Unit4 on growing up

Heard of Unit4? Do you care? You should do. They are much more mature in thinking about partnering and offering solutions rather than selling buit and bytes.
Written by Dennis Howlett, Contributor

This week I attended Unit4's UK customer conference. Who? What? Never heard of them? You should. While tiny in the US, Unit4 is a $600 million applications vendor that has quietly carved out a solid reputation for providing agile financial solutions in public sector and retail but which can do much more.

The last few years, the company has been banging the BLINC (Business Living In Change) drum as a way of articulating its ability to easily mold information to changing needs. But that message is becoming a little tired and has to compete with the claimed agility that cloud vendors offer. In a touch of irony. Unit4 is the parent for FinancialForce which is part owned by Salesforce.com, providing financial and most recently business process solutions to the professional services industry.

This week I sat down with Anwen Robinson, who has just completed her first year as head of the UK operation. I wanted to get a sense of what partnership means for the company. (See video above.) In essence what Anwen is saying is that customers are not necessarily aware of just how much Unit4 solutions can deliver. That in turn means the company is becoming much more solutions focused and prepared to offer services that might include integration with competing vendors.

It is rare to hear that said openly and with such candor. One interpretation might be: we have no choice. Another might be: we're more mature than the adolescent sniping that goes on between vendors.

I've known the underpinning Unit4 solutions for many years including Agresso and CODA. The company is extremely well managed and more often than not delivers on its promise. They were very early into providing business intelligence as an integral part of the whole offering.

Their current strategy, while not setting the world alight in new and sexy ways demonstrates a maturity of approach I rarely see among vendors. What is especially intriguing is the way they are melding on-premise, shared services and cloud within the same umbrella with an ease that seems to escape other vendors. That should be admired. There is no other vendor out there currently capable of living with all those moving parts without fear of ticking off investors.

As a side note, four out of the seven UK board members are women. Congratulations to Unit4 and Anwen for making that happen. It is very rare to see women take center stage in this fashion and guess what? They returned +35% EBITDA last year.

I expect to hear more good things from a company that is trying its level best to do the 'right thing' by its customers in a cash constrained market.

But then all is not as sweet as I may be portraying. The company's mobile strategy is fashion driven. They want to concentrate on Android and iPhone. Duh? No BlackBerry in sight...Similarly, the company's social computing strategy is at best woolly and at worst a pipe dream. Unit4 knows it needs to be a lot better at collaboration but has yet to flesh out what that means. It has done a lot of work to better understand the user experience including elements of collaboration. Even so, I remain concerned it has not thought this through in the same way that, for example, Salesforce.com is corralling its customers around Chatter.

For entertainment purposes I asked a couple of customers the same playful question: "Heh - everything's moving to the cloud, what are you doing about that?" They gave me a stony look before answering in terms that I could not possibly repeat on ZDNet.

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