Within field service the IFS brand is well known, having gone through an aggressive expansion drive fuelled by key acquisitions of US based Metrix and UK based 360 Scheduling the brand has secured both headlines and customers alike within our industry in recent years. However at this year’s IFS world conference held in Boston there was a real sense that the ERP software provider has truly come of age as a key global player.
Hosted in Boston the three-day event combined some inspirational keynote speakers, a slick mix of presentation formats – including a US TV Style panel show and most importantly given the profile of the delegates an impressive array of technology for the attendees to get their hands on.
At the heart of the conference was the announcement of IFS Applications 9 which having be revealed on the first morning of the conference caused a significant amount of interest and excitement. Admittedly the audience was already fairly engaged with IFS’s product suite with an initial poll showing almost half of those in attendance were already considering moving to Applications 9, however, if the general reception to the series of new functionalities and tools announced was anything to go by, by the end of the three days that figure may well have increased further.
IFS Applications 9 revealed
After an initial opening keynote from IFS CEO Alastair Sorbie we were soon greeted with an impressive promotional video giving us a glimpse of what the next generation of IFS applications will include. Shots of a very modern, intuitive looking interface sitting across multiple devices, including interestingly a variety of smart watches ensued as the video rolled across the obligatory 100ft screen, accompanied by an upbeat dance track.
Shots of a very modern, intuitive looking interface sitting across multiple devices, including interestingly a variety of smart watches ensued as the video rolled across the obligatory 100ft screen
As Thomas Sald SVP Research and Development, IFS announced as he took to the stage as the video came to an end “It looks quite exciting doesn’t it? And it’s beautiful as well”.
Indeed this is perhaps the first initial response of IFS Applications 9. It simply looks great. It is a clean, modern, and intuitive looking user interface. The growing trend of customisation in enterprise technology is something that the development team of IFS have clearly given a lot of consideration to.
“We know that user experience is important to you as it is directly linked to your business.” Sald continued “A great user experience increases productivity, makes it easier to make the right decisions and helps in attracting and retaining talent. It also shortens the implementation time and creates enthusiasm for the new system.”
“User experience is important. Yes it’s looks good, but it is important because it supports your business and the people that run your business.”
However, there needs to be more to a new system than just a facelift. Fortunately IFS Applications 9 has introduced a number of new capabilities that also raise the bar in terms of the functionality of the software that could potentially some real benefits to those field service companies that elect to implement it.
The first of these introduced was the IFS Lobby.
IFS Lobby essentially provides a very clear and highly customisable view of a business or a specific project within a business, in relation to a specific job role or process. Being fully customisable IFS can bring the users at-a-glance information that they need for their own specific requirements and it can be tailored to each unique user.
The user is also then able to drill down into specific finer details relating to either their role or a specific project and it’s elegant UI is fully responsive making it accessible from desktop, tablet or even smart phone.
Such easy access to key information whilst out in the field could of course be equally as vital to enhancing and improving how a field engineer’s workflow as it could to making reporting at management level a far easier and less troubling task.
Another impressive benefit of lobby is the ability to observe and interact with other departments within the ERP structure and this leads neatly into the second big introduction of IFS Applications 9 – Streams.
Streams is basically an inbuilt notification system within IFS Applications 9. With a similar look to something akin to the lovechild of instant messenger and twitter it was a neat way to receive updates on tasks that require your action.
However, Streams doesn’t just sit in your Lobby waiting for you to spot the new notifications pop up. No Sir, with apps for both smart phones and smart watches available Streams is able to bring your attention to the task at hand as soon as it arrives.
What was soon becoming clear with the release of IFS Applications 9 was that the software is hugely customisable. From being able to quickly and effectively build your own Lobby that provides the key information you need at a glance through to tweaking the UI so that it looks more familiar and comfortable to you and your colleagues.
However, being able to make aesthetic changes and user level functionality is one thing but a true customisation, one which essentially changes elements within the base code, which are sometimes still both genuinely needed and well motivated is another entirely.
In the past a significant consideration if you have a customised version of any software, let alone something as mission critical as an ERP, is how much additional work is there to make the upgrade feasible due to the customisations in place. Often the amount of work to transition from one version to another can simply outweigh the benefits of moving to the new platform.
This is where the next major new element of IFS Applications 9 comes in. It is built on a ‘Layered Application Architecture’ which essentially removes such worries from the equation making upgrades as simple a process for customised versions of the system as those that have been run straight out of the box.
“We’ve broken the code into separate transparent layers” explained Sald “That means when we come with an update to IFS applications your customisations can remain unchanged. That’s going to save a lot of time.”
As data becomes more and more important in field service both in terms of capturing it, interpreting it and most importantly removing barriers to accessing that data for those who need it is critical.
The other big enhancement that could be a real game-changer for both IFS and ERP providers in general is the inclusion of an embedded CRM. As data becomes more and more important in field service both in terms of capturing it, interpreting it and most importantly removing barriers to accessing that data for those who need it is critical.
With the inclusion of Embedded CRM within IFS Applications 9 essentially users can now have an enterprise application that combines ERP and CRM into a single package so now the barrier of using a CRM as a separate application with it’s own separate database is removed.
However, whilst each of these components of the new release are important, it was undoubtedly the Lobby function that had caused the most excitement with the conversations in the coffee break clearly being centred around this new innovation, with a number of attendees clearly keen to get a hands on experience with it in the later sessions.
Playing with the Big Boys…
I mentioned at the beginning of this feature that this was the year that perhaps IFS have truly emerged as a major global player. And whilst IFS Applications 9 is truly an impressive step forward for the company, it was just element of the announcements revealed at the conference that led me to this conclusion.
Another significant factor is the announcements of a number of key strategic partnerships that signify just how far IFS have progressed in recent years and how important a player they may set to become in the various verticals they operate within.
The event itself saw a number of these partners including the likes of Oracle and Intel showcasing how they are working with IFS in the innovation and networking area.
However, there were two top tier partnerships that really caught the eye. The first of these was a co-operation agreement wit Accenture that was announced the day before the conference, which will see the two companies, strengthen there existing partnership with training and certification of over 100 consultants through the IFS Academy.
With IFS and Accenture jointly pursuing sales and delivery opportunities the core of the agreement will focus on growing IFS’s licence sales together with Accenture’s implementation and application management services. Such an approach could be key in opening up a path to top tier, blue chip organisations for IFS who have traditionally be more focussed on the mid-level sector.
Whilst this five year partnership may well prove significant for IFS, it was the other ‘diamond level’ partnership that was announced that is of likely interest to their customers both past and present.
That partnership was with Microsoft.
Optimised for IFS Applications versions 8 and 9, IFS Managed Cloud is a security-enhanced single-tenant cloud within the world-class Azure environment
Optimised for IFS Applications versions 8 and 9, IFS Managed Cloud is a security-enhanced single-tenant cloud within the world-class Azure environment. Customers can decide how and when changes are made to IFS Applications, specify maintenance and upgrades to suit their business needs.
“Not everybody wants to go about the cloud in the same way” began Dan Matthews, Chief Technology Officer IFS as he made the announcement. “Some of you may see it as a virtual data centre, others may be working with a partner who are moving multiple assets to the cloud. Some of you may want the vendor to take care of everything for you”
It is to those in the last categories that IFS Managed Cloud is aimed at.
“IFS Managed Cloud marks a major milestone in our company’s history as it offers our customers a new set of options for deploying, running, and using our solutions,” Matthews commented in the accompanying press statement to the launch.
“We have designed IFS Managed Cloud to provide flexibility, improved security, and reliability at a level that would be very expensive to achieve in any on-premise installation. Coupled with the layered application architecture of IFS Applications 9 and the ability to utilize Azure’s global network of data centres, we are offering a truly future-proof cloud solution that reduces complexity, risk, and cost.”
So what about Field Service?
Of course whilst understanding the bigger picture is important, for those with field service operations the burning question is what have you improved for my team and me. In fact there were a number of major updates that were announced during the conference that related specifically to their IFS Enterprise Service Management (ESM)suite of products, which comprise of IFS Service Management, IFS Field Service Management and IFS Mobile Workforce Management.
In fact Cindy Jaudon, North American President for IFS went as far as defining IFS ESM as the most “comprehensive suite of service management solutions available.”
So what has been added?
For a start the latest iteration of IFS Field Service Management (version 5.6.2) includes a number of enhancements including running natively on Microsoft Azure which as well as being a robust and proven platform of allows customers to dynamically scale system resources based on actual usage.
There has also been a large focus on added mobility tools with some really nice enhancements including an automatic calculation of ETA using GPS data and the long awaited ability to record videos with the system.
Notifications have had an overhaul too with the Android version now support the Android notification bar (a key missing feature for many Android users) and alongside the ability to accept or reject a job assignment directly from notifications just makes the user experience that much more streamlined than before. We also see the notifications system having a wearable option for the first time as well with integration with Samsung and other Android watches.
There is also the introduction of what promises to be an excellent automated knowledge management solution, which will make recommendations of which solutions are appropriate for a job as information is being entered by customer service staff or customers.
The system considers user rankings and actual usage. Additionally, solutions include attachments (FAQs, product manuals, etc.), service notes and sync with the mobile devices; efficiently extending knowledge management from call centre to field service.
In both IFS Field Service Management and IFS Mobile Management there is a focus on scheduling and IFS Mobile Workforce now features support for a number of increasingly complex scheduling problems including being able to now even cater for jobs that have different start and finish areas.
Alongside this there is increased support for dispatchers including simplified visualisation of the schedule, and manual, semi automated and dynamic scheduling options.
For management there is then the excellent inclusion of target-based scheduling which gives them the ability to set business-goals and KPIs within the system that automatically impact on the way the scheduling system allocates work whilst at the same time it can consistently monitor actual performance versus business targets such as SLAs and first time fix rates etc.
IFS Mobile Workforce Management also now incorporates an Advanced Resource Planning tool, which supports the manning requirements of more challenging and complex operations such as Oil Rigs, Ships, high-tech machinery and so forth.
Finally IFS Service Management boasts the same love and attention to it’s UI that has been seen across the whole of IFS Applications 9, plus improved remote warehouse capabilities, and again a focus on both scheduling and mobile.
As I mentioned in the beginning, the IFS World Conference from the very start had a sense of celebration and pride about it all underscored with a deep lying confidence.
The technology showcased across the three days was undoubtedly impressive and at the forefront of the various industries it is designed for. And as we’ve touched on here through some strong strategic partnerships IFS may well soon find themselves playing in a bigger pond and attracting even bigger fish.
Another announcement made at the conference is that IFS have now got 1 million users on board.
It’s a big milestone but one that is all the more impressive if look back at their history and see that it took, 21 years to reach the 500,00 mark. A further 8 years to grow that figure to 750,000 and just a further 2 years to grow there user base by a quarter of a million users to hit the big seven figure milestone.
One thing is sure; IFS’s growth is now gaining some serious traction. They’ve got a product that can deliver and are rubbing shoulders with some very powerful friends.
Now wonder they’re feeling confident. The question is now just how big can they become? How long before we are talking about the next milestone? And just what will that Milestone be?