Many CIOs will sympathise with Infor’s predicament. In the past decade, it has acquired a huge number of business applications vendors, typically specialising in the mid-market and manufacturing sectors, the idea being to integrate them into a contiguous suite of cross-sellable products.
Critical to this strategy was the company’s ability to integrate a diverse set of legacy applications, but this was no simple task. One approach was to bake service-oriented architecture (SOA) infrastructure into every application for free, but this was later dropped as too ambitious.
In 2010, Infor struck on a new approach, named ION, in which data is exchanged between applications as XML documents. Any time data in one of Infor’s applications is changed, it creates a new XML document. These documents are stored in what the company calls its ‘Business Vault’, a database of XML documents, from where they can be pushed out to all other applications.
According to Charles Philips, who joined Infor as CEO that year after a long stint as co-president at Oracle, nailing integration has allowed the company to innovate – a word that Infor has not been associated with in the past.
For example, ION is the basis for Infor’s self-built social collaboration products, Social Spaces and Pulse, which allow employees to track colleagues, projects and business events such as invoices and purchase orders with Twitter- and Facebook-like interfaces.
It also underpins the company’s cloud strategy – to support hybrid cloud environments comprising a mix of hosted and on-premise applications – by enabling simple integration regardless of hosting platform, he says.
When Philips left Oracle, the software and systems giant was still mid-way through its gargantuan Fusion project to rebuild its applications in order to incorporate its middleware platform. ION, by contrast, took around three years’ work and could have taken less time had the project received more support before he arrived, Philips says.
“Building a tightly coupled middleware integration strategy [like Fusion] is hard, and it doesn’t scale,” he explains. “The middleware has to know everything about every application. So when I saw [ION], I thought: this is a simple, pragmatic solution to something I’d been struggling with for years.”
Besides technical integration, unlocking innovation at Infor also required some organisational restructuring, Philips says. “Software development resources, for example, used to be divided along product lines. We decided that the things that are common across development groups, such as localisation or reporting, should be done by one group, which we could use as a shared service,” he says. “Bringing in 600 net new engineers, who weren’t wedded to the silos, helped us to do that.”
So, does this mean Infor is finally becoming more than the sum of its many parts? Philips points to the company’s financial performance. Organic revenue growth was 11% in the last financial year (total revenues rose 40% to $2.8 billion, but that includes the acquisition of Lawson), and Infor added 3,700 new customers. “We were getting hardly any new customers before we got here,” he says.
“We’ve released 120 new products in the past 12 months,” he adds. “We probably only released about 40 new products in the four years before that.”
Nevertheless, Philips says Infor still runs up against the perception that it is simply a collector – a company that acquires software businesses simply to farm the support fees. “We still meet a lot of people who remember the Infor of three years ago.”
Changing this perception is Philips’s key challenge. Customers will only maintain investment in the applications it has acquired if they believe they have a future, and this demands innovation.
Despite the fact that Infor is built from a pile of legacy software vendors, Philips insists that it can join the ranks of disruptive, innovative enterprise IT suppliers snapping at the heels of SAP and Oracle.
“We think of ourselves as one of the disruptors, because we don’t have anything to lose,” he says. “It’s in our interest for everything to change – the more things change, the more things open up for us.”