Microsoft takes aim at ERP bigwigs


Some six years after Microsoft’s acquisition of Great Plains, the company’s vision for enterprise resource planning (ERP) and customer relationship management (CRM) software is coming together under the Dynamics brand.

At its recent Convergence conference in San Diego, Microsoft said it is now ready to challenge incumbents SAP AG and Oracle Corp. in the large enterprise market.

While long seen as a strong competitor in the mid-market, Microsoft executives laid out a play for the enterprise realm that looks to capitalize on industry trends around empowering less tech-savvy line-of-business users with ERP access by making the usability of its platform a key selling proposition.

In his keynote speech to close the conference, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer declared Dynamics “enterprise-ready” in what he identified as three key areas: security, reliability and scalability.

“That doesn’t mean we’re going to take on the supply chain of General Motors tomorrow morning, because that’s more of a complexity issue than it is a scale issue,” said Ballmer. “Our sweet spot today is small enterprises, but we’re just going to keep expanding that sweet spot.”

While SAP and Microsoft have collaborated in the past, jointly developing products such as ERP/Office integration tool Duet, Ballmer named SAP as Microsoft’s “biggest competitor” in the space, an assessment echoed by other company executives.

At a media conference, James Utzschneider, Microsoft’s general manager of Dynamics marketing, released partial results of a survey of Microsoft and SAP ERP users, which he claimed showed a clear usability advantage for Microsoft; it’s a gap he doesn’t see SAP closing any time soon.

“Waking up one morning and saying I have to make my software more usable is the equivalent of waking up one morning and saying I have my 25th high school reunion tomorrow and I need to lose 20 pounds,” said Utzschneider.

Usability may well be a compelling play. Joel Martin, vice-president of enterprise software with IDC Canada, said IT managers are increasingly bogged down managing complex environments. Buying decisions are increasingly shifting from IT managers to line-of-business managers, and line-of-business managers are receptive to the usability message. “Usability doesn’t rank that high for an IT manager, but for a line-of-business manager, it’s huge,” said Martin.

“They don’t want to invest in anything if their employees aren’t going to use it.”

A number of Canadian companies using Dynamics are welcoming the usability push, bemoaning the challenge of getting their users, particularly prickly sales staffs, to use clunky ERP and CRM platforms.

Scott Bolton, corporate controller with Ottawa’s March Networks, said his company has experienced four failed CRM deployments because users found the systems cumbersome.

“The usability just wasn’t there and the sales guys just said, ‘Screw this, we’re not using it,’” he said. “The Oracle and SAP CRM systems were just junk, quite frankly.” It’s a scenario echoed by Dave Root, CFO of Guelph, Ont.-based Eagle’s Flight, which implemented Dynamics after a Siebel deployment failed to get off the ground. Root said CRM is the backbone of their sales-driven business so it’s important their sales staff likes, and will use, the system.

“It’s all about getting good information in and our sales force hated using Siebel. It was a fight getting them to use it,” said Root, adding that his sales force also helped drive the Dynamics move. “A big factor in that decision was the sales guys liked it. They work in Microsoft Outlook, and [Dynamics] worked in Outlook.”

Third-party vendors are also getting on board the usability train. Based in Vancouver, 90 Degree Software has developed a software application for simplified report authoring through a Microsoft Office interface for the Dynamics platform.

Roger Sanborn, the company’s chief technology officer, said the “tremendous amount of effort” around usability Microsoft has invested into the Dynamics platform is very complimentary to 90 Degree’s offering.

“These are all things that our product can take advantage of,” said Sanborn. “We want to layer on top of what is coming from those Dynamics platforms and then offer the same experience they would expect from a Microsoft product, so it is not a foreign environment for them and it’s easy to use.”

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