SSA Outlines Product Convergence, Branding Strategy
by Alex Woodie
At its annual user conference last week, SSA Global executives addressed the biggest question facing the rapidly growing company: what is SSA's product strategy? The company presented a new branding initiative and the broad outlines of a plan to gradually consolidate its ERP suites into two core lines--one for OS/400, and one for Unix--while simultaneously grouping and renaming its products according to function, such as SSA Manufacturing and SSA Financials.
This isn't the first time that SSA Global (the company also changed its name from SSA Global Technologies last week) has talked about its plan to combine its various ERP suites. One year ago, the company told Guild Companies about its plan to combine BPCS and PRMS into a single ERP suite, using a common Java-based middleware layer. Since that time, however, SSA has acquired several more software vendors, including Baan, Infinium, Ironside, Elevon, and EXE Technologies (expected to close in early November), and the issue of how the company plans to move forward with a cohesive and compelling collection of applications has never been more important.
"As many of you have discussed with me over the last three to six months, as we've traveled around the world [meeting with customers], you want to know what our products strategy is," said Michael Greenough, SSA Global president, chairman, and chief executive officer, during a conference call with reporters and analysts at the company's Annual Global Client Forum in Orlando, Florida, last week. "Without a clearly defined product strategy, there is really no business strategy."
For people to have confidence in SSA Global's products, Greenough said, it first needs to gather all of its applications into a single, cohesive brand that people can relate to, like Pepsi or General Motors. "We want to give the confidence that people enjoy when they walk into a McDonald's in Greece or in Latin America and drink a Pepsi Cola. They feel the same confidence in the brand," he said. "When you go to General Motors, you've got a Chevrolet, a Grand Am, or whatever, but you know you're dealing with GM. We need to have that same confidence."
McDonald's Sells Coke
Greenough then yielded the mike to Corey Eaves, the company's vice president of solutions management and research, who came over in the Infinium acquisition. Eaves provided further details into the technology that will drive the company's two core development efforts--extension products and convergence--over the next two to four years. The company's e-business extension strategy involves developing pre-built interfaces that connect its customers' ERP packages and the non-ERP "extension" products, such as CRM or business intelligence, which SSA Global previously partnered for but more recently is acquiring outright.
As SSA Global's slide on its integration infrastructure shows, the company is developing its own e-business software stack.
In terms of what's new, the key elements of this stack are the middleware integration layer and the user interface. It all follows quite logically: "We build one interface, we tie the extension products back into the interfaces, and this, in turn, integrates back into the various back-end systems," Eaves said.
The new GUI, called SSA Portal Series, is not in widespread use yet (it's currently being beta tested by companies in Europe and Australia), but the company plans for it to become the standard interface to access SSA Global products. The SSA Enterprise Integrator, on the other hand, will link the company's back-end products, such as BPCS and Infinium, to the extension products. Both products are based in Java and IBM's WebSphere middleware. The company plans to support Microsoft's .NET technology secondarily.
While the company's long-term effort to consolidate applications is already under way (and paying dividends, the company says), customers will not be faced with big-bang rewrites or wholesale changes to their beloved applications overnight, Eaves said. "We're not going to go into the backroom and work for three years and release a new product, like some other companies in the industry," he said. "What we're doing is merging products together over time. We're taking products that are technologically or functionally similar and bringing those products together."
As the slide outlining SSA Global's ERP consolidation roadmap shows, the long-term company plan is to whittle its various ERP suites into two main camps, which will be called SSA iSeries and SSA Unix.
Joining the SSA Global iSeries camp will be ERP suites such as BPCS, PRMS, Infinium, and KBM (acquired with PRMS), while the SSA Unix camp will include Baan and two less popular ERP suites that SSA acquired from Computer Associates, along with PRMS, MANMAN (which today runs on HP3000 and VAX), and MK. The Baan-based SSA Unix offerings will be primarily geared toward discrete manufacturers, while the SSA iSeries offerings will be targeted toward process and mixed-mode manufacturers.
A full accounting of the future of all SSA Global products was not provided, and SSA Global did not go into great detail concerning its new ERP suites. It did not say whether SSA iSeries and SSA Unix will be largely based on current offerings (although SSA Unix will almost undoubtedly be based on the established and widely used Baan products). For BPCS, PRMS, and Infinium shops, the big questions remain: how different will the new SSA iSeries ERP product be from what I currently use, and how much will it hurt to get there? SSA Global is providing assurances that the march toward unified ERP suites will occur gradually over the next four years, with each new release of the software sharing more common code.
In fact, SSA Global may never get down to two ERP suites, Eaves said, and maybe it doesn't really matter. "We won't go from many products to one," he said. "Eventually, maybe we'll get there. But our goal at this point is to go from the products we have to two main product streams, one around the iSeries platform, process type manufacturing, and then one around the open systems Unix platform."
Besides SSA iSeries and SSA Unix, the company will be offering a third core product, based on its Masterpiece product, called SSA Financials, which it plans to release in the middle of 2004. SSA Global has been very impressed Masterpiece, which it acquired from Computer Associates 18 months ago, saying it will go head to head with any tier-1 financials application. Masterpiece runs on all major platforms, including OS/400, Windows, Unix, Linux, and mainframe servers.
SSA Global wants BPCS and PRMS customers to move to SSA Financials, although it says it won't force BPCS and PRMS to migrate to the Masterpiece code. The company indicated that it will continue to support the BPCS and PRMS financials components, but it appears unlikely that it will continue to develop those products.
You probably have noticed that there is not something called SSA Windows. According to SSA Global, the company gets about 25 percent of its sales for software on the Windows platform, so it is not walking away from this business. The Baan, BPCS, MAX, and MK suites run on Windows, and will continue to. There are versions of the renamed SSA iSeries and SSA Unix ERP packages that run on Windows, and SSA Global intends to sell and support these. Why the company did not explain this is a mystery, but having Windows versions of programs with an iSeries or a Unix moniker certainly does confuse the application consolidation and installed base issues that a conglomerate like SSA Global is facing.
The Obsolescence Card
SSA Global has always said that it will not stop supporting any product it acquires, except for products such as MANMAN, which runs on the HP3000 minicomputer that Hewlett-Packard is dropping support for. What is becoming increasingly evident, however, is that, while the company is not planning to drop support for any product, it's not planning to continue improving and upgrading all of its products, either.
SSA Global officials say they're not abandoning their customers and that they're working in their best interest. "It's not a forced march," Eaves said. "We believe that the upgrade, the path forward, is a choice of the customer. If they want to stay where they are, that's okay. But we believe the path forward will be compelling, and they will really want to take that upgrade path."
For customers who do choose new functionality, SSA Global will provide a range of tools to help them upgrade or--as the case may be--migrate, to the chosen product. "We recognize that migration tools will need to be a major investment for us," Eaves said. "We're putting forward migration tools that will automate moving historical data and also address customizations and extensions." The company's Dynamic Enterprise Modeler and Workflow products will also be useful in migration projects.
What's Good for GM
SSA Global is banking on economies of scale to make its strategy work. Instead of supporting 10 different ERP systems, each with its own sales, development, and support teams, the company plans to go forward with two core sets of teams, which lowers administrative costs. The key is convincing its customers that these economies of scale will directly benefit them, too, by delivering the things they want--like stability, good support, and new functionality--and not just boost SSA Global's bottom line by cutting costs.
In some ways, the product convergence strategy is already paying off. For example, the same electronic signature capability that SSA Global delivered with a recent release of BPCS will be delivered in a future release of PRMS, with less than half of the work it took to develop it for BPCS, Eaves said. That's the sort of news that customers want to hear, and how SSA Global's growth strategy can actually work to the advantage of its customers.
SSA Global's economy of scale will continue to grow stronger as it acquire new companies and build its empire to the magic numbers of 20,000 customers and $1 billion in revenue, but so will the technology and administrative challenges. For SSA Global customers who are currently considering CRM, advanced planning, or warehouse management (EXE Technologies' specialty) products, SSA Global's plan to offer an integrated stack of e-business applications might be great news. For OS/400 shops happy with what they already have, the word "migration" might not be what they want to hear right now.
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