Usability a big feature for Great Plains 8.0 release

The next iteration of Microsoft Corp.’s Great Plains enterprise resource planning (ERP) software — expected to launch next month — will include over 120 product enhancements focused primarily around manufacturing, distribution and project accounting capabilities.

The 8.0 release comes just after a 7.5 extension release last year and it’s Microsoft’s biggest ERP development effort.

The company unveiled some of the new features of Great Plains 8.0 last week to a group of partners at its Mississauga, Ont. location.

The first thing customers will likely notice is the user interface (UI) change, said Karen Engel, corporate group product manager for Great Plains. “That’s the thing that most people talk about.”

Engel said version 8.0 has made strides in streamlining business processes, which ties in with the reasons Microsoft made changes with the UI. Not only will there be improved visibility and new business portal applications, but there will also be better integration with Microsoft Office.

In addition to the usability features, Jeff Trosen, corporate product unit manager Great Plains, said the 8.0 release will also focus on distribution features. “We are trying to raise the bar in distribution and manufacturing,” he said.

In previous versions there were gaps in functionality and there were also areas where the manufacturing had to get fully integrated, Torsen explained.

“Being a Microsoft organization, we want to make it crystal clear this year and around this product release that Microsoft Business Solutions is in the ERP business…it’s a very clear message that will hopefully resonate this year,” said Garth Dean, director of Microsoft Business Solutions. “This will attract both customers and partners.”

“I think we’ve definitely broadened the footprint with this kind of release,” he added. “Manufacturing is more extended and the public sector is more extended. Those are segments or industry verticals perhaps we didn’t have as large a footprint in before and that opens up to customers as well. With a product maturing like this, it gives us impetus in the marketplace.”

Acquired in 2001, Great Plains is one of four ERP offerings Microsoft has under its belt. The application focuses on the financial aspect of resource planning and management and features three key elements: financial management, allowing for accounting and finance operations; supply chain management, featuring manufacturing and procurement capabilities; and analytics for business reporting.

In Canada, there are about 3,500 Great Plains customers and about 60 Great Plains partner organizations.

IDC Canada Ltd.’s Warren Shiau, senior analyst, software team, said the 8.0 product introduction is moving Microsoft toward the desktop/enterprise application integration that it’s road mapping for the future.

“Imagine working in an enterprise app, under exactly the same user interface conditions that you’re used to in Office. That’s good because it’s more natural. Now imagine being able to use Office itself as the interface to your enterprise apps for customer data, order entry, inventory tracking, et cetera. It’s just the thing that’s needed for wider-spread computerization/IT adoption by small and midsize businesses (SMB),” Shiau said.

Jennifer Shelton, research manager at IDC Canada’s software markets and directions program, said the next version of Great Plains will not only create efficiencies throughout the stack, dovetailing it with Office, but it will also make it a stronger offering.

“I think it’s a very big deal for Microsoft simply because it’s based on feedback from their customers — not only from existing legacy customers from the Great Plain days but also from new customers that joined with the new entity,” Shelton said. “It strengthens their position in the mid-market space.”

Shelton said the midmarket segment is contested right now, with competition from other firms such as JD Edwards — now PeopleSoft Inc. — and SAP AG.

Customers currently using the last major Great Plains upgrade, version 6.0, can migrate towards 8.0 in a two-step process whereby the data is converted but customers don’t have to undergo additional training, Engel said.

Training for the new version can take place online through Microsoft’s e-learning courses, she added.

—With files from Carly Suppa, IT World Canada

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