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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.
Electronic 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.
Robert Kugel – SVP Research
In recent years line-of-business applications including accounting, human resources, manufacturing, sales and customer service have appeared in the cloud. Cloud -based software as a service (SaaS) has replaced on-premises applications that were previously part of ERP and CRM environments. They have helped companies become more efficient but have also introduced interoperability challenges between business processes. Their advantage is that cloud software can be rented, configured and used within a day or week. The disadvantage is that they don’t always connect with one another seamlessly, as they used to and when managed by a third party there is limited connectivity to integrate them.
Smooth interoperation is critical for business processes that use ERP. The hybrid computing approach to ERP was assessed by my colleague Robert Kugel, who identified the challenges in these early approaches to ERP in the cloud. As on-premises ERP, these applications were fully connected and integrated with process and data integration wired together through additional technologies. This configurability of ERP has been a large challenge and has led to failed implementations, as Robert noted. Understanding the complexities of ERP today is key to coming up with a solution.
One of the most fundamental business processes in organizations is tracking an order to fulfillment. That needs to be connected without manual intervention for transactional efficiency and to ensure data, analytics and planning are available. In fact our next generation of finance analytics benchmark research finds that ERP is the second-most important source of data being analyzed, after spreadsheets, and is the first-ranked source in almost one-third (32%) of organizations. In the transition to cloud computing this has become more complex. Applications that support the order-to-fulfillment process, for example, are increasingly being used individually in cloud computing, and many are being mingled with on-premises applications that require integration and automation to avoid manual intervention.
To start, orders are created by sales. Sales opportunities are created and closed with products and services purchased by contract or electronically. These must be placed in an order management system through which the record can be used by a multitude of systems and processes. Purchasing and fulfillment details are moved into an invoice as part of a billing application, then entered into accounting and accounts receivable where it is managed to payment. Finance takes orders and consolidates them into reports, typically in a financial performance management system. The order is then provided to manufacturing or fulfillment applications which build and deliver products, then fulfilled through warehouse and distribution management. The customer name and order number is also placed into an application that handles support calls or deploys services.
This is the reality of business today. Many departments and individuals, with different applications, are needed to support orders, fulfillment and service. If these applications are not connected organizations have to perform manual intervention, re-enter data, or copy and paste, which not only wastes time and resources but can introduce errors. Half (56%) of organizations do the integration through spreadsheets or exporting data, with custom coding being second-most popular (for 39%), according to our business data in the cloud research. (I will leave HR applications and the supporting people component out of this process though they play a critical role as an enterprise resource to support the order-to-fulfillment process and are part of many ERP deployments.) In addition performing any level of business planning is not simple as data is needed to determine past performance and plan for the future.
There is no simple way to make all this efficient. It has historically been managed by ERP, usually through a single vendor’s application suite. Now businesses want it done in the cloud, either on-premises or through other cloud applications. Proper attention must be paid to the needs and competencies of the departments and business processes involved. Thus migration and transition to ERP are not simple, nor is building an application architecture that supports process and data efficiently. Assessment and planning are necessary to ensure that risks are addressed. Switching to a new ERP system in the cloud will still require an application architecture to maintain proper operations across departments and existing applications, whether they are on-premises, in a private cloud, in the public cloud or in a hybrid combination. This integration among sales force automation, customer service and other systems is outside the scope of most cloud ERP deployments who have not provided the most robust integration points for the applications and data.
Robert Kugel writes that ERP must take a giant leap in order to operate in the cloud. I agree. Our firm often gets requests for assistance in finding the right approach to ERP and business process. While midsize companies find ERP in the cloud increasingly attractive, there are significant challenges to adapting and integrating such applications as part of business processes, which many customers overlook in their desire for a cloud-based solution. The majority of cloud ERP vendors have not provided integration and workflow of information from their applications to others in an open and seamless manner, complicating deployments and adding unexpected costs for customers.
ERP suppliers moving from on-premises to cloud computing have acknowledged the complexities. Many of the legacy ERP vendors have struggled to enable application interoperability and the differing management requirements of IT and business. This struggle has resulted in a lack of confidence by organizations wishing to migrate to ERP in the cloud and makes them wonder whether to look at alternative approaches with individual applications using integration across them and data to support business processes. Automation is another major concern. The lack of it across business processes has impeded finance groups in closing the books efficiently; our research on the fast, clean close shows many organizations losing four or more days.
In the meantime technological advances in integration technologies that operate in the cloud computing environment can interconnect with on-premises systems. The ability to simultaneously distribute transactions and data across systems makes the ability to architect business processes and workflows a reality. For some organizations the use of business process management and other integration technology approaches are being adopted. The new technologies are able to blend into many applications, so that users do not know they are working on applications from different vendors, nor do they need to know. These advances enable application architecture to interoperate and automate the flow of data from on-premises and cloud computing environments, providing new opportunities to interoperate from ERP or other applications. Many organizations are doing this today, and more than one-third of companies are planning or need to move data from cloud to cloud, cloud to on-premises or on-premises to cloud, data according our business data in the cloud research.
No matter whether a company is in manufacturing or services, they must address the integration complexities to gain efficiency and support growth without adding more resources. While many new ERP providers in the cloud are taking simpler approaches from the applications interface to how it processes transactions, most have not learned the importance of integration to other systems and the need for accessing and integrating data for transactions and analytics. Having consistency of data across applications and systems is a major obstacle in more than one-fifth (21%) of organizations and a minor obstacle in two-fifths (43%), and they find similar difficulties in the complexities of accessing data, according to our business data in the cloud research. In addition they lack effective planning (which of course is the P in ERP), and reporting is less than sufficient and often must be complemented by third-party tools.
All this introduces yet more complexity for business and IT in determining how they can move forward with ERP in the cloud, adapting existing and new applications to interoperate. The outlook for ERP in the cloud is thus uncertain. If these vendors do not adapt to the reality of what their customers want (as opposed to what they want their customers to do), it will remain cloudy. Responding to pressure to take an open approach that is easy to integrate, however, ERP providers could see a sunny forecast.
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