How CTO Soma Somasundaram is defining the technology strategy of Infor
Somasundaram, I am told, is the first employee of Infor. He was working at Adage Systems International, a software company in Melbourne, Australia, leading a team to build an ERP product for the food & beverage and chemical industries. In 1995, that product got bought by Systems & Computer Technology (SCT) Corp., so he shifted base to Malvern, Pennsylvania. A couple of years later, SCT got acquired by Golden Gate Capital, as GGC was building what would become Infor. That’s how Somasundaram became the first employee of Infor.
He is deeply invested in the customer relationships of Infor as he spends more than 50% of his time working with customers, either at their locations or at Infor’s New York headquarters. This is critical to the company, as its single biggest differentiator is industry specialization and last-mile functionality.
Even at Inforum 2018, it’s tough to get the man’s attention; just too many customers are vying for it at the moment. I manage to secure a 20 minutes time slot for a quick interview with him to understand the technology strategy that is supporting Infor’s growth.
In an interview with ETCIO.COM, Soma Somasundaram, CTO at Infor reveals the broad contours of Infor’s technology strategy.
How is the business application software market changing and what are the key forces that are reshaping it right now?
The other major factor is the digital transformation. In order to have a business value- enhancing digital strategy, enterprises require a lot of API. It allows them to transform their business the way they want without systems being a limiting factor. This is driving a change in the enterprise application market.
The other major change is being driven by emerging technologies like AI and analytics. When you have an end user making decisions you want to arm them with information. This is creating a change in the direction of the enterprise application strategy of most companies.
To succeed in the today’s business application software environment, enterprises should not create a Frankenstein architecture. Organizations should think through their digital strategy and map it to their enterprise application landscape and align it well. Digital strategy should be connected back to the software footprint that can support it.
Most enterprise customers have a pretty specific idea of what Infor has been up until now. It is often viewed as the third ERP company behind SAP and Oracle. But in reality, Infor is moving ahead with an astute business strategy. It is betting big on micro verticalization. Another smart move has been the partnership with AWS to put Infor software on AWS. And now you are infusing AI, RPA, and HCM into your enterprise application portfolio to unlock the human potential. Talk to us about what the company is becoming. What's driving the transformation that Infor is going through and how is it changing?
We don’t believe that a single ERP can be a panacea for the problems of every industry. It has to be verticalized. And today that message is resonating well with our customers across the globe. We are all about delivering last mile industry functionality to industries so that customers don’t need to customize or hire a third party to do that. So micro- verticalization is at the core of Infor’s strategy.
And multi verticalization is a true ingredient to go to the cloud because if you don’t have that you cannot customize in the multi-cloud environment. We have a customer running in the cloud environment with zero modifications. And that’s because of the last mile strategy we have adopted.
Most of the emerging technologies today are cloud-based. A virtual assistant doesn’t work if you are not in the cloud.
With this in mind, we chose AWS as our cloud partner and developed a lot of our tooling on top of AWS tooling so customers see that as a value. Now the customers can go the cloud route without any customization and leverage all of the emerging technologies. That’s the best scenario for enterprise customers. But from a realistic standpoint, many customers are not willing to switch off everything from on-premise to go to the cloud in a single leap of faith.
Factoring this in the other differentiation we have created is the strategy to have a hybrid deployment with some applications on-premise and some on cloud and yet have Infor OS connect the two. That is resonating a lot with customers. I met a lot of customers during these two days and they all wanted a hybrid setup.
And last but not the least, we have put our architecture in a loosely coupled design philosophy which means that if you are upgrading any one of the components, the IT department goes through a lot of pain in trying to revisit reports, analytics and integrations. This is where our architecture saves them a lot of pain. It does not provide a shock to the existing systems. This approach is translating into value for customers.
More than 70 percent of our sales revenue is coming in the cloud. Clearly, customers are seeing a great value in our approach.
Let's talk about the competitive situation against three of the companies that come up most often in the discussion about business application software market. How are you approaching certain customer needs and challenges, how do you differ? How does your approach to solving these problems differ from SAP and Oracle?
We are trying to differentiate Infor by focusing on design. Infor wants to make business software beautiful. We have created Hook & Loop, an in-house design firm of 60 designers to streamline the look and feel of your products by making business software more elegant and intuitive.
All the companies in the enterprise applications and services market have an abundance of enterprise engineering talent. When you think about building enterprise systems there is a lot of backend sophistication that goes into it. But user experience is a different ballgame altogether and it is often ignored by legacy companies like SAP and Oracle.
However, the web revolution with consumers has moved very fast. We need to infuse that talent at Infor and keep them independent from the engineers.
These people are creative people they think like consumers. So we have entrusted them with building consumer-grade user experiences. Ideally, that’s how it should be. Outsourcing design interface to an agency outside the company doesn’t do justice. We need to have it in-house.
Product and technology innovation is at the heart of our business strategy. Nearly 16-17 percent of our revenue is spent on R & D. And we spend 90 percent of our R& D expense on innovation.
We are more agile than the legacy companies in this space.
We are trying to align operational applications with talent development. We are trying to change the way technology converges around people. Every employee should have the right tools to do his job efficiently. We are using our HCM suite to help customers realize their human potential.
AI is the new UI. It is going to be the new user interface for people. Last year Infor launched an enterprise software AI called Coleman to rethink ERP. What’s next on that front?
We are announcing the general availability (GA) of Infor Coleman Digital Assistant, which is designed to help maximize human work potential by enabling natural language extensibility and accessibility of Infor CloudSuite. From a user perspective, the Infor Coleman Digital Assistant can help make work more engaging and productive.
We are also introducing Infor Coleman AI Platform for embedded machine learning models, which will be delivered in the Spring of 2019.
The Infor Coleman Digital Assistant is the first in a series of new products rolled out under the Coleman AI umbrella and provides a conversational interface to the Infor OS platform, the underlying foundation of Infor CloudSuite.
As a digital assistant, Coleman uses a conversational UX and natural language processing – with deep domain and industry knowledge – to chat, hear, talk, and in the future, it is expected to analyze images to help people work more efficiently. The Infor Coleman Digital Assistant can help maximize human work potential by providing intelligent insights designed to help users make decisions. It can serve as a partner to help amplify one’s work and provide key information at critical decision points. The Digital Assistant can complete low-value, repetitive tasks to enable users to focus on more valuable work. It can offer a better user experience with more efficient interactions.
Let me explain that with a customer story. Grimco Canada, a leading wholesale sign supply manufacturer, and distributor with more than 50 locations across North America are one of the beta customers of the Infor Coleman Digital assistant. Grimco is using Coleman to take a look at inventory and find products more quickly, so it can make better decisions for its customers. Using Coleman Digital assistant they can quickly determine if they have a product in stock in Toronto, or if they have product ‘z’ in stock in Montreal, for example. They can pull out this information quickly and speed up their response times to customers.
The Infor Coleman Digital Assistant also is expected to be integrated with Amazon Alexa for Business – which provides tools to manage Alexa devices, enroll users, and configure skills with added security across those devices – by the end of 2018.
Are their specific markets where you feel Infor needs to move with greater speed?
There are a couple of things that we could do faster. One, entering into new micro-verticals like construction. Second, we want to gain more traction in emerging markets.
Infor is much broader than most people think. So we need to create awareness among enterprise customers that we have a broader suite and there is a different way to deliver this suite.
What are your growth plans for the India market?
India market is a very significant part of the APAC region which contributes to 15-16 % of our global revenues.
So its a big market for us. We are trying to build a better channel strategy for this market. We are at a stage where we are running the cloud suites in AWS data center in Singapore and delivering it to customers in India. The strategy is to ramp up the channels that are capable of implementing Infor solutions in the cloud in that market.
We have to increase our reach to tier 2-3 cities across India to reach the customers in different micro-verticals. We also want to get more India based companies versus a multinational VAS presence in India.
(The writer was in Washington DC at Infor’s invitation)