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May 1, 2013 in Business Analytics, Business Collaboration, Business Intelligence, Business Performance, Customer & Contact Center, Financial Performance, Information Applications, Information Management, IT Performance, Location Intelligence, Operational Performance, Sales Performance, Social Media, Supply Chain Performance, Workforce Performance | Tags: Big data, Business Intelligence, endeca, Exalytics, OBIEE, Oracle | by Ventana Research | Leave a comment
Responding to the trend that businesses now ask less sophisticated users to perform analysis and rely on software to help them, Oracle recently announced a new release of its flagship Oracle BI Foundational Suite (OBIFS 220.127.116.11) as well as updates to Endeca, the discovery platform that Oracle bought in 2011. Endeca is part of a new class of tools that bring new capabilities in information discovery, self-service access and interactivity. Such approaches represent an important part of the evolution of business intelligence to business analytics as I have noted in my agenda for 2013.
Oracle Business Intelligence Foundational Suite includes many components not limited to Oracle Business Intelligence Enterprise Edition (OBIEE), Oracle Essbase and a scorecard and strategy application. OBIEE is the enabling foundation that federates queries across data sources and enables reporting across multiple platforms. Oracle Essbase is an in-memory OLAP tool that enables forecasting and planning, including what-if scenarios embedded in a range of Oracle BI Applications, which are sold separately. The suite, along with the Endeca software, is integrated with Exalytics, Oracle’s appliance for BI and analytics. Oracle’s appliance strategy, which I wrote about after Oracle World last year invests heavily in the Sun Microsystems hardware acquired in 2010.
These updates are far-ranging and numerous (including more than 200 changes to the software). I’d like to point out some important pieces that advance Oracle’s position in the BI market. A visualization recommendations engine offers guidance on the type of visualization that may be appropriate for a user’s particular data. This feature, already sold by others in the market, may be considered a subset of the broader capability of guided analysis. Advanced visualization techniques have become more important for companies as they make it easier for users to understand data and is critical to compete with the likes of Tableau, a player in this space which I wrote about last year.
Another user-focused update related to visualization is performance tiles, which enable important KPIs to be displayed prominently within the context of the screen surface area. Performance tiles are a great way to start improving the static dashboards that my colleague Mark Smith has critiqued. From what I have seen it is unclear to what degree the business user can define and change Oracle’s performance tile KPIs (for example, the red-flagged metrics assigned to the particular business user that appear within the scorecard function of the software) and how much the system can provide in a prescriptive analytic fashion. Other visualizations that have been added include waterfall charts, which enable dependency analysis; these are especially helpful for pricing analysis by showing users how changes in one dimension impact pricing on the whole. Another is MapViews for manipulation and design to support location analytics that our next generation BI research finds the capability to deploy geographic maps are most important to BI in 47 percent of organizations, and then visualize metrics associated with locations in 41 percent of organizations. Stack charts now provide auto-weighting for 100-percent sum analysis that can be helpful for analytics such as attribution models. Breadcrumbs empower users to understand and drill back through their navigation process, which helps them understand how a person came to a particular analytical conclusion. Finally Trellis View actions provides contextual functionality to help turn data into action in an operational environment. The advancements of these visualizations are critical for Oracle big data efforts as visualization is a top three big data capability not available in 37 percent of organizations according to our big data research and our latest technology innovation research on business analytics found presenting data visually as the second most important capability for organizations according to 48 percent of organizations.
The update to Oracle Smart View for Office also puts more capability in the hands of users. It natively integrates Excel and other Microsoft Office applications with operational BI dashboards so users can perform analysis and prepare ad-hoc reports directly within these desktop environments. This is an important advance for Oracle since our benchmark research in the use of spreadsheets across the enterprise found that the combination of BI and spreadsheets happens all the time or frequently in 74 percent of organization. Additionally the importance of collaborating with business intelligence is essential and having tighter integration is a critical use case as found in our next generation business intelligence research that found using Microsoft Office for collaboration with business intelligence is important to 36 percent of organizations.
Oracle efforts to evolve its social collaboration efforts through what they call Oracle Social Network have advanced significantly but do not appear to be in the short term plan to integrate and make available through its business intelligence offering. Our research finds more than two-thirds (67%) rank this as important and then embedding it within BI is a top need in 38 percent of organizations. Much of what Oracle already provides could be easily integrated and meet business demand for a range of people-based interactions that most are still struggling to manage through e-mail.
Oracle has extended its existing capabilities in its OBIEE with Hadoop integration via a HIVE connector that allows Oracle to pull data into OBIEE from big data sources, while an MDX search function enabled by integration with the Endeca discovery tool allows OBIEE to do full text search and data discovery. Connections to new data sources are critically important in today’s environment; our research shows that retaining and analyzing more data is the number-one ranked use for big data in 29 percent of organizations according to our technology innovation research. Federated data discovery is particularly important as most companies are often unaware of their information assets and therefore unknowingly limit their analysis.
Oracle’s continued investments into BI applications that supply prebuilt analytics and these packaged analytics applications span from the front office (sales and marketing), to operations (procurement and supply chain) to the back office (finance and HR). Given the enterprise-wide support, Oracle’s BI can perform cross-functional analytics and deliver fast time to value since users do not have to spend time building the dashboards. Through interoperation with the company’s enterprise applications, customers can execute action directly into applications such as PeopleSoft, JD Edwards or Oracle Business Suite. Oracle has begun to leverage more of its score-carding function that enables KPI relationships to be mapped and information aggregated and trended. Scorecards are important for analytic cultures because they are a common communication platform for executive decision-makers and allow ownership assignment of metrics.
I was surprised to not find much advancement in Oracle business intelligence efforts that operate on smartphones and tablets. Our research finds mobile business intelligence is important to 69 percent of organizations and that 78 percent of organizations reveal that no or some BI capabilities are available in their current deployment of BI. For those that are using mobile business intelligence, only 28 percent are satisfied. For years, IT has not placed a priority on mobile support of BI while business has been clamoring for it and now more readily leading the efforts with 52 percent planning new or expanded deployments on tablets and 32 percent on smartphones. In this highly competitive market to capture more opportunity, Oracle will need to significantly advance its efforts and make its capabilities freely available without passwords as other BI providers have already done. It also will need to recognize that business is more interested in alerts and events through notifications to mobile technology than trying to make the entire suite of BI capabilities replicated on these technologies.
Oracle has foundational positions in enterprise applications and database technology and has used these positions to drive significant success in BI. The company’s proprietary “walled garden” approach worked well for years, but now technology changes, including movements toward open source and cloud computing, threaten that entrenched position. Surprisingly, the company has moved slowly off of its traditional messaging stance targeted at the CIO, IT and the data center. That position seems to focus the company too much on the technology-driven 3 V’s of big data and analytics, and not enough on the business driven 3 W’s that I advocate. As the industry moves into the age of analytics, where information is looked upon as a critical commodity and usability is the key to adoption (our research finds usability to be the top evaluation consideration in 63 percent of organizations), CIOs will need to further move beyond its IT approach for BI as I have noted and get more engaged into the requirements of business. Oracle’s business intelligence strategy and how it addresses these business outcomes and the use across all business users is key to the company’s future and organizations should examine these critical advancements to its BI offering very closely to determine if you can improve the value of information and big data in an organization.
VP and Research Director
April 26, 2013 in Business Analytics, Business Collaboration, Business Performance, Cloud Computing, Customer & Contact Center, Financial Performance, Information Management, IT Performance, Operational Performance, Sales Performance, Social Media, Supply Chain Performance, Workforce Performance | Tags: Accounting, Analytics, Big data, Budgeting, CFO, closing, cloud, Collaboration, FPM, GRC, Infor, mobile, Planning, Risk, SEC, spreadsheet | by Robert Kugel | Leave a comment
At this year’s Inforum user group conference, Infor representatives showed the progress the organization has made since last year in transforming itself from a ragbag of mostly small, often obsolete software companies to a competitive vendor of a modern enterprise management software suite. Infor was created by private equity investors employing a “rollup” strategy, aimed at combining smaller companies within an industry to form a single larger company that could achieve economies of scale and greater market presence. Others have tried this in the software industry in the past and encountered difficulty in making it work for two primary reasons. One is the technical challenge of achieving economies of scale in enterprise applications by turning a set of similar but separately developed software pieces into a single offering. Computer Associates achieved economies of scale through acquisition in the 1990s in the IT infrastructure software segment. But it did this largely by forcing customers of the various acquired companies to migrate to its single offering in the specific category. This is not a practical approach for business and finance enterprise applications because customers are willing to go off maintenance and eventually look for another vendor. The second difficulty is that newer or larger competitors can focus on innovation and overtake the rollup company while its attention and resources are focused on stitching the pieces together.
Infor has addressed the economies-of-scale issue with its loosely coupled, XML-based ION middleware. Introduced in 2011, ION is an elegant method for integrating the data and process elements of the disparate pieces of Infor’s portfolio. (And of other software, too: Half of Infor’s customers use it to integrate with other vendors’ software.) ION has made it easier and less costly, for example, for Infor’s ERP customers to add its financial performance management software, according to our Value Index analysis. This cross-selling had been at the core of the company’s strategy from the start but needed a practical solution to make it work; ION supplied that.
Innovation is the other important issue that Infor needed to address. The numerous incremental technology advances that have taken place over the past decade, combined with the rise of the “millennials” and the retirement of the Baby Boomers in the workforce, are driving fundamental changes in how people expect to work with software. This shift is a key part of my research agenda for this year.
Nothing says “modern” like the Cloud. Most observers now recognize that corporations will continue to pick and choose how they deploy software and data for quite some time. Our benchmark research into business technology innovation confirms that organizations have different preferences in how they deploy information technology, as the chart shows. In some cases, such as analytics, they prefer on-premises by a substantial margin, while the cloud rules for social media. Many companies that won’t dream of having their ERP and financial management systems in the cloud are long-time users of Salesforce.
Infor has made strides in addressing this situation. For example, Inforce is a native Force.com tool that connects Salesforce with Infor’s back-office applications. Inforce enables a company to automate management of, say, the full scope of a sales order process that begins as an opportunity in Salesforce and ends with posting all details of the completed transaction in the company’s ERP system. This structure eliminates the need to rekey data and enables controls such as credit limit approvals to be enforced. Similarly, Infor recently announced Sky Vault, an offering based on Amazon Web Services’ Redshift. Sky Vault is a cloud-based variation of Infor’s Business Vault, a dedicated repository for data generated by any transaction system (not just Infor’s). Business Vault offers users a way to immediately access a full range of company data for analysis and reporting. When it is formally launched in the second half of this year Sky Vault will provide a cloud-based repository that includes prebuilt, industry- and function-specific business analytics, reports and dashboards. Its purpose is to give users low-cost big data capabilities. Our research shows that corporations are increasingly looking at big data technologies to retain and analyze more corporate data, increase the speed of analysis of that data and make it more accurate.
Simply having a cloud-based offering or an approach to big data is less important than what you do with it. To that end Infor has focused on improving the efficiency with which people use its software (one metric being the number of clicks required to perform a process) as well as making “beautiful apps,” in what it is calling “the SoHo Experience” created by its internal creative design organization. The dull, cluttered and difficult-to-navigate interfaces of the past were the result of inexperience in design and constrained computing resources. Today, it’s important to apply basic concepts of industrial design and ergonomics to creating user interfaces. This goes beyond making old code bases pretty. Largely because of tablets and mobile computing platforms, people now work with multiple types of interfaces and use a wider range of methods and gestures to interact with their devices. Today’s software design must reflect these changes. Having a modern user experience also makes it easier for Infor to attract customers and deflect claims that it is selling warmed-over applications that it acquired, which would have been a competitive vulnerability had it taken a more conventional approach.
Enhanced business collaboration for every part of the organization increasingly is a key requirement for software, and Infor is at work here also. Its Ming.le social collaboration software provides the means to connect groups of people within a workforce to achieve faster communication and more effective interaction in the context of specific issues or processes supported by computing systems. Instant messaging evolved from teenagers passing electronic notes to their friends into an easier way for business people to connect faster than through phones and email. Similarly, social collaboration is now more than a Facebook metaphor and addresses a key drawback to instant messaging systems. Individuals have multiple roles and multiple networks of people with whom they interact. Some relationships are tight, but others are transient. Some may be focused on a general topic such as marketing and therefore include a large and possibly diffuse group, while others such as performing reconciliations in the financial close process have a defined and controlled set of members. Well-designed social collaboration software can manage all of these types of interactions and enable people to resolve issues faster and with less effort than other means of communication.
As well, Infor has been building out mobility applications for extending functionality to people and functions that aren’t confined to a desk, such as a shop-floor tablet application, proof of delivery, requisitions and field service, to name a few. Mobility is rapidly becoming a table-stakes capability expected by software customers.
Integration and innovation support Infor’s core strength, which has been – and will continue to be – a customer base that values Infor’s highly specialized offerings. Infor’s “micro-vertical” strategy suits midsize companies (and midsize divisions of larger corporations) that have limited IT budgets yet want their specialized requirements addressed without having to pay a premium for customization and configuration. Many types of business adapt well to standard software, and all major ERP software companies have built industry-specific variations of their software offering over the past two decades. But milk and beer, for instance, remain two very different types of beverages with distinct requirements. Likewise steel service is a distinct form of distribution, and different types of industrial equipment dealers have specific requirements. Even Lawson’s S3 customers are focused in businesses such as government and healthcare that are people-intensive and therefore must manage the complexities associated with rapidly evolving workforce relationships.
Addressing micro-vertical specific requirements in business analytics, planning and control software will enable Infor to continue increasing its penetration of these products into its installed base. For example, by deploying Infor’s financial management software, one longstanding ERP customer I spoke with was able to shave half a day from its accounting close in part because it was able to automate more and eliminate 300 spreadsheets that were used in the process. Rather than have three people spend a half day each creating spreadsheet reports that were distributed to individuals by email, reports are generated automatically and individuals can retrieve them from a central repository. In addition, the company controller is now able to complete the management accounting narratives half a day earlier, making critical information available sooner than before. All of this is consistent with our research that demonstrates the value of automation in accelerating the financial close process, as shown in the chart. Across its range of micro-verticals Infor offers off-the-rack basic dashboards and reports tailored to the businesses requirements of its customers. Another example of cross-sell potential is its Approva continuous monitoring software, which can be especially useful for government, education and nonprofits. Unlike most businesses that pay expenses from a common pot, almost all of these entities must use funds-based accounting, so it’s necessary to keep tabs on these individual funds’ balances for specific programs, departments and so on to avoid overspending.
None of what Infor has added over the past two years is groundbreaking technology or a revolutionary approach to enterprise computing compared to what’s available in the broader marketplace. On the other hand, it doesn’t have to be. The changes it has made offer existing customers substantial advantages for sustaining and even expanding Infor’s footprint in their organization. From the perspective of private equity investors and bondholders, this has been and continues to be the most critical aspect of the company’s business strategy. Without it, their investment in Infor would be doomed. And in this respect current leadership has succeeded where the previous management group did not. All of the steps in modernizing and upgrading the products have been achieved at a critical time. The prices paid for software companies in the consolidation of the past decade were based on the assumption of a long stream of annual maintenance payments. However, new technology and a new generation of buyers with more demanding requirements put those dependable maintenance streams in peril. Vendors can no longer assume that they will sustain their current share of wallet without adding functionality and capabilities as well as eliminating ancillary ownership costs (for example, by reducing customization and implementation costs).
The company’s senior executives appeared much more at ease this year than in the past, which might be an indicator that business is improving. But it’s hard to know for certain because Infor is a closely held corporation and is not required to routinely disclose its financial statements. Presenters declined to answer specific questions about the financial performance this year. However, Infor filed its fiscal 2012 financials with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) as a result of an exchange offer for its debt last year. The company data relates to its fiscal 2012, which ended that May 31, so the information is now almost a year old. The S-4 filing shows the company had revenues of $2.5 billion, a 35% increase over the prior year. This reflected increased demand for software generally but also renewed confidence in the company’s future as well as the Lawson Software acquisition, without which the top line would have been up 24%. Infor’s income statement had been holding its own under the weight of heavy interest expense related to debt taken on to fund acquisitions and a substantial investment in R&D. In fiscal 2012 it lost money on a reported basis but was slightly above break-even when noncash and nonrecurring items are excluded, as well as solidly profitable before interest expense. The numbers also illustrate the substantial investment Infor has made in R&D, which rose by $115 million to $322 million, representing 13% of revenues, up from 11% in the previous two years. For Infor to go public, the company would have to demonstrate ongoing organic revenue growth and prospects for more in the future. One reason for going public would be to retire the company’s high-cost debt, which would allow more spending on sales and marketing focused on gaining new customers.
Infor appears to have come a long way toward achieving the objective of making a very challenging enterprise software rollup work. The first, relatively easy step was buying a set of unsustainably small software companies at reasonable prices. The more recent, much more difficult step has been to make the technology and product design investments needed to transform solid but stodgy intellectual property into a modern software suite. I’ve been describing Infor as “the largest software company you never heard of,” but I expect that won’t be true much longer.
Robert Kugel – SVP Research