the primordial ooze of Silicon Valley’s garage culture almost half a century ago. With “fix it” baked into its DNA, tech culture is singularly focused on making things better, and singularly challenged at understanding that “better” is an extremely relative, rapidly shape-shifting concept, and nowhere near the absolute one that engineers fervently want to believe it is.

In SAP’s case, from a purely “fix-it” standpoint, the SAP customer base would be crazy not to embrace pretty much everything SAP has to offer – every company needs the “faster, better, more” results that are at the core of everything SAP does. Indeed, while some of the initiatives enumerated above are more theoretical and “pending” than not, most of them are spot-on when it comes to driving customers towards their inevitable, digital future.

But the real world isn’t run by engineers bounded by the relatively immutable laws of physics. It’s run by business people navigating a truly squishy, flaky morass of contradictory requirements, regulations, stakeholders, politics, and just plain “stuff” that perpetually militates against easy, rational solutions. In the real world, the best idea – much less the best technology – doesn’t win. In all too many cases, the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong. Sometimes the race is to the expedient, the possible, and the compromise, and the battle is to the mediocre, the half-baked, and the politically safe.

So instead of assuming that SAP – or any vendor – can really articulate what’s best for all its customers all of the time, it would be much more useful for Bill to declare that, from SAP’s standpoint, what’s truly best for the customer is SAP’s willingness to help get the customer where it wants to go. Regardless of its starting point or perceived endpoint, SAP has an answer to the question: what is the path I need to take to move my company towards its goals and meet its challenges?

Importantly, this may mean that S/4 HANA, or anything else called HANA, isn’t on the table. And maybe a business network isn’t the next step forward. Or a big investment in IoT may not be what’s good for a given company today. It’s almost the anti-politicking solution to SAP’s embarrassment of riches: Much of what SAP has to offer might not be what your company needs. What’s important is that when you need it, SAP has it, or knows how to get it, or can find a partner to help you get it. Let’s engage, Bill should tell his audience, not in a journey dictated by my product development roadmaps but by your business roadmap. And if you don’t have one – fine, SAP can help you figure that out too.

What would be equally useful, and even harder for SAP to do, is to acknowledge that it’s a heterogeneous world out there and, again, SAP is here to help. This would mean accepting that SAP’s competitors are in the customer base and may be even there to stay. But, hey, if the customer needs help moving forward with an SAP ERP system tied to Salesforce.com or Workday, so be it: SAP’s here to help is better than “go fly a kite” or other variations on the theme of burying one’s head in the sand.

(To those of you who scoff that this coopetition strategy is for the birds, ostriches or otherwise, take a look at Microsoft in the last year or so. CEO Satya Nadella keeps showing up at other vendors’ conferences preaching the gospel of coopetition, and his company’s results are looking pretty good for these efforts. Moreover, customers love this approach, even as the internal teams that compete with Satya’s latest BFFs seethe. Of course, Satya’s back story is that it’s better to be “all-in” with Microsoft’s vast product portfolio than go hetero – the seamless integration is all the more seamless inside the house – but in the end, it’s better to coopetate than be an ostrich.)

I think the “we’re here to help” approach will help SAP in a couple of important ways. First and foremost is the problem of audience. Virtually every conference I’ve been to recently – SAP, Microsoft, Infor, Salesforce, pick your favorite vendor’s conference – has been saddled with the same problem: On the keynote stage is tomorrow’s message, playing to last year’s audience. Time and time again I hear this future-focus from the keynote clashing with the now-focus of the audience. And that clash can become a little cacophonous when multiplied by the increasing number of tomorrow’s messages customers keep hearing from their vendors. Which begs the collective question of enterprise software customers looking at the reality of their tech/business strategy in light of this tomorrow-focus: To hell with pushing the solutions of tomorrow, doesn’t anyone really care about what’s happening to my company today?

Played out in the business world, this kind of “tomorrow’s message, yesterday’s audience” disconnect makes for some interesting conversations – like trying to talk about global business networks to a procurement clerk looking for a better user interface, or discussing support for IoT-driven contingent labor processes to an HR manager whose job description doesn’t include asset management, or opining how strategic and valuable a given vendor’s newly integrated and rationalized products and services are to an end user trying to find out whether the current version of their software is being sunsetted or upgraded – and when.

Get it? The real world’s problems aren’t easy to cram into a sound bite, they’re can’t possibly be covered in 75 minutes, and to try is to fail. But if SAP listens carefully, instead of just talking about its great achievements, what the company will hear is that the unifying problems of “where do I need to go with my company” and “how can I get there” are resounding across the industry. Not a lot of business execs wake up in a cold sweat at 2 am thinking “I gotta get me some of that techno-whiz-bang stuff my vendor is peddling this week”. But they do wake up at 2 am thinking “my customers hate me” or “my invoicing process is killing my DSO” or “Amazon just entered my market as a free add-on to Amazon Prime”. And in many cases – I would argue a significant number of cases – the solution to the problem doesn’t start with implementing the latest and greatest shiny new penny from your vendor.

Once the “we are here to help” theme is kicked off, Bill could easily fill out the rest of his 75 minutes by enumerating exactly how SAP can help. This doesn’t mean avoiding all mention of long-range strategic initiatives and cool new stuff, but it does mean keeping an eye on the practicalities of what customers really need. For some companies, going omni-channel must start with the mundane task of fixing the inventory system, not buying hybris, at least at first. Lowering DSO might ultimately be about creating an online e-commerce function, but the first step might be to hunker down and fix that creaky old supply chain. Sometimes better training is the place to start, not a new cloud platform.

If the bar for innovation at the customer is set low enough, and believe me it often is, maybe just upgrading to the latest ERP back office is the earth-shattering innovation the customer really needs, not an upgrade that puts S/4 HANA and the entire enterprise back office in the cloud. Talk about heresy.

Of course, as CEO, Bill has to keep the Wall Street wolves at bay, who are always hungry for the freshest innovation meat and the best margins, and that means trying to set some reasonable quotas so that the field sales effort syncs with the rhetoric of innovation delivered to Wall Street. That hunger from Wall Street is not misplaced – there is no doubt that the changes promulgated by the massive shifts in how business is conducted across the world mean that a wholesale re-imagining of the interplay between companies, employees and customers is needed. Wall Street is right to ask companies like SAP that wear the innovation mantle to put up or shut up. And there is no doubt that SAP is dedicated to providing the technology and tools – like S/4 HANA, HCP, business networks, next-gen talent management, advanced planning and predictive analytics – that fit well into the “put up” side of that imperative.

However, focusing on helping the customer with today’s problems might mean that sales of flagship new technologies would not be as smoking hot as Wall Street would like. But focusing on what customers would like will have the better long-term impact. SAP and other vendors have backed themselves into some complicated corners by pushing new technology on customers who don’t have an immediate need, but are willing to take the shiny new penny if they can get a better price on the products they actually do need. This always works well for a couple of quarters until someone starts looking at the delta between licenses sold and licenses implemented. At which point the house of cards starts getting a little shaky.

Helping customers by providing them the choice of the broadest range of solutions and not force-feeding them innovations they can’t use helps build customer satisfaction and loyalty. Asking them to buy something they don’t need and signing them up to be bit players in a cynical game of license counting with Wall Street leaves a sour taste in everyone’s mouth.

So, good luck Bill, with getting that keynote sorted out. At a minimum, my “we’re here to help” approach will help you navigate the conflicting messaging battle now raging for every second of your keynote time. But it is also designed to make sure that your customers see you and SAP as an ally who has their best interests in mind, not a selling machine trying to close the next deal. One of the great sins of modern enterprise software is that vendors tend to sell software the way they build it, not the way the customer buys it. At this point in the 21st century, everything in the business world is up for grabs, including the way that customers choose their vendors and buy their software. SAP should rethink how it positions itself for this new reality: Offering itself as a means to an end, and not just a collection of products chasing opportunities, is, I think, the best way to go for SAP and its customers.

See you in Orlando.

Ariba, Infor, and the Business Network Challenge: Quantum Physics, Big Transformations and Big Barriers

As the enterprise software market embraces the concept of digital transformation with typical reckless, feckless abandon, it’s interesting to see how one of the most transformative concepts – business networks – is evolving. What’s clear from a look at two of the most well thought-out strategies, those of Infor (via its GT Nexus acquisition) and SAP (via its Ariba acquisition), is that there’s no shortage of merit to what these two companies are doing and planning.

And there’s no shortage of hurdles either. Nothing transforms quite like a business network, and, as the complexity of any transformation is inversely proportional to the readiness of a company to embrace it, business networks promise much in the way of outcomes and complexity.

The main problem is simple. The collective business network vision, while long on great ideas, is short on the most important thing of all: a buyer. Business networks have tons of merit for anyone taking a close look, but tons of merit ain’t worth a hill of beans if there’s no decision-maker ready to take a leap of faith and start spending on this most worthy and complex of goals. And so far, that decision-maker is still more of a dream than a reality.

Which begs the ultimate question – Should the above vendors proceed and hope that the decision-makers they need will emerge? Or, perhaps more succinctly, how should they move at this uncertain moment to build the critical mass of companies needed to expand their existing networks – Infor/GTN in global logistics, SAP Ariba in indirect procurement – into the broad-based business networks that both companies aspire to? And in the process, hopefully, ignite some important influencers and buyers?

It’s sort of a quantum physics-like paradox – both the chicken and egg need to come first, something that is possible in the quantum world but not well-established in our relatively staid Newtonian world. Moreover, unlike poor Schrödinger’s cat in the thought experiment that helped establish the duality of quantum physics, it’s important that, in the business network future, both chicken and egg emerge from the experiment alive.

I firmly believe they will, and these nascent efforts will bear considerable fruit for both companies – and their partners and customers. Most importantly, this is not a zero-sum game, at least not yet. The opportunity is that new, immature, and massive.

Infor, while the smaller of the two, gained an important leading position with the acquisition of GT Nexus last year. It was a masterful deal, in part because the complexity of the company’s underlying financing structure needed a Charles Phillips to unwind it sufficiently to do the deal. But what the acquisition really accomplished was to catapult a small but pioneering business network vendor into the hands of an enterprise software vendor with big ideas and 70,000 customers, virtually all which are going to need some serious transformation in the next few years.

For Phillips, one of the biggest prizes in the business network opportunity is trade finance, and GT Nexus’ focus on that opportunity means that Infor can now have an important new talking point for its customers: transforming the enterprise software core of a company is no longer just a matter of doing your daily transactions faster, better, and hopefully cheaper. Transformation á la GT Nexus means making an important change to the all-important cash-to-cash cycle: using the information in GT Nexus’ business network to enable companies to do a better job with cash by improving the terms and conditions of the loans and insurance needed to conduct business is a brilliant way to free up top and bottom line cash.

The importance of jazzing up cash-to-cash processes was noted by Phillips in his opening remarks during a recent Infor analyst summit I attended. Citing similar data to what I used in a recent blog post, Phillips noted that a widely acknowledged global stagnation in productivity gains is the result of the aging of the technology infrastructure of business: it’s hard to keep innovating for the 21st century if you’re using 20th century technology.

How does a company deal with this? Infor has a bright idea – take that cash management thing you’re already doing and start using the trade financing capability of GT Nexus to move some serious working capital out of the logistics doldrums and put it to better work. Caterpillar, according to GTN founder Kurt Cavano, has been able to redirect $300 million in capital out of its supply and logistics chain by using GTN, as have a multitude of other brand name companies. It’s easy to see what Phillips and his investors were eager to pump $675 million into the acquisition.

Meanwhile, Infor has been pumping up the number of process areas it wants to be able to manage in its business networks: inventory planning and factory planning, asset management via IoT. And, obviously, supplier management and invoice management, among others.

Not bad, not bad at all…

Ariba, of course, hasn’t been sitting on its laurels either. The fact that the Ariba procurement network is already pretty massive — $1 trillion in business per year, two million suppliers, 25,000 users – gives SAP a big leg up towards building that critical mass. Of course, lots of activity and lots of suppliers solves only one part of the quantum dilemma: on the Ariba network, all this business activity is not business network activity, it’s traditional procurement activity.

Which means that Ariba’s $1 trillion in goods and services flowing through its network, largely for non-strategic, indirect goods, doesn’t necessarily give it full bragging rights over GTN’s $100 billion in goods and services. Here’s the big difference: GTN is supporting the movement of direct goods through the supply chain, a much more significant and valuable set of goods than the indirect goods that Ariba specializes in.

Same thing happens when you compare the number of suppliers in each network – while the two million Ariba suppliers vastly outnumber GTN’s 25,000, GTN’s suppliers are much more strategic to the buy side in its network than Ariba’s two million suppliers are for its buyers – toilet paper is toilet paper, but the right parts delivered just in time to the assembly plant does a whole lot more.

While Infor/GTN’s focus on direct makes it look better positioned for business network success than SAP Ariba, there’s more than a few reasons why SAP Ariba is also moving into striking distance of being a true business network.

First off is the network effect of the rest of SAP’s portfolio. SAP’s acquisition of Fieldglass was put under the same org structure as Ariba for the simple reason that procuring contingent labor – Fieldglass’ claim to fame – adds an important strategic component to its business network plans.

While it’s easy to think that contingent labor is more of a non-strategic, indirect asset than a strategic one, adding contingent labor to a business network immediately upgrades the network’s strategic value.  A good example is the consumer products value chain. Consumer products have a strong seasonal component, and that means that retailers, manufacturers, and logistics companies have to do some serious planning around seasonal demand, and that includes seasonal labor. While I would imagine in some companies a procurement clerk might handle that function, it’s more likely that contingent labor procurement would need tons of input from the execs in charge of supply chain, human resources, production planning, warehouse management, and the like.

See where this is going? With contingent labor as part of the Ariba network, the strategic value of the network increases significantly. And with that increased value comes an increase in strategic influencers looking towards the Ariba network for some absolutely mission-critical planning. Which, assuming you read this post from the beginning, begins to solve the chicken and egg problem for Ariba.

Also militating in Ariba’s favor are forthcoming integrations with Concur and SAP’s new flagship ERP system, S/4 HANA. Tying these assets into the Ariba network will allow invoice management and reconciliation to move through the Ariba network and provide the ability to – guess what – better manage cash, among other things. Once the Ariba network is positioned to manage a company’s cash flow processes it would then be in position to start looking at, among other things, trade financing.

Et tu, Charles? Ariba also wants to get into direct procurement and supply chain, and leverage its gigantic network and the position of SAP ERP – now Business Suite, one day S/4 HANA – and its other cloud assets to make a credible base for a major business network play.

On the theory that imitation is the finest form of flattery, Infor is of course going after procure to pay, one of the most strategic processes in direct and indirect procurement. They also want to connect Infor’s legacy ERP systems users, too many to count in the Infor customer ecosystem, to GTN, as well as connecting its new flagship ERP, Infor 10x, to GTN.

The similarities go on, for the simple reason that both companies share a similar goal and a similar understanding of what the end game needs to look like – a loosely-coupled business network that provides a one-to-many buying and selling experience that is deeply embedded in the planning and execution systems of its users and their trading partners. That experience, of course, also includes a heretofore never seen quantity of rich data and information, available in real time, about the quality and quantity of the underlying transactions that provides an important value-added set of services to the network’s users.

If this business network were to be built, and a critical mass of customers were to sign up, it would be the most significant event in global trade since… I don’t know, pick an event: the advent of the Internet, modern ERP systems, telephony, global financial networks? I struggle with expressing the magnitude of the transformation because its magnitude is unfathomable at this point. Perhaps it’s just easier to say that if these two companies, and others in the mix as well, can execute on the fundamentals of the business network strategy, how B2B, and by extension B2C, commerce is conducted, will never be the same.

What’s clear is that, while the “year of the chief business network officer” is still a ways off, both companies are approaching the quantum physics/Schrödinger’s cat problem by trying to offer more reasons for more C-level and LOB stakeholders to want to be connected to their respective business networks. For obvious reasons, the first line of offense is in the office of the CFO, but it’s pretty clear that the entire C-suite and the LOB suite will have reason to want something from these business networks once they reach critical mass in terms of both customers and broad strategic value.

I wish both Infor and SAP Ariba the best of luck. These initial steps to move the global economy towards the era of the business network need the best efforts of all the Infors and SAPs in the market, and then some. There’s definitely a lot of work to convert these two very different networks into business networks, but it’s work that will pay off in the long run. And hopefully that long run won’t take too long to run.

Which came first – the business network or the business network buyer? How about both?

 

 

 

Productivity, Enterprise Software, and The Economics of Digital Disruption

The New York Times ran an article recently that made the shocking claim that “Silicon Valley hasn’t saved us from a productivity slowdown.” Reading through the article, and in particular the research by Chad Syverson of the University of Chicago Booth business school on which the NYT article is based, it’s clear the article gets its premise right. Except for one important fact.

The editor forgot to add a word at the end of the headline: Yet. And the writer, an economist named Tyler Cowen, missed the punchline to his own article – Silicon Valley is getting ready to fix the problem he rightfully bemoans. Because, while it’s true productivity is stagnating, the business world is sitting on the cusp of a huge uptake in productivity, one that we haven’t seen in more than a decade.

All it will take is a little re-platforming – okay, a big re-platforming – and some business process change, and some pretty innovative thinking about innovation. All non-trivial, but all possible. And, importantly, the tech vendors – and not just the Silicon Valley gang – are pretty ready to rock and roll. It’s their customers that haven’t saved themselves.

Yet.

For the most part, the Times article, and Syverson’s research, are pretty flawless. The gist of both is that from the Y2K era until 2004 or so, labor productivity was moving up pretty steadily, something that has generally been acknowledged as the result of new technology. (Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan said as much in 1999.) And since 2005, that growth has declined. According to Syverson, the problem is pretty basic:

From 2005 through 2015(Q3), labor productivity growth has averaged 1.3% per year. This is down from a trajectory of 2.8% average annual growth sustained over 1995-2004.

The result, both economists want us to believe, is that $2.7 trillion of unrealized GDP growth has been left on the table, and there is no pretending that the growth is hidden behind the newfangled business models of the Internet and e-commerce that are hard to quantify according to standard measures. The culprit is a decline in productivity growth, plain and simple.

What’s interesting about this number is how relatively close it is to another number based on a completely different measure, from an orthogonally different source. A report in 2014 by consultancy E&Y reported that the relative productivity of capital, as opposed to labor, has been lagging in recent years. The working capital analysis in the E&Y report showed that the huge gains in working capital efficiency that were realized in the early part of the century, as measured by days sales outstanding (DSO) and other measures, have tapered off since the last recession. This has led to the following problem, according to E&Y:

A high-level comparative analysis indicates that the leading 2,000 US and European companies still have up to US$1.3t of cash unnecessarily tied up.

 Okay, it’s an apples to oranges comparison, and the labor productivity number is 2x the working capital number. But, regardless of how different these two analyses are, and how far apart their results are, the two studies are actually talking about the same thing – a drop in productivity growth that is tied to the diminishing effectiveness of technology to maintain historic growth levels. If by historic you’ll permit me to limit the timeframe to the last 20 years.

The reason I think the E&Y report and Syverson and Cowen are talking about the same basic problem is that it’s pretty much a given that the IT platforms of the last two big inflection points – Y2K and the dotcom boom/bust – are getting a little long in the tooth. This is true, in particular, for old-guard companies doing business in traditional markets the old-fashioned way. These companies loaded up on the latest and greatest from the 20th century for all the right reasons when they did (okay, Y2K was a hoax, but there was a lot of IT that desperately needed the upgrade anyway.) And for the most part they got their money’s worth in new productivity gains.

The problem is that the gains of the last generation of enterprise software are last century’s news. Those leading edge business processes and enterprise software of 10 or 20 years ago are now considered by the tech punditocracy and the vendors and forward-thinking customers as legacy anchors holding back innovation and competitiveness. They’re based on an old transaction processing model, running on internal relational databases, with a lousy user experience, no sense of what modern customer engagement means in the 21st century, and they’re expensive to implement, run, and maintain.

No wonder there’s $2.7 trillion in lost US GDP or $1.3 trillion in cash sitting on the sidelines of 2000 global companies doing nothing. That’s what happens when economies are being held back by out-moded processes, and I agree with Cowen and Syverson that tech hasn’t done it’s share to alleviate the problem.

Yet.

Where I take issue with Cowens’ analysis is that he leaves out any demonstrable sense that “Silicon Valley” might actually be in the process of fixing the problem of labor productivity, and, while we’re at it, cash productivity too. And, in many cases, the solutions are in the market or will be available soon. To his credit, Cowen cautiously ends his article by saying “While information technology remains the most likely source of future breakthroughs, Silicon Valley has not saved us just yet,” thus getting the adverb “yet” in just in the nick of time.

And yet…what Cowen is missing is that new technology, new platforms, new applications, and new business processes are sticking their heads up like dandelions after a spring rain. And each offering – every darn one that’s worth anything at all – has solving these issues of labor and cash productivity as a fundamental goal, even if neither concept can be found in most vendors’ marketing campaigns.

Perhaps the most complete sense of the magnitude of this pending shift can be seen in looking at Microsoft Dynamics’ latest incarnation of its flagship ERP system, AX. A recent meeting with the AX team highlighted the rapidity of the productivity shift in two simple slides: one was the UX of an early version AX 2012, the ultimate evolution of 20th century UX design at the time. And the other was the UX design for the new Dynamics AX – based on design principles liberally borrowed from the mobile and cloud experience that consumers have come to expect from the apps and services. As Mike Ehrenberg, a Microsoft technical fellow and CTO of Dynamics, commented when toggling back to the AX 2012 screen after showing me the new Dynamics AX screen, “It’s hard to imagine we thought that was the pinnacle of design” – a recognition of how much things have changed in the five short years since AX 2012 was first released.

What’s underlying the new Dynamics AX user experience, which itself promises significant labor productivity gains, are the newly configured business processes and the tiled “workspaces” that are intended to increase employee productivity based on role and individual preference. There’s online help and training too. Then there’s the efficiency of the Azure cloud on which AX now runs, and its Life Cycle Services ALM service, which takes the cost effectiveness of the cloud and adds huge savings in lifecycle development and deployment costs. And there’s the built-in connectivity to Office 365’s desktop productivity tools, and the PowerBI analytics stack, And so on.

The net of these new services and capabilities should address both labor productivity: workers and customers will be much more efficient. Cash should be much more productive too: IT will stop sopping up huge quantities of capital on massive, multi-year implementations, two-thirds of which will fail to deliver on their goals, all the while running on expensive, in-house hardware. And that’s just the beginning of what a modern, cloud-based ERP system can do.

Microsoft is hardly alone, though I think they are the furthest along. SAP is poised for a similar play with its new Fiori UX, S/4 HANA ERP system and HANA Cloud Platform, though S/4 needs to round out its functionality in order to fully deliver on its productivity promises. Infor has similar designs with its SoHo UX, Infor 10x ERP, and its ION platform. Salesforce.com wants to do something similar with its Lightning UX, its growing partner ecosystem of non-CRM apps, and Force.com. Pretty much across the board, the leading vendors are ready or almost ready to meet the demands for greater productivity.

If only.

This current and pending technological tour-de-force is proof that Silicon Valley is not what’s gating the next wave of productivity gains in labor and working capital. The neglect of “Silicon Valley”, which is the implication of the NYT headline, is a red herring. The tech is there, or on its way – in most cases close enough to touch, or buy, or at least start planning for.

What’s in the way is a combination of customer caution and some confusing vendor marketing. For the most part, even those vendors that have done a good job of describing the value of their new tech offerings haven’t given customers a strong enough case for why these changes are about core business issues and not just cool new technology. The problem with Silicon Valley’s neglect is not about a dearth of new technology, it’s about a dearth of understanding about how to talk to the business leadership about what matters to them, and technology is for the most part not too high on the list.

Meanwhile, many customers who could and should start moving forward have been playing ostrich with innovation, looking at the plethora of new challenges facing them through the same old lens, and therefore doing nothing or, at best, not enough. It’s a tricky dance for many of these companies: preserve what’s good from the past and get the rest of out the way so the company can prepare for the future. Knowing what’s good and what’s passé is far from obvious, and it doesn’t help that every vendor in the market is selling a platform that promises to fix it all, ignoring the fact that asking a customer to consolidate on a single platform is both a very long, hard slog, and not necessarily in the customer’s best interests.

Regardless, Messrs. Cowen and Syverson, and E&Y and countless others are on to something big. We are at an inflection point in the productivity cycle of the global economy, and this is no time to just accept slower productivity growth as inevitable. Whether it’s time to take your fair share of $1.7 trillion or $2.7 trillion or whatever the real number is, or whether it’s time to get your head out of the sand and face a major disruptor about to make you the next Blockbuster, it’s time to act. And acting means taking a hard look at strategic technologies that are no longer delivering steady productivity and find out how to jack them up a notch.

This doesn’t mean killing off old-guard applications like ERP, or driving ERP into the commodity layer and looking for innovation outside the traditional core. It means being ready, willing, and able to turn every dial and fine tune every process in the pursuit of productivity. And it means every company needs to be prepared to save itself, and to do so soon. Waiting for “Silicon Valley” reminds me of watching Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot – in the end you’ve had the chance to witness a first rate tragicomedy, but if it’s action you’re after, you’d better look elsewhere. And, when it comes to saving your company from the ravages of stagnant growth, there’s no better place to start than in your own IT backyard.

Re-platforming, Business Transformation, People, and Partners: Get it Right or Get Out of the Way

This is era of the cloud platform, aka the re-platforming of the enterprise. Every vendor, whether old guard freshening up for the cloud, or new guard playing defense against the dark arts, has a cloud platform strategy with two purported goals:  offer value to customers and confer an easy way for partners to make up for the lost revenue implicit in the cloud’s ability to sop up a lot of low-hanging fruit previously left for partners to pick.

There’s more than a whiff of irony contained in the fact that re-platforming is an essential part of moving to a cloud model that theoretically eschews software. “No software” marketing slogans aside, it takes a lot of software to run an enterprise in the cloud, and adopting and making use of that software – as in your favorite vendor’s cloud platform – is neither simple nor cheap.

This creates an important new imperative for vendors to define the value of their nascent cloud platforms differently than in the past. This time, it’s not about technology, it’s about something different: customer and partner experiences matter more than ever, and opening up to a new form of partner engagement is imperative. For some companies, that’s a no-brainer. For others, a brain transplant might be in order.

So bear with me while I make the case that, at the end of the day, re-platforming is about partner opportunities first and foremost. And the winner in the race to re-platform will be the vendor/contender that makes it so simple to sign on, become a partner, build a cool new product, and then sell it through a digital store that partners will falling over themselves to get on board. Everyone with an iPhone or iPad knows what I mean.

While this is the nth re-platforming in my career, this era’s re-platforming is quite distinct from the earlier lot: client/server computing, the Internet, the Y2K hoax, and the circa 2000 e-commerce hustle bustle, to name the biggest in recent memory. In each one of these previous re-platformings, the role of the platform was to enable new technology models to emerge that, with a little spit and polish, might actually be made to serve emerging business models one day – once businesses caught up and got around to understanding the magnitude of the change that was in the air.

So while waiting for business to get on board, the technological justifications for re-platforming ruled. While serving the needs of the business was supposedly the main objective, the new platforms engendered yet another technology-first race, and while there were unintended benefits for some – client/server and Y2K enabled much need technology upgrades — the flotsam and jetsam that washed up in the aftermath of the dotcom bust and early Internet re-platformings were testimony to the problems inherent in trying to solve a business problem with a technology-first solution.

To be sure, the cloud platform of today is also at the center of an effort to enable new technology models in the service of business, and there are plenty of proponents who argue that this is also mostly about technology. I contend that’s a false and potentially fatal assumption: the platforms of today are connected much more closely to new business models than ever before – so close as to be almost indistinguishable.

The key to that connection is people.

Unlike previous attempts at re-platforming, the new cloud business cases and patterns of behavior that enable them are already well-established: This time around, the drive to re-platform for the cloud is coming in the midst of a massive business transformation movement that is all about how people – customers, employees, partners, consumers… in a nutshell, everyone – put technology to use for their personal use, at work and at home.

Importantly, these use cases are already happening – they’re not theoretical in the least. The horse is out of the barn, the trick is to harness it and put it to productive use.

The blending of work and home is what’s really shaking things up, not because we all want to work from home, but, to repeat a well-known trope, because the user experience we have at home with our intelligent devices has completely outpaced our experiences at work. This is not, to repeat a much less well-known trope, just a matter of grafting on new user experiences driven by mobility, touch, and voice interaction. More important is that we are acting differently – buying, selling, communicating, showing and telling – in ways that are fundamentally new as well. The personal processes of the “consumerized business user”, have changed, and will continue to change, at an ever-increasing pace.

In fact, the new user experiences are only the tip of the iceberg – it’s what’s happening behind the scenes in the back office that’s actually the most important.

The need to fill out the part of the iceberg that’s underwater is driving business process change at an unprecedented pace, which in turn is driving the new platform imperative. The business disruption that is now a core part of trends like business transformation and digital transformation started in the home: instead of going to the store to rent videos, we stayed home, and with a vastly superior user experience (faster, better, cheaper, more choice) we disrupted Blockbuster. We did the same with books, and disrupted Borders. And now we’re doing it again with Uber and Lyft.

In every case, the user experience was awesome, but what was really amazing was the backend – it’s dead simple to create a button and have it say Buy now with 1-Click, it’s a whole ‘nuther thing to turn that click into the starting point of a process that automatically invoices, pulls, packs, ships, tracks, and delivers in 48 hours or less.

Amazon and others have highlighted that the business disruption of today isn’t theoretical, or hypothetical, or just around the corner the way it was at the dawn of the re-platforming movements of the past. It’s real, it’s happening, the tide is shifting, fear is in the air – feel free to pick the business disruption platitude you prefer, only bear in mind that in this case, to slaughter a famous line by the Bard himself, platitude is prologue. If you’re not scared, you’re not paying attention.

This makes the platform doubly important as a place for a vendor to not just lock in customers for a generation (the cynical viewpoint) but also provide them with important new capabilities (the counter-cynical view). These new capabilities need to be available to a vastly expanded user base, take advantage of the aforementioned new experiences, and leverage the plastic fantastic resources of the cloud.

But, and here’s really the crux of the problem, the truth is that no vendor can provide everything needed to leverage the value of re-platforming. Did I mention it’s not cheap and there’s a lot of software involved? With a non-trivial level of cost and complexity involved, if all a vendor is doing by re-platforming is enabling the same old enterprise stuff in a faster cloud, it’s the business transformation equivalent of putting a turbocharger on a hearse: in the end, you’ll still be dead, the only difference is that you got to the funeral faster.

Assuming a faster ride to the end of the line isn’t a good thing, if a platform vendor can’t actually provide everything needed to cost-justify its platform, particularly the shiny new things customers need to fend off disruption and get in the mood to disrupt the next guy, then something else is needed. That something is obvious and acknowledged by all, but, to misquote the Bard again, its successful application is more honored in the breach than the observance.

What I’m talking about is a vibrant, well-supported, happy ecosystem of partners dedicated to filling out the vendor’s existing offerings, taking on the last mile of functionality for specific industries, geographies, new use cases and the like that leverage the cloud vendors’ applications and platform, and then making the magic happen for the vendor’s newly re-platformed customers.

That ecosystem – from startups to OEM partners (though the shift has to be more towards the left than the right of that continuum) – needs access to five basic ingredients that define cloud platform success for them and their customers. (And listen up, platform vendors – you’re third in line after customers and partners in the Maslow Hierarchy of Cloud Platform Needs. Your personal self-actualization only comes after customers and partners, not before. Don’t make me repeat it – vendors who create partner programs and put their needs first and foremost… grrrr.)

Back to those five ingredients for an ecosystem worthy of a re-replatforming strategy. This list is for you, cloud platform vendors looking for success in the enterprise. And customers, when you’re looking at a new platform, think about whether the vendor you’re talking to has bothered to include these five ingredients:

1)      Ready access for partners to your customer base.  Platform vendors have the customers, partners have that last mile solution, go ye forth, multiply, and be fruitful.

2)      A single point of entry for the partnering efforts. Too many vendor platforms force their nascent partners to play whack-a-mole with the vendors’ partnering efforts – first talk to these guys, then those guys, then get someone else’s approval, then enter the certification program, pay your way, and then, wait for the next re-org and start the process all over. (Yeh, you, I’m talking about you.) The problem is that whack-a-mole can quickly turn into a death march, which in turn means that the platform strategy will fail for lack of innovative partners – who the hell wants to sign on to a death march when there are warm, fuzzy embraces to be had elsewhere.

3)      Great co-marketing. You need to help everyone – your customers and your partners – understand why vendor+platform+partner product is a win/win/win. This has to be a real discussion about real business value – not more squishy proclamations about “everything changes for the better, trust us” or “now your IT is even less complex” or “the very best damn platform for the (insert TLA) market “. You gotta get really real – no more platitudes, prologues though they may be. Customers need facts, data, and reality, not marketing fog.

4)      A great development environment that favors the developer, not the vendor’s internal political choices and not-invented-here nonsense. This includes lots of tools and lots of options for using standards: in a nutshell, your platform has to be the most welcoming of all, the choice of dev environment should never be an obstacle. And prospective partners that started developing before they decided your platform would be a good place to be shouldn’t have to start by porting their product to the vendor’s non-open platform. See “death march” above.

5)      Last but really first among equals: A great commercial experience that makes it simple (can I say insanely simple and not sound too much like a Steve Jobs fanboy?) for partners to sell their wares online and customers to buy them. One-click a la Amazon or the Apple Store’s ease of use may not be possible for every partner product, but that should be the goal. Or getting numbers 1-4 right won’t matter in the least.

 

If you’re thinking my list is obvious, you’re right – sometimes the best you can do for someone is remind them of the obvious. It’s my stock in trade as a consultant in fact. The sun rises in the east, birds fly south for the winter, and there are five basic ingredients for a successful ecosystem: none of this is hard to figure out, what’s hard is to get it done. And as far as I can tell no vendor is doing a great job of all five.

Of the above criteria, I think it’s the last one that will be the best measure of success: How well a cloud vendor builds and maintains a strong ecosystem will very quickly become one of the main differentiators between clouds. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: if the vendor does things right, the partner ecosystem will come. Plain and simple, no?

We shall see. I’ve watched plain and simple lose to complex and convoluted time and time again. As my friend Dave Brousell likes to say, every big company has its meat grinder, and whatever quality of meat goes in, by the time the grinding is done it’s pretty much all ground beef. Getting rid of the meat grinder is harder than it sounds, and at times no amount of good intentions can overcome the institutional inertia to turn innovation into hash.

Unless…. Vendors have to fix their re-platforming strategies to fit into the needs of customers and partners, and do it now. A great UX without new underlying processes, great new processes without a mass of great partners, a mass of great partners without a great digital store. Getting ready for digital transformation is like buying one of those Russian matryoshka dolls and trying to figure out, as you open up one doll only to find another, which doll is actually the one that matters. The answer is obvious – all of them. Or none of them. In which case, don’t bother buying the doll in the first place.

Which is it going to be?

 

 

 

Back to School Week with Salesforce.com

Salesforce.com kicked off the analyst season with the first analyst summit of the year, and aside from inciting back-to-school analogies from an overly-relaxed group of analysts, some clear wins and opportunities, and a few issues, emerged that will both set the bar for the competition and keep Salesforce execs from entertaining any notions of complacency.

The clearest win of all came in the form of the company’s IoT strategy, which was without a doubt the most practical – as in demonstrating a clear value to companies that want to be early adopters – that I have seen in the past several years. Rather than boiling the ocean into a gigantic data lake the way GE is proceeding (actually, I think they’re shooting to boil all seven seas at once), or defining an IoT value prop that requires customers to make heavy investments on their own, which is the way many vendors are trending, Salesforce.com has focused on enabling IoT as a direct offshoot of its customer focus.

In a nutshell, IoT at Salesforce.com means using sensor data to inform or trigger existing customer-centric processes, like service and support, that companies are already performing. The difference is in the ability of IoT to have a device signal that it needs service, leaving the human-generated signal out of the picture. This sounds simple, almost too simple, and that’s the beauty of it. A lot of IoT scenarios I’ve seen of late place an implicit burden on the company embracing IoT in its manufacturing or service lines of business to create new processes in order to optimize their IoT opportunity. And the customers of the newly IoT-enabled company themselves need to create net new processes and adopt new technology on their end. Not good.

Asking companies to create and manage entirely new processes, on top of wiring up new data sources and analytical tools, is a prescription for… in the short, term, not a whole lot. This is the problem with most IoT strategies: Not a whole lot is the expected outcome for IoT strategies that require too much change of too many stakeholders too soon, and that’s what most IoT-wannabes are up to.

Another win came in the signs that Salesforce.com is increasingly looking toward its partnership with Microsoft, particularly around Office 365, as a strategic linchpin in its plans – I must have heard O365 mentioned a half-dozen times in the day and a half I was in attendance. O365 is a clear winner for Microsoft, and while Microsoft’s Dynamics CRM Online is hunting avidly for Salesforce.com’s game, the fact that Salesforce is aligning with the next generation desktop productivity platform is a clear example of pragmatism and opportunity coalescing for the benefit of customers. For millions and millions of users, there’s no better place for CRM functionality than Outlook, and this partnership will do a lot for the Salesforce.com users who’ve been jonesing for superior Outlook integration. (The deal may help Salesforce do a better job at the low end of the SMB market, another important challenge I’ll address in a moment.)

This is a radically different relationship than the one that SAP had with Microsoft earlier this century, when the two companies jointly developed a product called Duet that claimed to bridge the world of Office and SAP ERP. The product never really attained much traction, in part due to the fact that neither company was really in the mood for a mutually beneficial relationship – at best the two tolerated each other’s perceived encroachment into their respective sacred domains, and the overall lackluster sales reflected the underlying snarl in the relationship.

Not so with Salesforce.com and Microsoft – Satya Nadella has made this kind of partnership a virtue at Microsoft. While it’s clear that this continuing embrace isn’t great for Dynamics CRM – which has been a making a virtue of having a more modern UX than Salesforce.com at a lower average cost – the value-add for customers is unassailable.

But life in the CRM fast lane is complicated, and Salesforce.com’s efforts to be a platform company, and compete as one for both customers and ecosystems partnerships, is a good example of where some refinement is needed. The crux of the issue is what kind of cloud platform does Salesforce.com want to be known for. The statement of co-founder Parker “Lightning Man” Harris that Salesforce aspires to be the number one CRM platform provider begs the question of what this designation means for customers that are evaluating new cloud products and services based on the merits and demerits of the cloud platform they are built for.

While it’s good to narrowcast platform aspirations as much as possible – the broadest-based platforms will quickly drive themselves into commodity pricing and razor thin margins, á la AWS – Salesforce and its partners need to worry about what a customer looking at partner products that offer next-gen ERP, supply chain, asset management, IoT or other functionality on the number one CRM platform will think. Should I as a customer be looking at a CRM-specific platform to run my cloud back office or shop floor functions? Or should I look at some other vendor’s cloud, one that is more apt to be optimized for something other than CRM?

The problem is one of marketing focus more than anything, but, for a company that has always placed a premium on marketing, the problem is real enough to be worrisome. And in a market where every vendor is a platform vendor, and each uses its respective platform as an important adjunct to its products and services go-to-market efforts, this is no small issue.

File under “interesting” another conversation I had, this time with Leyla Seka, who heads Desk.com, and her colleague Stephen Ehikian from SalesforceIQ. The two execs spoke with myself and a number of analysts about the SMB market, one that I would argue is not considered the sweet spot for Salesforce.com anymore. Salesforce.com’s SMB market aspirations need some work – in part because, as Leyla said, Salesforce.com, like any other software company, would love to be the vendor of choice for the future unicorns of the world. Who wouldn’t like to establish a relationship with the next Uber and be there as it grows from nothing to unicorn overnight?

But what about the mid-market manufacturer doing $50-$100 million a year? Or the startup that’s just getting started? Desk.com can help with the support side, but I think it’s pretty clear that Salesforce.com isn’t the go-to CRM vendor for early stage companies or established, slow growth SMBs. Though who that go-to vendor should be is up in the air: I just did a major eval of CRM for startups, and to be frank, I was amazed at how little there was out there targeted at the low-end of the market: Pretty much every established vendor I looked at has added so many bells and whistles that they’ve made it too complex to start at the basics of what an early stage company needs. And many are more expensive than any startup would like, requiring 5-10 seat minimums at $50 or $65/month for more seats and more functionality than is needed. In startup land when every penny counts, and needs are simple, this kind of pricing is a non-starter and makes Excel look like a pretty good alternative.

Why does Salesforce even want to be in this part of the market, I asked, with its attendant channel complexity, lower margins, and relative cost of sales? The best answer I heard was that it wants to be in SMB because that’s where the company started, and paranoia about losing the SMB market runs rampant in the company. I think there’s better ways to deal with market anxiety than trying to be all things to all markets: serving SMB and large enterprise takes different DNA, and assuming the different strands can be woven into a single corporate helix is a common industry mistake. Unless Salesforce.com wants to claw its way into a major channel operation and fight the good fight in SMB through a vibrant and carefully managed partner program, it should largely step out of the market.

Paranoia, of course, is an important part of the mix that fuels success in enterprise software, and Salesforce.com can’t afford to pretend it has nothing to be paranoid about. This was another key theme at the summit: what can Salesforce.com do to prevent its own disruption, now that it’s the market leader and a legacy vendor in many customers’ view.

Those of us who remember how relatively easy it was for Salesforce.com to usurp Seibel know that the first lesson of avoiding disruption is to avoid denial, and every legacy vendor should designate a swat team to go investigate any new trend or opportunity that one of its executives scoffs at the way Tom Seibel scoffed at the nascent SaaS market. Salesforce is clearly not in the business of denying its vulnerability, I heard that from its execs at the summit more than once, and it’s moving in so many directions at once that it’s hard to find a trend that Salesforce isn’t trying to get a piece of.

That said, there are vulnerabilities that Salesforce.com is working to overcome. First and foremost is its user experience, which is one of the main reasons there’s a whiff of legacy in the air. (Eau de Legacy is a scent that lingers around almost every enterprise software vendor, BTW). The company’s forthcoming Lightning UX is designed precisely to deal with that problem, and according to Salesforce.com a significant number of its customers have taken a look. The assumption is they will like the new UX – that’s usually a given. Will they like the process changes that inevitably emerge from a major UX change? Not a given..

The second are the limits of online CRM, which has been a great beachhead for Salesforce.com but is getting a little long in the tooth as a market/buying center/differentiator. Hence the acquisitions strategy, the platform strategy, the analytics strategy, the IoT strategy, etc. etc. There’s a lot of moving parts to Salesforce.com, and like many of its competitors, integrating and consolidating all those moving parts into a cohesive whole is always harder than it should be.

Finally, there’s the pressure that Salesforce.com is feeling from the likes of Azure and AWS, pressure strong enough that company execs acknowledged they are considering whether to embrace these two competitors or hunker down for a long battle. It’s a battle that Salesforce.com will be hard-pressed to engage directly: The basic physics of enterprise software dictate that as Azure and AWS commoditize the bottom end of the PaaS market they’ll move further up the value stack in search of uncommoditized margins. One of the them, Azure, already has both a very successful CRM product and a truly impressive new ERP offering, AX 7, that’s the first all-cloud ERP that’s also an on-premise ERP. And Dynamics CRM and AX 7 both leverage Azure and the rest of Microsoft’s services like Office 365, Skype, Exchange, and a range of analytics that span everything from BI to machine learning to event processing. Both Dynamics CRM and AX 7 can also leverage Azure’s new ALM tool, Lifecycle Services, another big plus on the platform side.

Suffice to say that, Office 365 partnership notwithstanding, Microsoft and Azure are in position to put a dent in Salesforce.com’s platform plans, or, at a minimum, push Salesforce.com into a closer relationship with Microsoft on the Azure side. It’s one or the other.

As for Amazon – I don’t think there’s a successful business model on the planet that Amazon isn’t considering disrupting. As in the enterprise, with AWS as a launch pad, the sky’s the limit (actually Amazon’s drones mean the sky’s not a limiting factor either 🙂 ) I think Jeff Bezos and Amazon would be the platform competitor I would worry about the most, and it may make sense at some point for Salesforce.com to look over its shoulder at AWS and start working to co-opt the Bezos juggernaut.

Finally, growth and competition are spurring the company to hire another 10,000 (!!!) employees this year, basically a 50% uptick over the current 20,000 headcount. This is a mighty two-edged sword: on the one hand, a company that feels the need to increase its headcount by 50% is in the enviable position of planning for some seriously impressive growth, made all the more impressive by the $6.6 billion Salesforce.com is already telling Wall Street it will rake in this year.

The other side of the sword is that finding and on-boarding that many people is a Herculean task (think Augean stables), one made all the more difficult by the continuous dearth of quality talent that every tech company is feeling these days. Looking at average time to hire data helps highlight the complexity of the task: it can take from a little more than a month to many months to bring a new employee on board, particularly in tech. Each step along the way imposes costs and drains cycles from the recruiting company, which means that hiring that many people, even across the span of a year, will itself be a major challenge for the company.

All said, Salesforce.com is doing a good job of positioning itself for an increasingly complex and competitive market, one in which its early, and relatively easy, successes in CRM will be harder and harder to replicate. Customer choice for core CRM and its adjacencies is increasing, as is the proliferation of platform options and the ensuring confusion about what choosing a platform means for customers today. Assuming the paranoia about disruption can be kept alive, and the many current and future acquisitions can be rationalized, Salesforce.com has the advantage of tackling its challenges from a position of strength.

Which usually, but not always (et tu, Tom), works out for the best.

 

 

Informatica Tackles the Data Side of Innovation, Digital Transformation, Big Data, and Whatever…

The nice thing about buzzwords like digital transformation, big data, and innovation is that they are infinitely malleable, imparting permission on vendors and users alike to discuss their specific challenges and opportunities in the context of something bigger than themselves. All a board needs to hear is that someone, somewhere in the company, is focused on one or more of these buzzwords, and a warm, fuzzy feeling of accomplishment replaces that hectic panic of imminent doom.

Within this context, there’s much talk about embracing new technologies, and less, unfortunately, about the human capital and buyer behavior changes that must accompany any significant transformation. Importantly, along with technology and people (more on this coming up), there’s a third leg to the transformation race that needs close attention as well: Whatever a company wants to call it, and wherever they want to take it, and no matter how much they want to accomplish, every company’s next move is going to need a dramatically different relationship to the data that underlie new and evolving business processes.

This isn’t just because the data are different, or because the use cases are different, though those are some of the important reasons why it’s not going to be business as usual on the data side. What’s more important is that the interplay between people, business, and data is changing in ways that truly make business as usual a dead end. The pending death of silos on the business process and people side, and the emergence of new business processes from the ashes of the old, tired process of yore, needs a concomitant annihilation of silos on the data management, governance, and usage side. A 20th century relationship to the data that drives the enterprise will simply grind down any attempt to move a wannabe transformational enterprise in the 21st century.

That’s the mentality that underlies Informatica’s latest announcement, and while the messaging from Informatica focuses more on the tech issues than the business issues, the company’s “Big Data Launch” earlier this month has all the earmarks of a roadmap for data in the era of digital transformation, big data, or innovation. Might as well throw IoT and mobile in there, while you’re at it. There’s something for every buzzword in Informatica’s announcement, and the conceptual thinking of business and IT around transformation will be all the more mature for paying attention to what Informatica is talking about.

Informatica’s hat trick release of updates to PowerCenter, Data Quality, and Data Integration Hub is the company’s attempt to cover the full panoply of data management, governance, quality, and usability requirements in the modern/modernizing enterprise. This something for everyone focus – if focus is indeed the word – recognizes that any given enterprise will be moving forward in multiple cadences and directions at once.

Many of the companies I’ve talked to in recent months have embarked on simultaneous consolidation and innovation projects: consolidating and rationalizing the back office while pushing innovation at the edges. This isn’t as bipolar as it sounds: innovating on top of a moribund platform is like trying to climb a mountain with a cast on your arm – it’s better to do a little healing first before attempting the next big challenge. This purging of the back office – which in most companies has some significant legacy functionality – is a necessary precondition to a massive, transformational innovation undertaking.

Meanwhile, to get the enterprise ready for transformation, IT and the line of business in many companies have joined up to pilot an innovation project – a dab of IoT, a new, hip user experience on the commercial side, some new selling tools, etc. The important factor is that these POCs are intended to set the stage for a bigger business process innovation effort that has to change IT as much as it has to change LOB processes and sensibilities.

This complex reality is matched by the complex heterogeneity and need for hybrid cloud/on premise solutions that characterize the modern enterprise today. And underlying all the complexity on the process side is an even greater complexity on the data side. Again, there’s a similar bipolar-like feel to what’s happening in the modernizing enterprise: fundamentally, there’s still a vast quantity of older transactional data that need better overall maintenance and governance. The consolidations and rationalizations in the traditional back office have huge data cleanup requirements. Let’s be honest, among the many sins of the data warehouse mess of the late 20th century was the creation of what I call the sanitary data landfill ­– a vast data garbage dump where the fill first, analyze later mentality meant that a lot of messy data and processes were tolerated on the assumption that technology would solve the inherent needle and haystack problem that stems from too much data and not enough data quality. And that was just wrong.

Meanwhile, there’s no shortage of new data heading towards the enterprise in the form of web-based customer interaction data, real time sensor data, data historians and other industrial control data, ad infinitum. Literally. The growth in the quantity of data is matched by the growth in data types and formats – and sources. Similarly, the growth in data sources is matched by the growth in destinations: smart device communications are often bi-directional, and every controller, intelligent industrial machine, smart phone or even aircraft engine is both generating terabytes of data as well as consuming the results of the analysis of those data in the form of operational changes in what the machine, phone, or aircraft engine needs to do next, often in real time and often with some serious consequences for failure.

So – getting data right today isn’t like getting data right a decade ago. The data fudging available to the non-interconnected, non-real time, non-customer centric, and largely transaction processing-focused enterprise of the past is simply not an option in the transformative enterprise. If the data aren’t right, to a level of tolerance unheard of even a decade ago, then the transformation will be for naught.

That’s why a peek under the hood at Informatica’s latest releases is a good start for any company thinking about what has to happen to data as the company moves through a transformation cycle. Using Hadoop? Informatica’s got you covered. Real-time? Check. Improved development lifecycles for rapid prototyping and agile development? Check that too. More data and business rules visualization? Yep. Support for more data sources, improved data quality, governance, compliance? Support for next-gen analytics, customer engagement, hybrid cloud? Got that covered too.

It’s a big list, and I’ll leave it to others to dissect the feature/functionality improvements and other cool new stuff in the announcement. But I will highlight one more thing that Informatica is doing that makes tremendous sense: upping the ante, and the support, for involving business analysts directly in the data side of the transformation process. This is a tall order, and much of what has to happen here is way outside Informatica’s purview: the transformation of the business analyst into someone with a much better understanding and appreciation of data. This is part of the “human capital” leg of the transformation race mentioned earlier.

Assuming that the enterprise, or some consulting firm, will help get this business analyst transformation underway, Informatica’s focus on making its tools more business analyst friendly are right on the money. Data quality is a big business analyst issue that Informatica is supporting in its new release, and anything that brings these analysts in from the cold on key issues like data governance is more than welcome. Same with data integration – while no one expects business analysts to become integration experts, allowing them to think critically and then act, or empower IT to act, on the data integration requirements of their line of business is a huge step on the road to business transformation. There is no business transformation without people transformation, and giving the business analysts tools to help them on their way is an absolutely necessary part of this process.

Informatica, with its focus on data, is in many ways on the same journey as its prospective customers: so much has changed since the early days of PowerCenter, when IT was all inside a single firewall. These latest releases show Informatica’s determination to stay ahead of a rapidly evolving curve. I think its new functionality, and the new speed it promises for the core processes it supports, are part of a recognition that, as I said before, business as usual is one-way ticket to nowhere. Getting the data side of the new business imperative right is a key part of opening up the possibilities that business transformation, big data, IoT, or any other buzzword-compliant challenge present. Business transformation without data transformation is no transformation at all.

 

 

Kinaxis, Digital Transformation, and the Supply Chain: Laughing all the Way to Market Success

You’ve got to love a company that brags at its user conference that its motto is Learn, Laugh, Share, Connect. Don’t hear that too often. What you also don’t see very often is the other characteristic that makes the company in question, Kinaxis, unique: it’s a highly profitable, cloud-only company. And when I say profitable, I mean profitable, as in a net profit margin of 16% of its $23.8 million in revenue last quarter.

For comparison, Netsuite’s net profit last quarter was -19% on $192 million in revenue, Workday reported a -24% profit on $282 million, and Salesforce.com pulled in a whopping -52% profit on $1.364 billion in revenue.

It’s no wonder that Kinaxis’ stock is up 230% since its IPO in June, 2014. By comparison, Salesforce.com, whose market cap has always defied logic, is up 50% during the same period, Oracle is at negative 5%, and SAP, Netsuite, and Workday are all just barely in positive territory over the same timeframe.

Of course, Kinaxis is by far the smaller of these companies, and it boasts a mere 100 customers, give or take a couple. But that’s actually even more impressive – it means a healthy average deal size and lots of upsell to existing customers. And, as Kinaxis implements the majority of its deals, that means it captures both the services and subscription sides of the business as well.

What’s the secret behind this rare, profitable cloud company? In part, at 30 years old Kinaxis is positively venerable when compared to the rest of the cloud keiretsu: Salesforce, Workday, and Netsuite. Its existence and success is also due to a perception gap that SAP – and competitors – have left in the market when it comes to supply chain planning. SAP’s supply chain planning offering, APO, is one of those products that customers use more because they have to than because they want to. And the fact that most prospective APO customers aren’t just SAP ERP customers has meant that using SAP’s APO, which is regarded in the market as an SAP-specific product, is seen, rightly or wrongly, as placing unacceptable limits on a company’s planning capabilities. As a result, the vast majority of Kinaxis customers have SAP ERP somewhere under the hood, but no APO.

Kinaxis’ Rapid Response, on the other hand, excels at playing Switzerland in the complex, almost Byzantine world of multiple ERPs and insanely complicated bills of materials, manufacturing, distribution, and delivery models that characterize the real world manufacturing company of today. And its user-friendliness is the stuff of legend among its customers. I met several users – as in the supply chain planners and business owners, not the IT folks — at Kinaxis’ recent Kinexions user conference who told me that their only fear was that the “SAP mafia”, in the words of one of them, would succeed in jettisoning Kinaxis Rapid Response in favor of APO.

Why? Because the internal SAP gang can, not because it’s necessarily the best choice for the company.

Speaking of Kinexions, these guys throw a helluva conference. Funny, witty, irreverent: it’s hard to resist Kinaxis’ regular habit of breaking the stodgy, tired user conference mold and actually making the relatively dry topic of supply chain genuinely entertaining. Year in and year out.

This is just one proof point among many that Kinaxis gets “people” in some very important ways. The company culture of Learn, Laugh, Share, Connect also allows Kinaxis to look at the coming “digital transformation” imperative from the one perspective that really matters: people. I’ve been tracking the clarion call for digital transformation in recent months, and the one thing that’s clear in my mind is that technology transformation is secondary to the need for people and process transformation.

This people and process transformation exists at all ends of the digital transformation continuum: customers and their buying habits need to transform as much as employees, partners, and their business processes need to transform. And the transformation of those processes has its own peculiar twist – transforming business processes doesn’t mean improving what’s already there as much as it means creating net new processes that bridge the silos of non-communication and the process roadblocks that are baked into the DNA of too many companies. If you’re being disrupted from the outside by an Amazon-like threat, tweaking the dial a couple of notches isn’t going to necessarily keep your company from losing its shirt.

What’s interesting about Kinaxis and the whole digital transformation imperative is that its decades of laboring in the salt mines of supply chain planning give it an important leg up when it comes to transforming companies. One of the classic rookie mistakes made by companies trying to grapple with transformation is to think of this as a customer-centric problem first and foremost. Too many companies think that if they only had the customer buying experience-equivalent of Amazon One-Click or the Uber app their transformation would be solved.

The reality is that One-Click or the Uber app would be a laughingstock if there hadn’t been an equally transformative change in the underlying supply chain: Amazon’s warehouse management and delivery models, and Uber’s creation of a completely new class of rolling stock for people transportation – the private car owner – were what really made their respective transformations possible.

So, while erstwhile Kinaxis competitors like Anaplan have begun to the crack the code on planning as an enterprise-wide, business user-oriented function – and they’ve done a helluva good job at it – the lack of a solid history at the core of a core business process like supply chain makes it harder to imagine how a win for Anaplan in, say, its new HR/talent management side of the business would translate quickly to upselling opportunities across the enterprise. Down the road there’s a good chance, but not until the beachhead is well-established.

By contrast, Kinaxis’ case for moving from supply chain planning to adjacencies like talent management or asset management, among many others, looks pretty solid. Judging from my conversations with Kinaxis’ customers, the customers are already well on their way in these adjacencies as well. Some have already been doing so, using Kinaxis for a wide variety of non-SCM functions.

This upsell capability is essential for Kinaxis — and having the vp of supply chain in your corner is no small advantage. Again, to give Anaplan credit, they launched their own supply chain capability earlier this year, in addition to human capital management. They’ll be able to count on having some of these heavyweight vps on their corner too – and it shouldn’t take decades either. But it’s clear that Kinaxis has a head start in this upsell opportunity around digital transformation.

Meanwhile, Anaplan has a plan to conquer enterprise-wide planning with an app store approach, something Kinaxis has been considering as well. Building an app store, along with positioning a company as a platform vendor, are two of the most cherished new recipes in the enterprise software success cookbook. And while I see the reasoning behind the latter strategy in many cases – a platform is really an open API approach that makes it easy for partners to add value, customize, and pursue niche opportunities in ways that wouldn’t be cost effective or possible for the platform vendor – I’m not so sure about the app store approach for relatively small vendors.

First of all, it’s expensive as hell to do it right: a vendor needs to build a huge portfolio of free apps so that its app store doesn’t look like a south Florida grocery store the day before a hurricane is going to clobber everything in sight. And the app store vendor has to provide huge incentives – as in direct payments to partners that want to build new apps, access to a massive customer base, and an evangelical approach to developer recruitment, or the app store shelves will continue to look like a barren wasteland. And, preferably, you need all three – just ask Windows Phone, which tried the recruitment incentive, even paying for top apps to be ported to Windows Phone, but with no customer base in the US to speak, their app store went hurricane and never recovered.

The app store vendor also has to certify the apps its partners make without creating a painful and costly barrier to market. And these aren’t necessarily the lightweight apps that the archetypical Apple Store sells for a couple of bucks each. Imagine, those of you who know something about the flaming hoops Apple makes its developers go through to be App Store certified, what it would be like building a mission critical app for the enterprise, instead of the next Candy Crush or mobile parking app, and then getting it properly certified: an enterprise app worth its salt is going to have to touch lots of sensitive systems and data, and there’s no better way to nuke your brand than to have some third party product wipe out a customer’s data or send it off to cyber-crime land for further processing. Getting into the Apple Store will be a piece of strudel by comparison.

And then there’s the commercial side of an app store: don’t underestimate how complex the backend of Apple’s App Store is. Now think of that complexity in an enterprise – payments, authentication, privacy, security, currencies, licenses, sale team compensation – it’s no small feat to pull all that together in a single, seamless, easy to use, One Click-like experience. Talk about digital transformation…..

Don’t get me wrong, there’s definitely a big partner play for these Kinaxis and Anaplan, and in fact the biggest partner play for both may come from smaller, boutique specialty firms than large, highly matrixed, global SIs. But what will be needed, at least when it comes to being on the leading edge of digital transformation, is more of a consultative approach that starts, not with the question “what do you want to transform today”, but more with the statement “let’s workshop the unique opportunities and challenges for your business and then create some new business processes around them.” It’s not as scalable as an app store, but it’s also more in line with the real problem of “unknown unknowns” that is stalking the enterprise landscape and for which digital transformation seems to be the best, if overly broad, way to focus execs and business users on building transformative solutions.

While it’s easy to applaud Kinaxis’ profitability, it’s a relatively small company, and the question of whether it can grow according to the imperatives of the publicly traded enterprise software market remains to be seen. The fact that is quoted on the Toronto stock exchange, far from the bubble mentality being fostered by the above-mentioned members of the cloud keiretsu, many of which are, according to the New York Times, starting to looking a little bubbly, may be its saving grace. But Toronto or not, Kinaxis now has a lot to prove to the next wave of shareholders who are looking for their 230% pop too.

The fact that people are seen as an explicit part of the process of enterprise success is a major reason why I think Kinaxis may have a chance at reaching that goal. Learn, Laugh, Share Connect –  and profits. Call me old school, but I’m not sure that it gets better than that.

The (Real) Death of Windows Phone, American-style (Part II)

Continued from my last post.

(When we last left our tragic hero, Windows Phone, there was no carrier support for the new Lumias that just hit the market, which means…)

The only other option for die-hard Windows Phone users in the US, an unlocked phone bought directly from Microsoft, may not work either. Verizon doesn’t really support unlocked phones, due to its use of CDMA technology, and I doubt they will do so with new Windows Phones – what would their incentive be? Meaning that you won’t be able to buy an unlocked Windows 10 phone and use it on the Verizon network unless it’s a Verizon Windows 10 phone running CDMA, which right now puts us back in the conundrum of having no flagship Windows Phone to choose from as a Verizon customer. (Riddle: which came first? The dead chicken or the rotten egg?)

Microsoft has been holding out hope that two factors could still redeem Windows Phone, and partially redeem the money and pride that have been lost in equal amounts over this fiasco. The first is the prospect for a business-focused market for Windows Phone, the second is a market outside of the US, particularly in emerging markets and other places where it’s possible to sell lots of relatively cheap phones to millions of net-new users who have yet to drink the iOS or Android koolaid.

The business market in the US would have been a good place to focus a few years ago in the run up to Windows 10, but that opportunity may have already come and gone, at least the opportunity to play market leader. Window 10 does present some great opportunities to create a new slew of devices for enterprise-heavy tasks – pick and pack for warehouse management, all sorts of monitoring devices for healthcare, field service support devices, etc. And I think that opportunity still exists, considering the current lack of a solid contender to replace the now venerable (as in outmoded) Windows CE, which dominates this slice of the enterprise market.

But it would have helped significantly if the Windows Phone team had deigned to keep its partners in the loop about a roadmap for replacing older, Windows CE devices. Instead, the glorious silence it was sharing with the market remains another example of the ham-fisted strategies that defined why the death of Windows Phone was largely the result of friendly fire.

And the friendly fire came from the most potent weapon in Microsoft’s friendly fire arsenal: the internal silo. Windows Phone for years was developed and taken to market by one of the most tightly controlled silos in a company famous for its silos.

Two examples – when Office 365 first came out, there was no native way to sync a Windows Phone (this was back in the Windows Phone 6.5 days, lord preserve us) to Outlook running on a desktop, at least that was the official word from the Office team. This lacuna was so pitiful that the Office folks recommended using Google to sync up a Windows Phone to Office, making it a three-way sync that was beyond belief.

Then one day I was getting a briefing from the team that developed the then-brand new Office 365 service. In the middle of the briefing they let slip that a $6/month subscription to O365 came with a fully functional online Exchange server. Which meant there was a simple way to sync a Windows Phone that also gave users a great reason to use O365, not use Google, and it cost, at least for year one, just a little more than the third party sync tool I had been considering buying. Did the O365 team know that Windows Phone had a problem they could solve? Did Windows Phone ever broadcast the fact that O365 came with a solution to the sync problem? If you answered no to both you win the Silo Award.

Second example, more to the point about Windows Phone and business users. Several months before the first Windows Phone 8 was slated to come out in 2012, I met with someone on the Microsoft Dynamics team who was in possession of a Windows Phone running the new OS in beta. After showing me the phone he turned it over and showed me the tag that phone people had placed on it as a means of tightly controlling who was allowed to use it. This was the only phone available for the Dynamics team to play with, and it was only available for a very short time before it had to be given back (or the tag would explode and blind the recalcitrant user, or something like that.) Did this mean that Dynamics was able to do lots of development on the new phone and its OS, thus setting up an important synergy between the phone side and the enterprise side? Did anyone at Windows Phone think there was anything wrong with this? No and no. More Silo Awards.

Moral of the story – Windows Phone blew some pretty important chances to build synergy with the two parts of Microsoft that were in direct touch with business users. I’d like to think that a little closer cooperation might have meant Windows Phone would have at least been positioned as a killer business phone at a time when Blackberry was foundering and it may still have been possible to make a dent in the iPhone and Android duopoly.

Windows Phone also missed an opportunity with business users to at least make a case of Windows 10 and the cross-device experience. Even as the Windows 10 promise was being widely touted, there was no attempt to lead by example and develop that killer business app that spanned desktop, tablet and phone. And don’t tell me Skype or Office fit the requirement – I’m talking about something new and cool, not something old and somewhat cooler-ish. As I wrote last spring, by the time the Build developers’ conference took place in April, despite the hullabaloo about the Windows 10 opportunity, a half-way sanguine look at the messaging and the sessions in the conference showed that Windows Phone was conspicuous largely by its absence.

So, while Apple and Google probably stopped even caring years ago, it’s a sad moment for all when good technology dies for want of good marketing and positioning. A sanguine look at the market from a consumer or business point of view would show that no one will be spending a lot of time in mourning. And maybe, as Microsoft asserts, Windows Phone will see its market share amount to something respectable in Asia and other high-growth markets. Though I doubt it: the diminution of the former Nokia’s phone sales volume will hinder Microsoft’s efforts at maintaining the low-cost supply chain needed to compete in the volume part of the market: rivals selling orders of magnitude more phones will be able to command pricing and delivery schedules orders of magnitude more favorable than those of a now crippled Lumia product line. Economies of scale will kill Lumia, if carrier neglect and a lack of apps doesn’t.

In the end, the fact that Satya Nadella has some plausible deniability in the aftermath of his regime’s first big, and I mean big, flop, offers scant comfort. There was a lot more than just a few billion dollars riding on Windows Phone, and while it’s definitely not dead – heck, Blackberry is still in the game somehow – the glorious prospects for Windows Phone are no more.

Luckily for Microsoft there’s still the HoloLens.  Now if that’s doesn’t induce tech market envy from Microsoft and Google then they’re not paying attention. It might even make up for the Windows Phone disaster. One day.

The (Real) Death of Windows Phone, American-style (Part I)

Despite the recent hullabaloo about Microsoft’s new hardware offerings, including some new high-end Lumia phones, it’s time to bid farewell to Windows Phone, at least in the US consumer market. While I hate to leave the market up to a duopoly run by Alphabet/Google and Apple, that’s how it’s going to be for the foreseeable future. Microsoft’s five-year Windows Phone freefall is living, or dying, proof that there are only so many second chances in tech, even for the kings of second chances, and it’s finally time to throw in the towel on another great phone OS that never lived up to its potential. (ah, Palm OS, we hardly knew ya too.)

What the end of Windows Phone means depends on who you are. It’s clear that Microsoft loses big, and not just because of the Nokia write-down. It’s possible to argue (more on that below) that businesses that were counting on a Windows 10 cross-device enterprise experience that includes smartphones might also bemoan the fate of Windows Phone. But the death throes of Windows Phone shouldn’t bother consumers in the least. They’re too busy enjoying the latest coolness from their Android and iOS phones while they take for granted an absolutely superior (to Windows Phone) user experience on apps and websites too numerous to count.

While the demise of Windows Phone has been pending for some time, I knew the die was cast when I met up last summer with a Microsoft employee, new iPhone in hand, who recounted how he had tried to replace a dying Windows Phone and found that his carrier only carried low-end, starter Windows Phones, but no “flagships.” He waved his new iPhone 6 at me and said the obvious – why would I want to downgrade to stay on Windows Phone?

Which was my experience three weeks ago. Verizon recently changed its pricing plan, and the new regime meant that I was paying $40 per month for a two-year old Windows Phone with a slowly dying battery. Time for an upgrade, and the two year contract time was up. My choices were pretty stark – basically I could downgrade to an inferior Windows Phone and pay a little less than $40, or pay $43 per month and get a iPhone 6S. Guess which way I went?

(I have to say that there are a few things on my Windows phone that I miss, including the overall UX and text to voice, but in general the move to iPhone was a huge upgrade in many important ways. Apps, apps, and more apps, a better Bluetooth experience, improved browsing on a lot of key websites, and so far Siri works better for me than Cortana.)

In case the new phone disincentive wasn’t disincenting enough, the chances that Verizon would be quick on the uptake in supporting Windows Phone 10 is basically nil, considering their pitiful response to the advent of Windows 8.1 and Cortana, which frankly was the move that made Windows Phone truly competitive from a UX standpoint. Considering, from Verizon’s standpoint, the prospects for a strong US market for Windows Phone has only gotten worse since last year’s painfully delayed release of Windows Phone 8.1 on the Verizon network, I basically expect Verizon will do nothing about putting Windows 10 on its existing Window Phones for as long as possible. Which made getting the 6s even more of a no-brainer.

My experience, and the experience of other Microsoft employees I have spoken to since last summer who also were forced to move to an iPhone, is part of a pattern of neglect on the part of US carriers that has been going on for some time. This neglect is what will finally kill Windows Phone for good, if it hasn’t already. A quick look at the top four (Verizon, ATT, T-mobile and Sprint) shows that the march to oblivion is not slated to change any time soon, even at AT&T, which boasts the largest contingent of Windows phones, most likely due to the fact that it owns the Microsoft corporate account.

The neglect of Windows Phone has been pretty much across the board in the US:

Verizon as of this writing offers three Windows Phones, as many as it does Blackberrys (along with six iPhones and 24 Android phones). Only one of these phones comes from Microsoft (Lumia 735). The rest are from HTC and LG, which I would imagine aren’t going to be pushing hard to develop leading edge Windows phones any time soon, what with the OS owner being a direct competitor and the aforementioned dead US market. (There’s always the rest-of-world market, a theoretical opportunity for Windows Phone which I will partially debunk shortly.)

AT&T, the chosen Microsoft carrier, has three Windows Phones, all from Microsoft, but the highest-end one, the Lumia 835, is only available as a refurbished phone (Certified Like-New!) Are they kidding? Where did they get even these rejects? How much more down market can a carrier go than to offer a refurbish as its flagship phone? Meanwhile, AT&T has two Blackberrys for those in love with another lost cause.  It has made some motions about carrying one of the new Lumia’s, but as of this writing no sign of it on their website.

Sprint has one Windows Phone, a Lumia 635, and T-mobile has one Blackberry, which is one more than the total of Windows Phones it offers. The rest of the market is all iPhones and Androids.

And even if anyone had the crazy idea to try to use the latest, albeit largely unavailable to US users, Lumia flagships, the fact is that the newest ones don’t even begin to blow-out the iPhone 6S. And, let’s be honest, there is simply no way that any reasonably sentient app developer would bother to develop for a moribund market like Windows Phone, which means the app gap will never ever improve. And, similarly, the humiliation of being invited to a conference and not being able to download the conference app, makes whatever Microsoft does with Lumia an on-going compromise for many business users. More humiliations: you can’t watch Amazon Prime movies on Windows Phone, nor can you watch anything on Southwest Airline’s inflight entertainment system, nor can you…. You get the point.

To Be Continued: Wherein I question the enterprise market and non-US market opportunities for Windows Phone……..

 

Racing to the Top: As PaaS and IaaS Commoditize, The Quest to Provide Business Value-add in the Cloud Intensifies

At a press/analyst meeting last spring, Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff was asked whether he had any plans to build out an Amazon AWS-like capability to complement the rest of his cloud strategy. His scoffing reply was right on the money. Competing with AWS and other commodity-level cloud services was “a race to the bottom,” Benioff replied. Case closed.

The cloud market has another race in the works, however, one that Salesforce, SAP, Microsoft, Infor, and others are all contending in with increasingly ambitious strategies, new services, and strategic acquisitions. It’s the race to the top of the cloud, up in the high-value business services layer where the unique capabilities of the cloud, aided and abetted by the commoditization of IaaS, PaaS, and other low-level services, can enable a set of increasingly high-value services and capabilities that render the cloud the place to be for business innovation.

This race to the top is taking two highly complementary forms. Form number one is the race to build out a business network strategy that promises to support the complex, matrixed networks of business interactions that have outstripped the inside-the-firewall, linear business processes – and software – of the 20th century. Form number two is the race to build out a set of componentized business services, cloud natives each and every one, that can be compiled into end to end services, or attached as services to the aforementioned business networks, or used to extend existing on-premise applications into the cloud. Both forms are hugely important in the quest to deliver genuine, and highly valuable, innovation in the cloud, and both are harbingers of a major inflection point in the value of the cloud in the enterprise.

SAP was the latest batter to take a swing at the race to the top. Implicit in its recent HANA Vora announcement (a name that sounds like the perfect nom-de-guerre for a beret and sequins resistance fighter for truth and justice, though I’m guessing it’s based on the latin root vorare¸ which is also the root of the word devour) was the ability of SAP to unleash a set of business services, developed in house and via partners, that will be used as building blocks for the next generation of cloud business apps. The four that SAP announced, marketing, commerce, and loyalty management services, all based on hybris, and a separate global/local tax calculation service, are meant to be the tip of an iceberg of easy to deploy and easy to consume cloud-based business services.

HANA Vora also ups the ante for developers, adding to the nerd’s dream full of dev tools that are piling up in HANA by adding native access to Hadoop and other tech wonders. This is a truly awesome milestone for HANA, don’t get my somewhat flippant attitude wrong. But tech is as tech does, and the real goal of the HANA Vora announcement is to use the HANA Cloud Platform to relaunch the composite apps market SAP tried to create back in the early days of the 20th century with NetWeaver and xApps, with hopefully much better results.

The xApps concept never took off, mostly because the complexity of supporting the necessary integration and orchestration on-premise was too onerous for the service-oriented architectures that were the basis of these efforts. Perhaps more importantly, xApps and composite apps also violated my first rule of enterprise software – the hardest thing to do in enterprise software is to ask someone to do something they’ve never done before. In this case the violation was primarily in regard to a developer community that had trouble imagining just what a set of killer composite apps would look like and do, and secondarily in regard to a user community that at the turn of the century never really understood the appeal of composite apps in the first place. IT got it, but the LOB wasn’t really on board.

Putting the composite apps concept in the cloud, by making these composite pieces universally accessible via a cloud-based set of APIs, brings composite apps back to the realm of not just possibility, but reality. At least in theory. The violation of my first rule of enterprise software still stands, as does the inherent violation of my second rule – the easiest application to sell is the sleeping pill that lets the user who’s losing sleep over a specific business problem get a good night’s rest. The problem with the second rule is that if the sleepless don’t know that there is already a sleeping pill, in this case composite apps, that will help them sleep, they can’t know to ask for them. So far, that cognitive connection has yet to be established in the market, and this makes establishing this connection, composite app as LOB sleeping pill, particularly among developers, SAP’s and its erstwhile competitors’ biggest challenge.

Of course, SAP isn’t the only vendor in this version of the race to the top. Microsoft is there as well, although it too suffers from the same sleeping pill problem. Microsoft has been pushing a broad set of componentized, cloud-based business services (albeit much too quietly and surreptitiously) via its Azure Data Market for some time. The 300-plus services in the Azure marketplace (things like HealthMethods Provider Metrics and Customer Churn Prediction) are testimony to the interest in the concept by the providers of these services, but it’s pretty clear that the developer community that in theory would be all hot and bothered by this collection is largely missing in action. At least so far.

Microsoft’s higher end cloud business services also include putting the broader Microsoft desktop and server portfolio – products like Office, SQL Server, Sharepoint, and Power BI, among others – into Azure for use as services accessible by cloud-based solutions. Dynamics’ AX enterprise software suite and its Lifecycle Services will also serve as building blocks or services destinations for new cloud-based “race to the top” applications and services. The fact that Microsoft will soon announce AX 7, which will run in Azure (as well as in private clouds and on-premise) adds some serious enterprise software cred to Microsoft’s odds.

So far Microsoft is contending only for the business services form of the race to the top. Microsoft’s plans to support complex business networks, assuming there’s some thinking going on, remain unannounced.

Infor is in the race to the top as well, squarely focused on the business network version. Its recent acquisition of GT Nexus is effectively a $675 million bet that, as CEO Charles Phillips told the analyst community when the deal was announced, “The future will belong to networked companies.”

The GT Nexus deal is an interesting one. GTN helps manage global logistics supply chains in the cloud, enabling companies to track and trace the movement of supplies from loading dock to shipping container to store shelf. They do a pretty good job of it, better than most, and are able to provide a degree of visibility, by tracking the different documents – bills of lading, customs documents, POs, etc. – that is hard to do even with a RFID tag stuck on every shipment.

More importantly, this visibility provides GTN, and now Infor, with a gold mine of data about the performance of the different players in global supply chain. Analyzing those data will allow Infor to continue GTN’s move into an important business network service that its rivals aren’t really doing as yet: trade finance. If a manufacturer can prove its bona fides as a top notch supplier trading through a highly efficient logistics network, it can demand, and receive, significantly better credit terms on the loans it needs to build and ship the products it is contracted to produce. This brings much needed capital at better rates to business network members, and should in many cases more than justify any investment in time and money that Infor customers make in signing on to the GTN story.

These kind of metadata analyses, which can only be done at scale in a business network, are a main reason why there’s so much interest in the network version of race to the top. Infor’s Phillips, whose ties to the banking and finance world are local (his New York office is a couple miles from Wall Street), knows that the current global trade financing crisis will drive a lot of net new business and net new partners to Infor and its fledgling business network.

GTN fits nicely into Infor’s Cloudsuite strategy, which is focused on providing over a dozen cloud-based suites of services geared to core industries, such as automotive, aerospace and defense, hospitality, fashion (which dovetails with the large number of fashion and retail customers using GTN), healthcare and others. The organization of cloud functionality into industry-specific offerings is a smart strategy for Infor, which needs to provide an upgrade and innovation path that is as short and sweet as possible so that the relatively few pioneers in its otherwise laggard-heavy customer base can quickly demonstrate the wisdom of moving off a legacy Baan or Lawson implementation into a sleek, innovative, rapid-time-to-value cloud solution. GTN will be a nice enticement for a broad swath of Infor’s customers that are going to have to make move, and do it soon.

While Infor is definitely contending in the business network side of the race, SAP is currently in the lead, with its Ariba Business Network strategy the most fully formed of the lot in terms of the number of companies in the network, 1.7 million, according to SAP (versus 25,000 in GTN, though GTN’s services are much more strategic than the indirect procurement that Ariba specializes in). Ariba helped pioneer the business network concept over a decade ago (around the time SAP was testing out composite apps for the first time) with its indirect procurement offering, and is now moving towards the more interesting, strategic, and complex direct materials market. When you add Fieldglass’ contingent labor procurement function, Concur’s travel and expense function, and elements of SAP’s other cloud properties – S/4 HANA, SuccessFactors, among others announced and as-yet unannounced – there’s certainly a lot of potential network functionality in the portfolio.

But making the whole of these properties greater than the sum is still very much a work in progress. They all need to migrate to the HANA Cloud Platform and then go through the even more complicated process of orchestrating what are today cloud silos of functionality. SAP has been diligently moving in this direction all year, and is definitely focusing on cross-pollinating its cloud offerings as much as possible. This always looks easier than it is, but the political will is definitely there to break down the silos at SAP, despite the somewhat confusing fact that Ariba, Fieldglass, and Concur live in one part of SAP’s cloud hierarchy, while SuccessFactors and other cloud properties live elsewhere.

Regardless, the business services side of the HANA Vora announcement can also play a role in extending SAP’s Business Network ambitions. If you’re building out a fully formed procurement network, you need things like tax calculation services, among many others. (You might also like some version of Postcode, for example, from Azure’s much more abundant service offerings. Maybe these two platforms should figure out how to interoperate and leverage each other. Just sayin’ a little coopetition might be a good idea….) The dev tools side of HANA Vora also help, and together they give SAP the means to extend its Business Networks by leveraging its considerable ecosystem, something every vendor will need to do – even if there are still some great properties like GTN to be acquired.

Ultimately, the vendor momentum is exciting and important, but the problem with both ends of this race to top is the problem of market maturity. The business services side desperately needs a horde of developers to start coding their butts off building new cloud services based on a composite model. With HANA Vora, Microsoft Azure, and the Amazon AWS services that underlie Infor’s Cloudsuite, the vendors are setting a pretty rich table for the developer community.

But what’s needed now are legions of composite app and business network savvy developers, and I’m not sure a critical mass of these developers exist today. I saw this lacuna at Microsoft’s Build developer’s event last April: there was no shortage of great programmers, but I came away from Build with the feeling that there was definitely some market maturity needed on the developer side. I’ve felt this in conversations with top notch NoSQL developers, who consider themselves, quite rightly, at the bleeding edge of today’s tech world but are all too often focused on coding new cloud services instead of looking for and using third party services. And I’ve seen it in the disconnect between every vendor’s IoT dreams and the ability of the developer side to imagine, much less build, the killer IoT apps that, by their very nature, must span multiple, cloud-based business services and appeal to industry-specific business networks and their industrial customers.

So it’s important to make sure the expectations for this race are well set: This isn’t like the early days of the mobile app market, when every Dick and Jane programmer was off building little mini-apps for iOS and wowing the masses with light-weight, one-trick-pony apps. The componentized services that race to the top developers should be building and using may be mini, but the apps that are expected to be built from them are decidedly maxi. And that takes a kind of developer that is in short supply today.

Nonetheless, the vendors have to start somewhere, and it’s safe to say that Microsoft, with Azure and its panoply of services, is the current leader in the services version of the race to the top. And SAP, as I stated previously, is leading on the business network side. But Infor is there too, a vendor that too many competitors chose to ignore, to their peril. And don’t forget Salesforce, which is playing hard for market share in the services side, though in my opinion there are too many core capabilities that have to come from the ecosystem – as opposed to organically within Salesforce – for their services play to compete well in the market.

Regardless, it’s hard to handicap a race when the competitors have just left the gate to run a race that’s never been run before. And, to torture the metaphor a little more, considering it’s a race with no discernable finish line, I wouldn’t honestly bet on any single vendor to win, place or show as yet.

There will be one solid set of winners, and that will be these vendors’ customers. The race to the bottom is lowering IT and infrastructure costs as it is simultaneously improving the interoperability in the cloud that is necessary to move from the current silos of cloud functionality to a world where business processes span cloud silos as easily as they span internal silos (it’s easier, actually, the internal silo problem is still a major problem.) This PaaS and IaaS race to bottom will make the business services in the race to top easier to consume, and more importantly, safer to consume, as the ability of vendors to lock in customers will diminish as their cloud platforms’ interoperability improves.

What’s most important is that the true value of the cloud is emerging, what I long ago called SaaS 2.0. The cloud’s true value exists in leveraging its potential as the place to deploy the applications and services that define the brave new world of interconnected, global businesses and networks, rather than just flipping on-premise apps into the cloud for easy deployment and out of a cap-ex financial model. The moves by these and other vendors to provide the development and deployment environments that can enable these net new processes and business networks are right on the money: the cloud will revolutionize global business in ways we’re only just beginning to imagine. And it’s all starting now.