I had the pleasure of attending Workday Rising 2016 in Chicago this week, where the HCM and financials vendor took the wraps off three major new product releases, provided detailed future road maps and showcased top customers.

Along with the headline news, Workday provided me with some valuable one-on-one discussions with top executives and customers. What follows are the key highlights from those conversations.

Western Digital Goes Big with Workday HCM

Integration of IT systems is always a crucial element of any successful acquisition. But when Western Digital bought Hitachi Global Storage Technologies in 2011, it received quite the curveball in the form of a "hold separate" order from China's Ministry of Commerce. 

The order meant that WD had to run HGST separately from itself, with a "complete firewall between the two entities," says WD CIO Steve Phillpott. The hold lasted a full three-and-a-half years, finally being lifted in October 2015. 

Shortly thereafter, WD got even bigger with the $19 billion purchase of Sandisk in May. There is no similar holdup as with the HGST deal, which on one hand is good. But it also means Phillpott is facing a sizable IT integration task. After all, you don't often see "three like-sized companies coming together at the same time," he says. "At a minimum, I have three of everything."

WD had been running Workday HCM and has brought HGST onto a separate instance. A project is ongoing to merge the two now, with Sandisk to follow.

WD's Workday implementation has some interesting flavors, such as the deployment of 200 kiosks at manufacturing sites. That's necessary since many of its workers are direct laborers, versus office employees with laptops and desktops. WD has also deployed an HR service desk on top of ServiceNow. The system handles both IT and HR tickets in the same platform, Phillpott says.

WD has about 75,000 users on Workday at present. A crucial element of the implementation was integration, with more than 200 separate integrations required. "It was one of those where we put a lot of thought and effort into it and it went pretty well," Phillpott says. "The Workday integration platform is pretty robust."

WD is using cloud services extensively, with the list including Box, Jive, Salesforce and Office 365. To Phillpott the value of cloud services lies in the ability to keep applications current much more easily, particularly with regard to security.

Not every IT problem is solved through the cloud, of course. Skill sets need to change, with staffers needing to have a holistic view of how data, business processes and analytics affect the business, Phillpott says. "It's about getting them to not think, 'I'm a Siebel person," he says. "That change is big."

Workday says the number of customers using both its HCM and financials software in a strategic manner is on the rise. WD is not among that group, at least for the immediate future. Phillpott expects to be focused on HCM over the next couple of years, and already has another financials system. 

California College of the Arts Takes the Workday Student Plunge

Workday Student, the company's entry into the student information management system long dominated by the likes of PeopleSoft Campus and Ellucian Banner, is one of its most ambitious product development efforts to date. One of the earliest adopters is the California College of the Arts, which has about 2,000 students.

CCA was saddled with a legacy SIS system that few, from students to faculty, had much good to say about upon her arrival in 2012, says CCA CIO Mara Hancock. "A lot of the data they were seeing wasn't accurate," she says. "There were parts of the organization that didn't want to use it."

Workday first announced Student in 2013, rolled out a number of modules over the next couple of years, and delivered the first version of the full suite at Rising. 

CCA became interested in Student and joined Workday's strategic influencer program for its development, which involved about 40 institutions of varying sizes. The process included three design sprints, where Workday's UX team came in and worked with students and faculty, Hancock says. The finished product reflects the feedback CCA stakeholders provided: "It built my confidence that as a company they're able to do the right things."

Due to their inherent complexity, SIS projects have sometimes been plagued with ​cost overruns and delays, and have even resulted in lawsuits. Hancock expressed confidence in the school's implementation partner, IBM, which created a Workday practice through the acquisition of Meterorix.

CCA's IT staff wants to be hands-on with the system once the work is complete, however, and the relationship with IBM is enabling that. "We want to work with implementation vendors that teach us to fish," Hancock says. Change management is going to be a priority for the Student project at CCA, which Hancock expects to take between 18 to 24 months. While the school is certainly clamoring for a move off the legacy system, "higher ed is not always the best at change management," she adds.

Workday Planning and Learning

One of the other notable products delivered at Rising was Workday Planning. Prior to now, Workday had relied on partners such as Anaplan and Tidemark for planning. While those vendors offer broader capabilities and more use cases than Workday Planning's initial release, Workday says its entry is a superior alternative for customers since it combines HR and financial data in a single system.

Over time, Workday Planning will be robust enough to replace the likes of Oracle Hyperion, says Workday VP Betsy Bland. Key to Planning's development will be the integration of technology Workday acquired from Platfora, which will greatly enhance customers' ability to work with both Workday and non-Workday data.

Workday also announced the availability of Learning, its entry into the moribund LMS (learning management system) market. Two customers are already live on Learning, says Workday SVP Leighanne Levensaler. 

Workday doesn't really want to frame Learning as simply a new LMS, Levensaler says. Rather, it is positioning Learning—which extensively incorporates video, both in terms of distribution and content creation—as a reinvention of the product space. "Corporate training people still say, 'can I look at your LMS?" she says. "We have to change the market and the definition."

Most companies today have multiple LMSes that target various types of workers. Workday Learning is nimble enough to serve multiple audiences, Levensaler says. "It's a replacement market of many, and it's use-case driven," she says. "That's why we're open-minded to selling this without HCM attached."

The CEO Perspective 

Workday CEO Aneel Bhusri fielded questions from analysts during a session at Rising and had some provocative things to say. 

For one thing, Workday's platform is now robust enough that it's time to pull out a clean sheet of design paper, Bhusri says. "We have to go back and reimagine some of the applications we built five or six years ago.”

However, don't expect Workday to develop a sprawling portfolio. "Our goal isn't to have a lot of modules in the bag," Bhusri says. "We look at the world the way Apple does, with full products that deliver." Still, "I think the bag is going to grow," he adds.

Meanwhile, one of the biggest tech buzzwords of late is AI (artificial intelligence), but it's one Bhusri isn't a big fan of. "I’m very careful to use the word AI," he says. Technology that truly mimics the human brain is "years away," he adds. "AI is hype for machine learning and we’ve already built that into the platform."

Workday's PaaS Plans

While Workday opened up its integration platform years ago, it does not currently offer anything like a full-blown PaaS (platform as a service). This will change, but not immediately, says David Clarke, SVP of tech development. 

"We’re reaching a point where the application portfolio is at a good level of maturity and we're highly confident in the scalability of the platform," he says. Currently there are 250,000 active integrations being managed by Workday's system, and soon the company will ship Designer, a tool that end-users can use to personalize their Workday application experience. 

What Workday doesn't offer is any outside access to its core runtime. While Workday's software is written in Java at its core, the company's developers work in an abstraction layer built on a proprietary language called XpressO. "The platform we will have is a business runtime," Clarke says. "It will be a place where you can productively build business applications."

The wild success of Salesforce's Force.com, which uses a proprietary Java-like language called APEX, has shown that the proprietary approach to PaaS can work just fine. Still, Salesforce found it necessary to offer a more open PaaS, which gained with the acquisition of Heroku. There are ample other options for polyglot PaaS in the market today as well.

XpressO will likely be opened up first to a select set of partners that will build specialized apps on it, Clarke says. Over time, Workday will consider ways to introduce multi-language support. 

24/7 Access to Constellation Insights
Subscribe today for unrestricted access to expert analyst views on breaking news.