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Like many other industry observers I’ve heard overblown claims for information technology for decades. However, I’ve also observed that – eventually – reality catches up with vision. Finance and accounting departments are particularly resistant to change, yet because almost no corporations use adding machines or typewriters any more, it’s clear that transformative change can happen. Nonetheless, because users of business computing systems are inundated with “it’s better than ever” promotions by vendors, journalists and industry analysts, may have grown jaded and disbelieving. In the case of ERP systems that help run many organizations, that is too bad because we are finally at the point of a fundamental change in this business-critical software category.

ERP systems themselves have been undergoing transformation, enabled by the growing availability of technologies that can address the shortcomings of established systems and an increasing appetite for multitenant, cloud-based ERP systems. As I noted in my research agenda for the Office of Finance, the demographic shift taking place in the ranks of senior executives and managers – from the baby-boom generation to those who grew up with computer technology – will create demand for more capable software. ERP systems are evolving to deliver a better user experience, greater flexibility and agility, as well as an optimized mobile experience and lower total cost of ownership. The transformation has already started for some vendors and to some degree. The pace of change will increase over the next two years as new releases become available. However, I don’t expect companies to buy a brand-new ERP system just to acquire next-generation features. Our Office of Finance benchmark research finds that on average companies replace their ERP systems only every 6.4 years, mainly because of the cost and difficulty of implementing the software. Moreover, many of these capabilities will be available under maintenance contracts for on-premises systems and incorporated automatically in upgrades of cloud-based systems.

The new generation of ERP systems will be vr_office_of_finance_05_finance_should_take_strategic_roleable to support a more effective approach to managing the functions I call continuous accounting that will benefit finance and accounting departments. By eliminating batch data processing and by supporting analytic as well as transactional operations in a unified system, the next generation of ERP systems will enable companies to provide executives and managers with immediate information, alerts and guidance. It will enable departments to spread workloads more evenly across months and quarters, rather than having to wait until the end of the period. In so doing, many companies will be able to accelerate their close, as I have discussed. Continuous accounting can contribute to providing a strategic focus for the finance organization – a change that organizations will welcome. In our research on finance innovation, nine out of 10 participants said that it’s important or very important for finance departments to take a strategic role in running their company.

In many respects, today’s ERP systems are exactly what people don’t want any more. They are notoriously time-consuming and expensive to set up, maintain and modify. In our ERP research only 21 percent of larger companies said that implementing new capabilities in ERP systems is easy or very easy while one-third characterized it as difficult. For this and other reasons, the current generation of ERP software acts a barrier to innovation and improvement.

To be sure, more than any other type of enterprise software, ERP systems are a challenge because of the complexities of business organizations. This isn’t going to change. I’ve spent decades examining all sorts of businesses from multiple perspectives – from strategic, high-level business models to footnotes in financial statements and the execution of specific manufacturing and financial processes. To the uninitiated, everything about business appears simple until they get into the details. Then, even when you strip out inessential elements, it’s still complicated. ERP is complicated because the underlying business requirements are complicated. For example, in any organization there are competing demands and priorities at work when an ERP system is set up.

Although some aspects of ERP will always be complex and require experienced assistance to design and maintain, techniques for mass customization can make it easier to implement and change, thereby eliminating a significant portion of the cost of ownership. To be sure, software companies have tried to minimize deployment costs. For a couple of decades, ERP vendors have offered packages aimed at specific industries such as aerospace and pharmaceuticals. Those addressing midsize companies, which have tighter budgets than large ones, offer out-of-the-box configurations aimed at even more specific types of business, such as steel service centers, manufacturing job shops or brewers. For more generic businesses, today’s cloud-based ERP systems are one solution to the problem of costly updates and reconfiguration. However, this option still may not be attractive if an organization is in a business that has very specific customization requirements that more generic ERP systems cannot support well (for instance, process-manufacturing industries such as specialty chemicals manufacturing).

One positive development in the ERP category is the increasing attention vendors have been paying to the user experience in the design of screens and workflows. The dull, cluttered and difficult-to-navigate interfaces that have been the norm up to now were the result of inexperience in design and constrained computing resources. The next generation of ERP systems is being designed with decades of experience and far more powerful computing platforms and tools than the current ones. In the 1930s, Raymond Loewy and others revolutionized the design of everyday objects, from soda fountains to locomotives and automobiles so that form and function combined to produce a better product. Today, it’s even more important to apply basic concepts of industrial design and ergonomics to creating user interfaces. This goes beyond making old code bases pretty. Largely because of tablets and mobile computing platforms, people now work with multiple types of interfaces and use a wider range of methods and gestures to interact with their devices. The next generation of ERP software must incorporate these advances and ensure that the screens and their flows are optimized for the device. The emerging generation of finance executives and ERP users won’t put up with the inconveniences and awkwardness that their predecessors reconciled themselves to.

It’s also clear that ERP systems will be faster in the future, as redesigning the software’s underlying data structure and utilizing technology such as in-memory processing will eliminate nearly all batch routines. Faster systems enable shorter cycle times, which promote corporate agility because up-to-date information is available sooner. Another important change that is already under way is the ability to do analytics in real time or near real time on data held in an ERP system. The business intelligence (BI) software category was invented two decades ago to enable companies to get useful information from newly implemented ERP software. While BI addressed this shortcoming, it also added to the cost and complexity of a company’s IT operations.

Another focus of new ERP systems will be collaboration. In-context collaboration provides an important set of capabilities that can improve performance. Rather than following a general broadcast model, social collaboration capabilities in ERP and other business applications understand that individuals belong to multiple groups. For example, people in a company typically have a general role (“I’m in Finance”) and one or more task-specific ones (“I’m the director of financial planning and analysis”). Some relationships are persistent while others begin and end with a project. Issues that arise may be open to all or confined to specific groups, subsets of groups or a private dialogue. Queries or comments may be general, specific or anywhere in between. Some conversations, especially in finance and tax departments, must be tightly controlled. Software that understands the context of the work performed and automates the process of managing the who, what and when of communications will support more effective collaboration, faster completion of tasks, greater situational awareness within the organization and as a result better decision-making. Over the past three years, ERP vendors have been introducing more in-context collaboration capabilities in their software.

Mobile enablement is already an important capability of some ERP systems. However, it’s important that ERP vendors focus on those elements where mobility is important and optimize the user experience for the task and platform. Unlike CRM and sales force automation systems, where sales and service information must be accessible anytime and anywhere, mobility’s importance in ERP depends on who uses it and why. Certain tasks such as data entry are not well suited to mobile devices, while routine reviews and approvals are. These must be simple to configure and deploy as well as use.

vr_erpi_01_implementing_new_capabilities_in_erpMore generally I am convinced that the worst aspect of today’s ERP systems is that they inhibit change in corporations. The lack of adaptability in these systems has infused a “set it and forget it” mindset that inhibits companies from making necessary changes in processes and stifles innovation. The inability to make changes easily to an ERP system inhibits improvements in corporate functions that run on ERP. This is ironic, since one of the factors driving corporations to buy the first ERP systems in the 1990s was their desire to do business process re-engineering, a business strategy of the time. More useful is developing a culture of continuous process improvement, one of the pillars of continuous accounting, in the finance organization. Making ERP more easily configurable by business users supports continuous process improvement efforts.

As the business software market, including ERP, increasingly moves to the cloud, a major challenge facing software vendors is designing their applications for maximum configurability. By this I don’t mean offering the ability to select modules from a menu, but enabling only moderately trained line-of-business users to make granular adjustments to process flow and data structures in a multitenant setting. This lack of flexibility is an important barrier inhibiting adoption of cloud-based ERP. Although user organizations that are more able to adapt to an as-is version of an ERP system are more likely to take the cloud-based option, this covers only some of the potential market. The cloud ERP vendors that offer greater flexibility in allowing individual customers to modify their implementation to suit their specific needs will have a competitive advantage. Multitenant cloud ERP vendors already have had to pay attention to configurability, and on-premises ERP vendors also would benefit from enhancing the configurability of their systems.

Today’s corporations have been willing to put up with the deficiencies in their ERP systems because everyone was in the same boat. That won’t be the case much longer. The cost and complexity of ERP systems has meant that IT departments, not business users, have had the fullest involvement in managing them. This, too, will change. Business users and finance departments in particular will need to be involved in periodic assessments of how well their ERP system supports their responsibilities and objectives. Finance executives in particular should begin this process now by understanding how the application of new technologies can drive fundamental changes in the way they manage their department. Vendors that offer ERP systems that are much easier to configure, use and update, support in-context collaboration and mobility and provide timely, reliable analysis and reporting will survive. Those that excel in these areas will win market share.

Regards,

Robert Kugel

Senior Vice President Research

Follow Me on Twitter @rdkugelVR and

Connect with me on LinkedIn.

Infor recently held its annual Innovation Summit at its New York City headquarters. The company has shown leadership and creativity in business applications on two fronts: focusing its development efforts on enhancing the user experience and collaboration and building an application architecture that will deliver a rich set of functionality for ERP, financial management, CRM and HRMS and business analytics in a multitenant cloud environment. All of these advances were necessary to remake a disparate portfolio of aging software into an up-to-date set of applications. The Innovation Summits have been useful indicators of Infor’s future product and market direction. And while there has been a lag between what’s demonstrated and what’s actually available in the software, it’s not clear that this really matters. Any negative impact is limited by the slow replacement cycle for ERP (our research shows that on average companies replace their systems every 6.4 years – longer than they used to take) and vr_Office_of_Finance_01_ERP_replacementconservative attitudes when it comes to core enterprise systems. Innovation doesn’t seem to be a big factor yet in selling business software to mainstream buyers, but it is likely to become more important within a few years. Changes in buyer preferences will come about as technology puts more of the design and operation of these systems in the hands of business users rather than their IT departments and outside consultants. Increasing the configurability and reducing the need for customization will cut costs, reduce the time to value in purchasing replacement applications and increase the flexibility of these notoriously inflexible systems.

Infor is pursuing three major areas of innovation that are central to the emerging next generation of ERP and financial management software.

  • One is the addition of analytics, reporting and performance management capabilities to what had been a purely transactional system, which I’ve commented on. Companies now are able to create analyses, reports, dashboards and scorecards directly in the ERP system and in real time rather than having to transfer the data to an analytical application (such as a financial performance management suite) or to a data warehouse where analysis and reporting could be done using a business intelligence tool. This can greatly simplify data management and provide executives and managers with more timely information.
  • The second is using in-memory processing and advanced data processing techniques to eliminate batch processing and accelerate the execution of core finance and business functions. Period-end processes that until now have required hours to complete can be finished in minutes; those that have taken minutes can now be done in seconds. Consequently, information that might have been available only monthly can now be presented on a daily or weekly basis. Advanced processing also enables finance organizations to distribute workloads more evenly and help accelerate their close process, potentially by several days.
  • The third source of innovation is adding functionality that either extends a business process further upstream or fills in gaps to achieve complete end-to-end automation of a core process. This functionality may take the form of highly configurable enterprise applets offered by vendors that plug into the core application. Or it may be a special-purpose application built on a vendor’s platform that enables a company to fill in functional or process gaps in the vendor’s multitenant ERP offering.

Infor’s product strategy embraces all three sorts of innovation. At the event it showed its matrix of CloudSuite offerings. which combine any or all of three stand-alone applications:

  • CloudSuite Financials, which is aimed mainly at services (as opposed to product) companies, supports financial, project, lease and asset accounting.
  • CloudSuite Supply Management is purchasing software that manages the full procure-to-pay process and is designed to address the needs of services organizations rather than manufacturing or distribution businesses.
  • CloudSuite HCM provides human capital management capabilities.

These products are available today in a single-tenant deployment and will be available in multitenant form in the near future. In addition to a general purpose corporate edition, Infor will design versions of these stand-alone applications to support healthcare companies and public sector entities. Those two industries are important parts of the company’s existing customer base and are likely to benefit from moving to the cloud because of better service (especially faster implementation of patches and upgrades) and greater efficiency.

CloudSuite Financials incorporates the first two types of ERP innovation mentioned above: more capable and flexible data processing structures and in-memory data processing. Because it’s built on a multidimensional data structure, CloudSuite Financials simplifies accounting in companies that have global operations with legal entities that span multiple currencies, accounting standards, tax regimes and regulatory environments. The software also combines transaction processing with computational analytical tasks such as statutory consolidations. To simplify the need to conform to different global requirements, the multidimensional structure and analytical capabilities permit parallel accounting, consolidation and reporting for any of a corporation’s legal entities (including regional parent subsidiaries) as well as the global parent corporation. For example, a company based in the U.S. that has British, German and Japanese subsidiaries can automate the production of financial statements expressed in U.S. dollars that apply this country’s Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (US-GAAP), while simultaneously accounting for the subsidiaries in their local currencies and applying International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) in preparing their financial statements. Moreover, by statute all Japanese companies have a fiscal year ending March 31. This, too, is handled in a highly automated fashion by the software entirely within the ERP system. Today, to accomplish these multilevel accounting tasks companies must move and manipulate large amounts of accounting data using multiple applications. Even when they employ a high degree of automation in processing data the process is tedious – even more so when accounting departments use time-consuming and error-prone spreadsheets to perform allocations or calculate adjustments in period-end accounting and closing.

Even companies with less complex and far-reaching corporate structures are likely to find the Financials application easier to use than their existing ERP because, for example, the use of role-based process management and dashboards, the ability of individuals to configure reports to suit their needs and the availability of a range of real-time transaction data for reports and dashboards. The applications also incorporate in-context collaboration using Infor’s Ming.le software.

The third area of innovation in ERP and other applications such as enterprise asset management (EAM) or marketing automation is extending their reach into adjacent or complementary functions that are specific to an industry or a company. Doing so enables companies to manage processes with a higher degree of end-to-end process automation and to collect a broader set of data to use in descriptive, predictive and prescriptive analytics. These extensions can increase the value of an enterprise system for the user organization without its having to heavily modify or rewrite the core software. The extensions could be designed to appear to be an integral part of the core application or served up as a stand-alone enterprise applet that passes data to a core application. Some examples of such extensions come to mind:

  • An application that enables a sales or marketing department to quickly create weekly or monthly a personalized electronic sales brochure containing special offers derived from the individual recipient’s specific type of business and items that the customer purchased in the past. Customers would select items and, in so doing, kick off a sales order process that includes all necessary downstream tasks including inventory management, credit approval, order fulfillment and billing.
  • An Internet of Things (IoT) data analysis tool that assesses incoming data streams for specific types of equipment and, when certain conditions are met, kicks off one or more business processes in one or more core enterprise applications. For instance, sensor data indicating a maintenance event might start a process in an asset management application and a purchase order workflow related to parts and services that are required.
  • A predictive analysis tool that, based on purchases to date, alerts individual customers that they may not achieve minimum requirements under a purchase volume agreement. In addition to generating the reminder, the application might also create a list of offers based on the customer’s past buying behavior.

For this type of software to be useful in a multitenant software-as-a-service (SaaS) environment it must be highly configurable with respect to data elements and process definitions so that it meets the requirements of as many types of business as possible. Greater configurability will make it easier for businesses to set up and modify these extensions without much IT or consultant involvement, making the software more adaptable to changing business conditions. Software vendors that can offer a portfolio of prebuilt, highly configurable extensions to their commodity enterprise applications will have a market advantage.

Infor is developing applications that extend the functionality of its core enterprise software using a cooperative development process with customers that it calls a “hackathon.” Software vendors routinely work on development projects with customers to add significant functionality, often for a specific need in an industry. In this way Infor is attempting, in effect, to productize cooperative development efforts. To facilitate the creation of these sorts of applications, Infor has created (and is enriching) a toolkit that is straightforward to use and streamlines and shortens the process of creating extensions. Through the company’s loosely coupled ION architecture, these extensions can exist separately and be incorporated in one or more types of business applications. Hackathons engage a cross-functional team from a customer, including all relevant business and IT roles, to ensure as much as possible that all requirements are met. So far, the hackathons are aimed more at achieving innovative breakthroughs for the customer rather than incremental enhancements. Their value lies in both the development of differentiated offerings that can attract buyers for a broader suite and a bit of a halo effect that demonstrates the value of innovation in ERP.

Business people have long viewed many enterprise applications, especially ERP and financial management, as IT’s concern, not theirs. They view the system as a given, something whose limits one has to work around because it cannot change. Over the next five years the market for core back-office business applications (such as ERP and EAM) will evolve as buyers become more aware of the new, extended capabilities of these systems. Innovation can create useful product differentiation that leads to a competitive advantage in what has been a relatively hidebound set of software categories (especially ERP). For Infor, innovation has been a way to change the image of its products, which were assembled through the rollup of flagging or failing software companies. Innovation has likely had a positive impact on the company’s ability to retain its installed base and increase its revenue from customers, which is essential to its business model. Gains can come from migrating them from on-premises deployment to a multitenant cloud and by expanding the number of Infor applications that these customers use. This is important. Innovation can help, but in a slowly moving market, sustaining a competitive advantage through innovation is likely to be difficult.

Buyers of enterprise software must keep abreast of what’s possible and available. ERP and financial management applications are undergoing the most significant changes in their structure and capabilities since the 1990s. Infor’s customers in particular should stay on top of what’s happening. For the first time in decades, there is a lot.

Regards,

Robert Kugel

Senior Vice President Research

 

 

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