IFS: Gain a competitive edge in an age of disruption – Dan Matthews

With the workforce demographic increasingly shifting towards the millennial worker, digital natives are set to become a key part of the business world. But will the clunky, often outdated or unintuitive back-end business systems of the present really allow them to flourish and companies to feel the true benefit of their employees? Dan Matthews, chief technology officer at IFS, explains how embracing disruptive technology will be key for businesses in the digital age.

Looking at consumer technology, we can see that society is hungry for change at a much faster rate than it was 50 or even 15 years ago. Trends, fads and crazes are overtaking and succeeding each other at an increasing rate, simultaneously introducing efficiency, innovations and complexities into people's lives. This not only concerns individuals but also applies to the world of business.

Today's business leaders are faced with myriad choices when it comes to technological innovations, but in the face of this glut of options, which innovations should be harnessed and how do you translate disruption into a business advantage? In the world of business software, trends like the internet of things and big data are widely recognised as industry-disruptive. In the same way, evolving trends in how information is consumed - such as smartwatches and smartglasses - are proving to be a promising source of business disruption.

Perhaps one important key is realising that it is not the technologies themselves that are disruptive but rather their application. The considered and effective deployment of new technology may lead to operational efficiencies that make a company twice as profitable compared with the competition. Conversely, a rushed approach to technology may impact the business negatively.

One thing is clear: with a new generation of tech-savvy workers beginning to take their place in the world of business, the capacity to effectively harness disruptive innovations has never been more important. And never before has the ability to understand and align the company's needs and decision-making with its tools, employees and customers been of such material significance for the bottom line.

Embracing disruption

According to the old saying, when it comes to change, people can ignore it, hide from it or get out of its way. Indeed, history is filled with cautionary tales of monolithic companies that came undone for acting on disruptive change too weakly, too late or not at all. For example, could Kodak have countered the onslaught of the digital camera? Could Myspace have anticipated the rise of Facebook?

Part of the answer is to see disruption for what it really is: the flipside of innovation. Disregarding those who are just unwilling to change, whose corporate culture is profoundly adverse to new ideas, there are many companies that are willing to evolve but do not have the necessary tools. Some companies are 'trapped' in Frankenstein's Monster-like business systems - disjointed applications bolted together over the course of decades - for whom an upgrade would mean a bottom-up remake.

So for business leaders, embracing change is as challenging as it is necessary. Which technologies will likely yield the greatest effect? To what extent should they be implemented and at what rate? Regardless of how a company chooses to answer these questions, one fact remains: when embracing innovation, you must know how to manage complexity.

Complexity is a gold mine

It should be noted that complexity in business is not only the result of technical innovation but also an inevitable outcome of globalisation. To ensure profitability, companies must efficiently navigate multinational supply chains, and varying local and international legislation, all the while keeping track of fluctuating raw material prices, multiple currencies and time zones.

It would seem that business leaders have enough to worry about without introducing additional complexities in the form of technology but, however unintuitive it may sound, complexity is a gold mine waiting to be exploited. The key is realising that complexity does not need to be complicated.

For example, the related concepts of the internet of things and big data, where the former gives rise to the latter, are prime examples of where many companies can create a competitive edge. Today, vast amounts of data are being captured by everyone from manufacturing companies to public transportation providers. However, to gain a competitive edge, a company needs efficient tools to mine, analyse and, most crucially, act on the information captured.

In the case of the manufacturing company, big data can help enhance products and services using data captured by product-embedded sensors to offer after-sales services such as preventive maintenance. For the public transportation provider, the business case might not be as obvious.

Working with Sporveien, the public transport operator of Oslo, Norway, global enterprise applications company IFS has helped come up with an innovative way of maximising the number of subway trains that are running while minimising the risk of vehicle failure.

In a nutshell, the existing sensors and data bus on the subway trains have been connected to the internet so that each time the train passes by a station - and for a moment connects to the station's Wi-Fi - data on all vital aspects of the train, such as how the compressors are performing, the state of the brakes, how many times the doors open and so on, is uploaded to the cloud.

This data is then processed in real time, looking for patterns that indicate impending failure or maintenance needs. When such a pattern is detected, information such as fault reports and maintenance requirements are forwarded to IFS Applications, the company's extended ERP suite. Once in the IFS solution, Sporveien can perform preventative maintenance, fixing the problems before they occur, and also plan maintenance more effectively.

So making sense of and capitalising on complexities requires the right tools. In the world of business, there is a growing demand for solutions that help map, monitor and visualise data through role-based overviews that can push important changes to mobile devices such as smartphones, tablets, smartglasses or smartwatches. In short, solutions that cut through the clutter to make the right data available at the right time.

It seems, then, that complexity does not need to be complicated. In fact, business complexity can be a gold mine if data is readily available to those who need it - and, here, the key is usability.

Usability is the new black

In the world of consumer technology, usability has long been a central consideration. It is not enough for a web service or a handheld device to simply help the user achieve a task like curating social media posts or sending a text message. The process of performing those tasks must also be simple and the interface must be attractive. In short, people gravitate towards the intuitive, the elegant and the fun.

Strangely, this usability-oriented mentality is not at all as widespread in the world of business software. In fact, research shows that less than a third of companies find their enterprise applications intuitive or easy to use, while a resounding 44% believe their enterprise applications have a negative impact on business agility. This indicates that things like unintuitive user interfaces, poor integration, difficult navigation and insufficient search functionality can actually hamper business productivity and profitability.

On the other hand, this seemingly gloomy figure also shows that there is a real opportunity for companies to boost productivity simply by overhauling the business system. The latest developments in areas such as configurable interfaces, data visualisation and wearable technology, which are fairly minor technological innovations when considered in isolation, can have an enormous business impact if applied effectively.

Besides productivity and market competitiveness, there is another reason for companies to place usability high on the corporate agenda - positioning themselves as attractive employers. When entering the workplace, the millennial generation will have very little patience with unattractive user interfaces and cumbersome work processes.

Business software and the millennial

First of all, who are these millennials we keep hearing so much about? Most sources will tell you that the millennial generation is the group born between the early 1980s and 2000. The millennials are often characterised as being hardworking, tech-savvy, goal-oriented, flexible and thriving on change. They want a meaningful job where they can make a difference, they value work-life balance over cut-throat careerism, and they engage with managers and employers to revive and energise the workplace in ways that would have been unimaginable for previous generations.

For employers, it is worth remembering that the millennial generation is the first to have grown up with computers and the internet as natural parts of life. Through Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat, millennials have been raised in a digital age with technology entwined with every part of their lives.

For a group that is used to consuming information through attractive, highly configurable and personalised feeds, the first encounter with the employer's back-end business system may not be entirely positive.

In terms of functionality, companies can expect growing demand among employees to design their own portals that show only the business information relevant to their needs. The business system will also be tasked with actively alerting the user when a change happens in an item or process that relates to the employee's work. Not only that but these alerts will be expected to reach the user on their screen of choice - be it a smartphone, tablet or smartwatch. In addition, acting on the alert fed through the business system, the millennial worker will not be content with typing, clicking or tapping to navigate the system - they want to be able to speak to the application, Siri-style.

Even though ERP user interfaces have evolved over time, they still require text-based input through a keyboard or a mobile device. However, the latest developments in mobile and voice control technology are ushering in new ways of interacting with the ERP system.

IFS is constantly investigating new ways of increasing productivity. Having looked closely at Apple's Siri and Microsoft's Cortana, IFS Labs, the company's in-house think tank, has developed the concept application Intelligent Personal Assistant (IPA) for people who want to use their smartphones or tablets to search for and update data in IFS Applications using only their voice.

There are a number of situations where users can benefit from voice control. For example, some occupations demand the use of both hands or that protective gloves are worn; another scenario might involve a user stuck in traffic who needs both hands on the wheel.

And then there are those who simply like searching for information using voice control. Business software must anticipate and adapt to the expectations and demands of the modern user. People used to consuming information through the highly personalised feeds of LinkedIn and Twitter will expect their work environment to be organised in a similar way.

One way for businesses to enable personalisation of business data is through customisable, role-based portals. IFS Lobby, which was released in IFS Applications 9, offers a clear and tailored view of the business or situation as it relates to a role or process, providing fully customisable and actionable information relevant to each unique user.

Capitalise on change

In short, millennials will expect, or even demand, the same level of usability in their work tools as in the applications they use to organise their private lives.

It is easy for business leaders to dismiss usability and user interface as something secondary to concrete functionality - as cosmetics applied to an underlying structure where the real work is done - but this is a mistake that can have a material impact on the business. By providing an intuitive and attractive ERP user interface, employers are equipping their workforces - millennials, Generation Xers and baby boomers alike - with an essential tool that enhances productivity, increases user satisfaction and, in the long run, bolsters employee retention.

Seeing that the millennial generation outnumbers Generation X and the baby boomers, failure to prepare the workplace for the 'business millennial' will come at a cost. Companies that are willing to adapt their IT environment, however, will gain a significant advantage over the competition.

For business leaders, these are exciting times. For companies with the right mindset and infrastructure, emerging technologies like the internet of things, drones, wearables, 3D printing, gamification and augmented reality hold unlimited potential for streamlining, energising and adding value to their operations.

The challenge will not only be adapting and applying these technologies to the individual company's business model - for companies that are genuinely looking to get a head start, the real challenge is to instigate change, to actively seek out the technologies that will give them a competitive edge. With a huge pool of creative and innovation-oriented workers entering the workplace, the conditions for success have never been better.

The business millennial will expect the same functionality at work as they have in their personal lives.
The proliferation of smart devices and the emergence of digital natives means companies need to align their decision-making with the tools they use – and the expectations and skills of their current and future workforce.