Podcast ERP Cloud – IFS Cloud (transcription)
- 16 November 2022
- Category: News
Bartłomiej Denkowski Head of Business Solutions Department at InfoConsulting was interviewed by Marek Mac in a podcast on ERP systems “ERP Cloud – IFS Cloud” hosted by myERP.pl. The podcast is in Polish but we have prepared a transcription in English for you.
In the interview, Bartek talked about, among other things, the key factors that influenced us in receiving the IFS Customer Choice award at IFS Unleashed in Miami. He also analyzed the evolution of the IFS system over the years up to the latest version of IFS Cloud. You’ll also be interested to know how Bartek views the most important trends in the ERP market. Lots of interesting information on AI, machine learning, planning and, most importantly, everything supported by examples and Bartek’s knowledge and experience.
Hi everyone. My new guest today is Bartek Denkowski, Head of Business Solutions at InfoConsulting. Bartek, can you tell our audience a few words about yourself?
Good morning everyone. Thank you very much, first of all, for the invitation. As for my experience, I have been associated with the IFS ecosystem for more than 27 years. IFS solutions, which were once called IFS Applications, are now called IFS Cloud, but this is the same, only a more mature, well-developed company management system than the previous version.
I am a highly technical person by education, I graduated from computer science at the Jagiellonian University. I am also interested in many aspects related to various kinds of humanities, in particular in the context of currently developing artificial intelligence technologies. Here I see a very large overlap between various cognitive sciences and the world of computer science. This is, I must admit, a very interesting trend that I hope we will also touch on today.
Exactly, today we will talk about ERP systems in terms of cloud technology, because this is a very popular topic this year, and it will probably be a trend for the next one as well, but I would also like to ask about the IFS Miami event because you are practically fresh from returning from this event. This is probably one of the biggest events ever organized by IFS, would that be correct?
Yes, it’s true. Just a few weeks ago, IFS held a world conference, IFS Unleashed, in Miami Beach, Florida. The term fits perfectly, because literally a week earlier, the famous hurricane Ian was unleashed through Florida, which caused a lot of damage, and our thoughts are with the people of Florida. Fortunately, in Miami Beach itself, I did not see any signs or remnants of this hurricane, so the meeting was held in great conditions and an excellent atmosphere, it was made even more enjoyable that our company InfoConsulting won this year’s Customer Choice award, i.e. an award distinguishing IFS partners, awarded by a vote from customers, Clients chose us on a global scale as the best company in terms of client service and satisfaction. It is a great honour for us.
First of all, we want our clients to treat our cooperation as fruitful as possible. It should also be noted here that it is derived by the number of votes cast by our clients.
Well, perhaps you should add that you don’t only have customers in Poland, but in fact all over Europe, and tell me, why do you think you won the award?
Well, it was not an easy fight here. At the moment, the system, and the whole ecosystem of IFS partners is really big, it has grown a lot over the last 5 years, these are partners that are sometimes very large and located all over the world. I think there were a number of elements that made our customers vote for us.
First of all, we were the first partner in our region to work with IFS, also our experience and our commitment, because we were 100% focused from the very beginning on implementing IFS systems. It was a headlong jump into deep water. Either we would succeed or fail, so it is a matter of experience, a matter of determination – it is very important.
The second thing is what you mentioned, our part of Europe has been developing very dynamically in recent years. And here we have followed this trend, we have become a global company, just like our customers. We now have branches not only in Poland but also in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Germany, Finland and even Australia. Australia is the new branch that we have opened recently. So, together with our clients, we try to conquer the world.
And finally, the third, and I think the most important element that won us the award, is that we take our corporate values really seriously, that is, I am talking about commitment, professionalism, cooperation, creativity, and trust.
These are soft values that new prospects only see on paper. On the other hand, we try very hard to ensure that they also function in real life, that all our employees follow these values, and this is evidenced by an initiative that we have been running for years, which is called InfoConsulting Academy, where we conduct a number of internal and external training programmes for our employees, all focused around these values. So the decisive factor here is not only the technical skills of our employees but most important is that customers are satisfied with the cooperation with us, professionalism and commitment, the soft values that our employees can use when working with the client.
In my opinion, the key was regarding these soft skills, because I also remember the times when clients in our industry were simply visited by highly technical people, and nowadays you just have to be able to talk humanely with these clients. In fact, I can also confirm that you are developing, because I have been watching you for years, but how is it with your clients, how are your clients developing?
There are many examples, where through these years of cooperation, our clients have developed very strongly. Let’s take the first example, a customer who also visited Miami with us and attended the IFS event is the Norwegian company NFM, a company that produces ballistic clothing, and bulletproof vests, mainly for export.
This is a company that has continued to develop since implementing IFS in 2015, going through two upgrade processes. Well, of course, it’s not like the system itself decides when it needs an upgrade. The company itself is evolving all the time, while the system strongly supports this evolution. And during this time, the company has developed twice, and the coverage of the company’s processes with IFS or the involvement of users in operating the system has increased more than fourfold. So here we can see that the system has grown inside the organization, and more and more processes are supported by the IFS solution. This then leads to effective business processes.
In this example we can talk about mobile warehouse management, the use of barcodes, not only in the warehouse, but also in production, mobile maintenance, and details such as, for example, employees who manage their HR data, and submit leave requests at the electronic kiosk. Or, for example, cooperation with suppliers who can exchange information with NFM via the B2B platform, which is integrated within IFS.
And tell me, how IFS has developed over the years? because I just remember, say, version 2000, and I also had the opportunity to listen to you at the event in Łódź and we talked about IFS Cloud. I think it would be great to bring some perspective from the oldest versions to the newest.
Well, I still remember that version, you can say the mainframe from the last century, where we connected with the BT220 terminal and where you actually did everything at the client’s location, program it, actually sitting with the client at one desk, often I did this.
But what I have to say, what I really like about the process of change in the development of the IFS system, is that it changes in an evolutionary way, nothing is thrown into the bin in terms of business functionality, it just continues to grow, there are new functions, new possibilities, but it is still the same system.
If someone used the system earlier, he’ll see the same system, only much, much more mature, much more extensive and functional. However, information technology has changed enormously over the years. We are not talking about BT220 anymore, but a completely different era for information technology. Here IFS very cleverly, I must say, has changed over the years, i.e. in an evolutionary way, it has replaced various layers of the system with new technologies, i.e. first entered the windows version, then some layers such as server midware, i.e. intermediate application layers were changed. Now we see internet technology being used very successfully. Without throwing away those functionalities that really add value to the system.
Ok, so here we have the view that what the user sees visually changes has changed dramatically, and like the technological issue underneath, the stuff under the hood, I often see the term somewhere in the industry that the system has actually has changed, but it is a rewritten old version just for windows. How is it more advanced in this case?
Here, if we are talking about the latest version of IFS, i.e. the IFS Cloud version, there has been quite a significant change in the user interface, which was just from a purely text version in the last century to a windows version we see today. At the moment, after many years of using such typical windows mprograms, the system has matured to a fully web version and this is not simply a rewrite of Internet technology windows. It is actually re-inventing many windows so that they are intuitive in the same way as we use websites today.
ow do we visit Onet?, how do we visit our bank’s website?, and so on and so on. So that this intuition could be transferred to a business system. And also, what is very important, how we managed to get here, access is possible from any device, not only from a desktop computer, from a notebook, but actually from any device equipped with a web browser, be it a phone, an Apple device, an Android tablet or anything else.
Using such devices we can have access to 100% of our business systems. The entire system is both a stationary and mobile solution, which speeds up process handling.
And a very important element has already been introduced here, i.e. personalization. Everyone wants the system to look the most enjoyable for them,right? Not too much information, but the right information, even the color scheme to match the company’s brands. It can all be set up in the moment, so a very personalized view in the new IFS interface. This, I believe, is a very bright future for ERP systems in general. Unfortunately, people look at looks, they buy with their eyes, so if ERP systems will keep up with this trend, this is only the right direction.
And tell me, when it comes to the use of modules such as AI or machine learning, how does it work in this case?
Well, here too I have to mention the changes that took place under the hood, right?
Because appearance is just like we said, it’s not the only consideration. The look can be very beautiful, but if it’s empty underneath, this system will never help us.
And here it should be clearly said that the system that I remember ten years ago or even earlier was in fact a system for invoice registration, transaction registration, for simple calculation, for example, supply plans according to algorithms invented 50 years ago. However, at the moment I see and observe it very clearly three such trends in the development of the IFS system around artificial intelligence. The first such trend is automation. It is known that there is no system that would fit perfectly to each user, to each company, so the systems have had to grow gradually from thousands of possibilities, and thousands of parameterisations, which means that users often had to click through a whole lot of different windows, a whole lot of functions.
It’s not effective these days, and it really shouldn’t be this way. So automation, here I mean the mechanisms built, where instead of programming, certain flows are drawn, certain processes are drawn, for example in the generally recognized BPMN language, the language of business process description, the system is allowed to make decisions by itself, perform certain functions that the user does not need to click. The system simply decides for the user itself, it speeds up the handling of certain processes.
This graphic description of processes in the latest version of IFS is called Business Process Automation. This is a typical functionality that is built into the basics of any ERP system, it enables the automation of users’ work and it is also the first step to the so-called mining process. The mining process is the ability of the system to look at the processes that are described and running in the system and analyze the performance of these processes. And at this point, the has such potential that it can say on its own that it sees that Mr Jan Kowalski is extremely good at dealing with this type of offer, with this type of order with such features, therefore it provides the information immediately for managers, to maybe take a look at this situation, maybe Mr Kowalski should do training for his peers, teach them something new, better customer service and so on and so on.
This is the first point about automation. The second element, I think I’m most excited about are machine learning mechanisms, artificial intelligence mechanisms and business applications. These are technologies or concepts that have existed in scientific literature for many, many years.
But now they are really only entering the business environment, an industrial environment. This is because for several years now, the basis of such algorithms, i.e. access to data, multi-dimensional structured data has become easier and easier. Due to the fact that we have access to the Internet, that is, there is a breeding ground for these mechanisms.
I have the feeling that the ERP system is an ideal food cooker for such mechanisms here, because it takes a huge amount of synchronized data, organized, and arranged according to some specific logic, and this is indeed a certain knowledge that systems cannot yet think of. 100% data use.
There are huge changes ahead of us in the next few years. It will be very interesting to watch this change with automation and artificial intelligence. These are the two trends that will become dominant in business, but you can’t shove everything into an ERP system.
However, everyone has their own specialization and it is getting deeper and deeper, you have to know what you are doing more and more. Therefore, a third trend which is very important for me is the trend of integrating different solutions, and composing different solutions to the needs of the client. Here, the element of integration possibilities offered by a range of systems is very important.
In the case of FSS, it is the case that 100% of system functionality that can be obtained through windows, through websites, can also be triggered by appropriate API services, according to the RESTful API technology, which means that they are very well documented, and very easy to use. You can use them and combine the possibilities offered by various open source libraries, various cloud solutions, often based on micro-payments, and artificial intelligence services that are available on the web, and these mechanisms can be connected to this ERP process environment.
Here I would like to come back to these applications of artificial intelligence. How is it actually used in IFS, because many large systems boast that their systems have been using artificial intelligence for years. We know how it works, but how is it for IFS?
Yes, IFS has a real concept on this and I’ll explain more about it in a moment. However, to explain a little more, this term of artificial intelligence is a bit mysterious, in fact it means that computers can process huge amounts of data in a short time and can simply make certain decisions based on the analysis of this data, and then suggest certain decisions to the user.
Just like it used to be that if the computer was to do something, the programmer would open the appropriate code editor and program certain decisions that were prompted by him, or certain paths of logical thinking that were prompted by a specialist. What has changed is now an engine of artificial intelligence. This is an approach where the programmer creates a certain kind of brain, a child who does not know anything yet and he simply feeds it, feeds it with a lot of data, examples, and on the basis of these examples this artificial intelligence brain develops certain intuitions, certain reflexes that decide which way to go. These are very universal algorithms, and now companies approach the use of such algorithms in two ways. The first way is that in fact certain ERP companies decide to create certain solutions like this out of the box and of course give them to the customers. The second approach is that companies employ artificial intelligence specialists, which is a still a rare commodity today, and they invest huge resources in conducting internal development of this type of solution.
Both of these approaches have advantages and disadvantages. The first approach, that is, these solutions out of the box, they will never be perfect. There is no such thing as “one size fits all”, which means that each client will always have their own unique set of needs, data set, their own unique context. However, such solutions are implemented quickly. But this does not give the optimal effect. The second approach, i.e. the involvement of experts and the development of dedicated solutions, ultimately has the potential to deliver greater results.
However, let’s agree, the production company, which is most often our client, or the infrastructure management company, is not a software house, it is not a company that has experience in building such solutions and therefore the question is actually whether such a company should really do it. If they do, their is a very high risk of failure for such an extensive project carried out by a company that does not specialize in it. However, for IFS Cloud, the approach here is slightly different.
IFS focuses on the independence of customers, so that they can build certain solutions dedicated to their needs, but to automate the process of building these models as much as possible. Without making a big deal, without making big investment projects.
There are certain mechanisms for automating the construction of machine learning models or machine learning included in the architecture of the IFS system, and using these models we can supply them with any data from the system or other secondary data sources, teach such a model with the appropriate IFS service appropriate behavior and then apply it in practice, or possibly teach it new situations that will occur in the future.
This is, of course, a vision. This vision is already put into practice through some examples that IFS provides, so that you can preview, have some inspiration, how to use these types of solutions. And here I think that one could mention several such categories of the application of such solutions in the IFS system, i.e. when we look at the categorization of certain events, certain information, certain data, image recognition is a good example.
The possibilities offered by IFS at the moment, for example, to scan a business card at the fair and the system will automatically create a contact person in the CRM from this business card, or the issue of, for example, the settlement of the cost of a conference, where we can take a photo of the system receipt and properly set it up as a record of the costs we incurred during the conference. This is an example of such data categorization services. Another area of application of machine learning is, for example, prediction, i.e. forecasting the future. The system knows what data relates to the past, knows what the situation is, and on this basis it forecasts and predicts what will happen.
A good example here would be sales forecasting for example. Based on how these sales were in the previous periods, but also on the basis of such interesting data as, say, the weather forecast for the industry, for example food and beverages in the food industry, this is a very important parameter and at IFS we can both use the data about historical sales as well as data on the forecasted weather in specific sales areas. On this basis, the system makes forecasts and projections into the future of our sales trends, and thanks to this, production and supply plans can be properly synchronized. Another example of prediction, i.e. predicting the failure of our devices based on various operating parameters of devices in advance, you can warn that attention, something may happen, i.e. before it happens, the right people who manage maintenance have a chance to prevent adverse events. And finally, a third area of application, i.e. control, that is, you can have prescription activities where the system tells us how to behave. It builds some optimal scenarios, for example production schedules, field service schedules, where the system can dynamically react
to everything that happens. If someone reports any shortcomings, if a new unexpected order comes, the system is able to properly manage and propose the optimal queue of tasks and assign them to the right people or resources without the need for a planner’s interaction.
I am wondering now, because it will also be an interesting question, and many people do not know which way it is going, for example, is IFS heading towards standardization, or will it still support custom solutions?
It cannot be avoided that custom solutions will arise because different companies win in a market. If all companies were the same, then it would be difficult for them to compete. Each company has its own know-how, something unique, and IT systems are there to emphasize the strength of a given client, and it is impossible here to design a priority solution that will be able to emphasize every strength of each client, so we will not be able to avoid customization.
However, its character also changes a bit, that is, just like years ago, there were not many options, you had to simply program new functions for specific companies, so now this programming is slowly moving away, it continues, it exists, it functions, it is possible, but there are more and more solution configuration mechanisms available today.
For example, administrative actions, where the programmer does not necessarily have to do it, for example, the system administrator, or maybe a power user can now have the knowledge to expand the structure of the system to create new data sources, instead of storing information on cards or in a notebook, we put it all into the system, and create a certain logic of connections between this data, we create certain business rules for handling this data. At that moment, such elements can be clicked on in IFS Cloud, and configured without touching the source code. It is this great advantage that the system can therefore live and update in a very simple way. So, for example, now, twice a year, IFS provides customers with a new version of the IFS Cloud system with a whole lot, hundreds of new functions. This would not be possible if each client had a solution reprogrammed using an older technology.
I have one last question. How can these technology trends affect your customers’ businesses?
Our clients, there are well over a hundred of them now, are mainly companies from the production industry, or companies managing various types of facilities, infrastructure, i.e. all companies that operate with certain tangible things, so will it affect infrastructure, or will it be the product?
Companies of this type often for many years focused on the tangible product, on pushing the product out of the factory gate. This is an approach that I think still dominates in Poland, but in the world, when you look at these trends, it turns out that the situation is that customers want faster delivery, better customer care and also the whole life cycle care of such a product or facility.
We are entering such a great opportunity for manufacturing companies, where we can offer not only products but also the entire portfolio of services around these products. That is what the servicisation is saying at the moment.
So we deliver a product, but in fact, we deliver not so much a product, but a whole group of services related to this product which simply achieve certain customer goals.
The customer does not need a machine tool, the customer just needs to produce his own product with a machine tool. So a company that produces such a machine tool may not necessarily sell it and forget it when it goes outside the plant, but can provide some machining power services to its customers and simply ensure the efficiency of this device, ensure that it is always in good condition, that consumables are available, that at some point it is upgraded and so on, so on.
So in order to efficiently manage this type of service portfolio around products, and around infrastructure, it is necessary to have an IT solution that can cover the entire life cycle. That is, from the moment when an order, often very personalized, is received by us, this order must be quickly prepared for production, then produced, delivered to the customer and managed in the after-sales life cycle after the first sale. Here, the solution simply has to use one consistent language, it has to be one common platform for managing the product lifecycle. Exactly in the way that the IFS system has been developing for many years. Because it is based on such pillars, where we are talking about manufacturing companies, wealth management companies, after-sales service companies and design companies.
Bartek, in the end, do you see any other trends for next year, apart from ERP systems in the cloud?
Perhaps I would answer yes, a bit perversely that is, the cloud in Poland did not take hold for a long time, we were a bit backwards in relation to the rest of the world. Finally, there was such a boom and in fact, many companies are now looking for cloud solutions. However, will it always be like this, or are these cloud solutions the best approach to how we deliver ERP systems to our clients?
Here again, when we look at the world scale, opinions differ, and not every industry is ready for it. The defence industry, for example, is very reluctant to export its critical data to any cloud, the geopolitical situation is changing, and there are various challenges that make it necessary to be prepared for the unknown. There are many advantages of the cloud solution, but if necessary, it is also possible to go back, for example, to the premises version, or vice versa, to start with the on-premises version with the vision that in a year, for example, we will switch to a cloud version.
Well, it just so happens that IFS gives this possibility, gives the possibility of migration in both directions, it is exactly the same solution that works both on-premises and in the office, and I must admit that I am positively surprised by the IFS strategy that at this point it actually works. It was not created today, but had be invented over a number of years to provide such a solution, and at the moment it turns out that in fact, the future is so uncertain that it is better to have such cloud / on-premises solutions in case of security issues now or later.
Well, that’s a very cool approach. Bartek, thank you for participating in the podcast and I hope to hear from you again.
Thank you very much too.