While the final version probably won't ship until early 2012, IFS has identified a clear direction for what it believes the ERP system of the future needs to look like, IFS Labs director David Andersson said in an interview.
The software industry is changing as user expectations are altered by online experiences like Facebook, Twitter, and Skype that appeal to more than just "nerds and geeks" but allow ordinary users to feel in control of their computers, he said. "If we can't have a good answer to, 'Why can I do this in Facebook but not in IFS Applications,' we won't be in the game for long."
IFS isn't the only ERP vendor thinking along these lines. Recently, SAP added OpenSocial API support to its StreamWork collaborative decision-making software and Infor introduced a Sharepoint-based collaboration tool, Infor Workspace.
IFS does most of its business in Europe, but has some significant U.S. customers such as Nucor Steel and Ensign-Bickford Aerospace & Defense. The IFS Applications suite is offered in components built around a service-oriented architecture and appeals particularly to companies managing complex manufacturing processes, project-oriented engineering work, and asset-oriented businesses like operating nuclear power plants. The emphasis on engineering projects also means the collaboration requirements for the software are particularly intense.
Andersson leads a small group within IFS research and development in charge of creating new software concepts, and he said those he demonstrated Tuesday were the ones that got the warmest welcome from customers and are en route to production. The real challenge has been not just integrating social interaction but figuring out how to do it in a productive way and "not add things that make people more idle and less efficient in their workspace," he said.
The IFS Talk application his team came up with looks a lot like other enterprise social media products with a news stream of comments from other users in the middle of the page, but it's not a Web page. Instead, it's built into the IFS Applications client software. "The idea is to let people use this functionality while staying in the place where they do their work. To be logged in five hours out of eight in a typical workday is not an implausible case for an IFS user, so they can get the social interaction and don't have to leave their work screen," Andersson said. Most users who have tested the software wind up making IFS Talk the home screen they see when they first log on "because this is sort of where the action happens," he said.
As users move on to performing specific tasks, social interaction and unified communications capabilities follow along with them. For example, help screens throughout the system include wiki-like functionality where users can add their own notes. In the example Andersson showed, the help information was displayed as a user interface panel at the bottom of an order screen, with user-provided rules for how the company processes orders, rather than just how the software handles them.
Chuck Rathmann, a marketing communications analyst representing IFS in North America, said companies pursuing a lean manufacturing methodology are excited about using annotations like that to document processes and process changes so they can track which changes improve performance.
Through another tab of that same UI panel, users can post a comment or question related to what they are seeing on the screen. That might be a way to either get help with using the software from other users, or to ask a question about a specific transaction. If it's a general software question, the user might post it to the Open IFS user community. On the other hand, comments and questions specific to the company's implementation or private business matters can be posted to IFS Talk. Those posts can have a screen shot attached so other employees can see exactly what the person is commenting on.
Hovering the mouse pointer over a name displayed in an order or other record brings up a contact card for that person, functioning almost as "a mini-CRM system," Andersson said, with the ability to initiative a voice or video call or text chat session with that person. The unified communications capabilities are based on integration with Microsoft Lync.
Andresson said he has heard from some customers who have implemented other enterprise social media platforms and might want to have an integrated activity stream fed by IFS data. IFS plans to offer plug-ins to other systems. There will also be a mobile client, which Andersson expects could be particularly useful for functions such as sales, where employees might be more occasional users but still want to have access.
However, he believes the IFS Talk desktop user interface will make sense for those employees who spend the majority of their day managing projects, orders, or supply chain details in IFS Applications. "Our hope is that this will be so good that people would rather being using this in context of IFS," Andersson said.
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