Unit4 CEO Mike Ettling on people-centric, HCM-inflected ERP

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Unit4 CEO Mike Ettling discusses the midmarket vendor's evolution to multi-tenant SaaS ERP and the "people experience" of ERP for service industries.

There is a guilelessness in how Mike Ettling talks about software as a vehicle for helping people reach their potential. Consistent messaging over many years isn't exactly proof of sincerity, but finding higher purpose in technology truly seems to be a motivating force for Ettling.

He has had ample opportunity to apply his philosophy over nearly three years as CEO of Unit4, a 41-year-old ERP vendor based in the Netherlands, as he led the firm's  transition to the cloud and put the "people experience" at the center of its ERP design and marketing.

The South Africa native is a high-profile player in ERP and human capital management software. He was president of SAP SuccessFactors for nearly four years until February 2018. This experience at one of the biggest vendors of SaaS HCM after SAP acquired the company, plus an earlier stint as chief executive of NorthgateArinso, an HR services provider, makes him one of the few executives -- along with the founders of Workday -- to bring an HCM mindset to ERP.

The resulting people-centric strategy at Unit4 informs not just its new, SaaS-based ERP platform, ERPx, but also aligns with the markets it targets. They're all service industries: professional services, nonprofits, the public sector and higher education.

In an interview for the podcast, Ettling discussed how his SuccessFactors experience has influenced Unit4, the migration from on-premises ERP to multi-tenant SaaS and how customers are taking to the microservices architecture of ERPx. He also previewed the out-of-the-box, industry-specific integration "meshes" to enable workflows between applications that were introduced at Unit4's Experience4U annual conference.

Unit4 CEO Mike EttlingMike Ettling

Unit4 ERP not just about HR

In a blog post about what it means to be people-centric, Ettling named the following as guiding principles:

  • fostering a culture where people feel valued;
  • deemphasizing quantitative measures in favor of qualitative, values-driven ones;
  • building products that enable meaningful work instead of distracting from it; and
  • replacing the old assembly-line approach of ERP with one that emphasizes the employee experience regardless of industry.

Despite the strong HR bent, Ettling was quick to point out in the interview that Unit4 started from a finance perspective, unlike some ERP competitors who emphasized HCM. He, too, has a strong background in finance, with a master's in finance from the London Business School and years as an investor, advisor and twice founder of tech startups.

"It's not just about how people experience an HR system," he said. "It's about how they experience all of these things, and how it comes together in a professional services firm."

As for Unit4's migration to the cloud, Ettling said it is going well.

"We will finish 2020 with about 49% of our recurring revenue being cloud. Next year, we will tip over the 50% mark, which is a great kind of tipping point to get on the on-prem-to-cloud journey," Ettling said.

The COVID-driven need to support remote work was a factor, but the bigger driving force is companies wanting to digitize, he said. "The best tools for digitizing are in the cloud. You don't read about great digitization tools which are still on premise anymore."

Other things go into modern ERP besides multi-tenant SaaS, according to Ettling. It's also microservices, open APIs, extensibility and more tools for integrating the ERP and improving the user experience with technologies such as chatbots. Not coincidentally, those are the same features Ettling emphasizes when pitching Unit4 ERP.

Also discussed in the interview:

  • how the ERP needs of midmarket companies differ from those of small businesses and large enterprises;
  • Unit4's user-experience "layer" vs. other ERP vendors'; and
  • progress toward the vision of a more responsive, automated and "pervasive ERP."

To hear the podcast, click on the link above.

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