The 2012 Unit4 customer conference this week at Birmingham’s International Convention Centre incorporated the annual user event for users of Unit4 Collaboration (formerly Business Collaborator), and there were some significant announcements both about the structure of that business and about the future roadmap for its collaboration platform.
I attended the event wondering how relevant the plenary sessions would be. After all, the majority of attendees were financial and HR people there to discuss Unit4’s ERP and financial management solutions. However, in the opening session – an interview with Unit4 UK MD Anwen Robinson and Group COO Ab van Marion, I got a couple of early surprises.
Anwen announced that Unit4 Collaboration MD Sanjeev Shah had joined Unit4’s UK board as business innovation and technology director, and that the collaboration division is no longer a stand-alone business, with effect from 1 January 2012. Its software functionality is now part of the Unit4 product portfolio, which is increasingly embracing cloud-based options, so BC can deliver Software-as-a-Service document management and online collaboration to more of Unit4’s customers.
Talking about future technology trends. Ab picked out the growing importance of mobile technologies and data (apps to be launched in July), the emergence of social media, and business analytics as three key areas for Unit4. Anwen then highlighted BIM(M) – building information modelling (management) – as another key development, particularly for the many Unit4 customers who build and manage buildings. Again, this was linked to BC’s experience in delivering software to support construction and management of built assets; Anwen said Unit4 had identified an opportunity to integrate the ERP-based processes involved in procuring those assets with project team’s BIM-based collaboration through BC. So the big picture for Unit4 is (eventual) integration of ERP and BIM.
After the plenary sessions, the conference broke into smaller sessions, and Sanjeev got chance to explain more about how the technical strengths of the former Business Collaborator business both complemented those of other parts of Unit4 and would be developed further. Essentially, BC – building on its experience in cloud computing and data as a service – will be the document management layer within Unit4, he said, and integration with ERP is essential if the industry is to meet the government’s aspirations and achieve BIM level 3.
Steve Crompton (formerly BC’s technical director, now head of product innovation) then fleshed out some of the detail. He highlighted recent developments such as last year’s launch of BC Six with an improved user interface, support for Microsoft Office, email integration, and developing support QR codes and RFID. Steve then gave an overview of BIM and of BC’s strengths in managing information – the ‘i’ in BIM – was key: “Without information, BIM is just BM: Basically Meaningless,” was one of several good sound-bites, followed by “BIM has to be in the cloud.”
The key message was that Unit4 aims to help teams manage a “full, multi-discipline, information-rich model in the cloud,” enabling access via standard web browsers and via mobile devices, with users downloading as much as they need to work with immediately, not necessarily complete models that contain every detail even if irrelevant to a user’s immediate needs. This prompted some reminiscences between Steve, myself and Mott MacDonald’s Dave Glennon about ‘BIMaaS‘ (2008 post), and ‘atomic BIM’ (2009 post).
Chairman of the BC user group, Mark Bew later gave a useful overview of where the BIM Industry Working Group had got to in developing a coherent industry approach (his presentation included one of the clearest and most succinct explanations of COBie I’ve heard). He, too, mentioned the potential to link ERP to BIM-based collaboration processes as the UK AEC industry applied itself beyond the 2016 Level 2 target.
BC important to Unit4’s future strategy
Between Steve Crompton and Mark Bew, I missed a presentation about BC’s public (REST) Web Services API linking collaboration to Unit4 platforms (Agresso Business World, in particular). Instead, I had a briefing with Anwen Robinson, Sanjeev, VP Product Marketing Ton Dobbe and CTO Peter Brown.
Anwen believes Unit4 is uniquely placed in being able to offer both ERP and document collaboration capability, and both are certainly mature offerings, but I wondered about Unit4’s foothold – BC apart – in the architecture, engineering and construction sector.
She insisted the group had a strong exposure beyond the collaboration solution. She cited use of other Unit4 solutions within Halcrow, EC Harris, MVA and WSP. “Engineering has been an absolute sweetspot,” she said, as Agresso had been developed for people-based organisations (Anwen trained as an engineer). She then listed several industry clients such as Wessex Water, local authorities, retailers Debenhams, IKEA, Greggs, Monsoon and Selfridges, and developer Crest Nicholson. However, Unit4 hadn’t yet really targeted or penetrated the contractor market to as great an extent as consultancies, though it had financial management solutions for subcontractors, for example.
Anwen also said she had been keen to put BIM on the radar of the wider Unit4 user community, as something that could have a future financial impact on their activities -when property investment or procurement decisions had to be made, for example. And Unit4 is committed to incorporating BC functionality into its services to other customers and for Unit4’s internal use – the group is already using BC Assure (post) to support IT project management, for example, and she has demonstrated it herself to customers.
For me, this is both the end of an era and a new beginning. A construction collaboration-focused company I have known for a decade no longer exists as a separate entity, and I won’t be able to track its success and compare its financial performance alongside its peers as I used to. Instead (and as anticipated two years ago), we have the former BC solution – a mature SaaS document collaboration offering – being marketed as part of a wider portfolio to existing Unit4 customers who may be attracted to document collaboration that is integrated with the ERP and/or financial management tools they know and trust, some of which are also being delivered as hosted services. Similarly, existing collaboration users may be attracted by new apps and integration opportunities to invest in other Unit4 business solutions.
Moreover, we are also shifting towards more data-intensive processes – including BIM – and growing customer demands to be able to rapidly and securely access relevant data on any device anywhere is likely to encourage more adoption of cloud-based services. And Unit4’s substantial public sector presence also means it is well-known in the very sector being targeted by Paul Morrell’s BIM mandate.
Unit4’s collaboration business is therefore likely to see increased take-up and it will also be less dependent upon the volatile, low-margin and price-sensitive AEC market. This marriage of business software with construction software may also hasten innovation (Sanjeev’s new responsibility, of course) with development of new tools offering rich levels of data capture, sharing, analysis and reporting to support business decision-making throughout the life-cycle of built assets, and relating the cost and performance of these assets to other business-critical operations.
(Disclosure: my expenses to attend the Unit4 conference were paid by the organisers.)