The Social Business Network

Will social business do for manufacturing what Facebook did for consumers?
Will social business do for manufacturing what Facebook did for consumers?

Business IT is harnessing social media-type technology to problem solve more quickly and less expensively than the incumbent email trail. Will Stirling finds out more.

“I’m telling my finance director to look at this!” Frans Beerkens shouted into the packed conference hall. “It could save me thousands of pounds in reducing email traffic alone.”

Mr Beerkens, from Fetim Group in the Netherlands, was attending Infor’s UK customer shindig in London as part of the software company’s annual roadshow.

Infor CEO Charles Phillips had just explained the principal of its new approach to optimising its products by harnessing social media in enterprise applications. The working title is ‘social business’.

Imagine that a problem is raised, such as a purchase order query. The old paradigm is to send the document to a colleague, who forwards it to another colleague, kick-starting an email trail that may finish 10-people deep, with all the risks of version control, before a resolution is found. The new paradigm, Mr Phillips contends, is to let social business simplify this process to a quasi-Tweet, sent to a preselected group. One document, one controlled notification, no email trail or duplication.

“We are all living in a social platform, we use Twitter, Facebook and email freely. Enterprise applications are not designed to do that,” says Andrew Kinder, director of product and industry marketing at Infor. But this changing.

Charles Phillips of Infor

Charles Phillips, CEO Infor: enterprise applications need to be social and mobile

Infor’s applications are now being fused with a social business platform, to connect people, machines, data and applications into a collaborative framework.”

There are several benefits of embracing social media in business, says Mr Kinder.

“You can discover your colleagues, without necessarily knowing who they are; you can ask for help, share information, create virtual teams who can quickly solve a problem and dissipate those teams just as quickly.” No meetings, no fuss, all in the virtual world.

Another driver for social business (SB) is to enable a salesperson to see a customer’s view of the order and progress it from their perspective. The technology, apparently, allows you to assume the point of view of customers, staff and suppliers. In the same way perhaps that Facebook is an open book into other users’ lives, SB can let you peer into the individual, the document or the problem.

Social business vs email

But hang on, rewind a bit. Do we really need more electronic noise? Can’t much of this heightened plane of communication be achieved through an intranet?

While the intranet is an internal communications tool, Andrew Kinder says, SB is both internal and external. “The intranet is people connecting one a one to many basis. This is people connecting in a many-to-many basis, groups collaborating. More fund its data being formed automatically.”

What is the difference between notification by Tweet and email?

Some commentators think not a lot – CNC controllers have been able to notify users by email when certain settings are activated for years. But Andrew Kinder says the difference is profound.

“Email is not connected to the application. This is not a media platform set up in the application, this is the application with a media platform built into it,” he says. “Business conversations are now about information that come from within the business application.”

He provides a blow-by-blow example:

“I’m on purchase order 123: right mouse click, I Share the PO into the Newsfeed. It says I’ve got a problem with PO 123. There is an ‘object link’ into that application. If John is part of the inventory team, you see that in your dashboard, just like you’d see it on a Facebook wall, and it carries the links to the PO. You will see the same thing that I saw, the original document pulled out of the server.”

A new paradigm?

How new is all this? Infor claims to have stolen a bit of a march on other vendors. But Chatter, the social media platform used by ubiquitous CRM system Salesforce.com, has been established for a while.

Mr Kinder says it’s not the same thing.

“Some may say there is a lot of similarity between Chatter and this product but the difference would be the Chatter world is supporting the sales world, which is a small percentage of the enterprise world.”

Infor’s social business will, like an extension of ERP, reflect the whole enterprise – finance, production, quality, logistics, HR. “The idea is that our customers would automatically build networks from the top, with the opportunity for a supplier to provide a newsfeed.”

And, similar to clicking ‘Like’ on Facebook, social business could c carry out trend analysis to assess what participants in the network think of each other’s performance. It’s not a core feature but it could certainly be used to track KPIs, such as satisfaction with on-time delivery and quality, says Kinder.

“This is a business conversation designed to help problem-solve, we’re not about chit-chat,” comments Kinder. “But any emergent commentary gives rise to the opportunity to build structured data that can be analysed to reveal community trends and provide feedback.

One of the other pillars of the conference was Infor’s new interface. It has recently been through a rebrand, and the company claims its products stand out on their super-simple and intuitive interfaces.

Downside

Software companies dine out on their solutions being ‘game changing new paradigms’. But, despite Mr Beerkens’ zeal, is social business one of them?

One seasoned IT expert said that he liked the approach, especially that you can subscribe to groups connected to specific parts of the business, or even plant, which is unique. “In a way it undermines a lot of business intelligence, because you can subscribe to it or parts of it.”

But, while Twitter et al took off like Mark Zuckerberg’s bank account, it could take years for this to take off in the same way. “Manufacturers are a fairly conservative lot,” says my mole. “The fundamental difference, of notifications going out to a group or community, is not going to make a huge difference in your average engineering company in the West Midlands.”

What is interesting is that neither SAP nor Microsoft Dynamics, the two other big ERP players, are doing this. Infor seems to have stolen that march and there was a tangible buzz of interest from customers at the conference (October 24) – one delegate said he was off there and then to discuss test and trial with his account manager.

The acid test will be if ERP vendors with a bigger market share go down the same route.

For now, look out for Tweets and LinkedIn requests coming from a bill of materials or CNC controller near you.

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