ePlus — Exploring a P2P Vendor That Deserves to Be Known For Technology, Not Just Patents (Part 1)

Over the course of 2011, I've spent a good deal of time getting to know ePlus. The time investment had nothing to do with wanting to dig into anything patent-related -- everyone knows our views on that already (Ariba and ePlus as plaintiffs, in separate cases, both included). No, my focus on looking at ePlus was directed at wanting to better understand exactly what they had under the hood and what they were thinking about the future of the P2P market. What I learned was quite impressive, and dare I say, thought provoking. Unfortunately, ePlus covered some forward-looking items that I can't talk about yet, but it suffices to say that they are anything but an organization resting on their legacy application's laurels.

The real strength of ePlus both historically and today is, without question, their catalog management capability on software and solution bases (they also manage content on an outsourced, SKU-level for organizations). Yet under a broader umbrella, they position their overall spend management solutions as falling under "Procurement Intelligence", facilitating "Smarter Shopping" and "Better Buying." ePlus still labels its broader procurement suite as Procure+ and also has a solution called OneSource specifically for the purchasing and compliance of IT acquisition and management. These solutions also contain a number of different solution elements that go beyond the historical playgrounds in which it played -- eProcurement, catalog management and asset management. Their current offerings have now expanded to include SKU-driven supplier management (and supplier self-service), document management to enable sharing and collaboration of invoices, drawings and images, inventory management and spend analytics.

In a multi-part post exploring ePlus' current position and role in the market, we'll delve into their core areas of strength and touch on their broader solution set. Coming from their historic role as a VAR in the IT space, their solution set is informed by the ability to manage somewhat large and diverse sets of production SKUs from all angles -- buy from third-party, buy from inventory, buy manufacturer direct, sell to customer, etc. Earlier ePlus releases within the eProcurement space suffered, in certain cases, from weak user interfaces although much of the underlying thinking of role-based search and buying was solid. They just needed to execute. And from our own experience spending a few hours on demonstrations and talking to a number of references, it seems that they've done more than just put some effort behind shuffling in the right direction -- now they're clearly marching to a new beat, although from a drum that does not quite sound like anything else in the market.

Before digging into ePlus solutions, it's worth expanding on their philosophy for a moment to better gauge where and how they've invested their R&D dollars in recent years. ePlus takes serious this notion of providing intelligence -- read, in most cases, "thorough and accurate content" -- at the right stages of the ordering (shopping) and contracting (buying) process. Their new release, which we'll explore in subsequent posts, builds from a set of content-focused delivery and analytical bones to deliver a much-enhanced overall experience than before. For example, front line users (i.e., requisitioners) can now take advantage of an easier search capability from within a single user interface that capitalizes on all the underlying content management ePlus has had over the years.

This includes the ability to index various sites across the web (and internally) and only punch-out to third parties when necessary. Specifically, users can search a range of internal product categories, internal "inventory rooms" or stores, indexed sites (e.g., Grainger) or punch out for complex configuration (e.g., Dell/Cisco). But critically, shoppers can do so with a single search capability that allows them to then compare information in a very comprehensive side-by-side manner, even when data is coming from different sources without the user knowing where to look in the first place.

On the other side of the spend coin, procurement organizations now have greater visibility into a range of interactive metrics, risk and compliance statistics within their ePlus desktop, including dashboards on purchasing activities and supplier performance. Most important, the analytical layer is pushed to the buyer rather than pulled from queries or reports. The underlying complexity in both requisitional buying activities (including subsequent workflow an activity sets off) and the active management, approvals, routing and reporting function is designed for messy real-world environments. For example, the application can support the notion of tiered pricing based on order volumes (behind the scenes or presented to frontline users), local pricing and minimum order values/quantities.

Yet without a front-line user experience that makes all of this easy, ePlus would not have a chance of competing against the advances that other best of breed providers have made in the usability area -- not to mention the rapid catch-up ERPs have made. Stay tuned as we profile and consider the actual ePlus shopping experience as well as the plumbing that stitches orders, approvals, invoicing and eventual payment together in the forthcoming posts in this series.

Jason Busch

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