TORONTO – Chat with Workday Inc. CTO Stan Swete for any length of time and it becomes obvious why his firm’s enterprise resource planning (ERP) software is a favourite of more than 1500 enterprises, including such tech luminaries as Adobe Systems Inc., LinkedIn, Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) Co., and Netflix Inc.: the dedication to innovation and versatility baked into its eponymous platform’s DNA.
From its beginning, Workday was developed around what were considered three key innovations in ERP software at the time, he says: it was cloud-based, featured an easily navigated, user-experience-focused interface, and – a factor that continues to set the company apart from many of its competitors, Swete notes – was designed to be updated twice yearly, with all subscribers using the same platform.
“The idea behind Workday was to seize an opportunity to take a relatively new and different approach,” Swete (pronounced “sweet”), who has been with the company since it started in 2005, tells ITBusiness.ca. “Our belief was that enterprise systems aren’t generally used by the enterprise, they’re used by highly-trained back-office users, who then turn around and send spreadsheets and reports to everyone else.”
“We didn’t want that model,” he continues. “We wanted people to interact directly with the system to both get their information out and put it in. And we understood that to do that you had to have a more compelling user experience.”
The company’s developers also looked at the (high) cost and (low) ease of ownership for competing enterprise applications, and believed early on there was an untapped market that would welcome a platform that didn’t require a drawn-out, on-premise installation.
“We didn’t think that there was a good track record there,” he says. “Enterprise solutions are complex by nature – during your implementation you typically customize them to fit your company, and then the track record had been that once you got into production it became increasingly hard to make changes.”
How it works
In its present form, Workday is monitored by technicians with access to each client’s Workday, which they continuously maintain over the course of its redevelopment. Before each network-wide upgrade, potential upgrades are uploaded and marked as being at one of three stages: in development (can only be seen by developers), preview (select customers subscribed to a “sandbox” mode can access the feature and offer feedback), or product, at which point it’s incorporated into the latest upgrade and can be turned off or on.
When implemented, new features are typically turned off by default.
“We try to let customers have it both ways,” Swete explains. “So we can be pretty aggressive in pumping out features – a typical update will involve hundreds… and if the customer chooses to stay vanilla, or keep the version they had in the previous update, they don’t have to turn them on. They have that control.”
The company also incorporates user feedback into its updates, running an online community that invites users to submit suggested features, which it calls “brainstorms,” and encouraging them to vote for their favourite proposals. The platform’s most recent version, Workday 28, incorporated some 290 features derived directly from this process, in addition to around 200 of the company’s own ideas, Swete says.
That approach has led to updates of varying quality, he acknowledges, but some have been outright game-changing: The shift to mobile, for example.
“It’s interesting – we were excited about mobile six years ago, but it’s taken until now for customers to really start making it part of their basic implementation,” Swete says. “It’s also exciting because it really helps engage everyone in the enterprise… If you can show executives and employees dashboards and spreadsheets on their iPads and smartphones, it helps draw them in, and you get the support that you really need to have success across the board.”
He cited the example of Workforce customer MGM Resorts International, which saw more than 94 per cent of its employees log in within six weeks of its installation.
“You start to bump into people hailing a cab outside of the MGM that will give a demonstration of Workday on their phone simply because they’re using it, y’know?” Swete says. “That’s a game-changer.”
Many user experience upgrades have also been game-changing, he says, such as the introduction of collaborative spreadsheets last September.
“Think Google Sheets embedded in an app,” Swete says. “So you have your team viewing planning information, but making updates and comments that other people can see, and then receiving feedback for those updates in the Workday system so you don’t have to export and import planning sheets.”
Power of One
One factor that has always remained central to Workday’s development philosophy is what its vice-president of financial management products, Betsy Bland, calls the “Power of One” model – one system, one application, one version, with every customer always using the latest, most secure version of its software – and one community, with users providing feedback that is frequently incorporated into the platform’s twice-yearly updates.
“I think we can all agree that a high-performing organization is an informed organization,” Bland said during her keynote at the company’s Elevate Toronto event on April 13. “The faster that you can get information and data into the hands of the people that need it, the better off you are.”
Swete believes the company’s late start also helped give it a leg up: “I think there were a lot of ideas that we were able to put into our solution, like flexible business processes and a real focus on compelling UE, that everyone would want to do if they could start over in 2005,” he says.
As for what comes next, Swete says the Workday team looks forward to introducing an as-yet unnamed product that he describes not as business intelligence (BI), but “BI-like,” as well as Prism Analytics, a new file system cluster that will be incorporated into Workday 29 and allow clients to upload data from outside Workday.
“That’s going to be huge, because most people want to use data that we don’t source in things like planning,” he says. “So I think that’s a big step forward.”