Infor taps East Coast creativity to reinvent enterprise software
Last year, the ERP vendor set up a New York-based design agency called Hook & Loop to reimagine user experience
Short of time?
The cultural divide between the ostensibly rational world of IT and the creative field of marketing is writ large on the map of the United States.
New York is the undisputed home of advertising, while 3,000 miles away, California's Silicon Valley is the birth place of the digital revolution.
The permeation of the Internet into every corner of modern life is forcing these divided cultures together, however.
Within businesses, IT and marketing are being forced to work together on complex digital campaigns. And in the industry, advertising companies find themselves in competition with IT giants.
According to Forrester Research analyst David Cooperstein, the proposed mega-merger of advertising titans Publicis and Omnicom is being driven at least in part by growing competition from the likes of IBM and Accenture.
"The ad agency world and the technology world are on a collision course," Cooperstein wrote last month.
When worlds collide
One of the best examples of this collision in action comes, surprisingly, from Infor.
The company is mainly known as a private equity-backed "collector" that since 2002 has acquired all manner of business software vendors, including BAAN, GEAC, SSA Global and Lawson.
In 2010, Infor appointed Charles Phillips, then co-president of Oracle, as its CEO. His mission was to pull the company's many acquisitions into a single platform, brand and vision.
Phillips says he took the opportunity to address enterprise software's biggest problem: its horrendous usability.
"One of the first things [Phillips and his leadership team] did was identify some things that we thought were major opportunities in enterprise applications," he says. "One of them was the consumerisation of IT.
"We're all big gadget guys who love using all these new consumer technologies, so we thought, 'how can we use this in our business?'"
Rather than simply hire some new front-end engineers, Phillips wanted to attract some creative minds that would never normally come anywhere near a CRM or ERP application.
"We quickly realised that we didn't want the traditional enterprise applications engineer – they just don't have the background, it's a different skill set, and different type of thinker," he says.
"You can make something look pretty but if it's got the wrong structure it'll still be hard to use"
"We wanted to get some people in who are great at design and who want to build consumer-type applications for the business," he says.
Phillips led the search for "left-brain creatives", artistic people who nevertheless had some interest and experience in working with computers and the web.
"It turns out New York is a great place for that," he says. "There are a lot of people into design and fashion, and a lot of these fashion houses now have technology tracks."
This led to some interesting hires. Among the “left-brain creatives” Phillips hired were the lead designer of US fashion label Kenneth Cole, a CGI artist who had worked on the Avengers film, and a Pulitzer prize-winning artist.
Phillips admits that many of them had no idea what enterprise software is, let alone Infor. But when he explained that the company has 70,000 customers and over 10 million users, "that got their attention pretty quickly", he says.
Rather than force these people into Infor's engineering ranks, Phillips decided to create the kind of working environment they are used to.
"To attract these people, you need an agency environment that allows them to work creatively and collaboratively," he says. "So we said let's build a separate company within a company."
The result is Hook & Loop, an internal design agency that today employs around 100 staff. Hook & Loop has ultimate responsibility for the user experience of all Infor’s software, and no new products can be released without its sign off.
Improving the user experience does not just mean making the user interface prettier, Phillips says. It means rethinking the way people use the software so that the experience is more intuitive and even enjoyable.
"You can make something look pretty but if it's got the wrong structure it'll still be hard to use," Phillips explains.
He therefore sent the Hook & Loop designers out to meet customers and understand their problems.
One customer, for example, is a running shoe manufacturer in the US whose sales reps carry paper catalogues to independent shoe shops to sell their latest lines.
The customer wanted to find a way to update the paper catalogues automatically, but Hook & Loop instead proposed an iPad app that pulls in not only product information but also local sales data from the ERP implementation.
This is an example, Phillips says, of experience-led design. The app Hook & Loop developed is now available to all customers.
If this all sounds too highfalutin for an enterprise software company, Phillips insists that none of would be possible if it were not for the common integration platform, ION, which Infor has built for all of its applications.
ION means the user interfaces are loosely coupled from the back-end ERP process, which means Hook & Loop can make whatever changes they like without break the app.
Has the strategy worked? Phillips says Infor, which is still privately-owned, saw double digit growth in bookings in its latest quarter.
"We did that while most of the industry was declining," he says. "I think the increase in our win rate has a lot to do the fact that our applications look modern and they are fun to use."
As Hook & Loop grows, Phillips sees new business models emerging. "I think the next step will be to take our e-commerce platform, and host it ourselves, but use Hook & Loop to give customers really eye-popping e-commerce sites," he says.
That would put Infor firmly in competition with the likes of Publicis, WPP and Omnicom. In fact, Phillips says, Publicis sent someone to Hook & Loop to scope out what Infor is doing. "We're a software company trying to into the design business, they're a design business who want to get into software."
He believes Infor has the advantage. "We're have a foot in both camps, we understand both worlds," he says. "Design agencies can make your e-commerce site but they don't understand the back-end process."