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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Plex's Growth Strategy: Glass Half Full

Those interested in cloud ERP know that Plex was the first provider to offer a cloud-only manufacturing system. Yet Plex has had nowhere near the growth of other cloud enterprise system providers, such as NetSuite. SAP receives a lot of criticism for only having sold 1,000 or so customers its Business ByDesign system--but ByD has only been in general distribution for three or four years. Yet Plex, which launched its cloud offering over 10 years ago, has fewer than 500 customers.What's wrong with this picture?

Last year, encouraged by Plex's new private equity owners, CEO Jason Blessing and his management team formulated a growth strategy, which they presented at the Plex user conference. Afterwards, I outlined what I thought Plex needed to do to execute on it.

Following up now half a year later, Jason circled back to give me another briefing, and it was a good opportunity also to see what progress Plex was making. Here is my take: 
  1. Management changes are part of the growth plan. Plex this week announced the appointment of Don Clarke as its new CFO. He appears to be a great candidate for the job. He comes most recently from Eloqua, a leading marketing cloud vendor, where he oversaw Eloqua's growth to nearly $100M in annual revenue, its initial public offering, and its eventual sale to Oracle last year, which put Clarke out of a job.

    I joked with Jason that Oracle's acquisition strategy has been serving Plex well in terms of recruiting, as several of Plex's top management team have come from companies that Oracle acquired: Heidi Melin, Plex's CMO, also came from Eloqua, Karl Ederle, VP of Product Management spent time at Taleo, which Oracle acquired in April 2012, and Jason himself came from Taleo.

    If Plex's growth strategy is successful, there is likely to be an IPO in Plex's future. Clarke's experience in taking Eloqua public will serve Plex well.
     
  2. Plex added 59 new customers in 2013, bringing its customer count to "nearly 400." As mentioned earlier, in my view, the total customer count is well below where it should for a decade-old cloud provider. Jason compares it favorably with the 500 or so customer count for Workday, overlooking the fact that Workday launched in late 2006 and that its typical customer is several times larger than Plex's.

    Still, Plex's growth in 2013 represents a 15% increase in its customer base and signals that its growth strategy is beginning to take hold.

    The new customer count includes some accounts that are larger than Plex has sold to in the past, such as Caterpillar, which is running Plex in a two-tier model for some smaller plants. In my previous post, I outlined some of the functionality improvements that Plex would need to make to better serve these large customers, and there are signs that these enhancements are underway.
     
  3. Plex doubled its sales force last year. This, no doubt, is behind the uptick in new customer sales. The new sales headcount is serving primarily to expand the geographic coverage outside of Plex's traditional Great Lakes concentration to the South and also to the West Coast. (As part of the expansion, Plex opened a Southern California sales office, which happens to be a short walk from my office near the John Wayne Airport.) There are also increased sales to organizations outside North America, another hopeful sign.
     
  4. Plex's industry focus remains in three industry sectors: motor vehicles, food and beverage, and aerospace and defense. In my view, this is probably the greatest constraint to Plex's growth strategy. Short-term, having more feet on the street and expanding geographically are low-hanging fruit. But at some point, there will be diminishing returns. Manufacturing contains dozens of sub-sectors, many of which are adjacent to Plex's existing markets. It is not a big jump to build out support and sell into these sub-sectors. We discussed a couple of these, and hopefully, Plex's product management team will have the bandwidth to address them.
     
  5. Plex's platform remains a weak spot. Most cloud systems today provide a platform for customer enhancements and development of complementary functionality. For example, Salesforce.com offers Salesforce1, a mature platform-as-a-service (PaaS) capability that has spawned an entire ecosystem of partners. NetSuite, likewise, has its SuiteCloud platform.  Although Plex has the beginnings of such a platform, it is still limited to use by Plex's own development team and a few carefully-vetted partners. Jason knows this is a need, and hopefully we will see more progress in this area. 
There is a lot to admire about Plex. Of the few cloud-only ERP providers that are addressing the manufacturing sector, Plex has the most complete footprint of functionality, rivaling mature on-premise manufacturing systems. In addition, customer satisfaction is readily apparent when I speak to installed customers, both new and old. Hopefully, Plex will build on these strengths and see growth accelerate.

There is a Plex 2013 year-end recap available on the Plex website.

Update: And right on cue, Dennis Howlett has done an on-camera interview with Jason Blessing about Plex's 2014 strategy. He also comments on Plex's approach to SaaS pricing. 

Related Posts

Plex Software and Its Mandate for Growth
The Simplicity and Agility of Zero-Upgrades in Cloud ERP
Plex Online: Pure SaaS for Manufacturing

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by Frank Scavo, 1/28/2014 02:56:00 PM | permalink | e-mail this!


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Friday, January 24, 2014

Workday Making Life Easier for Enterprise Users

Even if you don't follow developments in HR technology, you should pay attention to what Workday is doing, for two reasons. First, Workday is no longer just an HR systems provider, having expanded its footprint into financial systems, operational support for service delivery, and business intelligence. Second, as a SaaS-only provider, Workday has been, in my opinion, a leader in best practices in deploying cloud enterprise systems.

In December, the company released Workday 21. In addition to the 246 new features included in this version, it also features a major update to its user interface, which Workday starting rolling out earlier this month. 

Enterprise User Experience Overdue for Refresh

The look and feel of enterprise software has not changed much since the days of client server, when graphical user interfaces took over from the old green screen mainframe-like experience. Workers use desktop computers to access a main menu, which displays a series of icons or links that point to various subsystems. Data entry screens cram as much information as possible so that users do not have to click through to multiple panels to complete a transaction. Because of the density of information, enterprise software came with extensive user manuals, online help, and training classes.

When vendors abandoned the client-server architecture for browser-based thin clients, they did not generally change this paradigm. They just changed the back-end. They did not significantly alter the fundamental user experience.

Now vendors face a serious problem when users demand mobile access. These user interfaces do not translate at all to a smart phone or tablet display. Mobile access, if provided at all, is a completely different user interface than that on the desktop. In fact, some vendors sell mobile access as an additional product, separate from the vendor's traditional desktop access.

Raising the Bar

Workday has always paid a lot of attention to its user interface. In fact, Workday has gone through something like five major updates in its UI: from HTML/AJAX to Adobe Flex, then adding native IOS and Android, and now to HTML5.

But apart from the technology change, Workday's new interface illustrates several best practices, some of which it derived from consumer Internet services, such as Google and Facebook.These are my take-ways:
  1. One interface for all platforms. The familiar "Workday Wheel" is now gone. Why? Because it did not translate well to smartphone or tablet access. The new homepage is a grid of icons that resize and scale according to the size of the screen.
     
  2. Easy movement between platforms. Most of us get interrupted in the middle of our work. The new UI allows users to start a process, such as a performance review, on one platform (e.g. a desktop) and then continue or complete it on another platform (e.g. a smartphone). 
     
  3. Less is more. Workday has removed less-than-essential information from panels, such as the employee profile, organizing and relegating it into tabs or linked lists, so that panels focus the user's attention on what is most important. I especially like the drop-down navigation on the left side of the header bar, which looks quite a bit like Facebook's left side navigation.

  4. Inbox-driven workflow. No more jumping jumping back and forth to the Workday Wheel to complete tasks. A new unified in-box gives users a view of all notifications, with a preview pane and ability to take action right in the inbox.
     
  5. Intuitive use. Viewing the user interface in action, it becomes obvious that most users will not need a lot of training on "what key do I press?" As in the past, they will need training on Workday's functionality and how it applies to their jobs. But the new interface should greatly speed the time to productivity for most users. 
These are just some of the points about the new UI. In addition, there are many functionality enhancements, which I'm not covering here.

To see quick overview of the new UI, check out this video by Workday's VP of User Experience, Joe Korngiebe (you can skip past Joe's opening remarks and start at the one minute mark, if you like). 

To be fair, other enterprise vendors, such as Infor, Oracle, and SAP, are making great strides in the user interfaces as well. Workday's most recent release provides another example of how life is getting easier for enterprise software users.

Update: Over at Diginomica, Dennis Howlett has his own take on Workday's new UI.

Related Posts 

Best Practices for SaaS Upgrades as Seen in Workday's Approach
Workday Pushing High-end SaaS for the Enterprise

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by Frank Scavo, 1/24/2014 03:20:00 PM | permalink | e-mail this!


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Thursday, January 23, 2014

Evaluating UNIT4's Growth Strategy

Changes are afoot at UNIT4, a European-based ERP provider. UNIT4 is looking to move to the next level, and it held a virtual press conference earlier today to outline its growth strategy going forward. This post outlines some of the key points along with my viewpoint of its likely success.

UNIT4 is best known for its Agresso ERP system, its Coda Financials system, and its majority ownership of cloud ERP provider, FinancialForce (with minority investment by Salesforce.com).

UNIT4 has been a well-regarded ERP provider for years, focused largely on the services sector. Like many traditional vendors, UNIT4 has been transitioning to cloud delivery and, fair to say, has been more successful than many of its peers. At a time when many traditional ERP providers have less than 10% of their revenue from the cloud, UNIT4 claims to have more than half of its 450M euro annual revenue derived from subscription services.

New Leadership for the New Strategy

UNIT4 has a new CEO, Jose Duarte, who came on board seven months ago. He served as co-CEO alongside Chris Ouwinga until January 1, when the board appointed him as sole CEO. Duarte came to UNIT4 from a 20-year career at SAP, which including roles as President of the EMEA & India region and President of the Latin America region.

If UNIT4 had announced its new growth strategy without making any management changes, I might doubt its seriousness. The top management change, therefore, is a good sign.

Core Message is Familiar  

UNIT4 has long had a message of enabling its customers to "embrace change," and it touts its offering as being highly flexible and adaptable to changing business conditions. In its new growth strategy, that messaging does not appear to be different.

Duarte does point out that the pace of change is increasing--not only from economic and regulatory pressure, but also from the pressure of new technologies, such as the so-called "SMAC" technologies (social, mobile, analytics, and cloud).  Yet IT leaders spend 80% of their budgets on "keeping the lights on," leaving only 20% for innovation. UNIT4 intends to help its customers transition from transaction-centric to people-centric systems.

In my view, this message is good but it is not particularly distinctive. Most other enterprise software providers have adopted this story--not just newer providers, such as Salesforce.com and Workday but incumbent providers, such as SAP, Oracle, Infor, and Microsoft. Whether they actually accomplish that is another question--but the message is the same.

Vertical Solutions May Be Differentiating

UNIT4 Vertical MarketsWhen it comes to UNIT4's industry focus, however, I do see something that may be distinctive. Unlike many enterprise software providers that attempt to cover a broad range of markets, UNIT4 is distinctly focused on services businesses (including public sector), as shown in the schematic nearby.

Notable, there are no manufacturing sectors in UNIT4's target verticals. ERP has its roots in the manufacturing industry, and that ground is fairly well covered by other providers. By focusing on less crowded verticals, UNIT4's growth strategy has a better chance of success. Some of the sectors--such as financial services, investment companies, travel management, housing authorities, real estate, and insurance companies--have many fewer competitors targeting them. On the other hand, some of the sectors, such as professional services, are targets for some of the newer cloud-only providers, including UNIT4's own FinancialForce investment.

Overall, I am bullish on UNIT4's market focus. 

Willingness to Buy or Partner instead of Build

There is another piece that represents a change in UNIT4's product strategy, and that involves partners. To fill out its offerings for some industry sectors, there are some pieces that UNIT4 may not build directly. This is especially true when addressing sector-specific processes. Duarte didn't mention claims processing in the insurance industry, but I would suspect that might be a good example. In such cases, UNIT4 will be more willing in the future than it has in the past to partner for or even acquire complementary solutions.

Private Ownership May Facilitate the Strategy

In November, UNIT4 announced that it had been approached by private equity firm Advent International in a cash offer to buy all issued and outstanding shares of the company--effectively, to take UNIT4 private. Duarte more or less implied that this transaction, which UNIT4 had not solicited but nevertheless was recommending to its shareholders, was not directly related to its growth strategy, although the growth strategy was one of the things that made UNIT4 attractive to Advent.

Whether related or unrelated, I find a potential departure from public ownership a positive step for UNIT4. Software vendors transitioning from on-premises license sales to cloud subscription revenue often face pressure on financial results as money that would have been collected up-front is now spread out over the subscription period. Taking away the need to report quarterly results gives UNIT4 breathing room to make the transition to cloud.

Private ownership may also give UNIT4 more flexibility in making those niche acquisitions for complementary products that are essential for its target industry sectors, as they would be able to be completed more quickly than would be the case where public shareholders would need to be involved. 

UNIT4 has already made substantial progress in its migration to the cloud, but that is only one of the transitions needed. Hopefully, under private ownership, UNIT4 will be able to fulfill all the elements of its new growth strategy.

Update: Over at Diginomica, Phil Wainewright summarized his half day briefing with UNIT4 in a curiously titled post: Unit4 updates Agresso to SMAC the BLINCs  

Related Posts

Four ERP Providers on the Salesforce Platform

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by Frank Scavo, 1/23/2014 04:07:00 PM | permalink | e-mail this!


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Monday, January 20, 2014

Four Cloud ERP Providers on the Salesforce Platform

As cloud ERP solutions mature, they are becoming viable alternatives to traditional on-premises and hosted ERP systems. Dreamforce 2013, the annual conference of Salesforce.com users in San Francisco last November, offered a good opportunity to review the progress of four such cloud ERP systems—all built on the Salesforce.com platform.

Salesforce1: The Next Generation Salesforce Platform

During the conference, Salesforce unveiled the latest iteration of its platform, now dubbed Salesforce1, as shown in Figure 1.  The platform has a lot going for it.
  • It provides a complete applications development environment (a platform-as-a-service, or PaaS) running on Salesforce.com’s cloud infrastructure. Developers building on Salesforce1 can interoperate with any of Salesforce.com’s applications, such as its Sales Cloud, Service Cloud, Marketing Cloud, as well as other third party applications built on the platform. 
  • It includes social business capabilities. Developers can incorporate Salesforce.com’s social business application, Chatter, as part of their systems. 
  • The platform puts mobile deployment at the center, allowing apps to be written once and be deployed simultaneously on a variety of user platforms, including desktop browsers, tablet computers, and smart phones. In support of the so-called "Internet of Things," Salesforce1 can even be deployed on connected devices. 
  • Finally, the platform provides a way for developers to market and sell their applications, by means of Salesforce.com’s AppExchange marketplace. 
For a detailed view of Salesforce1, see this review by Doug Henschen over at Information Week.

With Salesforce.com now the market leader in CRM, it is no wonder that its platform has become more and more attractive to developers. Building on this platform, third-party developers become, in essence, an ecosystem around Salesforce.com, with strong network effects. The more popular the platform becomes, the more it attracts developers. In return, the more developers build on the platform, the more attractive it becomes to other developers. It is a virtuous cycle.

In our consulting work at Strativa over the past three to five years, I’ve seen several cases where organizations first implemented Salesforce.com’s CRM system, then based on that success started looking to see whether they could replace their existing on-premises ERP system with a cloud-based solution. And, when they search the AppExchange, they find four cloud ERP providers: FinancialForce, Kenandy, Rootstock, and AscentERP.

I’ve been following these four providers for several years, and this post serves as an overview and update, based on briefings and interviews I conducted with these four vendors during the Dreamforce user conference.

FinancialForce

As the name implies, FinancialForce started in 2009 as an accounting and billing system. It was formed as a joint venture between UNIT4 and Salesforce.com. The company expanded into professional services automation in 2010 with the acquisition of a PSA system from Appirio, built on the Salesforce platform, and by building out its own services resource planning (SRP) functionality. More recently, Financialforce developed offerings for revenue recognition and credit control on the new Salesforce1 platform for revenue recognition, pushing these functions out to sales and services users in the field.

The company lists 50 customer case-studies on its website, an impressive number for a vendor that is only four or five years old.

At Dreamforce 2013, FinancialForce took two more steps to expand its ERP footprint. First, it announced acquisition of another AppExchange partner, Less Software, which provides configure-price-quote (CPQ), order fulfillment, service contracts, inventory management, and supplier management modules. Founded just two years ago, Less Software was already partnering and doing joint deals with FinancialForce, so the acquisition does not appear to acquire much if any integration work. FinancialForce refers to Less Software as having supply chain management (SCM) capabilities, but I would view that as somewhat of an exaggeration. There are some light warehouse management capabilities, but no transportation management or supply chain planning functionality that I can see. Less Software has had particular success in selling to value-added resellers, such as Cisco resellers, as well as to industrial distribution organizations and one manufacturer of children’s furniture.

The second step, announced during the conference, was the acquisition of Vana Workforce, a human capital management (HCM) software provider—which is also built on the Salesforce platform. Vana's HCM functionality includes core HR, talent management, recruitment compensation, time management, and absence management. Payroll is not provided, but the system can connect with a number of popular payroll systems. As with Less Software, Vana Workforce was already partnering with FinancialForce, so the integration effort, again, would appear to be minimal.

Organizations in the professional and technical services sector should take a look at FinancialForce, as well as anyone needing a financial management solution. With its acquisition of Less Software and Vana Workforce, FinancialForce now qualifies for the short list for distribution and light manufacturing companies. There were hints during my briefings that FinancialForce may continue with an acquisition strategy, so it is likely that additional industry sectors may become potential targets for this solution provider.

Kenandy

I covered the launch of Kenandy back in 2011, when I interviewed its CEO Sandra Kurtzig. Sandy was the original founder and CEO of ASK Group, the developer of the well-known ManMan ERP system. Her coming out of retirement to launch a new ERP system made a big splash at Dreamforce 2011, where she appeared on stage with Salesforce CEO Mark Benioff and Ray Lane, former Oracle President and now Kenandy board member representing investor firm, Kleiner Perkins. Salesforce.com is also an investor in Kenandy.

Since that launch, Kenandy has been rapidly adding functionality. It has its own financial systems, including general ledger, invoicing, accounts receivables, and accounts payables. Multi-company and multi-currency support were added earlier this year, with up to three reporting currencies. According to Kenandy executives I interviewed, the system also supports multiple plants with multiple locations in a single tenant. There is a full MRP explosion. Lot tracking and serial tracking allow Kenandy to sell into foods and other industries that require track and trace. Item revision levels are tracked with multiple revisions allowed in inventory.

Only three years in existence, the installed customer base is small but growing, with some impressive wins. During Dreamforce, Kenandy touted its recent win with Del Monte Foods, which implemented Kenandy for its acquisition of Natural Balance, a pet food manufacturer. I spent some time one-on-one with the Del Monte project leader, who provided quite a bit of insight into the dynamics of the implementation. Del Monte was able to implement Kenandy’s full suite—financials, customer order management, and distribution—in just three months. This included integrations with third-party systems for EDI, warehouse management, and transportation scheduling.

He also shared with me that he wrote a trade promotion management (TPM) system on the Salesforce platform, integrated with Kenandy, in just six weeks—and he did it by himself. He had previously built a similar system integrated with Del Monte’s legacy system, but that effort took seven months with a team of seven developers. Even discounting the fact that his previous experience might have made development of the second system easier, by my calculations this is about a 50 to 1 improvement in productivity, illustrating the power of the Salesforce platform.

Del Monte is not finished with Kenandy. The firm reportedly plans to eventually move all of Del Monte’s ERP processing from something like 60 internal systems to Kenandy.

More information Del Monte’s experience can be found in a case study on Kenandy’s website.

Rootstock

Rootstock Software is another manufacturing ERP provider with an interesting history. The management team, headed by CEO Pat Gerehy and COO Chuck Olinger, has decades of experience building manufacturing ERP, most recently at Relevant. Following the sale of Relevant to Consona (now Aptean), the team embarked on a new venture to build a manufacturing cloud ERP system from scratch. They developed their first iteration of Rootstock on the NetSuite platform in 2008, interoperating with NetSuite for financials and customer order processing. In 2010, however, they disengaged from their NetSuite partnership and rewrote Rootstock on the Salesforce platform. (That the Roostock developers could build a complete system so quickly on the NetSuite platform and then again on the Salesforce platform speaks to the power of these modern cloud platforms for rapid software development.)

As a result of the replatforming on Salesforce, Rootstock developed its own customer order management product and now partners with FinancialForce for its accounting systems. It also has good functionality for purchasing, production engineering, lot and serial tracking, MRP, MPS, and capacity planning, shop floor control, manufacturing costing, and PLM/PDM integration. The system can support multiple companies, multiple divisions, and multiple sites, all within a single tenant on the Salesforce platform.

On its website, Rootstock highlights an impressive list of 25 customers. These include Astrum Solar, a residential solar provider with operations in a dozen states in the US. EBARA International, a manufacturer of pumps and turbine expanders in the energy industry, with 77 subsidiaries and 11 affiliated companies worldwide.

Over the past year, Rootstock has been gaining traction. After the Dreamforce conference, it announced four more wins in the month of November: Microtherm, a business unit of ProMat International; Proveris, which provides testing protocols for drug developers; Source Outdoor, an outdoor furniture manufacturer; and Wilshire Coin, a coin dealer.

Buyers looking for strong manufacturing functionality, including hybrid modes of manufacturing, should consider Rootstock. Project-based manufacturing is also a sweet spot.

AscentERP

AscentERP approaches manufacturing ERP from the execution side of the business. Its co-founders, Michael Trent and Shaun McInerney, have a long history in warehouse management and data collection, and it shows in the capabilities of the product. Built from the start on the Salesforce platform, AscentERP supports production modes of build-to-order, assemble-to-order, and configure-to-order along with repetitive manufacturing capabilities. It can take opportunities from Salesforce.com and convert them into sales quotes and into sales orders in the production system. The system supports the complete manufacturing process from master planning, purchasing, production, and shipping. Reverse logistics is also supported through an RMA process.

Like Rootstock, AscentERP supports the accounting function through partnership with FinancialForce. In addition, the system also integrates with Intacct, another SaaS financials system. For smaller companies, Ascent created an integration with Quickbooks.

During Dreamforce, AscentERP announced advanced manufacturing functionality, including workflow and alerts, multi-plant and multi-location support, production scheduling and tablet computer data collection using the new Salesforce1 platform.

Reference accounts include Chambers Gasket in Chicago and All Traffic Solutions, a manufacturer of electronic roadside signs. Both of these customers use FinancialForce for financials. Other reference accounts include The Chia Company in Australia, the world’s largest grower of Chia seed and products, so familiar during holiday season, and SolarAid, an international charity that provides access to solar lighting.

Buyers may want to short list AscentERP if they are looking for a nuts-and-bolts production system with good support for warehouse management and data collection. Smaller companies may find the Quickbooks integration an interesting option, allowing them to implement ERP without having to give up Quickbooks.

One sales strategy I wish more enterprise SaaS providers would follow: AscentERP offers a free 30 day free trial on its website.

Cast a Wide Net

All ERP systems have their strengths and weaknesses, and these four are no exception. For example, all of these systems are relatively new. Although they are rapidly building out their functional footprints, there are still gaps in their functionality. Buyers that insist on having every box checked on their RFPs may not like this, but those buyers who are willing to do some system enhancements on the Salesforce platform may find that the advantages of speed and flexibility outweigh any short-term gaps. It all depends on whether buyers are viewing pure cloud deployment as a strategic advantage.

The four vendors outlined in this post are not the only cloud ERP providers in the market. Buyers should also consider other providers, not built on the Salesforce platform. These include established cloud players such as NetSuite and Plex, as well as newer entrants, such as Acumatica. Finally, some of the traditional providers of on-premises ERP systems, such as SAP, Oracle, Microsoft, Infor, and Epicor, offer hybrid cloud deployment options that may be alternative to these cloud-only providers.


Choosing the right ERP system—whether cloud, hosted, or on-premises—can be challenging. Those looking for more in-depth analysis and independent advice in navigating the process should consider our software selection consulting services at Strativa.

Related Posts

Kenandy: A New Cloud ERP Provider Emerges from Stealth Mode

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by Frank Scavo, 1/20/2014 10:05:00 AM | permalink | e-mail this!


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(c) 2002-2017, Frank Scavo.

Independent analysis of issues and trends in enterprise applications software and the strengths, weaknesses, advantages, and disadvantages of the vendors that provide them.

About the Enterprise System Spectator.

Frank Scavo Send tips, rumors, gossip, and feedback to Frank Scavo, at .

I'm interested in hearing about best practices, lessons learned, horror stories, and case studies of success or failure.

Selecting a new enterprise system can be a difficult decision. My consulting firm, Strativa, offers assistance that is independent and unbiased. For information on how we can help your organization make and carry out these decisions, write to me.

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