What's the future of ERP? What kind of a silly question is that, you may be asking yourself. First off, predicting the future - especially in the technology world - is a fool's errand, best handled by Ouija Boards and IT analysts' dartboards. And isn't the future of ERP already here? Software-as-a-service, on-demand apps, enterprise 2.0 collaboration, open-source software, virtualisation, cloud platforms. What more is there? Right now, not much else. But the real future of enterprise software isn't exclusively based on wow-factor applications and functionality. It's about not only knowing which new applications and delivery models can immediately help the business; but also having the technological fleet of foot to take advantage of those new apps fast. That means not in 18 months or "next quarter," but whenever line-of-business managers truly need that functionality. Think days.
In addition, CIOs and IT staffs must be certain that the underlying architecture and systems decisions they have made (or are making right now) are guided by a roadmap that allows for flexibility - an ability to adapt enterprise technology to disruptive business events as they occur.
By that definition, then, it's readily apparent that the status quo with ERP, as poked and prodded in Why Is ERP Still So Hard?, ain't going to cut it anymore. The deleterious global recession and a jobless recovery have made that quite clear.
When asked if the recession will ultimately prove to be a turning point in ERP's history, Jim Hayes, the global managing director of Accenture's Oracle practice, who's worked for decades with enterprise software, agrees. "I'm a believer that from disruption comes opportunity," Hayes says. "The kind of disruptions that we've seen have been painful, certainly on one level, but maybe therapeutic, on another level, because it makes us rethink things."
But change has never come easily or quickly to the ERP universe. MIT's Erik Brynjolfsson and The Wharton School's Adam Saunders note in their new book Wired for Innovation that it typically takes between five to seven years for major IT investments, like ERP systems, to deliver substantial returns. That's due to the multi-year period it usually takes today's organizations to make the enterprisewide changes needed to truly capitalize on the new IT applications and systems, contend Brynjolfsson and Saunders.
Do you have that kind of time anymore? Thought not.
The recession that altered the future of business software
If anything positive has come out of 18 months of economic and business chaos, it is that companies of every size, in every industry, in every country, have made a much needed and thorough re-examination of their ERP investments and strategies. (And some might add the word finally.) What's the true cost? ask CEOs. Does the benefit equal the investment? query CFOs. Are we getting the expected value from ERP systems? demand line-of-business managers?
Of late, when those core constituents haven't been satisfied with the answers they've gotten in response from IT leaders, they've been brazen enough to raise once-heretical questions: What are the alternatives? Do we have to stick with SAP or Oracle, just because we always have? How about looking into software-as-a-service? For instance, Siemens, the German electronics and engineering giant and long-time customer of SAP, created an uproar when details leaked that it was questioning its ERP maintenance and support service agreement. Though Siemens and SAP eventually hammered out a deal - the details of which remain clouded, to some in the industry - the players and relationships involved in the dust-up made it a watershed event. If Siemens is challenging the status quo, then maybe we should too?
Change was already in the air. The global recession just accelerated it.
To Jon Reed, an independent analyst, SAP Mentor and blogger at JonERP.com, outdated pricing models (such as ERP maintenance agreements) and ERP systems' turtle's pace of innovation are going to be two critical areas for the vendor community in the near future. "I think the economy is a game changer," he says. "Even when it returns, it will return in a way that will support different ERP business models than have been dominant in the past. Companies that can re-invent themselves - with more flexibility around service offerings - that's going to be key."
Make no mistake: Enterprise software vendors have recently felt more economic hardship and had to tolerate more customer objections than ever before in their histories. And for many, more pain lies in wait. "The big ERP vendors are going to get a big punch in the gut, and to some degree they've already gotten it. They've already gotten some body blows," Reed says. "How they respond is a really interesting question."
At the venerable SAP, which has made billions from traditional Big ERP installations, the future of ERP commenced with the tacit realization that change was inevitable and good - for both the company and its customers. (As for shareholders, we'll get to that later.) "Enterprise software is going through a transformation in a very significant way," says Philip Say, vice president for SAP Business Suite. Themes that SAP has embraced in framing its own future of ERP include: clarity, innovation, enhancements without disruption, and timeless software.
"In one respect, and this is clearly a response to customer need and desires, [the future of ERP] is about the simplification of it," Say contends. "These systems are highly mission-critical, and these can be difficult to implement and manage. [At SAP], there's a world of activity to make consumption, investment and deployment easier and ultimately make usage of software by end user easier."
Don't buy Say's or any other Big ERP vendor's "Yes We Can" change rhetoric? In fact, SAP is challenging the "conventional thinking" around ERP, including the outdated acronym itself, according to Say. "It's ironic: We're so invested in the notion of ERP, yet we're challenging the definition itself at SAP. I think it's radically changing," he says. "The classic perception is that these are finance, HR, back-office, classic stuff and that's it. I challenge that definition, because when I see operations and how customers are using [enterprise software], they're not doing it in that way any more."
The "single global instance" dream dies
One ERP System: a single, global instance of business software applications running our entire business and our business lines, seamlessly uniting our CRM, supply chain and business analytics applications. Efficiencies. Integration. Savings. Fewer headaches.
That's been the dream at many companies and for CIOs since Y2K - a dream most often fed to them by eager ERP vendors. Just read this excerpt from a 2003 article in CIO:
Bill McDermott, president and CEO of SAP America, stares out the tinted glass wall overlooking the bustling convention floor and then dives into the same pitch he gives the pilgrimaging executives [at SAP's Sapphire event]. "You have ERP," says SAP America's CEO. "The next step is to expand it to CRM and the supply chain." The idea, he says, is to control all the data in a company by standardizing on one system for the front end and using one data source for the back. His pitch reaches its climax when McDermott sounds the message SAP has been trumpeting all week:
It's time to move to a single instance.
In other words, McDermott is telling CIOs to forget the multiple systems their companies use today, rip them out, and replace them with one ERP system - with one data store - that serves the entire company, no matter how diversified or geographically spread out it is. That, he says, is how to get the most bang for your IT buck.
That dream has now faded for many companies. Even at SAP. "I think the concept is evolving," Say contends. "There's a pretty open acknowledgement that - is it practical to get to a single instance across all functions of a very large, global enterprise? No. That's not a realistic goal any more. We're living in a world where multiple systems have to be networked together, have to communicate openly with each other and need to have sophisticated enough infrastructures on top so that the business can manage it."
The "more evolved" thinking, Say suggests, is this: Companies can achieve consistencies and efficiencies in their business processes without having to use one singular system that manages the entire landscape.
Accenture's Hayes says that for many - but not all - companies, the pursuit of the single instance is a dream that hasn't come true. "The homogenous dream was a great dream, and I think the industry has helped clients move toward the dream," he says. "But like a lot of things you dreamed, it didn't turn out all that you had hoped, and therefore you modify your dream." (He notes, though, that it's not impossible for companies to get to a global, single instance; Accenture has with its ERP system, he points out.) Hayes is emphatic, however, that companies not return to the days of "crazy spaghetti code, heterogeneous systems, unsynchronized data and all that came along with it."
So what's the future fix? A "happy middle," Hayes offers, which takes advantage of new advances in middleware offerings, tools from the big vendors that allow easy integration between core databases and infrastructure, and SaaS apps where appropriate. He calls it harmonization.
All these capabilities become even more critical in the future. First, many companies are soon to be facing "to upgrade or not" questions as time continues to run out on their antiquated ERP systems: Do they stick with their PeopleSoft, R/3, eBusiness Suite, JDE or other aged ERP versions inching closer to losing support from the vendors (and, conceivably go off that vendor's maintenance and support services, moving to a third-party); or take the plunge on a new and different ERP package, such as a cloud-based or open-source suite? Second, M&As are going to be on the rise as credit starts flowing again, and the ERP systems of those companies making the deals and those being dealt must be "nimble and responsive to change in business conditions," Hayes points out.
Crispin Read, general manager of marketing for Microsoft Dynamics ERP, which targets midsize organizations, points to a trend he calls "hub and spoke" deployments: Companies use Oracle or SAP ERP suites as the central system of record, and off of that use smaller app packages, like Dynamics, in the subsidiaries, plants and various operating units of the larger company. "It's not new," Read says, "but we're seeing a lot more companies doing this." The rationale: A smaller, Tier II system is much cheaper and faster to deploy than force-feeding Big ERP software down on the smaller properties of the company that most likely don't need the associated horsepower or headaches.
"With ERP, you can't do a one-size-fits-all," Read says. "The corporate office of a $10 billion organization just has different needs than the local operations in Australia. And if you try to deploy [SAP or Oracle] everywhere, you're effectively going to be deploying an enterprise solution in a midmarket company, and the costs are going to explode."
Could there be a resurgence in "best of breed" app strategies for vertical-specific business areas - whether that's on-premise or in the cloud - without all the integration headaches of yore? AMR Research Chief Research Officer Bruce Richardson thinks so. "The Burger King approach - 'have it your way' with SaaS, on-premise, BPO," Richardson says, "is going to force vendors like SAP, Oracle and Infor to get very aggressive in offering other deployment models."
The cloud rolls in, fast
Call it what you will: software-as-a-service, on-demand computing, Web-based software, cloud computing. Doesn't matter, because business software experienced via an Internet connection and browser is already here. Resistance is futile, stupid and short-sighted. At this point, however, no one (save for the SaaS vendors, perhaps) is advocating for wholesale rip and replaces of on-premise ERP installs.
But as enthusiasm for traditional, on-premise, expensive and complicated software deployments wanes even further, Web-based software options hosted in either public or private clouds will become even more attractive for companies big and small looking for low costs and easily consumed apps, analysts say. (For the record, it appears that cloud computing is taking over the as the catch-all buzzword, but what's cloud-based and what isn't largely depends on which vendor you are speaking with - Salesforce.com is a self-described "Enterprise Cloud Computing Company"; NetSuite, a "Web-Based Business Software Suite" provider, and they have nearly identical businesses.)
"The supervendors have architected enormous complexity in order to be able to sell across so many different verticals, in so many industries," says AMR's Richardson. "I think there's a need for simplicity, and the Salesforce.com and Workday people get that." (Even Oracle and SAP have finally realized that, though those ships are slower and costlier to turn around - see: Business ByDesign saga and Oracle's indecisiveness.)
Jim McGeever, the CFO of NetSuite, pays homage to Google for sticking to its uncomplicated homepage when the search world was morphing into portals in the late 1990s. Google's success is, in part, a validation that easy to use, intuitive Web apps are critical to the future of ERP, McGeever contends. NetSuite's "anytime, anywhere access" mantra is the manifestation of the 11-year-old vendor's strategy that embraces UI simplification.
By the end of 2009, Gartner forecasts that global SaaS revenue will reach $7.5 billion, which is an 18 percent increase from 2008 revenue of $6.4 billion. For SaaS ERP apps, in particular, Gartner projected a small increase in worldwide revenues: from $1.17 billion to $1.24 billion in 2009. "Adoption of the on-demand deployment model has continued to grow as on-demand vendors have extended their services through alliances, partner offerings, and more recently, by offering and promoting user application development through platform as a service (PaaS) capabilities," noted Sharon Mertz, research director at Gartner, in a report. "Although usage and adoption is still evolving, deployment of SaaS still varies between the enterprise application markets and within specific market segments because of buyer demand and applicability of the solution." Looking out even farther, Gartner predicts that the SaaS market will show consistent growth through 2013 when global SaaS revenue will total more than $14 billion for the enterprise software markets.
SaaS vendors have had to fight the niche product label from the get-go; AMR's Richardson says the perception is that "SaaS guys continue to nibble at the edges." It's likely that they will have to wage even more fierce battles in the future, according to data from market researcher Saugatuck Technology. Despite continued and sizable investments in SaaS development and adoption around the world, SaaS "will not become the primary IT standard and practice by year-end 2012," notes the report, "An Endless Cycle of Innovation." Instead, notes the report, SaaS will be viewed primarily as an important "agent of change" through this period. Two years from then, in 2014, is when Saugatuck predicts big change: "SaaS will become integral to infrastructure, business systems, operations and development within all aspects of user firms, with variations in status and roles based on region and business culture."
The research houses are equally bullish on cloud computing's future: David Cappuccio, Gartner's chief of research for the infrastructure teams, ranked it as one of the top trends affecting companies' technology use during the next five years. IDC's cloud services revenue forecast jumps from $17.4 billion in 2009 to $44.2 billion in 2013.
All projections and speculation are subject to change without notice, of course, but once loyal on-premise companies get a taste of SaaS and cloud-based services, they typically come back for seconds, however small a bite it may seem to the Big ERP vendors, analysts say. NetSuite's McGeever boasts that the vendor "gets more incremental revenue from selling to our installed base than we do from new business."
Converts are proclaiming their newfound faith more and more. Todd Pierce, CIO of Genentech, a $13 billion San Francisco-based biotech company, among other initiatives, purchased a Google Apps suite for 18,000 accounts and has moved ERP functionality to iPhone apps. Pierce offers a convincing overview of the huge savings, benefits and "revolutionary" usability factors that Genentech has experienced by moving enterprise software apps to Web-based and cloud computing software-delivery models.
"There are many things happening here that are good for users, good for the IT profession, good for business. It's just good, good, good," Pierce says. "You know, what's slowing this adoption are all the priests of the past - all the preservationists. All the interests that are built up around the edifice that is enterprise software.... Cloud computing is a dream come true."
Got data? Making sense of it all
Since the dawn of automated, electronic capture of corporate financial, operations, supply chain, HR and sales information data - what's become, more or less, ERP - companies have cumulatively spent billions, if not trillions, on managing and trying to extract value from their vast data repositories.
Accenture's Jim Hayes, the global managing director of its Oracle practice, says companies know what they want to do - they see the value of business intelligence and analytics output for their users - but they've often been stymied. "We know how to do transaction processing. We know how to close the books, capture orders, do pricing, allocate stock and support business with ERP," he says. "But the real promise was: How could we take this data and turn it into information? A lot of clients were asking about how we could help them unleash the value of that data. And then the [economic] meltdown happened. All of the sudden, there was a dramatic shift to: Cost reduction." And many of those "unleashing the value" projects, he adds, have been put on hold.
Enterprises today are deluged with terabytes of data: their own internal data; customer and partner data; as well as new "unstructured" data flows - from Internet-based social networks and mobile devices. But guess what? We ain't seen nothin' yet. During the next five years, Gartner predicts that the amount of enterprise data will grow by a jaw-dropping 650 percent. And the vast majority of that data will be unstructured, meaning not included or tied to any particular database, Gartner points out. This head-scratching growth, noted David Cappuccio, Gartner's chief of research for the infrastructure teams, in a CIO.com article, "is going to cost us dearly if we don't pay attention."
Philip Say, vice president for SAP Business Suite, says that this area is, in fact, "one of the most exciting areas of innovation" going on at the company. "The depth, the volume, the detailed sophistication of all the data being generated - from enterprise systems, e-mail and other corporate systems - it's as if we're reaching a point where it's almost unmanageable for the end user and there's no question for the enterprise," Say adds. "As we look to the future, this is one of the more vibrant areas SAP is investing in."
Say points to the acquisition of Business Objects and those analytics applications, tools and developers working on solving this challenge. He also notes SAP's new in-memory tools and techniques that aim to manage huge chunks of enterprise data in fast, intuitive and easier ways than in the past. "This is ushering in a new definition of what we mean by ERP," Say adds.
But all of this unstructured data could also be a huge opportunity for other, non-traditional ERP players to move into the market. For example, the unstructured data market is virtually owned and operated by Google. What about a Google play in the business applications space? At the Gartner IT Symposium 2009, CEO Eric Schmidt made no secret of the fact that Google has designs on the enterprise market space. Schmidt thought that the enterprise business for Google can be a multibillion dollar one - terming it "humongous." The 11-year-old company has its sights set on Microsoft; it has recently made its hosted Google Apps suite more enticing to large government users by announcing plans to tailor its cloud computing services for various federal agencies, according to a Computerworld.com article. Google Wave has taken dead aim at the collaborative apps space (hello, Microsoft Sharepoint), and Android is going after the mobile space by extending the enterprise into portable devices. Still, for many CIOs, at least now, Microsoft is the devil you know, rather than the one you don't.
Jon Reed, an independent analyst, SAP Mentor and blogger at JonERP.com, has trouble envisioning Google building an ERP suite or acquiring an ERP company - "that's extreme," he says. However, "if a Google type of company can present a way of pulling together all this unstructured information in a cloud-based environment, and then somehow connect that to a structured platform - uniting the unstructured and structured information - then that's a big, big thing," Reed says. "Think how pathetic these big companies are right now. They have no visibility into that."
Adds Accenture's Hayes: "We will we look back five years from now, and realize that the unstructured data [issue] was another disruptive force that will have to be reckoned with."
The future of the supervendors
Behold the Supervendors! It sounds like something out of a Transformers movie - There's OptimusOracle, IBM-Bot, MicroScream and MegaSAP. (Don't ask whose "side" they're on.)
High-tech juggernauts Microsoft, IBM, SAP, Oracle and HP (collectively known as "MISOH") have reshaped the enterprise software industry with bold, strategic and expensive acquisitions that have led to massive consolidation. As a Forrester Research figure shows, in the ERP space, SAP and Oracle outpace the other vendors.
Oracle, in particular, has never shied away from making a splashy purchase (leading one financial industry observer to call Oracle the New York Yankees of the enterprise software industry). With $8.8 billion in cash on hand and "good deals" still to be had, one can expect Larry Ellison & Co. to make more shrewd acquisitions.
Forrester principal analyst Paul Hamerman, in the report The State Of ERP 2009: Market Forces Drive Specialization, Consolidation and Innovation, is confident the consolidation trend will continue for Oracle and its peers. Here's why: To boost recurring revenues (from new customers and maintenance fee streams); to eliminate the competition (see: Oracle's hostile PeopleSoft acquisition); to establish a presence in new markets (to get into new industries, vertical plays, customer segments or geographies); to complement platforms and services (in which IBM would buy ERP applications); and to find "technology gems" (i.e. "undercapitalised software firms with valuable intellectual property"), Hamerman writes.
Are there still enough enterprise software firms out there to acquire? While the number has dwindled since the turn of the millennium, there are still more than a dozen targets available.
Acquisitions aside, how will the cadre of ERP vendors approach the future? Like those robots in the Transformer movies, the "MISOH" cartel and other traditional ERP entities will have to change their "shapes," and alter their strategies to stay with the times (and already have, to some degree). That means embracing - rather than resisting - on-demand and SaaS-based computing software-delivery models. And you can bet you'll be seeing fewer and fewer "cloud computing" rants from Big ERP execs, like this one that Oracle's Ellison gave in fall 2009.
For example, in an odd 2008 interview with ZDNet, Lawson Software CEO Harry Debes proclaimed that the SaaS industry would "collapse" in two years. In the interview, Debes also noted that Lawson was a happy Salesforce.com user. In fall 2009, during an interview with CIO.com, Debes stands by his comments, saying that the feedback from Lawson's customers at the time, which was that they did not want a SaaS solution, "was compelling." That's changed. And today, Debes says, "I'm a very big fan of cloud computing," though his on-premise business still has a bright future, he contends.
Industry leaders SAP and Oracle are feeling the heat - from NetSuite, Workday, Salesforce.com and other vendors offering solid alternatives. SAP's on-demand Business ByDesign mid-market offering has, for all its technological promise, been a bit of an enigma. SAP stumbled out of the gate, at least from a marketing perspective - execs either overpromised and underdelivered or did a poor job of managing customers and partner outsized expectations: limiting the service to a relative few of its customers. That said, SAP has added new features and enhancements (integrating tools from its Business Objects acquisition, for instance). If all goes according to plan, 2010 will be the "coming out" party for Business ByDesign.
For Oracle, its next-generation Fusion Applications Suite is either going to be a competitive game-changer or a money pit for its customers. But again, like Business ByDesign, questions still surround Fusion Apps as we enter into 2010. According to a recent report by 451 Group analyst China Martens, those include: How will Oracle price Fusion Apps licenses? Oracle has said the apps will be "SaaS ready," but what does that actually mean? How will the Sun Microsystems acquisition impact Fusion Apps? And what will happen to Oracle's existing customers who choose not to go the Fusion Apps route? (Oracle declined numerous requests for an interview about the future of Oracle's ERP offerings.)
"Each time Oracle or SAP talks about their SaaS ERP endeavors, it's as though they're putting a little more meat on the bones of their projects," writes Martens in her November report on SAP and Oracle. "There's plenty more fleshing out to do before it's possible to judge whether we're looking at swans or turkeys."
As the decade wound down, many vendors finally uncovered their ears to hear what their customers were actually saying. But there's another, more powerful set of masters to serve: shareholders. As such, the future of ERP will be dictated not only by customer wants and needs but also vendors' ability to satisfy shareholders, grow margins and pay dividends. It's not personal, after all. It's just business.
CIOs: Bringeth the ERP analytics!
Sure, traditional on-premise vendors face pressure to diversify their software delivery mechanisms. But CIOs face an equal amount of pressure - maybe even more - as the new millennium dawns. "Rapid proliferation of SaaS solutions inside the organization requires strong CIO leadership in coordinating data, business process and meta-data integration strategies," writes Ray Wang, Altimeter Group's partner for enterprise strategy, in a blog post.
In particular, the business is crying out for easy-to-digest, highly usable and meaningful analytic data on enterprise-wide business functions. A 2009 IBM study of more than 2500 global CIOs found that "leveraging analytics to gain a competitive advantage and improve business decision-making" is the top priority for CIOs. A whopping 83 percent of survey respondents reported that BI and analytics - "the ability to see patterns in vast amounts of data and extract actionable insights" - as the way they will enhance their businesses' competitiveness.
Inside too many businesses today, a paradoxical data situation exists: While the struggling economy has forced businesses to attempt to cut costs and "do more with less," that often means leaving this data store largely untapped, which creates the risk of "more is less," notes a July 2009 Aberdeen Group report (registration required). "The ability to provide better decision support with integrated enterprise data is an important factor in turning data into actionable intelligence," write the Aberdeen analysts. "The synergistic relationship between ERP and BI can indeed be the perfect storm, igniting improved performance and visibility." (For more on this, see ERP and BI: A Match Made in Heaven, If You're in Data Hell.)
ERP analyst Hamerman writes in the Forrester report that embedded analytics represent a key functionality in the future: "Rather than having to leave the application and launch separate reporting and analytics tools, ERP applications are moving toward embedding analytics within the context of the application itself," he states. "This can be seen in a number of products including Epicor 9 and the yet-to-be released Oracle Fusion Applications." Plenty of enterprise vendors are targeting these fertile grounds (some estimates top $100 billion). IBM, for instance, is making a huge push into the analytics market, using the combination of its SPSS acquisition and its hardware, software and services business lines.
So how are CIOs dealing with the ERP and BI demands? Nectarios Lazaris, CIO for Woods Bagot, an architectural design firm with offices in Dubai, Bangkok, London and Hong Kong, seems like he's coping the best he can. "We need an ERP system to do a lot of predictive forecasting, and output different [project] models and business scenarios for us," Lazaris says. He describes the complex process of how Woods Bagot vies for new business and how these global projects typically run their course - covering structured and unstructured data from all over the globe and how best to "visualize" that data.
Is he getting that now? "With a great deal of difficulty and I guess a lot of skepticism in the output," he says. In fact, Lazaris laments that users still sometimes have more affinity for Microsoft Excel than the ERP system (which he declines to name). "Sometimes [as the CIO] you have to take it on the chin from your users," he says. "You go back, you try to talk to the account exec at your ERP vendor, and you try to get it across that you hope the next release is better. But [my] people will say: Why can't an ERP system be as powerful as Excel, which is ironic."
The future of ERP, this is not. But it just might be the reality for too many CIOs as 2010 dawns.
More than any time in its nearly four-decade history, change is swirling in the air of the ERP ecosystem: new software-delivery models, new licensing arrangements, new user-interface offerings, new support options, new emphasis on value. All of this change is a very good thing, analysts say. "Now, it's all about the value," says Accenture's Hayes. "With all of these different future trends out there, CIOs need to be more adept at describing the value: Here's the TCO and here's the revenue uplift; here's the day sales outstanding improvement; here's the business value we're going to get by using this application."
It's not that companies are cutting spending on ERP-related systems; in fact, quite the opposite: ERP investments still top the list of corporate IT investments and in 2009 were almost "recession proof."
It's just that the recession and years of questionable return have forcefully introduced a new strategy: Leave the commodity ERP processes to the back office (such as payroll and HR), but make damn sure that front-line users are freed from the banality and inflexibility of the Ghosts of ERP Past.
Industry consultant Reed sums it up this way: "'Empower me. Give me the tools to create differentiating processes that allow me to define myself from my competitors. And make sure that it's easier for me to do, so I don't have to hire 100 programmers. Give me the building blocks to put that together quickly, so that it's just humming in the background, and leave me free to focus on what makes us better than other companies.' That's what customers are expecting now and really want."