As a former sales and marketing guy I am more than familiar with spreadsheets as a not-so-good tool for managing the avalanche of data generated by the front office even before the big data craze. Name a department or function in business and you can easily find someone using a spreadsheet to manage it—often poorly but through no fault of their own. Consider this list: financial reporting, revenue management, professional services automation, human capital management, compensation management, contract management, order fulfillment, CPQ, inventory management, supplier management, and I am sure there are more examples.
Spreadsheets’ shortcomings are well known. They capture a moment in time and when you change the data in a cell, it’s a new deal—there is no database supporting the data so there is no historic record of anything unless you go through an elaborate process of saving repeated versions of each spreadsheet. If you do that, good luck reconciling anything.
CRM fought the spreadsheet wars at the beginning of the century with SFA gradually replacing spreadsheets in about half of all sales organizations. That’s right half, I bet you thought SFA’s penetration rate was higher but there’s still a lot of white space. CRM or SFA were relatively easy things to sell. After all SFA dealt with revenue generation and who doesn’t want to improve revgen?
But there are large numbers of business processes, especially in the back office still under the weight of spreadsheets (see above), despite the fact that there are now quite good applications to support them.
This point was brought home to me last week when I was invited to serve as a judge for FinancialForce.com’s Customer Excellence awards to be given out at Dreamforce. I don’t know who won so don’t ask. But in use study after use study I was both impressed and a bit taken back by the number of business processes these companies had relied on spreadsheets to perform. They replaced spreadsheets with inexpensive cloud apps and all of them came out winners.
What was most revealing to me though were the impressive results that came from freeing a business from the overhead of recording data in spreadsheets, managing the sheer number of them, extracting information and compiling reports all through brute force methods. Companies routinely reported enormous reductions of time and costs resulting in better information flow to managers, more timely responses to customers, and ultimately greater profitability in part because things didn’t go missing.
In the old days you could look at all of this and say, yes, but a spreadsheet is virtually free and software to run in my data center is a million bucks. It was a persuasive argument.
Curiously, I think spreadsheets have filled their niche for so long precisely because they filled it well. It’s the niche that’s changing and that’s causing big problems. Spreadsheets with their snapshot view of reality turn out to be just right when you operate in a transaction environment. They record the data of the moment in time when the transaction took place before everyone moved on.
But today we’re transitioning aggressively into process orientation and data needs to be collected throughout a process so that analytics can assess the next best offer or action. These are all things that require more data and that spreadsheets are bad for.
The introduction of cloud computing and software platform technologies has made having access to competent applications cheap and easy. Moreover if you still want to build rather than buy, development on a platform has never been easier. This isn’t a column about Salesforce per se, but go to Dreamforce and look at all of the components available in the Lightning product set for rapid codeless application development.
Now with a solid knowledge of a business any businessperson can define an application as easily as that same person might have developed a spreadsheet just yesterday. The payback that businesses are likely to reap from adopting a platform strategy and using development tools and point solutions built for the platform is potentially huge. I think of it as the next big iteration of IT, the next automation revolution that will boost profits and drive productivity. A release from the tyranny of spreadsheets is a revolution indeed.
It takes prodigious amounts of moola to launch a company these days and that’s especially true when trying to insert a new idea into the collective consciousness. Salesforce spent well over $100 million to convince us that SaaS CRM was real, Zuora has raised nearly 2X that amount defining the subscription economy, and cloud ERP is following suit.
Today FinancialForce, a cloud ERP provider based on the Salesforce1 platform announced a financing round of $110 million from lead investor Technology Crossover Ventures (TCV) and Salesforce Ventures, Salesforce’s corporate investment group. This follows on the heels earlier this quarter of smaller investment announcements by CPQ providers Apttus, and Steel Brick. So what does it all mean?
I think you need to pay attention to the concentration of money and deals in a tight space of ERP and related back office apps. They’re all cloud companies and it strikes me that the investment community is making a decision about ERP granddaddy SAP in the process.
SAP has tried several times to bring forth a suite of front and back office solutions based on modern cloud technology and they’ve been only modestly successful. Microsoft has made greater strides in bringing its multiple ERP products closer to the cloud but progress has been measured. Time’s up and small ERP providers like FinancialForce, IntAcct, and not so small NetSuite have been gathering strength over many years. The economic conditions are right and the market is, I think, making a call that there’s no more runway for legacy ERP vendors to get to the cloud; it’s time to seek out the next generation of solutions.
The succession plan for replacing legacy ERP is well under way with a surround strategy that first positions cloud ERP as a helper application that can consolidate data, process it, and feed it up to the legacy system. This is a meta-stable state and will eventually result in the surrounding solutions supplanting the legacies, achieving over time what a much despised rip and replace would ordinarily accomplish without all the wailing and gnashing of teeth.
Much of this is still in the future but for now, FinancialForce has taken an important step in preparing for a larger role in what is likely to be a big fight. The objective of the fight will be to secure stable cash generating relationships for many years to come.
Finally, more than once Marc Benioff, CEO Salesforce.com, has said he had no interest in building ERP but it looks like ERP is coming to his company regardless via the powerful platform technology, Salesforce1, that his company provides. Apttus, FinancialForce, Steel Brick, and other financial apps all coexist with Salesforce1 and some, like FinancialForce, are completely rooted there. Their success is also great validation for the platform.
I’d really hate to be a legacy ERP provider today.
The idea of an omnipotent software platform and the evolution of Customer Science go hand in hand. Customer Science is the upshot of my idea that we’re in the process of converting from random acts of CRM in the front office to a more structured, efficient, and predictable approach to conducting front office business. Platforms make Customer Science possible.
The emphasis on collecting and analyzing customer big data has taken up most of the brain space in the discussion about the front office but it is only half of the Customer Science story. The other part is what vendors do with the information they distill from customer data. They might simply use a fragment of analysis to tell customers that other people almost like them bought product B when they bought product A but that’s like carpet bombing when a laser guided approach would work so much better.
A better approach to the new vendor customer relationship implied by Customer Science is to use the information to first construct journey maps and metrics and to then put in place business processes mediated by powerful software that leverages all of the new kit that’s come to market over the last few years, in short the platform. That includes workflow, social, transaction oriented analytics, and mobility solutions for starters. All of these specialized components have to be part of the underlying platform on which the solutions rest. Thus platform has become a big deal.
Platform is arguably much more important than the messaging surrounding it might suggest. The vibe I get from the messaging is that platforms are cool and, well, don’t you want to be cool? That’s early market messaging, the kind of thing that vendors spout when the use case is still being fleshed out, but platform is already much more than this.
In reality, if the Customer Science light bulb shines brightly above your head, platform is essential for the simple reason that the modern, Customer Science driven front office can’t possibly write by hand all of the software you’d need to support a single business process across desktop, laptop, iOS, and Android let alone integrating apps from Salesforce, Oracle, Microsoft, and SAP. Thus platform has become the new application table stakes for our industry and making apps on platforms that are open to the rest of the universe is a business necessity.
The big attraction of a platform, at least one constructed properly in my humble judgment, is that for the most part it exists a level above raw code and that it can generate the code for the business process on all of the platforms that a business wishes to deploy — one specification for all user interfaces the business is likely to need from the handheld device to the desktop.
Additionally, a platform, rather than the application, should be the point of integration with third party apps so the platform must be able to support apps working together whether they are all written natively or they come from widely different sources. The capability to do all of this was once science fiction but today’s leading platform vendors make it look easy.
From a business perspective, it’s a game changer. Software companies (and most other companies) have always sought out ways to lock in customers. Prior generations relied on compilers and database standards to carry that load with the result that getting applications to simply exchange data was viewed as reason to celebrate. No wonder it has always been so difficult to string together multi-vendor support for common business practices.
Platform is bigger than all that and one example of its impact is the Force United Consortium a group of vendors with applications built on top of the Salesforce1 Platform. They include Apttus, FinancialForce, and ServiceMax among others. Their extra value add is that their disparate applications not only integrate well with Salesforce products but that their solutions are almost indistinguishable from Salesforce and each other at the foundation level because they are platform native meaning they use the same objects from the Salesforce toolkit. Of course, they do vastly different things too and that’s the point.
The consortium elevates the members as well as Salesforce to the status of an uber application, sharing data but even more importantly sharing metadata that supports the business processes on a common platform that make Customer Science possible.
We’ve come a long way from the times when computer automation was mainly about making data more accessible to better support manual business processes. Big Data gave us the insights to understand customers in ways we never could before and platforms are enabling process automation not simply data storage and retrieval.
There are still things that only people can do in this highly automated environment but the new science and platforms make the people involved in the processes much more productive and importantly they provide better and more intimate association with customers. Ironically, process automation is still not widely accepted, it is only gradually becoming part of the landscape though of course, leading practitioners have already gotten and digested the email. Perhaps next year it will see greater emphasis for the rest of us.
That normally staid bastion of conventional computing is perking up taking on subscriptions and cloud computing like candy. It used to be that when you thought about back office and cloud in the same thought you also thought about NetSuite. Truthfully you still do, they’ve been at it a long time and have produced a solid and well articulated suite of back office ERP, finance, and accounting software (and more) that runs a lot of companies, especially the international variety that keep books in multiple languages and currencies.
But over the last ten days other companies have announced partnerships and solutions that both challenge NetSuite’s position and point to an important new era in computing.
The new era has been percolating through all of this century. Ever since Salesforce starting selling “no software,” cloud computing and subscriptions have been stealing a march on conventional, expensive, and bloated on premise software. Each year these solutions became more powerful and ubiquitous. First they supported other subscription companies, then all sorts of companies, and now, with the advent of the platform, cloud computing has come to the development suite and the back office.
The back office! Ten years ago the mantra was “Not with my data!” but something happened. Certifications sprouted and cloud became normal and safe and with Salesforce’s leadership, kind of cool. On the back office side, NetSuite carried a similar message to the point that today cloud and accounting are no longer words that, when spoken together, sufficient to punch your ticket to a long rest in a rubber room.
The last week has seen a breakout of sorts for subscriptions, cloud, accounting, ERP, and platform computing. Zuora and Intacct announced a widening partnership that will deliver Zuora’s subscription billing, payments, accounting, and financial management solutions to Intacct’s 7300+ cloud accounting customers. Be aware that cloud and subscription are not the same. Intacct has been successfully delivering cloud based accounting services and giving NetSuite its fair share of competition for many years.
The addition of subscription power from Zuora raises the bar to enable Intacct’s conventional customers with subscription aspirations to support what can best be called hybrid business models. At the same time, the announcement also shines a light on Salesforce’s platform strategy. Zuora is a native application on Force.com and Intacct has developed powerful integration with the platform in general and the joint announcement says they’ll double down on that integration. For Zuora it means 7300 new prospects, for Intacct it means a major capability upgrade without breaking a sweat. But we’re not done.
Also today, FinancialForce, a native accounting system on the Force.com platform just announced their entry into the ERP market with FinancialForce ERP. As a native application on the Force.com platform, FinancialForce has completed the circle of front to back office solutions that began with Salesforce. With all of the available solutions, a company of any size or complexity can now support all of its enterprise IT in the cloud and via subscriptions.
I think the biggest news in all this is what will happen to conventional IT in the years ahead. Pessimists say that IT will wither as significant chunks of functionality decamp for the cloud but I disagree. IT has always been a major component of a company’s secret sauce. If garden-variety accounting systems, even those that support subscriptions, can be off-loaded to the cloud that’s fine.
As more enterprise solutions head for the clouds and budget ratios turn from capital expenses to operational, we should see a renaissance of in-house application development which will, importantly, drive new business processes, especially in mobile apps that will help users do more and better business and do it faster. That’s where the secret sauce is and will remain for the foreseeable future. Time to embrace it.
These foundational changes come at an opportune time as prognosticators think about what it will mean to have 50 billion devices hanging off the Internet in 2020. Devices will increasingly be non-human consumers of goods and services (especially for restocking) and producers of data and information. Their transactions will take fractions of a second, be automatic, and require the attention of the infrastructure we are building now with cloud and subscriptions.
So the significance of these announcements together with things that have been coming out in the last year all point to an important milestone. Conventional applications managed data but the new stuff with platforms, front and back office integration, workflow, and social media all point to building and managing better business processes. I think we’re close to the end of a long wave of technology invention and at the beginning of an era of its consolidation and application.
Once a year I write a post that tries to predict some of the big happenings of the year ahead. The success of these efforts relies on clear thinking and objectivity — trying to figure out what will come to pass rather than what I want to see happen. It’s hard but thankfully no one ever checks up on me a year later.
First, let’s take a look at the general economic outlook. The global economy is improving, unemployment is trickling down at least in the U.S. and there are some bright spots like improvements in manufacturing and construction. The Federal Reserve is poised to get a new leader and Janet Yellen has been nominated though at this writing it is far from certain that she’ll pass the senate because she’s a Keynesian after all.
But in a recent Op-Ed in the New York Times, Martin Feldstein, a professor of economics at Harvard, who was chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers from 1982 to 1984, under President Ronald Reagan, suggested a very Keynesian stimulus so perhaps some further stimulation of the economy could be in the offing.
Long story short, the economy is looking better than it has for some time but it’s not great. On the other hand, there is a goodly amount of capital floating around looking for homes in late stage start-ups and the class of potential IPOs looks strong with names like InsideView, Xactly, Apttus, TOA Technology, ServiceMax, FinancialForce and many others. None of the CEO’s want to talk about that stuff, it’s like each is a pitcher in the dugout in the 8th inning of a perfect game.
All of these companies offer SaaS solutions and all are available on the AppExchange which suggests that my universe needs to expand. Nevertheless, the Exchange is a good place to look for signs of opportunity. I suspect application stores or exchanges are going to be very important incubators for new ideas in front office computing so I’ll continue watching them for new signs of life. You never know what you’ll find.
I expect a continuation of a trend that started last year in which marketing became the new darling of the front office suggesting that customer service (which is always important) is cycling out. Service is where vendors go during downturns so that they can try to protect existing revenue streams and, of course, SFA takes a back seat. But after a year of marketing hoopla I think the stage is set to put more wood behind the sales arrow to begin reeling in some of the leads that new marketing systems have been nurturing. So I am looking for new activity in the SFA part of CRM. But not just any activity.
I am still digesting the Bluewolf report “The State of Salesforce” that came out just before Dreamforce. One of the most intriguing findings from the report is that community is the new CRM. If that’s true, it is fairly easy to postulate significant changes to the way we sell. Perhaps sales people will become more involved with communities sponsored by their companies as a way to accelerate sales processes and lower the costs of making customer calls. What sales manager wouldn’t like that?
But I think the hidden message is that community will evolve more as a marketing and service hub, than as a sales tool. Sales will be a by-product of a lot of customer-to-customer interaction. Currently communities are mostly thought of as a part of marketing or as a part of service but I do not think it too far fetched to consider the possibility that community will become its own entity on a par with sales, service, and marketing — its primary consumers. Away from its departmental blinders, the community might be more able to take action to benefit all departments instead of just one.
Run well a community can provide a lot of information to a company and at some point it might make sense to give it its own charter and budget rather than having it mooch off the budgets of marketing or service. I suspect when that happens it will get a new name. Right now we have IT, which takes a technology perspective and that perspective is valuable. But this new entity will be more focused on information development or intelligence. This seems right and I like everything about it except the moniker. No one is going to want to work for ID, just a hunch but I can’t see calling the new department the intelligence department. Given the NSA’s reputation right now, we’ll keep clear of that.
This transition won’t happen over night so it won’t be complete in 2014, which sort of gets me off the hook in prognostication. But from another perspective, the oft quoted Gartner idea that the CMO will have a bigger technology budget than the CIO in a couple of years, I think, goes to the heart of what I am saying. But it won’t be the CMO’s budget, it will be the CIDO’s or whatever we decide to call him or her.