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Like most vendors of on-premises ERP and financial management software, in moving to the cloud Oracle has focused on developing for existing and potential customers the option of multitenant software as a service (SaaS). (I’m using the term “ERP” in its most expansive sense, to include such systems employed by all types of companies for accounting and financial management rather than only systems that are used by manufacturing and distribution companies.) Oracle’s ERP Cloud Service includes Fusion Financials as well as planning and budgeting, risk and controls management, procurement and sourcing, inventory and cost management, product master data management, and project portfolio management. Although to date our benchmark research has consistently found that a large majority of finance departments do not prefer to deploy software in the cloud, we also observe the balance shifting in this direction. SaaS vendors that address finance department requirements have demonstrated faster revenue growth than those that offer products only on-premises. Like other vendors Oracle must establish itself as a credible vendor of cloud ERP and financial management services to be well positioned as market demand shifts further in that direction. The company made sizable investments in acquiring ERP and financial management software in the 2000s (notably PeopleSoft – which included JD Edwards – and Hyperion), and the investments have paid off as many companies have opted to keep their existing systems (and continue to pay maintenance) rather than replace them. Our Office of Finance benchmark research finds that over the past decade the average age of ERP systems in use has increased to 6.4 years from 5.1 years. The longevity of these systems is partly the result of the slow pace of innovation in underlying technologies used for business computing. Even so, modest year-by-year changes are adding up to make replacement a more attractive option while negative attitudes toward the cloud are dissipating. To retain its installed base, it’s important for any established vendor to have solid customer references and the ability to make sales of cloud products as demand for ERP and financial management software in the cloud increases.
Oracle also has faced a broader marketing challenge because it is seen by some industry observers as being late in having a cloud offering and as not being a “real” cloud vendor. On this last point, some IT analysts (and certainly “real” cloud vendors) draw a sharp line between incumbent, on-premises vendors and the newer cloud-based ones. Yet strict definitions of what qualifies as the cloud are becoming less relevant to the market generally and to business buyers in particular. Moreover, the issue of which company is a “real” cloud vendor will become increasingly less important to users of cloud-based systems over the next five years as software environments evolve to a hybrid cloud model that combines multitenant, single tenant and on-premises deployments. As I’ve noted, I don’t believe that cloud vs. on-premises is a binary situation. Finance departments are likely to take a hybrid approach to sourcing software that best suits their needs. As tools that integrate cloud and on-premises systems improve, more companies will elect to deploy some – but not all – parts of their core financial systems in the cloud. For example, in the early 2000s corporations began to switch deployment of their travel and expense management software to the cloud; today very few run this application on-premises. Moreover, I don’t expect cloud ERP to completely displace on-premises installations. One reason is the substantial challenges that SaaS vendors will need to address to make their software more configurable to reach the widest possible market.
Since it wasn’t a first mover in the market, Oracle has needed to apply its products’ strengths to its cloud offerings and take advantage of its market position to generate new sales. It is differentiating its financial cloud offerings by building on substantial depth and breadth of functionality and existing vertical specialization across multiple industries – although not manufacturing and distribution, which almost always require a much higher degree of configurability than services businesses. Oracle also offers Hyperion Planning as part of its cloud offering, simplifying integration between planning and ERP systems. In the past, Oracle has touted the strong capabilities of its ERP and financial management software, but to acquire many of these meant purchasing the entire stack from Oracle, notably its middleware and database; this limited its appeal. The cloud-based offerings are built on the Oracle full stack, which facilitates provisioning, configuration, synchronization and process and data integration of the cloud-based elements, as well as integration with existing on-premises Oracle systems and, to some extent, other vendors’ systems. Oracle’s architecture also facilitates multidimensional reporting without a separate data warehouse, which provides users with considerable utility without added investment.
In the near term, Oracle is likely to be most successful in selling its SaaS offerings to its installed base, either in adding some process or functional capability or as a “tier two” ERP system used in smaller or remote locations or business units. Selling subscriptions to existing customers also is likely to be more profitable in the near term than attracting new ones because for software companies the sales and costs associated with adding contracted products and services for existing customers typically are lower than adding new customers. Selling to larger companies can be more profitable than selling to midsize ones, which almost always have higher ratios of contract acquisition costs to contract value. Both sizes of companies require about the same sales effort, but contract values tend to be higher for large corporations. From the customer’s perspective, adding or replacing existing on-premises functionality with a cloud-based version may be attractive financially or the result of a corporate decision to offload management of its general portfolio of software from the IT department to concentrate on systems that are strategic to the company. The latter may include, for example, Oracle’s project portfolio management functionality, which can be used to manage professional services organizations. Many industrial manufacturing and business services companies have a consulting group that customers employ to assist in making use of the product or service (such as with design, implementation or engineering consulting). It’s much easier to handle these sorts of operations with a single application that manages in an integrated fashion the operational elements (scheduling, time and costs tracking and task management, for example) as well as the financial aspects. Web-based software for managing professional services is particularly well suited to the needs of companies in which professional services are only part of the overall product line because it may be less expensive than using an on-premises approach. Moreover, since Oracle has integrated mobile capabilities, it suits the needs of professionals who spend most of their time in the field with customers. Other add-on functionality capabilities useful to existing customers and attractive in the cloud include revenue management (Oracle’s software is aimed at high-tech companies), procure-to-pay for nonstrategic (indirect) items, sourcing and contract management and product item master management.
Tier-two systems offer another opportunity. In the 1990s, larger corporations that operate in geographically dispersed areas began to standardize the ERP software they use in remote locations with few employees or in offices they could not support their main ERP system. These “tier two” systems typically were software packages designed for midsize companies because they were easier and less costly to implement and maintain. For global organizations, Oracle’s software has localization for more than 50 countries and supports 23 languages. It is also designed to support country-specific statutory accounting and tax requirements as well as enable management of centralized payments and receipts across multiple legal entities and business units. Cloud ERP is well suited to tier-two use. Often, it is attractive because it requires no on-site servers or software that require maintenance and upgrades. Cloud-based systems also make it easier to maintain financial and IT controls such as separation of duties, change management and IT security because potential intruders don’t have physical access to the applications and hardware. The downside is that they also require integration at process and data levels to operate efficiently.
Stressing Oracle’s opportunity to sell to existing customers is not meant to downplay its opportunity in the cloud ERP market. However, as with all other SaaS ERP vendors, its long-term success will depend on how easy it is to configure a system to the needs of the broadest set of users. Multitenant cloud offerings are inherently more economical than single-tenant configurations, and these savings provide a compelling reason to acquire software in this format. The flip side of that is that many companies – especially those in manufacturing or production of physical goods – find that cloud ERP systems do not offer enough flexibility in their configuration to meet their business needs. (This is one reason why Oracle does not address this market now.) While cloud-based ERP has been a hot market, expanding rapidly over the past 10 years, a majority of ERP deployments remain on premises. So the rapid growth in the cloud segment has been driven by the superior economics for buyers that are able to accept the software’s limited configurability and by growing midsize companies that can migrate from entry-level accounting software sooner than was practical with on-premises software.
The biggest challenge – and greatest opportunity – in the ERP software market lies in developing a multitenant cloud ERP offering that provides ample functionality and configurability to address the requirements of a majority of the market. Just one in five companies in our research said that it is easy or very easy to implement new capabilities in their ERP system; one-third said it is difficult or very difficult. The root cause of the difficulty is the forms-based table structure almost all ERP systems use. The first generations of all business computing systems were created as analogs to existing paper-based systems, similar to the way that the first automobiles were “horseless carriages” in their configuration. ERP systems also have mimicked the multiple ledger structure of paper-based accounting systems (which is pointless and even counterproductive in a computer-based system) and the paper-based forms that are the information containers used in accounting processes. In the first stages of business process automation, this simplistic automation was the only practical approach since it was the easiest way for programmers to start. But just as the design of cars evolved into a totally new form to reflect the capabilities of the underlying technologies, business computing systems have to evolve to break out of the shackles imposed by paper analog structures.
To break the configurability barrier ERP systems have to be more flexible in their basic design. Ideally, they should eliminate the need for customizing the underlying application. Companies would benefit if modifications are easier – and potentially less expensive – to make initially and to adjust as business conditions change over time. Easier configurability also can make it possible to reconfigure processes and capabilities faster and more cheaply than is possible today, enabling companies to make their ERP system more adaptable to their business needs. Separating the individual configurations from the core code base means that SaaS vendors can give a much broader set of users the flexibility they need to make the system work as they wish while maintaining only a single instance of a code base to modify, upgrade, debug and patch. A more configurable system also has the advantage of being easier to upgrade in an on-premises deployment and possibly easier to implement in the first place. To remain a leading vendor in ERP in the coming decade, Oracle, like all other ERP software vendors, will need to evolve its software into an attractive choice in the multitenant cloud for an ever widening market by making the software as configurable as possible to reduce the level of consulting and customization required.
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.
These 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.
The 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