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ERP: Join the dots faster with ready-made ecosystems

Pre-integrated IT has a long and honourable history, and it has a role to play in the mesh that makes up cloud-native enterprise systems

From the IBM AS/400 to Microsoft Office, we’ve all seen the benefits of software that is designed for specific purposes, understands business logic and people, and has interoperable core components. It saves time on setup and means extending the solution becomes way easier.

In short, it’s a great fast track to being productive and it protects against being locked into a single supplier. And at a time of so much uncertainty as to what 2022 will serve up in terms of pandemics, working patterns and geopolitics, it is absolutely critical that companies leap on the chance to accelerate time to revenue and not squander time on building point-to-point links between systems that chew through time, increase costs and lead to errors and unreliable data.

A mesh is defined in my dictionary as an “an interlaced structure”. The Unit 4 Industry Mesh is a multi-tenant cloud service for mid-market organisations, offering packaged integrations for multiple vertical markets. That is very different from the old, generic age of enterprise resource planning (ERP) when the software was effectively monolithic, a slab of code that had to be pummeled, disassembled, massaged and worked on to suit individual industry needs. And it is especially applicable to the mid-market firms that are particularly susceptible to rapid market change and don’t have the budgets of the megacorps.

Cloud provides a basic platform for integration between systems with open APIs (application programming interfaces), but we wanted to go further so that firms could expose data, analyse it and make smarter decisions. But doing this isn’t easy, so beware of companies offering basic templates or DIY toolkits that are the digital equivalent of kicking the can down the road. Pre-integration requires hundreds of thousands of hours studying the way industries work, their core processes, needs and obstacles, and a deep recognition of how data flows between people and processes. 

We worked with key partners such as Salesforce, Microsoft, Oonda, Slack and Dun & Bradstreet to join the dots between billing, payments, credit, exchange rates, calendaring, tax, document management and collaboration. Essentially, we have worked out the data flows between key applications so that customers don’t have to, so data sharing becomes frictionless. And we’ve worked out that it saves about $1.2m a year for a company with 1,000 staff.

IDC says that by 2023, 40% of companies will be using their ERP systems as data and transactional hubs at the heart of their ecosystems of partners. The “China price” means most companies can’t compete on cost, while a queue of startups without legacy is forming to disintermediate established players. In that tough environment, co-creation, co-curation and collaboration have never been so important. As IDC’s Mickey North Rizza has written: “In this competitive world, industry differentiators are a great source of competitive advantage.”

The world of work has changed and will continue to morph. The Great Resignation has shown that we need to provide jobs with meaning and provide opportunities for people to create and use their skills to affect real outcomes. Nobody ever dreamed of being an integration expert or of constantly reinventing the wheel. People crave dynamic cultures, not repetition or tasks that are better suited to machines.

Our recent Business Future Index revealed that successful companies are innovative, transformational and have a rich culture. If you are not doing these things, it is inevitable that performance will be sub-optimal across indicators from revenue and profitability to talent retention.

Faster integration is a great accelerant, but it is also symptomatic of the way software is heading: to a self-driving, smart and aware environment based on microservices to get to nimble, frictionless and borderless processes. Software is becoming atomised, artificial intelligence (AI)-fuelled and orchestrated, and automation is making us colleagues with machines who can do our grunt work.

People won’t put up with IT requests that take weeks to bear fruit. They want something more dynamic. Look at the front-end UX where clunkiness and fugliness have been banished. We are heading towards a faster culture where change never stops and we need to pull out all the stops to get there. Having software that is ready to go for the tasks we need to achieve is a great start, but in future we’ll go even faster. There’s no time to rest.

Claus Jepsen, CTO at Unit 4, is a technology expert who has been fascinated by the microcomputer revolution ever since he received a Tandy TRS model 1 at the age of 14.

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