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When it comes to making a business case for software investments, many people fail to recognize that the case itself is just one part of what amounts to an internal sales and marketing effort that they must perform well to be successful. Focusing only on the numbers and assumptions in a spreadsheet is not enough. Making a successful business case requires an understanding of the audience’s perspective and motivations. Since the individuals who will review the business case may not be sufficiently aware of the issues that are behind it and their seriousness, it may be necessary to begin an awareness-building program before presenting the business case. And because the benefits of software investments can be difficult to quantify, executive sponsors are useful in achieving acceptance of these calculations. Unfortunately, many business cases founder because proponents do not realize the importance of taking a sales and marketing approach.

We usually ask participants in our benchmark research what softwarevr_NG_Finance_Analytics_16_barriers_to_investing_in_finance_analytics they use to manage or support a process and whether their company recently considered replacing it. Typically, two-thirds of companies have within the past year or two evaluated an alternative to the software they’ve been using for the subject of the research. However, only 15 to 20 percent actually acquire and deploy new software. The remaining number is divided between those that decided not to replace their software and those that are still considering it. Those that have opted not to replace the software typically give as the main reasons a lack of resources (47%), of budget (45%), and of awareness of the problem (40%), as well as no executive sponsorship or support; they also often say the existing software works well enough and the business case wasn’t strong enough. We get much the same responses from those that are still considering replacement, as well as that they’re still in the evaluation process. Of course it may be true that there was no budget or sufficient resources, or that the existing software works well enough, but we think it’s more often the case that the business case wasn’t strong enough and so the investment was deemed a low priority.

One common mistake of advocates for new software is failing to consider how the proposed investment will meet the needs and motivations of all of the people who will be evaluating the project. Their needs might be different, or they may have different priorities. For instance, the advocate may want to make some process more efficient so that he or she won’t have to work so many nights and weekends, but this is likely to be of little concern to those who have to approve the investment. For those decision-makers, the ability to get information sooner, gain deeper insight or reduce their risk exposure may be the key benefits. In some instances, those evaluating a project may not be aware of what’s possible. Awareness-building may be a step that has to precede by weeks or months the formal presentation of a business case. For example, executives may not understand that they can get information in real time or the following day rather than having to wait a week, and that the competition is already able to do that. They probably haven’t given it any thought.

Another pitfall for advocates is failing to secure executive sponsorship before proposing an investment; lacking that substantially reduces the chance of success. This can be tricky because today’s software investments are rarely made for direct cost savings alone. In the early days of business computing, IT investments were made to eliminate the need for clerks and bookkeepers, so there was a direct, measurable savings involved. Today, these sorts of benefits represent a fraction of the value of software investments. Instead, the benefits include, for instance, getting information sooner or shortening the end-to-end length of a process. The end result may be improved customer service and, therefore, customer satisfaction – benefits that executives understand. When the business case presents an answer to the question, “What’s it worth to this company to cut cycle times from two months to one week?” It’s important that someone with sufficient stature in the decision-making process will vouch for the answer in the business case as well as reiterate the urgency for making that particular investment right away. It’s even more important to have the right sponsorship when the impact of the investment spans business units or functions; this should be either an individual with sufficient seniority or multiple sponsors from within these groups.

vr_NG_Finance_Analytics_15_business_considerations_for_investmentsProbably for those reasons, participants asked to identify the most important considerations that lead to the successful presentation of a business plan  most frequently cited executive sponsorship (67%) and an understanding of the potential value (that is, those making the decision were aware of the problem and the value of addressing it). Being able to demonstrate increased efficiency, reduced risk and enhanced effectiveness (such as by being able to meet audit or compliance needs) are also important.

Independent information technology research from a reputable source can help software advocates make their case more effectively. It can illustrate the common issues that companies face and quantify the impact of addressing them. At Ventana Research we design our benchmark research to be able to assess how well companies perform in executing core business requirements. Research is constructed to measure the connections between the people, process, information and technology components used and the results organizations achieve. Since software investments are rarely made solely on efficiency gains, our research measures effectiveness as well. That includes a range of topic-specific aims, such as customer satisfaction, cycle time reduction, deeper understanding of root causes, increased visibility, greater agility and improved coordination in responding to change, to name just a sample. This type of research can be helpful in making a business case as well as in creating awareness within an organization of the need for change, generating interest in implementing change, and justifying the investment in technology that enables information improvements to achieve the organization’s objectives.

I’ll repeat that building a better business case for buying software involves more than just putting numbers on a page. It’s a sales and marketing effort that begins with understanding the full range of objectives that the investment can achieve. It’s essential that the proponents understand the aims of all the decision-makers and influencers in the company, not just in their own department. They must be able to clearly communicate how the investment will address the needs of all concerned. Identifying others’ objectives should make it easier to gain the necessary executive sponsors while failing to secure sponsorship diminishes the chance that the investment will be funded. Moreover, having credibility at each stage in the process of making the business case is also essential. Please investigate some of our benchmark research that bears upon your work and business issues, and let us know how we can help.

Regards,

Robert Kugel – SVP Research

Finance departments don’t immediately come to mind in conversations about social collaboration technology. Most of the software used for social collaboration that I’ve seen demonstrated focuses on the vr_bti_br_technology_innovation_prioritiessales process or for broader employee engagement. The Facebook-style interface may cause finance department managers and executives to roll their eyes, especially if they’re over 40 years old. Yet business and social collaboration is an important set of capabilities that has been taking hold in business. Our benchmark research shows it ranking second behind analytics as a technology innovation priority. It will gain adoption 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 the user. Perhaps because most of the attention so far on the benefits of collaboration has focused on front-office roles, there’s less awareness of the potential in back-office and administrative functions. Indeed, the same research reveals that those in front-office roles five times more often than those in accounting and finance roles (21% vs. a mere 4%) said that business and social collaboration are very important to their organization. However, I assert it’s just a matter of time before the finance group understands that social collaboration has substantial potential to improve its performance.

In examining why this change will occur, let’s start with some background. “Doing business” is all about collaboration, on which my colleague Mark Smith commented in an earlier perspective. Before communication technologies began to eliminate the constraints of time and space, people relied mainly face-to-face collaboration. (Postal letters were another option but they were very slow and limited interaction.) Voice mail was the first breakthrough in enabling people to collaborate quickly across time and space. Busy individuals could conduct conversations through a series of voice messages, discussing an issue in some depth and agreeing on an approach without speaking in real time. Much of business investment in information technology over the past two decades has been aimed at enabling good communications among different elements located in separate buildings, cities and even countries. The same is true for finance.

We all know that the eruption of social media – in both group settings like Facebook and one-to-many channels such as Twitter – has changed the dynamics of how people – especially those under the age of 40 – communicate. A couple of years ago, a group of teenage girls became trapped in a sewer under Adelaide, Australia. It took several hours to rescue them because the one with a phone used it to post their plight on her Facebook page rather than call someone. This example may be extreme, but it illustrates intergenerational differences in expectations of how one communicates. As with IM, software companies that build business applications are beginning to include Facebook- and Twitter-like capabilities to support collaboration. Examples include application platforms such as Salesforce.com’s ChatterIBM’s Connections and stand-alone software that can be integrated with another vendor’s offering such as Socialtext that is now owned by Peoplefluent. Software that fosters collaboration can improve efficiency, for example, by resolving issues faster or finding easier or less expensive alternatives to addressing a need. It can improve effectiveness by improving customer satisfaction or enabling more informed decisions sooner. It can foster better alignment across business units as well across and within departments by enabling closer communications among their people.

Social collaboration is off to an encouraging start, but it’s easy to see where improvements are needed, especially to be useful to the finance function. Ideally, collaboration software will be able to understand the context of the work at hand, the role of the individual participant and the relationships the individual has with others in that context. A technology like Google Glass has the potential to enable a manager, while reviewing a report, to see that there have been comments posted related to specific numbers, text or charts and then select and read these just by moving his or her eyes.

As well, software imbued with social collaboration capabilities should understand and automatically manage the various types of relationships among individuals. 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 somewhere 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 the communications will support more effective collaboration, faster completion of tasks, greater situational awareness with the organization and as a result better decision-making.

Which brings me back to the relevance of social collaboration for finance professionals. There are many use cases for comprehensive collaboration capabilities in ERP or accounting and financial performance management software. A good deal (maybe too much) of what goes on operationally in finance departments involves checking details and correcting errors – activities that require direct communications. Resolving billing issues could be streamlined if receivables and sales or payables and purchasing were connected to the appropriate collaborative network in the context of executing business processes. For example, end-of-period reconciliations could proceed faster if communications among the right people in the departments involved less effort. The financial close has multiple steps where time saved by resolving snags or clearing up ambiguities consistently can have a meaningful impact on shortening the process. Likewise, planning and review involve a great deal of collaboration, especially in understanding assumptions and expectations or providing perspectives on causal factors behind better or worse than expected results.

Unlike those in sales and marketing, the stereotypical accountant and finance specialist is not thought of as “social.” And at the moment, few people working in finance departments say that social collaboration capabilities are very important to their jobs. An important aspect of my research agenda for this year points to the need to address the demographic shift from executives and managers from the baby-boom generation to those who grew up with computer technology. These shifts will drive demand for a new generation of software, one that emphasizes IT-enabled collaboration, mobility and agility. Social collaboration used in business applications should be more than a Facebook metaphor. It addresses a key drawback of instant messaging systems: the fact that in business, individuals have multiple roles and multiple networks of people with whom they interact. When tightly integrated into business software of all kinds, social collaboration will become an essential capability by enabling people to resolve issues faster and with less effort than other means of communication. Vendors that focus on the finance function should ignore today’s lack of enthusiasm for social but more practical collaborative capabilities and ensure that their software is designed for the next generation of financial software users.

Regards,

Robert Kugel – SVP Research

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