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The steady march of technology’s ability to handle ever more complicated tasks has been a constant since the beginning of the information age in the 1950s. Initially, computers in business were used to automate simple clerical functions, but as systems have become more capable, information technology has been able to substitute for increasingly higher levels of human skill and experience. A turning point of sorts was reached in the 1990s when ERP, business intelligence and business process automation software reduced the need for middle managers. Increasingly, organizations used software to coordinate activities as well as communicate results and requirements up and down the organizational chart. Both were once the exclusive role of the middle manager. Consequently, almost every for-profit organization eliminated management layers so that today corporate structures are flatter than they once were. Technology automation also eliminated the need for administrative staff to perform routine reporting and analysis. Meanwhile, over the course of the 1990s, the cost of running the finance department measured as a percentage of sales was cut almost in half as a result of eliminating staff and because automation enabled companies to scale without adding headcount. During the last recession, companies in North America and Europe once again made deep reductions to their administrative staffs, relying on information technology to pick up the slack.

Given this history, the best career choice that an individual can make today is to stay ahead of the trend. Information technologies, especially cognitive computing, will continue to eliminate relatively high-paying white-collar jobs in corporate life, especially in the finance and accounting function. Executives and others working in tax departments in particular should recognize that a major shift is under way in their field. Automation will transform their work over the next five years, driving a fundamental change in what they do. To succeed (or even survive), they will have to embrace automation.

Spreadsheets are a major impediment to making the tax function more strategic for a company and more remunerative for those working in the department, as I have noted. Our Office of Finance benchmark researchvr_Office_of_Finance_15_tax_depts_and_spreadsheets finds that half (52%) of tax departments use spreadsheets only for tax provisioning and another 38 percent mainly use spreadsheets; just one in 10 utilize a third-party tax application. One well-known issue with spreadsheets is that they are error-prone – not a risk that tax professionals can be comfortable with. To be certain that the tax provision and other tax-related calculations are correct, individuals must double- and even triple-check the numbers. This overlaps with a second major issue with spreadsheets: They are time-consuming. Our spreadsheet research finds that those working heavily with spreadsheets on average spend 18 hours a month (equivalent to more than two full workdays) just maintaining their most important spreadsheet. Spreadsheets as so time-consuming that they prevent individuals from doing more valuable work, in this case tax analysis and planning.

Another related issue is that using spreadsheets for the tax function diminishes visibility into a company’s tax provision in at least two respects. First, using them takes so long that executives get to the numbers late in the financial close process. This matters because of the impact that tax expense has on a company’s profits. Second, spreadsheets are black boxes: That is, they are difficult to control, and it’s difficult for anyone other than the spreadsheet’s owner to understand their construction. Often, assumptions are buried in formulas and therefore hard to uncover. If these formulas are inconsistent or wrong, it’s not easy to spot them. (This was an important factor behind J.P. Morgan’s multibillion dollar trading loss, which I discussed.) When a spreadsheet is constructed with a given formula repeated in multiple cells, each of these must be updated when circumstances change, and it’s difficult to be certain that all of the changes have been made. Even with advanced techniques designed to make updates consistent, it’s hard to be sure that some cell wasn’t overwritten with another number.

Some people who work intensively with spreadsheets still view them as a form of job security because of their opacity. They think they’re indispensable because they are the only one who understands how their spreadsheet works. This is one of several reasons why their use persists in functions where they constitute more of a problem than a solution. However, these spreadsheet jockeys should recognize that their tools’ inherent inefficiency, lack of visibility and proneness to error make them vulnerable to being replaced by better technology. The real value of tax professionals is not their ability to overcome spreadsheet limitations. It’s in their training in understanding income taxes. Once freed from the drudgery of performing computations, massaging data and checking (two or three times) for errors, tax professionals can turn their attention to performing analytical work aimed at optimizing a company’s tax spend – and thus ensuring their value as employees.

Midsize and larger organizations, especially those that operate in multiple direct (income) tax jurisdictions and that have an even moderately complex legal entity structure, must use dedicated software to automate their income tax provision and analysis functions. They must manage their tax-sensitized data using what I call a tax data warehouse of record. Tax departments must be able to tightly control the end-to-end process of taking numbers from source systems, constructing tax financial statements, calculating taxes owed and keeping track of cumulative amounts and other balance sheet items related to taxes. Transparency is the natural result of a having controlled process that uses a unified set of all relevant tax data. An authoritative data set makes tax department operations more efficient. As noted, reducing the time and effort to execute the tax department’s core functions frees up the time of tax professionals for more useful analysis. Having tax data and tax calculations that are immediately traceable, reproducible and permanently accessible provides company executives with greater certainty and reduces the risk of noncompliance and the attendant costs and reputation issues. Having an accurate and consistent tax data warehouse of record enables corporations and their tax departments to better execute tax planning, provisioning and compliance. Using dedicated software today rather than relying on spreadsheets helps the tax department, and those working in it, increase their strategic value today so they won’t be obsolete tomorrow.


Robert Kugel – SVP Research

Infor described this year’s Inforum user group meeting as a coming-out party for a large startup company. Such a debut was necessary because Infor had been operating in something of a stealth mode for the past three years: a limited marketing presence, no unified message and a weak, sometimes inconsistent brand identity. It also needed to formally introduce Infor to customers of Lawson, the ERP supplier it acquired last year. The “startup” designation is meant to signal that Infor has been able to render a decade-long consolidation of dozens of smaller companies into one cohesive entity.

I think the current management team has put Infor – particularly the pre-Lawson portion of the portfolio – solidly on the road to viability. This has been no small feat. It’s hard to amalgamate a mix of smaller applications software companies, none with substantial market share. Unlike bringing together a more homogenous set of businesses (say, metal fastener distributors), achieving operating efficiencies has required from Infor a clever dose of pragmatic technology, notably its ION middleware. Infor has had to create a software architecture that makes it easier for both the company and its users to maintain its applications. As well, ION makes it feasible for users of software to upgrade it or migrate to other portfolio applications and to add complementary applications without difficulty.

One of Infor management’s more important objectives for the conference was to get across to users its new strategy, which I covered in an earlier blog. The keynotes on the first day provided the long version of what I expect will be the company’s core message over the next year or so. To persuade its installed base to stay with it, Infor is promising they can keep what they have for as long as they want. Moreover, it will make it easier and less expensive for them to get a broader set of capabilities, such as analytics, performance managementsocial business applications and cloud-based applications designed to meet their specific needs from Infor rather than going to another vendor. None of these products breaks new ground; all are necessary for the company to remain competitive. For new customers, Infor is offering the promise of faster time to value and potentially lower implementation costs in its targeted verticals. I think this is the right message, but it will require frequent repetition and an aggressive marketing effort supported by a solid roster of willing customer references.

Serious challenges remain for Infor in the business environment and in executing the strategy. After a decade of modest, incremental improvements, the overall pace of technology change is accelerating. The software consolidators of the past decade benefited from limited technological evolution as they tried to stitch together their acquisitions. The slowdown extended the useful lives of enterprise applications, especially record-keeping systems such as ERP. Vendors have been able to keep customers paying software maintenance and had time to integrate the pieces of their portfolios. Now this is changing. For example, companies see that cloud computing can be a better choice for deploying software than doing it on-premises, whether functionally, economically or both. Increasing numbers of people are working with mobile devices, larger sets of data and more sophisticated analytics. Customers’ expectations of how to interact with systems are starting to change as vendors tout the “consumerization” of their business software offerings to make them more like the apps available on mobile devices and more appealing to the social media generation of business users. Infor is responding to each of these, including creating positions for Senior Vice Presidents of Cloud and Speed to promote rapid product development and innovation.

In addition, while Infor is now the third-largest enterprise software company, it is competing with a roster of cash-rich titans (notably IBM, Microsoft, Oracle and SAP). Infor’s recent recapitalization put it on stronger financial footing, but it is still highly leveraged. To the extent that it is successful in generating incremental revenue, it will be able to get cash to pay down its debt. Solid revenue growth also would give it the opportunity to raise equity in the public market and de-lever its balance sheet even faster. The downside to this virtuous circle, however, is that to the extent that Infor is unable to generate “escape velocity” revenue growth, it will crimp its competitiveness because of the need to service the debt. For this reason, how well the organization executes is very important.

In my opinion, Infor faces at least four substantial execution challenges in achieving its objectives. The first is to build broad awareness of the benefits of Infor’s approach and the value of its software. One of Infor’s key strengths is its installed base of midsize companies.  These buyers want software that doesn’t require much customization and implementation effort because they have small IT staffs and limited budgets to buy, implement and maintain the software. Infor’s “micro-vertical” applications provide deep functionality built for specific types of businesses. For instance, this means not just the food and beverage vertical but milk producers, brewers or bakers, each with its own business-specific capabilities, units of measure and workflows built into the software.

A second challenge is to identify, define and refine a set of core sales offers that promote cross-sells or up-sells with the most revenue-generating potential. Infor offers a lot of options, but there are endless permutations of what customers can do using ION and individual pieces of Infor’s portfolio. To accelerate clarity of what’s possible and promote sales execution, I think Infor needs to define offers for the needs of specific sets of users. The new mobile and cloud applications utilizing ION are certain to be attention-getters and likely to be among the most quickly adopted, but I don’t expect them to be big earners.

A third challenge in this chain is that sales execution. Whether it’s inside or outside sales, in each of its traditional areas (ERP, analytics and other software categories across multiple micro-verticals) Infor is now offering a broader, more complex array of purchase offers than before. Training sales people to be able to understand customer requirements and communicate value propositions among all the options will not be easy. Simplifying this with a short menu of predefined offers can make it easier for the sales organization, but it’s just a start.

The fourth issue is demand, which is a function of buyers’ software budgets. Of course, the better Infor is able to articulate and demonstrate the value of its solutions, the easier it will be to close business. Moreover, the company is expanding its presence in rapidly growing countries such as Brazil and China. Yet however compelling Infor’s value proposition may be, other capital or operating budget priorities and spending constraints are likely to be a limiting factor, especially in its core market of midsize companies. This factor to some extent may be beyond Infor’s ability to change.

Infor’s attempt to rationalize and overhaul a sizable portion of the U.S. software business has been a big bet. I’m encouraged by what I saw and heard at Inforum. The real test is whether it will be able to sustain double-digit license revenue growth and its retention rate of existing clients in the mid-90 percent range over the next six to eight quarters. That’s a challenge for any large startup.


Robert Kugel – SVP Research

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