Globalization, Swedish Style

Globalization, Swedish Style

IFS World Conference brings the globe together to show off the latest frontier in Scandinavian design -- business software.

Whatever else you might call it, the flat earth is a fascinating place. Last night, for instance, I was sitting at a table at the IFS World Conference in Berlin, Germany, talking to an Iranian IT guy about the market for software among the lucrative Persian rug manufacturing sector in Iran. Very interesting conversation, in which I learned that IFS, a Swedish company, is apparently the only ERP company allowed to sell and implement its own software in Iran.

Even more interesting than the IT talk was the political discussion. (OK, I know you're all having a hard time believing that anything is more interesting than IT shop talk.) The common consensus of the international crowd around the table was that the grandstanding of politicians only accomplishes one thing -- it impedes business. The concept of "peace equals prosperity" is a general belief held by practical-minded people everywhere, Iran included. With more than 1,000 people from 39 nations around the world in attendance, that was just one of many interesting international interactions possible at this year's IFS World Conference.

Aurora -- The New Face of ERP?

As might be expected, Dan Matthews, CTO of IFS, was much in demand at his company's international gathering, so I was grateful to get a couple opportunities to talk to him. Dan's been a busy man for a while, actually, especially since about a year ago, when IFS CEO Alistair Sorbie tasked his team to deliver a user-friendly interface to become the "new face" of IFS Applications. With more than 7,000 screens to build and test, he's had a whirlwind year, and with the "Aurora" project set to drop onto desktops in '08, things aren't likely to settle down anytime soon.

IFS is working to erase a crucial "business software blind spot" with Aurora. According to Dan Matthews, "If there's one thing we in business applications are guilty of, it is believing that everything everyone does in their workday is captured into a database -- it's not." Therefore, Aurora's easy-to-use interface is the front end of an entirely new application infrastructure that is designed to give users the tools they need to embed the "soft" data of everyday business transactions into an accessible, categorizable and archivable space. It's all based on a new software design principle best described as "informational ergonomics."

I had spoken with Dan when they unveiled enterprise search some months back (see "Google Yourself"), and it turns out that search was just one of the initiatives originally destined for Aurora, but because it got developed and beta tested early, they released it early as a stand alone. It's part of IFS' "value without cost" service aesthetic, and Dan speaks proudly of this enterprise search tool as being "one small box to search, one giant leap in productivity."

Now, with the ability of Aurora to capture unstructured data from email, Word, PDFs and the like, IFS' enterprise search is now supercharged, and the demonstrations Dan arranged were impressive, both visually and performance-wise.

The user interface resembles a mashup of Microsoft Vista and the iPhone -- iVista, maybe? Regardless, if your new interface is reminiscent of the newest products from two of the biggest braintrusts in human/computer interface design, you're doing something right.

Some of Aurora's other architectural highlights include the aforementioned embedded enterprise application/data search and a range of new navigation technologies such as adaptable link pages, contextual "breadcrumb navigation, and a "recent screens" tab that allows for quick backtracking.

The interface also includes rich media-enabled notes (referred to as "sticky notes") that are editable and archivable, in-application document viewing for common file types such as PDF and MS Word, and the ability for users to integrate web content (such as hyperlinks, pictures etc.) into their work.

Aurora also features integration with Microsoft Virtual Earth, which provides the ability to easily geolocate and track invoices, deliveries etc. Basically an in-app map mashup tool, which should light up the eyes of tech-savvy logistics engineers, sales managers, or anyone else with a use for route planning/deliveries scheduling/personnel tracking etc.

One of the biggest highlights for me personally, and what I've been talking about for a while now (see "Manufacturing 2.0" and "Second Life: What Is It? (And Why Should Manufacturers Care?)") was the realization that IFS has thought about, and prepared a next-generation tool to meet, the needs of its business customers 10 years (or less) from now. Aurora provides precisely the kind of rich media experience that the knowledge workers of the rapidly approaching future will demand. Interactive and customizable, and still secure (IFS "guarantees" that the data will not be available to those without the permission to view it), tools like Aurora signal the new face of ERP.

After all, as Matthews points out, "Professional users of IT should have at least as well-designed tools as consumers."

The rollout of Aurora to IFS customers, new and old, will start in March 2008, with wider availability later in the year.

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Well-positioned for Growth

IFS North American president Cindy Jaudon is excited to be at the helm of a growing division of a progressive Scandinavian company, well-positioned to make some major global moves with some new products, a sharp CTO and a CEO, Alistair Sorbie, who has shifted the company into a profitable "third phase" of growth.

Perhaps taking a cue from its customers, Jaudon says that under Sorbie, IFS has changed its style. "We've gone from a 'push approach' to a 'customer pull approach' to software product development," Jaudon says, noting that by changing their emphasis toward customer responsiveness, IFS is becoming more agile and responsive to changing market needs -- much like a lean manufacturer.

Cindy Jaudon also feels that the company is at a good point, balance-wise, saying that IFS is "big enough to make things happen, and yet small enough to make things happen quickly."

IFS Applications V. 7.5

Lest it be overlooked in the aura of Aurora, IFS also released version 7.5, the latest iteration of IFS Applications ERP suite. The new release includes tools for multinational companies that need to capitalize on opportunities available in a constantly changing business environment. It uses a unicode base that easily adapts to all regulatory and language requirements for key markets (read: ASCII code doesn't support Chinese characters), rather than multiple country-specific code bases which require separate support and upgrades.

According to company sources, IFS Applications 7.5 has several new features:

  • Enhanced tax handling, reporting and inventory management
  • Components to support contract management, from estimate to execution, including financial control and planning
  • Global supply chain and mixed-mode operations to keep track of key performance indicators (like delivery times) and danger and risk factors across multiple locations, to keep a handle on multi-site production.

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