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Our benchmark research on next-generation business planning finds that a large majority of companies rely on spreadsheets to manage planning processes. For example, four out of five use them for supply chain planning, and about two-thirds for budgeting and sales forecasting. Spreadsheets are the default choice for modeling and planning because they are flexible. They adapt to the needs of different parts of any type of business. Unfortunately, they have inherent defects that make them problematic when used in collaborative, repetitive enterprise processes such as planning and budgeting. While it’s easy to create a model, it can quickly become a barrier to more integrated planning across the business units in an enterprise. As I’ve noted before, software vendors and IT departments have been trying – mainly in vain – to get users to switch from spreadsheets to a variety of dedicated applications. They’ve failed to make much of a dent because although these applications have substantial advantages over spreadsheets when used in repetitive, collaborative enterprise tasks, these advantages are mainly realized after the model, process or report is put to use in the “production” phase (to borrow an IT term).
Host Analytics Modeling Cloud is designed to address the needs of people who – often working alone – create representations of the business or portions of the business used in a collaborative planning process. These individuals often create analyses and reports that complement the planning process. To date most dedicated applications have been far more difficult than spreadsheets for the average business user to use in the design and test phases. To convince people to switch to its dedicated application, a vendor must offer an alternative that lets users model, create reports, collect data and create dedicated data stores as easily as they can do it in a desktop spreadsheet.
Modeling Cloud is designed to integrate individual businesses unit plans with a company’s financial planning, forecasting and budgeting. It attempts to address the spreadsheet problem by enabling individuals in business units to create and update plans and budgets and their underlying models in a way that is consistent with what they are used to doing, but also makes it easy to tie these together to achieve an integrated company-wide view. Compared to desktop spreadsheets, this approach better enables a company to analyze and refine plans and budgets. It also facilitates advanced modeling capabilities such as rolling quarters forecasting and contingency and what-if planning. Compared to desktop spreadsheets, with Modeling Cloud it’s much easier to consolidate the plans from multiple contributors and then drill back down into individual plans and their underlying assumptions. The software also has mobile features that enable individuals to review, contribute and approve plans and budgets on the go. Each of these capabilities increase the business value of the company’s planning and budgeting.
People and businesses plan in order to be successful. Companies do a lot of planning – some formal and some informal – about all aspects of the business including sales, production, headcount, distribution and the supply chain. Done properly, planning is the best way to get everyone organized in executing the plan. At that point they can take advantage of collaboration, which is essential to effective planning and budgeting. Our research finds that in the large majority (85%) of companies that collaborate well in their planning and budgeting processes participants regard it as well managed. Dedicated applications work better than desktop spreadsheets when it comes to bringing individual models, plans, budgets and forecasts into an integrated companywide view. In contrast it’s difficult and time-consuming to combine desktop spreadsheets into a consolidated view, and it’s even harder and more tedious to look back into the underlying data in seeking a better understanding of important differences between individual plans and models.
Modeling Cloud is designed to address an important need in corporate planning – closely tying all aspects of business planning to financial planning and budgeting and helping organizations collaborate across business silos. Our research shows that integrated planning works better, as I have written : Two-thirds of companies in which information in individual plans is directly linked have a planning process that works well or very well, compared to 40 percent in which the information must be copied and only 25 percent where there is little or no connection. As a rule, providing users with a familiar environment in which to create business models, create and compare different business scenarios, analyze actuals and create reports goes a long way toward mitigating the difficulty of having to learn to use a new tool that has been a barrier to the use of dedicated planning software across an enterprise and makes it easy to directly link plans. Business planning can be more effective if individuals have software that gives them a high degree of flexibility to create models and plans in a way that works comfortably for them yet also facilitates the integration of everyone’s plans into a consolidated view. Our research shows that dedicated planning applications can help users align their plans with strategy and the rest of the organization. For example, companies that use them said twice as often that they are able to estimate accurately one plan’s impact on others as those that use spreadsheets. In addition, two out of three that have dedicated applications said they are satisfied with their planning process and that their plans are accurate.
Information technology has the potential to make business planning more useful, as I have noted, enabling it to improve a company’s performance and increase its competitiveness. One of the necessary tools for more fully integrating business and financial planning is a software and data environment that enables business people to plan their part of the business in a way that is familiar, productive and useful to them in achieving their objectives. That environment also must enable them to communicate the financial consequences of their business plan to inform the financial forecasting, planning, budgeting and review processes. Host Analytics Modeling Cloud is designed to do that. It’s not a perfect substitute for spreadsheets, which still excel in their ability to help people quickly translate their thoughts into models and reports. But because Modeling Cloud eliminates most of the hassles and defects of spreadsheets (for example, the ability to quickly store, retrieve and consolidate data from a single authoritative source), it is ultimately a much more attractive alternative. I recommend that Host Analytics customers assess using Modeling Cloud in their organization and that buyers of dedicated planning applications include this type of capability in their evaluation of vendors’ offerings.
Robert Kugel – SVP Research
Unit4 is a global business software vendor focused on business and professional services, the public sector and higher education. Recently company executives met with industry analysts to provide an update of its strategic roadmap and to recap its accomplishments since being acquired by a private equity firm in 2014. Unit4 is the result of successive mergers of ERP and business software companies, notably CODA and Agresso. The company is also a part-owner (with salesforce.com and others) of independently run FinancialForce, which sells a cloud-based ERP system built on the Force.com platform.
All vendors of business applications – especially ERP – are challenged today by a more disruptive technology environment than they have faced over the past 15 years. Unit4 is in the beginning phases of a planned evolution of its product and go-to-market strategy designed to gain share in the global ERP market. Parts of what it presented to analysts are already in place while other parts lie ahead still on its multiyear roadmap.
From a technology standpoint, the ERP software market has been in period of relative stasis since the Y2K bubble burst in 2000. Other than the arrival of cloud-based software as a service, the pace of innovation in this category has been relatively slow, especially relative to the pace set in the 1990s. Now this market is in the process of changing and organizations are deciding when to replace their ERP as I have written. The accumulation of more than a decade of small but steady incremental technology advances is giving vendors new possibilities for designing their applications. For its part Unit4 has been evolving the architecture underlying its applications to make them easier to implement (the company calls it “an elastic foundation”). It is also using Microsoft’s Azure platform to enable it to offer, for example, predictive and prescriptive analytics, mobile application functionality and intelligent process automation.
Unit4’s product and marketing strategy aims to seize opportunities provided by technology disruptions to gain share in a consolidating market. We see three main sources of technology disruption that increasingly will be driving buyer preferences in the ERP market over the next decade.
One is the use of technologies to provide new more valuable capabilities. Here are some examples.
User efficiency is increased by greater automation of repetitive tasks (especially in finance and accounting departments). In addition, many legacy ERP systems have gaps in their architecture or their design that require manual process steps, process interventions (that require input rather than requiring it by exception) and manual data transfers. Another aspect of automation is reducing the need for data entry. For instance, an individual’s appointments booked in Microsoft Outlook can be reused for billing. Some of the built-in automation will be designed for vertical industries to reflect their specific requirements.
Overall effectiveness can be enhanced by use of more advanced predictive and prescriptive analytics as an integral part of a transaction-processing application such as ERP. These techniques can improve the quality of decisions that individuals make in executing transactions. Unit4’s strategy is to create vertical-specific advanced analytics to address the needs of these businesses. Effectiveness also can be improved by embedding in-context collaboration capabilities, which I have written about. That is, such software is “aware” of what an individual is doing and, for example, provides ready access to the specific colleagues that the user may need to contact at that moment and enables them to share all underlying data and documents that might be relevant under the specific circumstances (such as a master contract or previous instant messages). Our benchmark research on business technology innovation shows that collaboration ranks second in importance behind analytics as a technology innovation priority. Collaborative capabilities in software will multiply over the next several years as software transitions from the rigid constructs established in the client/server days, which force users to adapt to the limitations of the software, to fluid and dynamic designs that mold themselves around the needs of users. Business is an inherently collaborative process anyway, so such capabilities are important to the productivity of business software users.
The user experience is improved by rethinking its design and organization of the screens. Unit4 aims to improve the mental ergonomics of working with its applications. The redesign reduces screen clutter, facilitates navigation across screens to complete a task and enhances graphics to make interactions more pleasing and efficient.
Unit4 encapsulates these existing and prospective improvements in the slogan “self-driving ERP.” One element of this metaphor is reducing the amount of effort and attention required of individuals to handle mundane repetitive chores. The other is that by using built-in analytics that can spot potential issues and opportunities in the data, individuals will be able to spot and take action on situations that have the highest payoff. The company hopes to extend the capabilities of its ERP software beyond a simple transaction processing engine to include differentiated capabilities to run businesses more -intelligently.
In addition to providing scope for product differentiation, offering organizations far more than a like-for-like replacement of their existing software may provide an incentive to replace existing software sooner. One impact of the slow evolution of technology on the ERP market is that, as shown in our Office of Finance research, on average, companies are holding on to their ERP software a year longer than they did a decade ago.
A second technology that is already disrupting the market is the increasing adoption of cloud-based or hybrid-cloud-based ERP systems by Unit 4’s key target buyers: larger midsize companies in business and professional services, government and higher education. These sorts of organizations tend to have less capable IT staffs and smaller IT budgets than large public companies. This affects the performance of their systems because the software and hardware are not always kept up to date. For these buyers, a cloud-based product can deliver better performance than they currently have at a lower total cost of ownership.
The third disruptive technology approach is permitting end users to configure the ERP application without having to modify its code. Cloud-based applications that are designed to be used in a multitenant environment must be flexible enough to appeal to the widest possible audience. This requires an architecture that enables individual organizations to readily configure processes and make adjustments without altering the underlying code. It also means having industry-specific or even micro-vertical capabilities built into the system. Vendors that want to offer their software in a multitenant environment have to do this, but it is useful even in an on-premises or private cloud deployment because it can reduce the effort and expense of deploying the software. Properly executed, this approach makes the software more adaptable to how a company does business, rather than forcing an organization either to live with the software as is or pay significant fees to modify it to meet specific requirements. Unit4 was already heading in this direction before the change in ownership and management.
The management team also has been tackling internal issues and revamping its go-to-market strategy, essentially completing the integration of the various software companies. The company will invest in promoting a single master brand for visibility. Product naming has been simplified to “Unit4” plus a functional label construction (such as “Financials,” “Professional Services” and “Consolidation”). This will apply across the board except for “Business World,” which has good recognition on its own. Some once local or regional products such as Travel and Expenses are now available worldwide. Unit4 is increasing its exposure in North America, increasing its sales coverage where it has had a limited presence, as well as focusing its European sales efforts in the U.K., France and Germany.
Technology and innovative software design will drive consolidation of the ERP market over the coming decade. Unit4’s management team has made necessary changes to its sales and marketing management. Its strategies are sound and essential to its long-term success in this market environment. Combined they reflect a formula that successful business applications vendors will use to gain advantage in the newly dynamic ERP market. The company is well-positioned to achieve its objectives from product and market standpoints. At the least, Unit4 has the potential to grow faster in its fragmented markets by taking share from smaller vendors that do not have the critical mass to make the necessary investments in products, sales and marketing. (By analogy, this is similar to what happened with a long list of DOS business applications that did not have a recurring maintenance revenue stream to fund redevelopment on Windows.). However, its strategies are not unique. For that reason (and I hate to state the obvious), Unit4’s management will need to execute its strategy well. To ensure that it gains sufficient market share to sustain a competitive position, it will need to innovate faster than its competitors in shorter product cycles and execute in the field consistently.
Robert Kugel – SVP Research