JDA and Epicor talking platforms not products

The last week of April 2014 was an unusual one for the RSR team, because it provided us a rare opportunity to wander from our individual corners of planet and meet up in Las Vegas, Nevada. The occasion for the gathering of the partners was duelling user conferences by JDA and Epicor.

Not only were the conferences in sync on dates and location, but also (incongruously) with the marketing themes (or at least the signage) – electric guitars (although I’m not sure what that was all about, because the implied rock’n’roll theme wasn’t mentioned by the speakers at either conference). And aside from their proprietary product roadmaps and the differences between functionality that the companies support, there was another odd similarity: both talked long and loud about the need to move from a “product” orientation to a “platform” one. That’s interesting because it's in sync with what “big” players like SAP, Oracle, and IBM also say. In other words, it's now the generally accepted way to be.

So what’s behind all this talk of “platform”? My mind went back to the last “IT alignment” benchmark study that RSR published, in 2010. Paula Rosenblum [RSR managing partner] and I are both former CIOs from the 1990s and early 2000s and we authored that report. While we examined the survey results a lot of our ruminations were about the fact that nothing much had seemed to change in nearly a decade since we had held our corporate positions. Just as in our day, “maintenance of the legacy portfolio” was considered the top inhibitor preventing IT departments from addressing emerging new requirements from the business (64% overall, and worse for companies with the equivalent of over $1 billion in annual sales, at 73%). The reason for all of this maintenance was that retailers either had “home grown” proprietary systems in place, or had packages that had been heavily modified to meet the peculiar requirements of individual businesses.

But by 2010, there were at least some stirrings of change, with retail winners showing a strong preference for on-premise (licensed) pre-integrated suites to automate their business processes and enable enterprise-wide capabilities. That new attitude by retail winners was indicative of two things: first, those businesses were beginning to realise that many of their internal processes were only strategic in a negative way, if they weren’t optimised with good designs and enabled by technology. In other words, the processes in many cases were baseline expectations for any retailer, and a business was strategically disadvantaged if it didn’t perform them well. Secondly, the commercial packages that support those baseline business processes actually work; a retailer didn’t have to spend a fortune altering the code to actually make it do what it was advertised to do. But there was a third thing too: by 2010 retailers were sick and tired of having to integrate so-called “best of breed” point solutions to get them to work together. That weariness gave a lift to the popularity of “pre-integrated suites” – or platforms.

Mobile makes 'platforms' an absolute necessity

Fast forward to 2014, and the need to get things to work well together has accelerated by an order of magnitude. The trigger mechanism is … mobile. Smart mobile devices have enabled a huge shift towards using several of what we might call selling “channels” to execute a single purchase. Of course, the industry has called this phenomenon “omnichannel” retailing. And while there’s a recent push by several prominent industry thought leaders to abandon the phrase “omnichannel”, there’s no suggestion of abandoning the concept behind it. Oracle’s Mike Webster called it “anywhere commerce” at last year’s Openworld conference in San Francisco. And he also identified that the problem with a point-solution portfolio (for both retailers and solutions companies) is that it ultimately creates a huge risk, because the retailer cannot maintain a single view of customer, inventory, and order, anytime and anywhere.

In 2013 at the Smarter Commerce conference in Nashville, IBM’s anytime/anywhere message was wrapped around the company’s view of consumers’ technology-enabled paths-to-purchase: Engage, Fulfil, Transact, and Service. The company had built enough functionality into the Smarter Commerce portfolio of solutions (through smart acquisitions) that the attention of the industry analysts who attended the conference turned to the question of how well the component pieces integrate (IBM admitted that they have work to do), as opposed to the functionality itself.

SAP Founder Hasso Plattner saw the same “anytime, anywhere” future when he announced in 2003 that the company’s portfolio of solutions would be re-written using the principles of “services oriented architectures” (SOA), the essence of SOA being that business rules defined as services can be re-used in many ways. Frankly, when I heard him say that (at Sapphire 2003), I was sceptical – but by 2007 the company announced that it had gone through all of its product lines and done just that. By 2012, SAP was openly talking about its “mobile first” strategy for all user interfaces (welcome news for anyone who ever used their legacy interfaces). That of course was the rationale behind the company’s acquisition of Sybase.

All of these strategies share the same underlying premise, that the correct information and business rules need to be made available anytime and anywhere, on-demand and via a multitude of user interfaces – but most likely on technologies that an employee, a business partner, or a customer is holding in his or her hand.

One city, one concept, two companies

So in the context of the worldwide adoption of “mobile” as the way to interface with information anytime and anywhere, as well as competitors’ push in that direction, it makes perfect sense for both Epicor and JDA to be talking now about the need to break down the silos between their point solutions, and create a platform of shared business rules and data to support business processes. Epicor’s CMO John Hiraoko stated that the company’s ERP v.10 is based on the principles of “collaboration, choice, responsiveness, simplicity, and mobility”. And Retail GM Noel Goggin talked of “evolving from a platform of products to an integrated platform that focuses on Customer, Product, and Order”. Meanwhile over at JDA, CEO Hamish Brewer talked about moving towards “software suites instead of products”. He specifically said that JDA would move to five suites: manufacturing planning, collaborative category management, distribution centric supply chain, retail planning, and store operations.

All of that is potentially good news for beleaguered retail IT shops, who nowadays find themselves not only further behind than they were in 2010, but are also now contending with newly empowered marketing departments for technology budgets (and, it must be said that IT leaders know that whatever the CMO buys will have to be integrated and supported sooner rather than later!). The challenge for Epicor and JDA both is that their solution sets have grown over the past decade by acquiring other software companies and their products – and by and large, no company that I know of has dared to do what Plattner and SAP said they were going to do in 2003. But even if the solution provider isn’t planning to rewrite everything to conform to one set of architectural principles, “all” of the major players seem to be saying that they will “own” the integration between the piece parts.

And so in theory, by adopting a modern platform retailers should be able to devote much less of their IT department’s time and energy supporting a legacy portfolio, and spend much more on value-adding activities that customers will actually give them credit for. That’s goodness – so let's hope that Epicor and JDA mean what they say.

This article originally appeared as 'One city, one concept, two companies' on the RSR Research website at http://www.rsrresearch.com. It is reproduced with the organisation's permission.