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VR-BUG-WEBIn 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.

vr_fcc_financial_close_and_automation_updatedERP 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.


Mark Smith

CEO & Chief Research Officer

I attended NICE Systems’ annual Interactions (Twitter #Interaction2012) conference in Nashville to get the latest from this growing global software business that focuses on customer-centric applications. If you have not heard of NICE you might not be primarily involved in managing and interacting with customers, the area in which NICE has been growing organically and by acquiring technology providers that complement its existing portfolio. As we discussed in recent analyses, and NICE acquired Merced Systems for its sales- and service-centric performance management applications and Fizzback for customer feedback management software. Both have helped it become a more strategically focused software business. NICE Systems targets enterprise contact centers as well as financial risk, compliance and security. NICE makes its applications available not just on-premises but also in software as a service and hosted environments.

NICE offers a range of customer experience management applications: the agent desktop, customer feedback management and multichannel customer analytics across data, speech and text; agent performance management; interaction and communication technologies and broader customer and contact center analytics. Its contact center and overall workforce optimization suite enhances efficiency and intelligence in contact center operations and customer interactions. At the conference NICE announced a new class of cross-channel analytics-driven customer interaction applications that help personalize interactions to produce efficient and positive customer experiences. In the software, decisioning technology is combined with process management to guide agents as they respond to customer needs across any channel, from the Internet to the phone to retail locations. One way NICE does this is by using speech analytics to determine prompts to agents. Though the industry has been slow to adopt this approach, it is helping NICE customers improve the quality of customer service and resolve more issues on the first contact, which continues to be a top metric to manage agent efficiency and can help improve customer satisfaction.

The use of analytics is essential to identifying customer service improvements, according to 58 percent of organizations in our customer relationship management maturity benchmark research. Analytics works much better than spreadsheets, which are still used regularly or universally by almost two-thirds of contact centers according to our contact center analytics benchmark research. I expect to see NICE find ways to use predictive analytics to further fine-tune the information provided to agents.

NICE has not missed the rise of mobile technologies like smartphones and tablets in business. It announced a new solution called Mobile Reach that can provide quality customer interactions via smartphone. Instead of needing to call in to a contact center, customers can initiate real-time interaction from their smartphones to a center, where an agent can access customer information to respond to their needs. Agents can receive camera photos from customers and use real-time chat. An agent can help a customer to resolve some issue or locate the closest retail or service location. This advance in technology is impressive, and I expect NICE to offer similar or more support for tablets such as Apple’s iPad that has become a primary device for mobile commerce. It already provides analytics on tablets for assessing sales and customer service, and previewed new customer service management capabilities at the conference.

NICE also goes beyond these areas and helps in the back office with applications to manage the workforce, desktop processes, performance and quality assurance. I had a chance to review its process and task management software, which has the intelligence to spot where workers are not fulfilling their responsibilities. Organizations can apply the task monitoring technology to customers’ activities on their websites, and can be capture and replay it in what NICE calls interaction recording. I was impressed in the demonstration by how easy it is to identify issues and perform rapid root-cause analysis.

One of the key efforts in customer feedback management,  as my colleague Richard Snow states, is for businesses to hear the voice of the customer. VOC addresses direct and indirect channels across the Internet, such as social media. NICE announced further integration of the Fizzback technology; now contact centers can have any call or digital interaction dynamically invoke a feedback suggestion to make it easier to respond. Even more useful is the ability to have a manager actually listen to the customer interaction to assess any issues and then provide coaching where needed. This information can be essential to improving customer experience processes, which 59 percent of organizations have determined is a critical benefit of using feedback management. NICE was also demonstrating how it can take sentiment about a brand on social media, since analysis of this communication channel is already deployed in one-quarter of organizations and its use is the second highest priority in 19 percent of customer service organizations, according to our customer relationship maturity research. It also demonstrated where interactions started from social media can be part of a contact center or even marketing organizations operations. The ability to learn from social media interactions will be critical, as 89 percent of organizations already have a presence on Facebook, 68 percent on Twitter and 57 percent on LinkedIn according to our research.

At the conference I presented a session on establishing high-performance contact centers by using customer relationship maturity strategies, optimizing agent performance and productivity, utilizing analytics for contact centers, embracing social media for contact centers and understanding voice of the customer’s impact to customer experience. If you want a copy of the presentation, click here. It was great to have our Ventana Research Leadership Award winner  for 2011 in contact center category, Alliance Data, in the audience, too!

NICE’s new generation of customer- and agent-focused applications aims to optimize the customer experience. The company’s applications and technology portfolio are significantly ahead of those currently installed in most customer service organizations, which should provide it plenty of room to grow. Its intelligent use of analytics drives more effectiveness in customer interactions by improving agents’ performance. NICE has demonstrated its ability to acquire companies and integrate their products efficiently, leveraging both products and people to its advantage. It also partners with the likes of IBM, Cisco and even Five9 to enhance the contact center technology ecosystem. The largest challenge for NICE is to promote awareness of what it provides and what is possible with its technology. It will need to expand its market education efforts to explain how it helps the largest businesses change the way they operate in a more significant manner than previous CRM efforts. It will probably need to build some type of center of excellence and demonstrate what contact centers should strive to be over the next five years. I hope to see more chatter about NICE across social media on the part of organizations that wish to make substantive improvements to their contact centers and promote intelligent interactions with customers.


Mark Smith – CEO & Chief Research Officer

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