The Agglomerators Club
Enterprise Solution Agglomerators are software firms — such as Aptean, Infor, Epicor, and to an extent Microsoft (Dynamics) — whose strategy is to amass a portfolio of value-priced (sometimes bargain-basement-priced) ERP and enterprise solutions, most of which are well over a decade old (see sidebar “A Long and Winding Road” on some of Aptean’s history). Aptean has acquired particularly vertically-targeted solutions. They are also the latest to the game in terms of integration and modernization of the UI. Given that most of the current executive team has only been at Aptean about a year (some less than that), they have made significant strides and seem poised to turn a corner in the coming year.
Here to Stay
In CEO Paul Ilse’s opening keynote address, he reassured the audience by saying, “Aptean is here to stay and grow with you. We have the right people on the team.” Having met much of the management team, I concur. He also made three promises about what Aptean will do:
- Increase the solution value – ptean is making new investments in four key areas: A) Integration of portfolio components, B) Industry-specific business Intelligence (via their QlikView partnership), C) Mobility; making Aptean’s solutions available on a variety of mobile devices, D) Deployment options; allowing customer to deploy any Aptean product in the cloud,1 or on premise.
- Strengthen Aptean’s industry commitment – ptean will continue to invest in industry-specific expertise and functionality.
- Be a great partner — Paul said Aptean will grow both organically and via strategic acquisitions “not just to become bigger, but to serve you better.”
Maintaining the Legacy Fleet
I also had the opportunity to speak with Paul directly. He told me Aptean has no plans to sunset their older products. They are willing to continue to support and maintain them. Their approach to getting customers onto newer platforms is to add modern functionality such as BI (Business Intelligence), mobility, cleaner UIs, and so forth — make it more attractive for customers to update and switch.4 This strategy was rearticulated in Jennifer Sherman’s (SVP Product Management) keynote on day two, where she described Aptean’s customer service policy, “Aptean Unlimited,” which promises that “as long as the technology stack upon which a product is built is supported, we will continue to support that product.” She added,”It doesn’t mean you will never have to upgrade, but your investment is secure. We will not abandon products. We are here for a lifetime.”
To me that says a lot about the approach and commitment of this management team. Of course, this does not mean they will invest equally in all of their solutions. They are investing more in the core set of ‘tier 1’ platforms, such as Ross, Made2Manage, Intuitive, Factory, and Pivotal. Other products, some of which are much narrower in scope or audience, will see lighter investments. I was told none of these will be starved for resources, and each has a person responsible for P&L, and each has its own roadmap, lifecycle, and customer advisory board. The investments in each solution can thereby be scaled up or down as customer and market needs dictate, without abandoning ship and leaving customers in the lurch.
In the day two keynote address, Jennifer Sherman laid out their three-pronged application strategy:
- Integrated platform
- Complete, end-to-end solutions
- Targeted Industry focus
Aptean Business Platform
Historically, Aptean’s solutions have for the most part not been integrated with each other. Each was a standalone solution. That is changing. One of the components CDC brought with them into the merger is an integration platform called EMF (Event Management Framework). Originally it was sold as a standalone event management solution, but Aptean soon realized it could also be used as a backbone for integrating their various solutions. EMF provides business process workflow, event management, messaging, notifications, and more, not just for integrating Aptean products but for integrating third party applications as well as trading partners, all in one set of tools.
EMF lets Aptean and its users create and manage long-lived, end-to-end processes, such as order-to-cash, which involve multiple systems and business entities. The concept is that as a company’s needs evolve, the workflow logic can evolve and systems can be updated or replaced while minimizing disruption and rewrites to the other systems and portions of the workflow. Creating this level of flexible integration is often more difficult than it looks on paper, so we will see how this vision plays out in practice, but it certainly is the right direction for Aptean.
Complete Business Solutions
Jennifer elaborated on Aptean’s four-part approach to building out complete solutions: 1) integration across complimentary sets of Aptean’s solutions, 2) industry-specific BI (Business Intelligence) solutions on top of the platform, 3) enterprise mobility / consistent UI, and 4) range of deployment options. Regarding integration across their solutions, Aptean has already been using the workflow tools within the Aptean Business Platform to integrate various components such as ROSS, Respond, Pivotal, and Knova. They just launched a “Process Manufacturing Solution” that will integrate Ross with Factory MES and Pivotal CRM, and BI that pulls data from all three solutions. And parts of it can be included in the cloud. They plan to release further integrations later for discrete manufacturing based on Made2Manage, and after that more integrations based on Intuitive, Axis (ERP for Metals, Wire, and Cable manufacturers, processors, and service centers), and various solutions for Financial Services (CRM, case management, knowledge management). These integrations will be deployable without any coding, and will include configurable workflows, targeted at specific industries, that can be modified by the customer or their implementation partner.
Aptean is partnering with QlikView to create industry-specific BI offerings: one each for discrete manufacturing, process manufacturing, metals processing and manufacturing, and financial services. These will pull data from all the relevant Aptean applications like Ross, Made2Manage, Pivotal, Axis, Factory, IMI, and Intuitive. Later this year they will have a horizontal CRM BI offering as well. These will be available on desktop, tablet, and phone in both connected (online) and disconnected (offline) modes.
Mobility / Consistent UI
Aptean is rebuilding all of their application UIs, based on HTML5,5 with mobility in mind. This is a big deal, and critical to their future success (more on that below under “UI/UX + Integration — Powering the Future of Aptean”). Jennifer said, “This will take years, but we are starting that journey. We will move to a consistent, role-based look and feel across our solutions and across devices.” I had a chance to see an example of this in the new Made2Manage tablet interface and I have to say it looks clean, modern, and well laid out; like something you’d see from a fresh startup, not the look and feel of a 30 year old suite. Here’s an example of one screen shot:
Many of Aptean’s solutions have traditionally been offered only in an on-premise perpetual license model. Going forward, Aptean will give customers the choice of on premise, hosted, or in the cloud deployment. They already offer a private cloud offering, hosted by Aptean, comprised of a perpetual license plus a hosting fee. Not all of Aptean’s applications will be moved to a true multi-tenant, single-instance model, nor necessarily even to a 100% browser-based model. Those that still require a desktop program will be offered in a “hybrid cloud,” hosted by Aptean, in a subscription model. Respond is available in a browser-based cloud deployment today, while Pivotal, Ross, Made2Manage, and Intuitive will be next. Then IMI, Factory, and Axis, and more to follow after that.
Ms. Sherman repeated on stage what she had told me the day before in person; that she was drawn to Aptean because of their industry-specific highly targeted solutions, which contrasts with the one-size-fits-all approach of most of the larger ERP vendors. If you think about the differences in requirements between say a small food manufacturer vs. a fashion retailer vs. a large aerospace manufacturer — trying to make one general purpose platform to serve them all requires adding a tremendous variety of functionality, structure, and different terminology to the system. This adds considerable complexity and can lead to considerable software bloat.6 Aptean delivers solutions each dedicated to a specific industry: discrete manufacturing, process manufacturing, metals processing, retail & distribution, and services (e.g. financial or professional services).
Near the end of her talk, Jennifer role-played a chicken soup manufacturer as a way to demo the integration between some of their solutions — in this case using Ross, Pivot, and Ross BI. She ended her presentation saying to all of the customers in the audience “I visit plants and warehouses. I would like to visit you. Our whole team would like to visit you. We want to go where you are and roll up our sleeves. I hope we can meet you there.” To me that speaks volumes about her style and philosophy of customer engagement.
UI/UX + Integration — Powering the Future of Aptean
A key part of Aptean’s strategy and investment is to make their core/tier 1 platforms more integrable7 by designing and engineering in the appropriate configurability, fields, triggers, stubs, and hooks/call outs. A central goal is to make their tier 1 solutions BPM8 ready, so that you can author a workflow where any step in that flow can be done by any system or function, and where that function could be swapped out with minimal or no changes required to the other systems and components in the workflow. This will lead to a lot more agility, and the ability to accommodate customers’ existing and future systems and evolution. That evolvability is critical for Aptean in bringing their customers’ decades old systems into the 21st century and ‘future-proofing’ to keep up with all of the non-stop advances in technology.
Another really important piece of Aptean’s strategy is the move to a common UI/UX. In the past the different Aptean applications all had their own user interfaces. Without fixing that, even if you accomplish good integration underneath the covers, it would be a very jarring and incongruous user experience for the user transitioning from one system to the other, making for a lousy user experience, decreasing the usability of the system, and increasing training costs. That is why Aptean’s move to a common HTML5-based, responsive9 UI is so critical, hand-in-hand with their strategy to integrate their systems together. Once the common UIs come together, it will give a lot more flexibility to mix and match the pieces of their portfolio. It is a major investment for Aptean and will take time. As with integration, these UI changes are not easy, but at this early stage, the work so far is looking good.
Aiming for a Brighter Future
I told Aptean’s CEO, as well as their VP of Marketing “If you guys can actually turn this company around and bring it to significant growth, you are going to really raise some eyebrows and make a name for yourself in the industry.” It seems to me that a lot of the right pieces are in place — a smart and motivated management team, loyal customers, and an intelligent and well-thought-out strategy for evolving and unifying their various systems. This could be the beginning of exciting times for Aptean and their customers.
1 This means Aptean will offer hosting and managed services. It does not mean all Aptean solutions will be re-architected as single-instance multi-tenant platforms, though some of them will be. They told me that all Aptean products will be ‘SaaS-enabled’ by 2015.
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2 One misconception is that CDC Software went bankrupt. Its parent, CDC Corporation, declared chapter 11 in 2011, and CDC Software, which was earning the majority of revenue for CDC corporation at the time, was sold to Vista Equity Partners to help pay off the debts of CDC corporation. — Return to article text above
3 For more, see “Who Owns the ERP Market?” — Return to article text above
4 For a comparison with other ERP vendors’ approach, see “ERP’s Dilemma” — Return to article text above
5 HTML5 is the fifth rev. of the HTML standard, supporting many of the elements needed to build sophisticated application user interfaces within a web browser. It is widely supported across mobile platforms, including both iOS and Android, and therefore is well suited to support responsive designs. — Return to article text above
6 For example, SAP Business Suite has around 400M lines of code and over 150,000 different screens! — Return to article text above
7 Integrable means “capable of being integrated” — Return to article text above
8 BPM = Business Process Management — Return to article text above
9 Responsive design refers to user interfaces that can adapt to different form factor devices, such as desktop, tablet, and phone.
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