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In the wake of the past year’s usual crop of failed ERP implementations, I’ve read a couple of blogs that bemoan the fact that ERP vr_ERPI_01_implementing_new_capabilities_in_erpsystems are not nearly as user-friendly or intuitive as the mobile apps that everyone loves. I’ve complained about this aspect of ERP, and our research confirms that ERP systems are viewed as cumbersome: Just one in five companies (21%) said it is easy to make changes to ERP systems while one-third (33%) said making changes is difficult or very difficult. Yet as with many such technology topics, addressing the difficulty in working with ERP systems is not as straightforward as one might hope. ERP software vendors must make it easier, less expensive and less risky for customers to adapt the systems they buy to their changing business needs. To do this, vendors must design products to be more configurable. The goal should be that organizations can make changes and add new capabilities to their ERP system in far less time than it takes today and without having to engage outside consultants.

That may take some doing. In the current environment, several issues impede users in implementing changes to their ERP systems; some are easy to fix, but others are more intractable. Starting with the easier side, we note that smartphones and tablets have simplified some user interactions with core ERP functions. These mobile technologies enable the use of lightweight applications to automate edge processes that manage, for instance, travel and entertainment expenses, customer service or aspects of workforce management such as scheduling. However, examples don’t point to a future where an ERP system is cobbled together from a constellation of loosely coupled apps. Edge processes are those that can stand alone, have discrete boundaries and interact with a core ERP system by exchanging easily defined data such as amounts, status (for instance, where the individual is in a process) and dimensions (such as time, territory and product family). These applications are relatively easy to construct and use because the heavy lifting has already been done in designing and configuring the ERP system itself.

Trying to equate a smartphone app to a full-fledged ERP system is like comparing a paper airplane or one of those new hobby drones to a jetliner. The former is inexpensive and simple to operate, while by design the latter is not. A jetliner faces the real-world constraint that it must carry hundreds of people safely while handling the stresses of near-sonic flight and withstanding thousands of cycles of substantial pressure and thermal differentials. To be able to do this with utter reliability and safety requires a complex set of redundant systems. This means a passenger jet will never be simple to operate and inexpensive to create. In this analogy, that’s the intractable issue. Yet it’s noteworthy that today’s commercial jetliner is more reliable, easier to operate and less difficult and costly to maintain than the first generation of aircraft that emerged half a century ago. ERP vendors ought to be modernizing their products in a similar fashion.

The primary barrier to making ERP software easy to implement is the inherent complexity of the business processes the systems manage. ERP systems are designed to handle a diverse set of procedures  that might span multiple business units in multiple industries in multiple locations and jurisdictions. In a word, its operation is business-critical. But it’s problematic that the final system design is often the result of multiple trade-offs that best reflect the needs of a variety of competing interests and priorities. These options must be considered, and then agreement must be reached on the mass of details that are baked into the final design. In this complicated process, mistakes are not uncommon, especially by inexperienced or incompetent consultants. Even using the best resources, it’s not hard to make mistakes. One of my favorite examples of how the provisioning of an ERP system can go wrong was the inventory management portion of an ERP system at an airline’s maintenance depot. The new system – designed by accountants and auditors – followed a standard, “common sense” process of requiring the defective part to be checked in before a new one could be checked out. However, the system it replaced allowed pilots to radio ahead when some piece of equipment or component failed so that replacement could start as soon as the plane arrived at the gate. From the perspective of a pilot or maintenance personnel, this approach was sensible. But when the airline changed over to the new system with a process designed for inventory control, very expensive aircraft and many grumpy passengers were left waiting at the gate while the old part was shuttled to the inventory cage and the replacement part was found and reissued. The lesson here is that different types of businesses have their own requirements of varying complexity. For ERP, it’s often the little stuff that trips up an implementation. Even within a given type of business, a company’s unique strategies and strengths may lead it to operate in a different manner. So the various competing interests within a company will always need to resolve trade-offs in implementing and operating a system, and ERP systems always will have a high level of complexity.

Still, not all of the complexity of ERP systems is necessary, and dealing with changes and adding new capabilities can be simplified. As the business software market, including ERP, increasingly moves to the cloud, a major challenge facing software vendors is designing their applications for maximum configurability. By this I don’t mean being able to select modules from a menu, but having the ability for only moderately trained line-of-business users to make more granular adjustments to process flow and data structures in a multitenant setting. This lack of flexibility is an important barrier inhibiting adoption of cloud-based ERP. Although user organizations that are better able to adapt to an as-is version of an ERP system are more likely to take the cloud-based option, this covers only some of the potential market. The cloud ERP vendors that offer greater flexibility in allowing individual customers to modify their implementation to suit their specific needs will have a competitive advantage.

An ERP system that can be more easily configured by end users would also confer a competitive advantage for on-premises deployments. Today, almost all ERP software aimed at large organizations, and many implementations designed for midsize companies, either have versions preconfigured for a specific industry (such as aerospace or automotive) or have evolved for use by some specific industry (beverages) or even a subset of an industry (beer distribution). This cuts down on the amount of work – and therefore the cost – required to set up a specific customer’s system.

This “verticalization” is necessary but insufficient. After an ERP system is installed, user organizations need to be able to simplify the process of making modifications. The elements of an ERP system that are inherently more standalone are the easiest to shift to a more self-service model. The hardest part for vendors will be in changing their architecture and design to make it easier (though probably never easy) for organizations to make modifications on their own or with limited assistance from consultants. Until multitenant cloud deployment came along, and with it the need to enable greater flexibility, vendors had little incentive to work on this issue.

The inability to easily make changes to an ERP system inhibits change and innovation in corporations. This is ironic, since one of the factors driving corporations to buy the first ERP systems in the 1990s was their desire to do business process re-engineering, a useful business strategy fad of the time. Today, few companies do anything more than tinker around the edges of their processes unless they are implementing a new ERP system and there is an urgent need to do so and is why it is part of my research agenda for 2014.

Regards,

Robert Kugel – SVP Research

Oracle continues to enrich the capabilities of its Hyperion suite of applications that support the finance function, but I wonder if that will be enough to sustain its market share and new generation of expectations.VI_Financialmanagement At the recent Oracle OpenWorld these new features were on display, and spokespeople described how the company will be transitioning its software to cloud deployment. Our 2013 Financial Performance Management Value (FPM) Index rates Oracle Hyperion a Warm vendor in my analysis, ranking eighth out of nine vendors. Our Value Index is informed by more than a decade of analysis of technology suppliers and their products and how well they satisfy specific business and IT needs. We perform a detailed evaluation of product functionality and suitability-to-task as well as the effectiveness of vendor support for the buying process and customer assurance. Our assessment reflects two disparate sets of factors. On one hand, the Hyperion FPM suite offers a broad set of software that automates, streamlines and supports a range of finance department functions. It includes sophisticated analytical applications. Used to full effect, Hyperion can eliminate many manual steps and speed execution of routine work. It also can enhance accuracy, ensure tasks are completed on a timely basis, foster coordination between Finance and the rest of the organization and generate insights into corporate performance. For this, the software gets high marks.

Unfortunately, this FPM suite remains more difficult to deploy and maintain than other vendors’ suites, and its user experience is becoming dated. As well, social collaboration is increasingly important in business, especially to fit specific requirements of the finance function, as I recently noted. Oracle understands that it must address changing user experience requirements as the baby boomers retire and are replaced by people who have fundamentally different expectations of how software is supposed to work. While there was plenty of evidence at OpenWorld that Oracle is taking steps to remedy this at a corporate level, it’s up to individual units to implement changes to their software portfolio, and it’s not clear that this is a priority for the Hyperion group. But in other areas, Oracle is busy addressing gaps in its FPM offerings. It is adding mobile enablement to Hyperion Financial Management and Planning, starting with an executive approval application to ensure that necessary signoffs can occur anywhere to speed the completion of routine work. To address the growing popularity of its cloud-based rivals, Oracle’s long-awaited Planning and Budgeting Cloud Service should be available by the end of 2013, providing budgeting, planning, collaborative forecasting and reporting as services to companies. And the company is offering financial and management and reporting in the cloud to streamline production and delivery of reports.

Hyperion still has the strongest franchise in the finance function, the legacy of achieving early market dominance in software for vr_fcc_financial_close_and_automationconsolidation, reporting, planning and budgeting. It succeeded because it gave the finance department autonomy from IT with applications designed by people who understood their needs. Hyperion offers a rich set of capabilities to automate the extended close cycle – all of the activities that start with the preclosing functions and continue through completion of external reporting. Our recent benchmark research on the financial close found a correlation between the time it takes a company to close and the degree of automation that it applies to the process. On average, those with a high degree of automation are able to close their books in 5.7 days, compared to 9.1 days for those that apply little or no automation. Oracle’s Financial Close Suite of applications is designed to enable companies to execute their period-end close faster and more accurately while requiring fewer resources. This is important because managing their close well is an issue for more than half of companies. Our research found that 61 percent of corporations take more than six business days to complete their quarterly or semiannual close (the consensus best practice is closing within six business days). Rather than achieving a faster close, which 83 percent of companies said is important or very important, the research found that on average it takes a day longer for companies to close than it took them five years earlier. In conjunction with better process design, using software to automate manual processes, manage all phases of process execution and limit the use of desktop spreadsheets is an effective way to shorten a company’s close cycle. Oracle’s Financial Management Analytics allows finance executives to closely monitor this extended close cycle.

One recent addition to Oracle Hyperion’s Financial Close Suite is Tax Provision. Accurately calculating and reporting direct (income) taxes is a time-consuming, labor-intensive process for almost all midsize and larger companies. I’ve written about the importance of using technology to bring the tax function into mainstream finance. There are two necessary IT elements to managing this process. One is ensuring that all of the data needed for provisioning and any subsequent audit is readily available. An option here is a tax data warehouse for companies that have a large number of legal entities and/or operate in multiple tax jurisdictions. Hyperion doesn’t have this capability. However, for companies that have less complex requirements or just want to simplify and centralize the gathering of tax data, it provides the second necessary element: an environment that manages tax data collection, improves the accuracy of the data and the calculations (by substantially reducing the need for desktop spreadsheets and rekeying of data from source systems) and automates data movement through configurable wizards. Especially in the quarterly and year-end accounting closes, numerous adjustments may take place that can affect the tax provision or changes in tax calculations that can have an impact on reported results. A tax provision application can speed up the back-and-forth adjustments, helping to shorten the accounting close cycle. It also can enhance the effectiveness of the tax function because those professionals will have more time to spend on analysis and optimizing a company’s tax position rather than wrestling with spreadsheets.

Oracle has added important new capabilities to its FPM suite since acquiring Hyperion. Expanding the suite has helped the company sustain its franchise in the face of determined competition from large to smaller sized software vendors such as IBMInfor and SAP, as well as smaller ones including Adaptive PlanningAnaplanHost AnalyticsLongview and Tagetik. The generational change that’s under way in corporations poses a serious competitive threat to Oracle. For finance professionals, word of mouth and brand loyalty count far more than “enchanted boxes” or “undulations”: That’s how Hyperion came to dominate the market. But times change, and Oracle is vulnerable because of the time and cost of deployment, ease of use and maintenance and user experience of its FPM suite. These were reflected in our 2013 Financial Performance Management Value Index. This year’s OpenWorld demonstrated that Oracle can pivot – albeit slowly – to address a rapidly evolving applications software market. With Hyperion it needs to focus more on addressing core competitive issues if it expects to sustain a leading market position.

Regards,

Robert Kugel – SVP Research

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