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One of the charitable causes to which I devote time puts on an annual vintage car show. The Concours d’Élegance dates back to 17th century France, when wealthy aristocrats gathered with judges on a field to determine who had the best carriages and the most beautiful horsepower. Our event serves as the centerpiece of a broader mission to raise money for several charitable organizations. One of my roles is to keep track of the cars entered in the show, and in that capacity I designed an online registration system. I’ve been struck by how my experiences with a simple IT system have been a microcosm of the issues that people encounter in designing, administering and using far more sophisticated  ones. My most important take-away from this year’s event is the importance of self-service reporting. I suspect that most senior corporate executives – especially those in Finance – fail to appreciate the value of self-service reporting. It frees up the considerable resources organizations collectively waste on unproductive work, and it increases responsiveness and agility of the company as a whole.

vr_ss21_spreadsheets_arent_easily_replacedElectronic reporting began as a solution to paper print-outs, reducing the resources required to transmit information needed by individuals and making it easier for them to find information. Over the past couple of decades, these enterprise reports also have become much easier for IT professionals to create and maintain, but they are still time-consuming and aren’t particularly flexible. Rather than have their IT department create another version of a report, people often copy an electronic report, paste it into a spreadsheet, reconfigure the information to suit their needs and distribute the modified spreadsheet to a group of people. For this and other reasons IT departments have found it difficult to get business people to stop using spreadsheets. Our benchmark research on spreadsheets finds this is the number-one impediment to change. Spreadsheet users value control and flexibility. This is precisely what self-service reporting delivers without the time-consuming hassle of manually creating and distributing spreadsheet reports.

It’s useful to think of self-service reporting as an attitude and approach to using information technology than as a specific software product or category. It starts with the basic assumption that individuals in organizations must be able to retrieve information they need from the systems they use. This does not replace periodic enterprise reporting, dashboards, scorecards and other such “push” communication methods. This is not the once-voguish concept of “democratizing business intelligence” either; that was still too complicated for the vast majority of users. It’s more like replacing telephone operators with a direct dial system. (Note to readers under 40 years old: Once upon a time it required human intervention to connect your phone to someone else’s.) The goal of self-service reporting is to make broad sets of data readily available and give people the ability to access it (subject to permissions) as well as easily organize and display it in the form and format that works best for them.

In the early days of business computing, simply collecting and having access to company data was a breakthrough. Over the past decades, corporations automated and instrumented a broad range of functions, and the challenge lay in collecting and managing the data. Although companies still face many issues in data management, devolving reporting to the individual is now a critical issue companies must address. Well-designed self-service reporting improves the productivity of individuals in both IT and the rest of the organization. The controller of a midsize company recently told me people had been spending one-and-a-half days per month creating reports for senior executives and operating managers after the monthly and quarterly accounting close. Talk about unproductive use of resources! This is an extreme example but emblematic of time routinely wasted on something individuals ought be able to do on their own. From the IT side, far too much time is devoted to creating and maintaining reports – it’s akin to still having switchboard operators on staff to route calls.

Self-service reporting exists both as a feature of enterprise applications and in stand-alone products designed to work with applications that lack this capability. In deciding whether to replace existing software and in any vendor selection process, it’s important to assess benefits of self-service reporting capabilities. This is especially true as mobility increasingly is built into enterprise business applications. Anytime, anywhere access to information is one of the most important reasons why companies invest in mobility and demand this capability in the software they buy. Being able to drill down and around in the data contained in such reports provides a powerful incentive to replace spreadsheets. But there are also stand-alone products that can provide self-service reporting capabilities within legacy systems.

For our service organization this past year I still created a limited number of spreadsheets for individuals and groups that are not on our system. The only data issues we had were created when someone copied and pasted information from our reports into another spreadsheet. Errors are inevitable, and even in our local event there are unfortunate consequences when they occur. For example, telling someone who has just spent hundreds of hours preparing his or her car that the vehicle is not eligible for an award because it was not on the list of judged cars (even though our system showed that it was supposed to be judged) provokes the same level of irate response one might expect when a CFO is informed that there’s a material error in the published financial statements.

Self-service reporting is fast becoming a standard capability within businesses. It’s part of a generational change that is redefining corporate computing. People beyond a certain age still expect information to be given to them. Younger people want to get the information they need themselves and expect to have the ability to do so. IT departments must identify opportunities to offer self-service reporting and implement it wherever possible. Business users – especially those in finance roles – should familiarize themselves with self-service reporting – especially stand-alone tools that they can use and administer – and implement it wherever it is feasible.

Regards,

Robert Kugel – SVP Research

Like other vendors of cloud-based ERP software, NetSuite offers the key benefits of software as a service (SaaS): a smaller upfront investment, faster time to value and potentially lower operating costs. Beyond that NetSuite’s essential point of competitive differentiation from is broad functionality beyond financial management, including capabilities for customer relationship management (CRM), professional services automation (PSA) and human capital management (HCM). These components make it easier for businesses to manage processes from end to end (such as quote- or order-to-cash) as well as to have transactions and business data available in a single system in consistent forms and synchronized. This in turn facilitates real-time reporting, dashboards and the use of analytics that integrate a wider set of functional data. Midsize companies are most likely to benefit from this integration because typically they have smaller, less sophisticated IT staffs than larger ones. A side benefit of having a single, integrated data source is improvement of situational awareness and visibility for executives and managers. It also enables organizations to reduce their use of spreadsheets for stitching together processes, doing routine analyses and reporting. These sorts of activities waste valuable time and reduce an organization’s agility.

vr_Office_of_Finance_01_ERP_replacementThis year SuiteWorld (NetSuite’s fourth annual user conference) was attended by some 6,500 people. This number as well as the company’s $500 million in projected revenues are evidence that cloud-based ERP has become mainstream. Yet cloud deployments still have a limited share of the total ERP market and an even smaller share of the installed base. One reason is the ongoing (albeit diminishing) reluctance of finance organizations to use the cloud for mission-critical and data-sensitive tasks. The other is the slow replacement cycle for these major systems. Deploying any ERP system is time-consuming and expensive, so corporations prefer to change them only when the situation is urgent. Our forthcoming benchmark research on the Office of Finance shows that companies of all sizes are replacing their systems at a slower pace than before: The average age of an ERP system today is 6.4 years compared to 5.1 years a decade ago.

Companies that deploy their ERP system using a SaaS vendor can achieve faster time to value in part because they do not have to deal with hardware and software integration issues. Those that opt for a multitenant cloud approach can support their business needs without having to customize their ERP system, which is frequently the cause of very long deployment times. The challenge facing NetSuite and other ERP vendors with SaaS offerings is enabling more businesses to configure a range of elements so that the system meets the specific needs of their company and industry. Moreover, the next generation of ERP – the core financials, manufacturing, operations and distribution – must enable line-of-business people to modify the system to adapt to changing business environments and adjust business processes to reflect evolving internal requirements and adoption of new management methods.

vr_ERPI_01_implementing_new_capabilities_in_erpNetSuite’s new SuiteGL moves in this direction. In our research on ERP innovation only 21 percent of large companies said it is easy or very easy to implement new capabilities in ERP systems, and one-third characterized it as difficult. Because of this, the current generation of ERP software is a barrier to innovation and improvement. To be sure, the initial configuration of and major modifications to a new ERP system almost always require a mix of external consulting, internal IT and business people to achieve the best outcome. But even here software vendors must radically reduce the system’s setup cost. Today, the cost of implementation can be up to five times the cost of the software license. In the future, companies must be able to do this at a fraction of that. Cloud-based systems can enable these kinds of savings if managed properly and using the right set of applications.

At SuiteWorld, company executives pointed to a growing list of large customers. Partly for bombast but also to inspire buyer confidence, software vendors that sell to midsize businesses tout their larger customers even though these corporations almost always are buying the product for midsize business units. Since the 1990s, many larger entities have used a two-tier ERP strategy. That is, they buy a system designed for midsize companies because it would be too difficult or costly to implement and maintain their core ERP software at these locations. Cloud ERP is suited to tier-two use. Often, it is an attractive option because it requires no on-site servers or software that requiring maintenance and upgrades. Cloud-based systems make it easier to maintain financial and IT controls such as separation of duties and IT security but require integration at process and data levels to operate efficiently.

NetSuite also has incorporated the professional services automation (PSA) capabilities that it acquired in 2008 with OpenAir. Its Services Resource Planning is geared to professional services organizations such as consultants, engineers or architects as well as the professional services arms of larger organizations that can benefit from automating project management, resources management or time and cost accounting. In the past, relatively few professional services firms embraced a high level of automation in managing their business, partly because of the difficulty of implementing and managing on-premises software. Because they eliminate this aspect of software ownership, cloud-based systems work well for these types of organizations. Also, cloud systems are a more natural fit for the mobile nature of professional services business since the revenue-generating assets are professionals who are rarely in the office.

Since ERP systems require deep functional and technical expertise to configure and implement, good channel partners are essential to the success of any software vendor. NetSuite’s channel efforts are gathering momentum, including accounting and audit firms with technology practices, specialized ERP resellers and business process outsourcing consultants. The ecosystem is growing, too, with application partners such as Kyriba for treasury management (which was awarded our Technology Innovation Award and received NetSuite’s Partner of the Year award in 2014), and Coupa for spend management and electronic procurement. It also expanded its HRMS and talent management offering with the acquisition of TribeHR that helps human resources professionals. Gaining integration with NetSuite cuts the cost of implementation and ongoing maintenance in these and other areas as well as speeding time to value.

There are a couple of areas, though, where NetSuite needs to enhance its capabilities. Social media has quickly evolved from the one-to-many broadcast style of Facebook and Twitter to include options that enable specific, permissioned groups to easily communicate while retaining a record of these communications. NetSuite has some capabilities in this area but in particular it needs to concentrate on meeting the needs of people working in finance and accounting. As I’ve noted, finance organizations are social, but broadcast-style communications often is not appropriate. Groups may be broadly defined (say, everyone in accounting) or more narrowly focused (just those working on the close) or established for a specific project. These systems work best when functionality automatically adjusts to the context of the work the individual is performing. It should “know” when the individual is engaged in the accounting close, budgeting, billing and so on.

From the start NetSuite provided users with basic dashboard functionality to monitor the status of their part of the business. These capabilities have been updated in the current release of the NetSuite platform. While the improvements are necessary, greater investment must be made in enhancing its analytics and reporting. Facilitating the use of more effective analytics would also be useful, especially since its system captures a broad range of financial and operational data in real time in a single store or might need to be shared with other systems. NetSuite has a strategic relationship with Birst, a cloud-based vendor of analytics and business intelligence software, which offers Birst Express for NetSuite. Our most recent Mobile BI Value Index rated Birst as a Warm vendor – that is, it meets basic requirements well but does not offer the full range of available capabilities across smartphones and tablets and range of mobile technology platform providers.

Many companies are finding that cloud-based ERP has advantages. Not only can it have initial and ongoing cost savings and faster time to value, it eliminates the need to devote IT resources to what is a commodity-like operation and is better suited to many businesses with remote and multisite operations. Many will require integration to other business applications that could be on-premises or cloud-based ones that might require data or notification of completion. NetSuite also has functionality that supports the needs of businesses that make or distribute physical goods, which is more difficult to create than services. And cloud-based ERP is an option that any rapidly growing small business or a smaller midsize company (that is, one with 100 to 200 employees) should evaluate if its entry-level accounting software is not able to provide capabilities to manage the business effectively.

Regards,

Robert Kugel – SVP Research

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