Unit4 held its annual Connect ambassadors conference this week in Amsterdam. The conference focused on the current strategy and latest product news from Unit4.
During the two day event Unit4 made a series of announcements. These included:
- Four industry specialisations for prevero.
- The launch of prevero, its Corporate Performance Management suite on Azure cloud.
- A platform extension kit allowing customers and partners to generate micro applications integrated to Unit4 Business World.
- A partnership with Humanitarian Enterprise Logistics Manager (HELM) for its supply chain software.
- The new version of its Business World On software, version 7.2.
- Research about the XaaS economy. Highlighting how companies adopting service driven new business models are increasing revenues.
The main strategic message
The main keynote was led by Stephan Sieber, CEO of Unit4. He has led the organisation since April 2016 and the transformation that he has led over that time is now coming apparent. Unit4 has a clear global strategy that means it is pushing three products across four verticals in each of its geographies. This does not, however, mean that it will stop selling or investing in its other country specific and regional products. Sieber clearly understands that to succeed, a company needs to have a focus. It is a very sensible approach.
The three products are:
- Unit4 Business World, its ERP solution that it sells to services businesses across the world.
- Unit4 Professional Services Automation.
- Prevero : the corporate performance management suite.
Its chosen sectors are Higher education, Public Sector, Not for Profit and Professional Services. Of these four, the first three show that Sieber’s vision of becoming a market leader is clear and on the right path. In the professional services sector Unit4 still has some work to do to hone its message to some specific verticals.
In the UK, according to Derren Nisbet, Regional President, UK&I the key micro verticals are legal and accounting. Unit4 has already had success with Accounting firms, notably BDO in the Netherlands and Grant Thornton in the UK. Both companies chose Unit4 Business World. It is with the Professional Service Automation software, originally Assistance Software, that the company needs to confirm its focus.
Unit4 is also getting closer to its customers. The event hosted the recently formed customer advisory councils. As one customer put it, “they’re saying the right things, they are starting to do the right things, it’s what happens next that counts.” The inference is that what they want to see is concrete changes to the products that are based on customer feedback. To be fair, Unit4 appear to be doing that already. However, the often conservative nature of their user population may mean that it will take a while longer for Unit4 to persuade them.
Wanda takes centre stage
The main message of the day was “We create space for people to do more work that really matters”. For Unit4 this means that it aims to reduce the amount of repetitive and simple work that people do in the workplace to free them up for higher value tasks. Key to this is Wanda, their intelligent bot.
Wanda was announced last year but it has taken time for the pilot companies to train the chatbot. It has also taken time for, as early adopter Ben Houghton MD of Highpoint pointed out, staff to understand how to work with it. Highpoint are about to go live with Wanda, whom they have renamed Holly (clearly a Red Dwarf aficionado). He was also realistic about the expectation of what the bot will achieve within the organisation but believes that in time it will show benefits.
He also had an interesting view on the voice interface for chatbots. Looking around his office he sees more and more staff using headsets on their PC to interact with clients using Skype. With individuals already talking next to each other, it may not be long before they are talking direct to Holly through Skype, Facebook messenger or the newly announced integration, Microsoft Teams.
Prevero, gets closer to Microsoft and extends functionality
Since its acquisition in 2016 Unit4 has continued to invest heavily in prevero, the Corporate Performance Management solution. It announced at the event that it has introduced industry solutions for each of its four vertical markets. Not only will this enable customers to take advantage of modern best practice KPI’s from each industry, it also speeds up the implementation time. For example, for the Higher Education sector, role-based dashboards provide information around student success initiatives, a key factor for the modern establishment.
Matthias Thurner, Unit4 prevero CTO commented: “We are offering one of the most comprehensive, but easy to use cloud performance management solutions on the market. Combined with Unit4’s service industry expertise, we are delivering simple to use turnkey solutions for these organisations supporting their people to make smart decisions in every part of their business quickly, aligning strategy, finance and operations like never before. Many of these industries are going through a period of rapid change as they introduce new customer and student services to meet new XaaS economy demands. More than ever, organisations are looking for solutions like ours that support strategic and predictive planning required in such a competitive environment.”
Prevero is now available on the Azure cloud. Microsoft is a strategic partner for the company. Sieber is clearly looking to consolidate the products onto that environment. He talked about the people platform, hosted within Azure, that is at the heart of everything Unit4 does. It is a commitment that will help drive the focus for the company. It also ticks the box as far as customers are concerned. Microsoft is an already trusted cloud provider for many businesses. Unit4 is using most of the geographic regions that Microsoft offers including the recently launched Australia zone.
Platform is king
Another important announcement was around the People Platform Extension Kit (PPEK). This is the first in a two phase project. The second is an integration kit which is in development. PPEK will allow customers and partners to create micro-service applications to enhance their ERP solution. The platform can leverage low code/no code and uses a flow charting process map to help create the application.
Using a micro-service based architecture, companies can build applications that enhance and integrate into business processes within Unit4 Business World. The example demonstrated on stage, developed in under two hours, captured social media sentiment around a company. This was then embedded into the finance system as a check to see whether increased credit limits should be approved. PPEK is not available until autumn 2018 and pricing is not yet available. The early adopter program is available from June. Unit4 is not creating their own marketplace for these apps. This is another indication that Sieber is clear on his strategy and focus. Instead, all created apps will become available through the Microsoft App Store.
The integration kit will enable other applications to integrate into Unit4 and should see a wider technology partner ecosystem develop. These relationships are currently delivered through API’s. The latest integration, is with HELM who provide specific vertical supply chain software for charitable organisations.
Extending Not for profits
HELM delivers specialist warehouse and logistics functionality for not for profit organisations. Henk Jan Onstwedder, Global Head of Not-for-Profit at Unit4 explains further saying: “Humanitarian Software is an experienced solution provider focused on the needs of the non-profit sector. Humanitarian aid and disaster relief organisations typically have some very unique business models and challenges that are not well covered by traditional supply chain management software. Combined with our expertise and industry ERP solution, we offer a complete and tailored solution for these organisations delivering the clear value they need in their strategic processes, and most importantly, supporting their people to be effective in their work.”
New versions of software
Unit4 also announced new versions of its software. Release 7.2 is a significant change for Unit4 and another indication that it is listening to its customers. It has scrapped the milestone releases that saw companies needing to go through a significant upgrade process if they wanted to move to the latest version. Jeremy Roche, Chief Product Officer said that the Milestone 7 platform is here to stay for a while. It is architected so that future upgrades will not be major changes. It is one of the lessons that he has brought back from FinancialForce whose upgrade process, as a cloud vendor, is far smoother.
Version 7.2 introduces several new features, these include Workspaces, Reference Projects and GDPR functionality. Workspaces allow the creation of role-based user interfaces that combine KPI reporting, alerts and exceptions within a dashboard. Reference Projects allows companies to search through historical projects to use them as a template for a new project. It is not a straight copy of the original project. The project plan timescales created are based on the actual timesheet data submitted rather than any initial plan. Like many other companies Unit4 has created functionality to support the anonymising of data across the application. What is slightly different, is that if a search is done for an individual it will highlight any open transactions for that person, such as open timesheets. This allows the user to complete them before the data is lost.
What does this mean
Unit4 now appears to have a clear strategy going forward. It has a defined focus and the customers, often loyal, are now more excited about what the future will hold. If the existing customers are happy, then it should be easier to persuade new ones to join the Unit4 family. There are challenges ahead though. Many customers are still on legacy versions, and many wait several years before upgrading. Unit4 is happy to offer a choice to customers on whether they head to the cloud, but with roughly 2500 customers using on-premises solutions (only 500 in the cloud) it is a challenge that they need to address better. Competitors, especially cloud based, will knock on the door of those customers and will sell their own cloud story. Unit4 is changing its internal processes to address this, but they may regret not being more aggressive with their cloud story than they have been to date.
Sieber and the leadership teams see the Services economy as a vehicle for success. Importantly, Sieber spoke about the: “need to be focused at what you do best and what sets you apart from the rest of the industry. It is an economy where relationships grow over time.” Though relationships are critical, as Unit4 moves to the cloud economy and a recurring revenue model itself it needs to tighten the loyalty of its customers and help them move into the XaaS economy. As Sieber said on stage: “The service economy is about a shift in shipping products to shipping outcomes.”
Ultimately it is about delivering value to customers, it is something that Unit4 is aware of, and is moving towards. If it continues on that journey it should continue to succeed.