By Aaron Lazenby
It doesn’t matter whether you manufacture paint or provide IT consulting services: if you’re in business, you have to go digital—at least according to Lyle Ekdahl, Oracle senior vice president of product development and longtime JD Edwards technology guru.
And he would know. For more than a decade, Ekdahl has worked with companies around the world to hear their business needs and translate them into effective enterprise resource planning (ERP) technology. “Across the installed base, a recurring theme is our customers are in some process of becoming digital businesses,” says Ekdahl.
But can a business race forward and maintain a hard-earned position? Here, Profit speaks to Ekdahl about the tension between the change that is disrupting business and the demands business leaders are putting on their enterprise systems to deliver more automation and more efficiency at scale.
Profit: You’ve been in the ERP game for three decades. What has changed the most about the role of ERP in an enterprise?
It’s all about finding that ratio of stability and innovation that keeps you ahead of the competition.”
Ekdahl: I think the biggest change has been an evolution from ERP being a mostly static system to becoming a dynamic contributor to the business. If you think of the old days of ERP, it was really all about what I would call a boom and bust mentality. You’d go through these big upgrade cycles to get a ton of new capability, and then once you got that in place, you’d sort of put everything on hold for years and you would just run with that. The idea was don’t touch it, and don’t disturb it.
But that’s not the way the world works anymore. People are thinking much more in terms of continuous evolution and continuous response to the market. And they’re looking for their ERP systems to respond in kind.
Profit: ERP systems play several vitally important roles in business operations, where stability and efficiency are vital. How do ERP systems accomplish those goals while simultaneously enabling change?
Ekdahl: There is a trick to all of this. Technologists love to imagine what’s possible, but those explorations can’t distract from the core business. On the other hand, while things outside your window are moving very fast, it’s still possible to get buried in the day to day. So, there needs to be a balance—a balance that must be attuned to variables such as business size, location, industry, and more.
I believe it’s incumbent on Oracle to bring new ideas to our customers. I think we do it well, combining our immediate knowledge of our customers’ operations with the right stuff that connects those operations to new opportunities. And we listen back, adding new functionality to our applications in response to what our customers are asking for.
Profit: How has your development team reacted to that feedback, especially as the enterprise cloud era has arrived?
Ekdahl: We set some strategic product development priorities that, I think, deliver the right mix. It all starts with ERP; we have to invest in the functionality that our customers need. Specifically, we are building more depth in what I would call administrative and operational processing with a focus on the industries we support.
The next area is user experience, where we are looking to bring ERP functionality closer to the ways our users work today. We’re also focused on integrating with digital technologies, which means making sure JD Edwards can connect to internal and external systems to connect ERP capabilities to devices as diverse as a worker using a mobile device or a sensor on a truck.
We have to take an approach that looks at how to leverage the work that has already been done. If I’ve already been on an ERP journey, how do I look at cloud as the next step in that journey?”
And then finally, cloud is a strategic investment area. JD Edwards customers must be able to trust that cloud services can be spun up as needed and be able to interact seamlessly with JD Edwards without a whole lot of effort.
Profit: How does your focus on ERP functionality support customers who are eager to embrace digital business?
Ekdahl: I believe that any path towards digital business starts with automation. Removing manual steps and paper from business processes has been the constant in ERP over time, and that is the heart of automation.
Beyond that core ERP benefit, increasingly I see customers who want to leverage the information captured within an ERP system for better decision support and exception-based processing. This is an expansion of what is possible for core ERP functionality.
But when I look at what I’m most proud of over the past year, it’s the power of JD Edwards becoming a continuous delivery engine for ERP. We’re now able to deliver updates and enhancements into the marketplace on a rapid and continuous basis. This gives our customers a choice to select capabilities and apply them to their business as required and as they choose. This helps maintain that balance between stability and innovation that we’re looking to strike for our customers.
Profit: How has that continuous delivery of functionality helped enable new ways of working for JD Edwards users?
Ekdahl: We’ve seen a lot of change in the industries we operate in. Continuous delivery lets us release functionality to get ahead of this change without waiting for a major release.
For example, hands-free computing is no longer a novelty. You may be in a clean room with heavy gloves on or operating complicated equipment. In that environment, you may still need a way to interact with the ERP system. But it’s a major work disruption for you to write some information down on a piece of paper and take that record to someone to key into the ERP system. That’s so much friction, and customers are really trying to get away from that. They’re being driven to be more real-time.
So to remain competitive, we need to make sure our customers can interact with our systems as part of an overall digital mesh. That’s what we want our ERP system to be part of.
Profit: How is JD Edwards helping customers embrace that “digital mesh” you mention?
Ekdahl: What we’ve done is expose JD Edwards through a layer of modern APIs and REST-based services so we can interact with not just other Oracle solutions but with anything that’s in a customer’s environment or outside their environment. Think both inside and outside the firewall. That’s what we call the application interface services.
More importantly, we’ve both front-ended that and supported that through something we call the orchestrator, which allows customers to take various inputs or combinations of inputs—think of them as conditions or transactions—and translate that into automated process inside of JD Edwards and then flowing out of JD Edwards.
To remain competitive, we need to make sure our customers can interact with our systems as part of an overall digital mesh. That’s what we want our ERP system to be part of.”
So if you think of how we’d apply that to a sensor on a physical asset, we can use the ERP system to ask basic questions. Where is it? What is it doing? How is it doing? Do we need to take some proactive action to make sure that it continues to operate? Being able to answer those questions gets into true resource planning.
Profit: JD Edwards has a decades-long pedigree as a leading on-premises ERP system. How does that history intersect with the enterprise cloud?
Ekdahl: Well, we start with the understanding that many of our on-premises customers have invested a lot of capital, blood, sweat, and tears over the years to create these systems. So the reality is we have to take an approach that looks at how to leverage the work that has already been done. If I’ve already been on an ERP journey, how do I look at cloud as the next step in that journey?
We look at all investments that Oracle makes holistically and figure out how we can use that to benefit our customers in the markets we serve. When it comes to software as a service [SaaS], we look for Oracle Cloud applications that complement JD Edwards—where are there opportunities to improve using more best-of-breed components that could be available in a readily consumable cloud service?
With platform as a service [PaaS], we’re looking for more-technical components to help our customers extend what they’ve done with JD Edwards. At the infrastructure-as-a-service [IaaS] layer, that’s really about the optimization of what customers have already deployed with JD Edwards.
For example, if you need to modernize your data center for your JD Edwards instance, Oracle Cloud can solve that. Or if you want to extend JD Edwards functionality to mobile devices, but you want to be able to secure and manage that device, Oracle’s PaaS capability can do that through Oracle Mobile Cloud Service.
Profit: What technologies do you think JD Edwards customers should be watching out for on the horizon?
Ekdahl: I believe virtual assistants and chatbots are a very real and valuable addition to the enterprise. Augmented reality technologies are becoming more commonplace than you can imagine. And we started exploring these things in our JD Edwards labs a couple years ago, and now we’re seeing customers with practical applications for these things.
There’s so much amazing stuff happening in the realm of business computing that it’s really easy to get caught up in the fascinating use cases. But it’s all about finding that ratio of stability and innovation that keeps you ahead of the competition. From what I have seen this year, our JD Edwards customers are in a great position to benefit from both.
Photography by Ray Ng