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The enterprise resource planning (ERP) system is a pillar of nearly every company’s record-keeping and management of business processes. It is essential to the smooth functioning of the accounting and finance functions. In manufacturing and distribution, ERPvr_Office_of_Finance_01_ERP_replacement also can help plan and manage inventory and logistics. Some companies use it to handle human resources functions such as tracking employees, payroll and related costs. Yet despite their ubiquity, ERP systems have evolved little since their introduction a quarter of a century ago. The technologies shaping their design, functions and features had been largely unchanged. As a measure of this stability, our Office of Finance benchmark research found that in 2014 companies on average were keeping their ERP systems one year longer than they had in 2005.

Recently, however, we have seen signs of change. The evolutionary pace of technologies that shape the design of ERP systems has been accelerating over the last couple of years. In addition to the cloud there are in-memory computing; analytics and planning integrated into transaction processing systems; mobility; in-context collaboration; and more intuitive user interface design. While ERP vendors generally acknowledge these innovative technologies, our research and conversations with ERP software users indicates that they are just beginning to make their way into product design and thus far have had little impact on the market.

Then there’s the buzz about “consumerized” ERP and other business applications – fresher designs that look and interact with the user like consumer software such as mobile apps on smartphones. Established screen layouts and process designs often are legacies of technology limitations that no longer exist. In addition, increasing numbers of users don’t want or need to interact with their business applications through desktop or laptop computers. Support for mobile devices has become common, but gestures and other new user interface conventions that expand and improve the ways in which users can interact with their system on other devices such as laptops are a likely future capability, especially as touch screens become common on all devices. Voice interaction, a potentially powerful advance, is still in its infancy. Notifications and approvals increasingly will be accessible from wearable devices and mobile technology watches. Since all business is collaborative, we expect in-context collaboration capabilities to evolve rapidly to improve productivity in every business function, enabling greater responsiveness to customers and speeding the completion of core processes.

vr_Office_of_Finance_20_finance_prefers_on-premisesDespite the growing popularity of cloud-based systems, the  issue of where ERP systems should reside is not settled. The cloud is likely to account for a substantial portion of the market. But it’s useful to remember that even though our research shows that resistance to cloud-based ERP is ebbing and that cloud ERP vendors’ sales have been growing faster than on-premises vendors, the cloud still has a small share of the installed base. A significant challenge for vendors of multitenant software as a service (SaaS) is that the key benefit is also a constraint. Because buyers configure the features and capabilities rather than customizing the core code base, implementations can be faster and less expensive. In issuing new releases or modifications to the software, the vendor makes those changes to the code that everyone is running, either immediately or after a grace period. This requires far less work for the customer than having in-house IT personnel update on-premises versions and patches.

The constraint, however, is that the software cannot be customized. As I’ve noted, the primary barrier to making ERP software more configurable is the inherent complexity of the business processes the systems manage. ERP systems must be able to handle the specific needs of users, which can differ considerably from one industry to another and even between specific micro-verticals that might span multiple business units in a range of industries, locations and jurisdictions. If the software cannot be configured to meet the customer’s feature, functionality and process requirements, and if the customer cannot adapt its operations to these limitations, a cloud-based product isn’t a feasible solution. Many manufacturing and product-centric businesses have found it difficult because their requirements are often too specific and diverse. Unlike with on-premises software, there is no option to customize multitenant SaaS offerings to the needs of a single customer unless the vendor is willing to make the necessary changes to the core code base and the timing of those changes is acceptable to the customer.

Some new supporting technologies will enhance the business value of ERP applications as companies adapt their business processes to take advantage of new capabilities. For instance, in-memory computing platforms and big data likely will change how organizations – especially in finance and accounting – work with computers. Processes can be executed faster, and transaction processing systems can include analytic capabilities. Increasingly, ERP vendors will incorporate performance measurement and monitoring as well as building optimization functionality into business processes.

In-memory processing promises a much more interactive experience while big data management will underpin the sophisticated use of analytics to develop actionable insights, alerts and performance measurement from the masses of data accumulating in ERP systems. Mobile technologies, ubiquitous among the new generation in the form of smartphones and tablets, will drive demand for the availability of on-the-fly analytics and dynamic planning to enhance forward visibility and deepen situational awareness to guide transaction processes. Similarly, the emerging Internet of Things (the network of physical objects embedded with electronics, software, sensors and connectivity to enable objects to exchange data with other connected devices) extends the possibilities for expanding the ERP system’s capabilities in automating the handling of physical assets and the associated record-keeping, analysis and process management.

It’s not just technology. Users of ERP systems are changing, and this is shaping ERP system design. Fresher screen designs and reduced screen clutter are some of the initial improvements. 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, is creating demand for software that is both more capable and more usable. Soon, to be competitive, ERP systems will have to deliver three major improvements: lower total cost of ownership, a better user experience and greater flexibility and agility.

Despite these growing demands concerning how it works, though, buyers’ expectations for what ERP software should do haven’t changed much so far. But change almost certainly will accelerate over the next five years. Companies’ selection processes are driven largely by their experience with the last generation of products and the pain points they experienced. They view these systems as notoriously time-consuming and expensive to set up, maintain and modify. Indeed, 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.

Unlike in the shift from mainframe financial and manufacturing management applications to client/server ERP, this time the larger incumbents will be less vulnerable to disruption. One important reason is that their large maintenance revenue streams provide greater development firepower compared to upstarts. Nonetheless, all vendors will be challenged in the market if they fail to evolve to meet the expectations of a new generation of executives and users. Smaller ERP vendors, whether mainly on-premises or cloud-based, will need to invest in enhancing their software at a faster pace than has been necessary over the past decade.

The ERP software market is poised for the first significant transformation since the 1990s and is the rationale for our new benchmark research we will conduct on this topic. A combination of new technologies and changing user demands will drive changes in system design. The result will be systems that are easier to use and easier to modify to suit the needs of customers. A new generation of users will demand software that makes doing their jobs easier, supports their ability to collaborate and work with the system anytime, anywhere. Change is coming slowly, but the landscape of ERP a decade from now will be very different.


Robert Kugel
SVP Research

I’ve written before about the increasing importance of having a solid technology base for a company’s tax function, and it’s important enough for me to revisit the topic. Tax departments are entrusted with a highly sensitive and essential task in their companies. Taxes usually are the second largest corporate expense, after salaries and wages. Failure to understand this liability is expensive – either because taxes are overpaid or because of fines and interest levied for underpayment. Moreover, taxes remain a political issue, and corporations – especially larger ones – must be mindful of the reputational implications of their tax liabilities.

In this context of seriousness, there are five interrelated requirements for the work that tax departments do:

  • The work must be absolutely accurate.
  • Corporate and tax executives must be certain that the numbers are right – instilling confidence is key.
  • Certainty depends on transparency: Source data and calculations must be demonstrably accurate, and any questions about the numbers must be answerable without delay.
  • Speed is critical. All department tasks related to tax planning, analysis and provisioning can become sources of delay in core finance department processes. Being able to quickly execute data collection and calculations allows more time to explore the results and consider alternatives.
  • Control of the process is essential. Only particular trustworthy individuals can be permitted to access systems, perform tasks and check results. Control promotes accuracy, certainty and transparency.

vr_Office_of_Finance_15_tax_depts_and_spreadsheetsThese requirements form the basis of a business case for a tax data warehouse. Properly executed, it promotes all of these qualities. However, our forthcoming benchmark research on the Office of Finance shows that not many corporations have adopted one. Rather, most companies rely mainly or entirely on spreadsheets for provisioning income tax: managing  data, calculations and modeling. More than half (52%) of companies use spreadsheets alone to handle income taxes while just 10 percent use a dedicated application designed for that purpose. Desktop spreadsheets are a poor choice for managing taxes since they are error-prone, lack transparency, are difficult to use for data aggregation, lack controls and have little ability to handle more than a few dimensions at a time. To deal with these deficiencies companies have to spend more time than they should in assembling data, making calculations, checking for errors and creating reports. 

There are strong reasons to change this reliance on inappropriate tools. One is that more companies must deal with an increasingly complex tax environment. Despite decades of talk about simplifying the tax code in the United States, it has grown ever more intricate. For those with a long memory, there was some simplification in the 1980s, but since then complexity has returned with a vengeance. Moreover, as corporations grow and expand internationally, their legal entity structure becomes more multifaceted, and their source systems for collecting and managing tax data can become fragmented. Unless the tax function is completely centralized, companies that operate in more than a handful of tax jurisdictions can find it hard to coordinate their tax data, calculations and processes. Centralization is not a cure-all, either, as the lack of local presence poses its own issues in tax management in coordinating with local operations and finance organizations.

Another reason is that national taxing authorities are beginning to improve their coordination with one another, which means that tax departments will have to deal with increasing complexity in reporting and a more stringent compliance environment. In 2013, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) published a report titled “Action Plan on Base Erosion and Profit Shifting”, which describes the challenges national governments face in enforcing taxation in an increasingly global environment with a growing share of digital commerce. The OECD also is providing a forum for member governments to take action (including collective action) to strengthen their tax collection capabilities. Although the process of increased government coordination is likely to take years to unfold, the outcome almost certainly will be to put additional pressure on companies that have legal entities domiciled in multiple countries. The impact is likely to mean longer and more frequent audits (including concurrent audits by multiple tax authorities) with more detailed requests for information. Increased data sharing among tax authorities will make it even more critical that the tax data – and all the minutiae of adjustments, reconciliations and year-to-year permanent changes – be absolutely accurate, consistent and readily available.

In addition, governments worldwide are increasing their electronic collection of tax data. This enables them to improve scrutiny of tax returns by applying analytic techniques that highlight errors and discrepancies as well as to identify suspicious activities or potentially aggressive tax treatments. Eliminating paper forms allows tax authorities to require even more data from companies. In this environment, having accurate, consistent data becomes essential. Having time to consider the best tax-related options thus becomes even more valuable.

In this increasingly complex and demanding environment it is good news that technology, such as a tax data warehouse, has advanced to become feasible and affordable for the kinds of organizations that can benefit most from it. A tax data warehouse addresses all of the needs of a tax department listed above. A single source of data minimizes errors and ensures consistency. It also promotes transparency, especially when used in conjunction with a dedicated direct tax management application. Because it is possible to exactly recreate the assumptions, data and methods used and because the data and the calculations are consistent, the answer to “where did that number come from” can be found quickly and with complete assurance. The process is better controlled, access to the records and application is more secure, and the entire process is much more easily audited than when working with spreadsheets. Since all of the numbers and assumptions are kept intact and readily available, an audit defense can be performed with less effort and greater confidence. In addition, the ability to create multiple scenarios with different assumptions and treatments enables tax and legal departments to determine the best approach for the company’s risk tolerance. The financial impact of these benefits can be considerable because most companies that operate in multiple direct (income) tax jurisdictions spend considerable amounts of time gathering and assembling data manually. As noted, they often use spreadsheets – sometimes dozens or even hundreds of them – for tax calculations and data storage. These spreadsheet-based systems are built on a weak foundation because of the data issues inherent when there are multiple systems of record and inconsistent data-related processes.

vr_fcc_tax_effectivenessThe evolving tax environment means that tax departments must be in the mainstream of finance organizations. Our research on the financial close finds that a majority of finance executives do not know how long it takes for the tax department to complete quarterly tax calculations. Executives who are not tax professionals usually do not appreciate the important difference between finance and tax data requirements. Corporations are constantly changing their organizational structure as well as acquiring and divesting business units. As these events occur, accounting and management reporting systems adapt to the changes both in the current as well as past periods. Tax data, on the other hand, must be stable. Legal obligations to pay taxes are based on facts as they exist in specific legal entities operating in a specific tax jurisdiction in a specific period. From a tax authority’s standpoint, these facts never change even as operating structures and ownership evolve. Audit defense requires a corporation to assemble the facts and related calculations, sometimes years after the fact. A general finance data warehouse does not deliver this capability because it is not – and for all practical purposes cannot be – structured to satisfy the needs of a tax department, particularly those that operate in multiple jurisdictions.

To ensure accuracy and inspire confidence in the products of the tax department’s work, it important for tax departments 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 controlled process which uses a single set of all relevant tax data. A readily accessible authoritative data set makes tax department operations more efficient. Reducing the time and effort to execute the tax department’s core functions frees up the time of tax professionals for more useful analysis. In a more challenging tax-levying environment, 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 provides corporations and their tax departments with the ability to better execute tax planning, provisioning and compliance.


Robert Kugel – SVP Research

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