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Unit4 adds machine learning to services-centric ERP system

Unit4, which majors on business applications software for professional services firms and universities, adds machine learning to its product suite, as announced at a customer event in Rotterdam

Unit4, a company that sells business applications software to professional services firms and higher education institutes, is adding machine learning to its product suite, as announced at a recent event in Rotterdam.

Unit4 CEO Stephan Sieber, speaking at the Connect event in Rotterdam, said the company is on a long march from selling code to selling business outcomes to its customers, and its machine learning element is part of that direction.

“Customers have never been less interested in technology as much as they are now,” he said. “They are mature, educated and focused on what technology can and cannot do. [Customers] even care less about whether software is delivered as a service in the cloud. They are focused more on business results and what the software does.

“We currently have a software-as-a-service model, but we are shifting how we think about the business of our customers and what we can do for them. It helps that we are smaller [than SAP or Oracle] because we can go deeper and closer to what drives our customers to be successful, and understand their businesses better.”

Unit4’s enterprise resource planning (ERP) software is specifically intended for professional services organisations, such as law and accountancy firms, as well as universities and charities. It comes out of project work rather than manufacturing, said Sieber.

The supplier has released what it calls an “enterprise digital assistant” named Wanda, which it said will “deliver self-driving enterprise software”.

Sieber, who was managing director of SAP Switzerland and chief operating officer of the Germany, Switzerland and Austria (DACH) region for SAP, said in an interview with Computer Weekly: “The self-driving concept is differentiating [in the enterprise software market]. What we are doing with natural language is pretty unique, I haven’t seen that to this extent [elsewhere].”

“The software you need is still mainly in the ‘world of authority’ of corporate CIOs and CFOs but, when you talk about software that companies want [to differentiate their business], it is less them than it is the people driving the business that you need to address – the functional leaders, the heads of division, the ‘world of collaboration’.”

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The Wanda digital assistant, which uses Microsoft’s Language Understanding Intelligent Service (LUIS), can be embedded and  accessed through Skype, Slack and Facebook messenger.

It acts as a “gateway to data in the Unit4 Business World ERP system, adding a level of intelligence and context to suggest actions and help users complete tasks quickly”, according to the supplier. The Unit4 brand includes long-established ERP technologies such as Agresso and Coda.

The tasks sped up by Wanda include human resources-related employee self-service tasks, such as making absence requests and enquiring about holiday balances and pay slips. There are also “assistants” for procurement, generating time sheets and arranging travel.

“We are delivering a self-driving assistive and conversational user experience. Microsoft’s broad consumer experience gives it an edge as a platform supplier, bringing consumerisation to the enterprise and democratising complex technology,” said Sieber.

In the interview, he said of Microsoft: “We have strengthened the biggest partnership we use in our ‘people platform’ over the past few years. We were early moving to Azure, not just as infrastructure but as a platform. Microsoft has done a tremendous job in establishing the strongest business application platform out there.”

Ian Sibbald, CFO at Cranfield University, said in support of the digital assistant: “Wanda has the potential to revolutionize the accounts processing functions and significantly enhance the user experience. It provides timely reminders and assistance to automate tasks that will help minimise the bureaucratic red tape for academic colleagues.”

Student management upgrade

At the same event, the company announced an upgrade to its student management product, available on the Microsoft Azure platform, which now extends to housing. The supplier said it “gives institutions the ability to administer housing facilities and rooms, including roommate assignments and payments from within the core system”.

The upgrade also includes the Assessments and Academic Progress functionality, with the supplier saying institutions can monitor their students’ academic progress and manage and amend institutional rules as they change over time.

Customers in UK higher education, in which Unit4 has been historically strong, include King’s College, London, the University of Aberdeen and Oxford and Cambridge.

Unit4, like other business applications suppliers, has been tipping its software towards cloud delivery in recent years, with Microsoft as its partner, using its Azure platform.

Nicole Engelbert, director of research and analysis, technology, at Ovum said: “[Higher education] institutions are no longer asking if they should migrate core systems to the cloud, but how they should do it and on which early adopters they should model their implementation strategy.

“Recent findings from Ovum’s ICT enterprise insights survey quantify this shift from scepticism to action. Investments in cloud are growing rapidly, particularly in the areas of software and infrastructure.

“Datacentres are moving off campus and greenfield applications, and increasingly mission-critical applications are moving with them. With the recent availability of cloud student information systems [SISs], such as Unit4’s, this trend will only accelerate as institutions seek out modernisation strategies.”

The supplier also announced the release of a professional services automation suite, following its recent acquisition of Assistance Software in April 2017.

This is said to support sales teams to generate and manage leads and opportunities and model and forecast performance leveraging the Sales Automation functionality in Microsoft customer relationship management (CRM) to offer “real-time insight into projects, budget and revenue so they can take immediate action to ensure projects stay on track”.

Read more on Enterprise resource planning (ERP) software