Explore the cloud: A guide to SaaS financial management applications
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Parsons Electric has long strived to be on the cutting edge of customer-facing technology, but until a year ago, the financial management software it used internally was anything but advanced.
"We still used old-school tools for our financial management and it was getting to be a rub for our division managers," Director of Strategic Projects Monica Ross, explained. "Their thinking was that they had to invest in making themselves market-leading, so how come the finance organization wasn't more sophisticated with how its information was delivered?"
Parsons was using Microsoft Excel for financial management, which Ross said made two major processes unwieldy: financial reporting and analysis and budgeting.
The issue came to a head during 2011 budget planning. By the time the budget was finished, the calendar year had already started and the finance department had to update the budget with actuals.
"We did all of our analysis in a gigantic Excel file, and it was extremely time consuming and painful. The CFO and I met after the budget was done and decided that we would not do this again, which lead us down the path of looking for a new solution," Ross said.
After three months of research, Ross and other Parsons executives selected cloud-based reporting, budgeting and forecasting applications from Host Analytics, a company based in Redwood City, Calif. The fact that the vendor offered Software as a Service (SaaS) products turned out to be a key deciding factor for Ross, even though executive officers of large companies are generally reluctant to move their financial information to the cloud.
Financial management software vendor selection
Ross and CIO Jeff Moryn handled the early investigation and vetting portion of the selection process. Through networking and online research Ross and Moryn chose Adaptive Planning, Prophix and Host Analytics as the top vendors.
The next step was a qualification phase, at which point CFO Mike Northquest got involved. "We had a number of informational interviews with the vendors. Then there was a request for pricing, and afterwards we dug into specifically how each of these companies would meet our needs," which Ross said were identified as enhanced financial reporting, budgeting and forecasting.
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Adaptive Planning was eliminated because Ross felt it was better suited for small, less complex companies. "It seemed very straightforward to implement, but it lacked in flexibility. Parsons has 15 operating groups. If we had two operating groups, I think it would have been great."
While Ross thought Prophix could more appropriately address the needs of a large business, she ultimately decided against the on-premises software. "It was quite a robust tool, comparable to Host Analytics, but because they were on-premise we shied away from it," Ross said.
Although Parsons isn't the first company to switch from Excel to a SaaS product for financial management, CFOs of many large businesses are wary of transferring financial information away from their on-premises systems. Ross said she was swayed by the ease of upgrading.
"We weren't sure we wanted to handle upgrades ourselves," she explained. "Host Analytics did an outstanding job showing us the specific way our information was going to flow through the software, what it was going to look like, and what the options for analysis were. They made it clear what we could expect before we made an investment."
Benefits of implementing financial management software
Ross and other Parsons executives decided to implement the three modules in stages starting with the budget module in mid-October to kick off the 2012 budget season. With the help of the new financial management software, the finance department was able to complete the budget in two-and-a-half months as opposed to the five months it had taken the previous year, Ross said.
Reporting came next. "We were able to do the December month-end reporting through Host and have done so ever since," Ross said. "Then the forecast modules were implemented in February, and it took about a month to do that."
During the implementation, Ross was impressed by the vendor's flexibility with training options. "It seemed to me that they were willing to come up with a proposal to support us in any way we wanted," she said. In the end, the company's three "super users" attended webinars presented by Host Analytics. Training for the division managers was developed and administered in house, using reference material from the vendor.
Consultants from Host Analytics also handled the initial integration of the software with Parsons' general ledger system, help that Ross was grateful for.
While some users were initially resistant to change, Ross thought the transition was overall a smooth one due to the similarity of Host's spreadsheet view to Excel. "It looks exactly like a spreadsheet, so you get away from that learning curve," she said.
The benefits have already made the deployment process worthwhile, according to Ross. "We now have faster, more reliable, easier-to-get-to information than we ever had in the past. If you want to see your financial report, you just have to go to the website and log in."
Mobile capability and dashboards
Ross envisions a few changes in how Parsons uses the software. For one, she thinks more users will be added. Also, while the company has not yet used dashboard views, she expects a transition to dashboards to take place eventually.
Another feature that she is excited about is the software's mobile capabilities. "I am aware that Host Analytics is launching an opportunity to use software with a tablet -- we would definitely use that," she said.
Her advice to those making a switch to financial management software is to have an open mind, and heed the vendor's suggestions for how to improve company operations. "Be ready for a careful examination of all of your business processes, and be willing to make some standardization of unique or oddball practices," she said.