The state of modern finance systems

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A look at the evolving landscape of finance solutions and how new offerings should influence how you invest in and improve your systems.

The tools available to finance departments have improved dramatically in recent years. New and old vendors alike offer more efficient delivery models, better control of risk and governance, more intuitive user interfaces, and more functionality.

Cloud ERP vendors like NetSuite, Workday, Epicor, Infor, and new cloud solutions from Oracle and SAP (among others) have fundamentally changed how we select, implement, and use finance and ERP solutions. Smaller companies with expectations of growth can now implement more robust solutions that will grow with them while larger companies can choose systems that closely fit their businesses and have native integrations with their most critical applications. ROI is, of course, still king and new finance systems, for the first time in a long time, offer legitimate, tangible business benefits.

The changing landscape offers an opportunity for finance leaders and CIOs to evaluate how they are managing these ecosystems and for how they decide to invest in new technologies.

The process used to select new systems is critical

Do not shortchange the selection process. Selections that you or your peers went through 18 months ago are most likely obsolete. Cloud providers push updates several times a year and these tend to be loaded with new functionality. Before making a big decision, take a look at the market and spend a few weeks evaluating your options.

The level of detail you use to evaluate software matters. With enterprise software, the devil is always in the details. How do you need to recognize revenue sales order line to sales order line? What level do you need P&Ls or balance sheets at (business unit? product? geography?) What tax reporting needs do you have? Questions like this can tip the balance from one solution to another so ask them early.

Select and implement based on benefits. Backoffice finance doesn’t just need to “work” anymore -- there are real benefits now.  John Hoebler, Managing Director of Cross Country Consulting, wrote a thorough analysis of the benefits of cloud solutions for CFOs, eliminating upgrades, reducing customizations, and continuous improvement are all listed as key differentiators.

Look at Infor, for instance. CloudSuite Financials has in-memory financial transactions eliminating batch processing, automated close and reconciliation tools, and a modern interface that will feel as easy as to users. Infor isn’t the only vendor offering these types of benefits. NetSuite offers native dashboards while Workday has gorgeous composite reporting. These types of features were at the very least costly and often impossible 10 years ago.

Companies staring at upgrades need to understand that they are not inexpensive. Upgrades are still relatively costly, they don’t come without risk, and they have pitfalls similar to new implementations. Why not look at what else is available and see if you have a cost-competitive new option with more benefits available?  

According to Panorama’s 2015 ERP survey, while 40 percent of organizations realized over 50 percent of their benefits of an ERP implementation (side note: I’m not convinced hitting 50 percent qualifies as success), 28 percent saw under 30 percent of their benefits realized. Yikes. You need to start by selecting the vendors and implementation partners that give you the highest chance of squeezing those benefits out of the solution.

Data reigns

In Gartner's most recent annual study of CFO technology needs (subscription required), the No. 1 finding was:

Most of the technology deficiencies identified in this study can be addressed by making improvements in BI and analytics.

Analytics is an increasingly important tool for leadership. It influences how they make strategic decisions and monitor performance, and improves managers' ability to run and improve the business. You will not have good KPIs for profitability, cost performance, and projecting revenue without a robust finance system.

Many new solutions have integrated analytics and reporting platforms. Companies like Oracle, with products like OBIEE, and SAP with products like Business Objects and Lumira, offer strong capabilities as well. If you don’t provide this functionality to the business on day 1 you can bet they will be clamoring for it soon.

To make sure your finance systems help these tools be effective, define your key analytics requirements ahead of time. At what level do you want to see profitability? How are you going to react to changes in production shortages? How will you track budgets?

Understanding these early will help you design an architecture that will generate and store data that can generate these metrics. Not understanding them may result in messy custom solutions or unpleasant "process fixes" down the road.

Excel spreadsheets aren’t going away, so you need to manage them

Finance systems – even the newest, most cutting edge among them – are still great at exporting data to Excel. Even some of the best third-party reporting solutions such as EIS, which performs ad-hoc reporting for Oracle platforms, are based on database-to-Excel integration.

Spreadsheets are faster and cheaper than customizing enterprise apps. Even if a customization is desirable in the long-term, spreadsheets are quicker in the short-term. Diane Robinette, CEO of Incisive, notes

“New cloud and on-premises solutions are driving increased use of spreadsheets, which are being used as an integration and data collection point. Full integrations are expensive, take a lot of time, and ERP and CRM platforms can’t always keep up with the speed of the business needs.”

Everyone who influences the pipeline of finance talent – finance departments, accounting firms, banks, universities, etc. – has developed a workforce of Excel experts who use it for increasingly complex analyses. Excel is still important.

Finance leaders (and for that matter strategy, operations, and sales leaders) need to understand the exposure their spreadsheets present and look at it as a component of their overall operating risk. Incisive, for example, offers enterprise-wide monitoring of where spreadsheets are used and can judge how risky they are based on customizable criteria.

Organizations that use a lot of spreadsheets (or who think you do but don’t have the data to prove it), need to look at how those are controlled and figure out ways to reduce the risk they present.

Planning for the future

The way you invest in technology today is much different than it was 5 years ago. If you have a decision to make on your finance systems coming up – an upgrade, a new implementation, or even just ongoing improvements – take the time to understand the new landscape and how it influences how you invest. It isn't about a single. monolithic solution - it's about managing your entire ecosystem of tools, data, and behaviors.

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