Feb 25, 2012

Social Manifesto for Enterprise Finance Apps

Despite the title, this post is not about the ’99 percenters’ in the workplace revolting against the ‘1% Finance/ Wall Street’ types, but just an attempt to apply 'social/ consumerization’ buzzwords in a specific domain. A recent post by Josh Greenbaum rightly points out consumerization as the final peak for enterprise software and it's interesting to see how it applies to financials domain.

Why Finance? It’s not the most exciting area, but the most important domain for business. You can survive without a CRM app on your mobile, but you don’t exist as a business, if you don’t know how much money you are making or losing every month. Here are some personal thoughts partly based on discussions with customers in my former life as an ERP Financials product manager.

I believe consumerization means bringing consumer expectations to any software at work. There are probably four levels of consumerizing Finance, with increasing business value - discussed in detail:
  • Intuitive user experience for Finance professionals 
  •  Empowering the non-Finance managers & employees through financial insights 
  •  Rich Collaboration between Finance and non-Finance 
  •  Consumerizing/ redefining financial business processes 
Note: For this article, ‘Finance’ mostly refers to the controlling/ management accounting function, which has the biggest interaction with the the business, but could also broadly include all CFO functions such as financial accounting, treasury, corporate financial reporting, strategic planning, budgeting, forecasting etc.

Finance professional user experience: Applying the consumer software principles to simplify financial user experience is a no-brainer. However, it may be ‘necessary, but not sufficient', since the business impact for the company might be limited.

Finance is a highly specialized profession requiring unique skills and pragmatic temperament. Clearly, most of us will struggle to post a GL transaction in any enterprise finance application, but most of us cannot build a complex budget either. Unlike the Silicon Valley ‘Millennial’ stereotypes, graduates entering finance professions often do not mind mastering the software tools to get their admittedly complex job done. I was surprised to see the fresh hires by SAP customers not complaining about 'Facebook-like' during my first ERP Financials training in Newtown Square, PA. Of course, any financial management software does need user experience improvement (what doesn’t?), but it may not be the crux of consumerization.

Empowering Managers and Employees: The financial future of every company is built day-in and day-out by employees, first-line supervisors, and middle managers, but these are the most ‘disenfinanced’ (like disenfranchised?) in an organization. Finance spends a lot of time with the senior management, but due to bandwidth constraints, they only provide crumbs of information to line managers, often as a large PowerPoint data dump file at the end of a quarter, with limited 'last mile' of human interpretation. Most first-line supervisors do not understand its implications for their daily work. Finance software can serve these consumer-like employees by providing (probably mobile-first):
  • Personalized insights with ‘you at the center’ combining aggregated data and intelligent analytics (‘your 3 largest expenses were x, y, and z, and the 3 biggest spenders in your team are a, b, and c) 
  •  Contextualized information based on benchmarks against org/ unit (‘your region x profitability is x% lower than the average for similar functions’) rather than raw historical numbers
  • Intelligent interpretation based on data trends at 90% confidence (without 100% data) and inferences (e.g., ‘travel is up this month, probably because of the x event in Orlando’) 
  • Forward-looking guidance for actions based on exceptions (a quote: ‘a GPS, not a rear-view mirror’) –e.g., ‘at the current rate of spend, you will run out of 3rd party budget in 15 days’
Many of you will recognize these as similar to the consumer finance software like Mint.com or newer start-ups – e.g., HelloWallet
Collaboration between Finance and non-Finance: Finance departments are probably not the most collaborative, partly due to the regulatory implications of ‘chatter’ that could easily land the CFO in jail. However, the online collaboration tools can simplify the rich conversations between Finance and the business, instead of email ping-pong with excel attachments:
  • Business context aware and embedded in daily work (ask a question directly from the sales report ‘why is the profitability so low this quarter’)
  • Short-term project collaboration – e.g., preparing documents for the Quarterly Operations Review with the top management
  • Workflow in context of an event (not a perpetual stream or feed) – e.g., planning and approvals for the next unit Christmas party
(Not calling it 'social finance', as money is probably not meant to be shared freely!)

Consumerizing/ redefining finance business processes: does not mean all financial processes need to be revamped. Many old processes have been proven to work (e.g., double-entry book-keeping) and best left untouched. Many others are strictly regulated (e.g., financial statement production) and cannot be tinkered with, except introducing enabling technology (e.g., XBRL).

However, many processes that touch the lives of every business person in the company are highly outdated, while the software just automates ‘paperwork’. For example, traditional static budgeting processes are mostly top-down and based on last year’s actuals with a ‘use-it-or-lose-it’ mindset. Managers spend a lot of time lobbying for budget or ‘horsetrading’ and are usually stuck in long approval battles, which are still not solved by ideas like ‘zero-based budgeting’. 

Consumerization means redefining processes from a ‘design thinking’ perspective putting the key ‘consumers of information’ at the center and using the company interest as the guiding principle, instead of rigid rules. Several other processes like travel management, marketing event planning, product portfolio planning, business case funding etc with heavy financial implications often operate in isolation, due to the high degree of unstructured interaction. Instead of automating these processes with software, ‘consumerizing’ them with the latest principles of personal context, collaboration, analytical insight etc have far more impact – will discuss some use cases in a later post.

Money is the lifeblood of any organization. Consumerizing finance software is probably not jazzy UIs alone, but is to look at the needs of every employee as a ‘consumer’ and incorporate ‘people-centric’ design principles. After all, corporations have people too!

Do you think Finance can be made better as a  'consumer' of Finance or a Finance professional?

Update (4/11/2012): Read the recently released CSFB research report 'Apps Revolution Manifesto'.  It's long, but well-researched and covers each enabling technology in depth.It has many interesting use cases for social, but was disappointing to see no finance use case at all.

Feb 15, 2012

SAP's Enterprise-to-Consumer App

SAP today launched its first consumer mobile app called ‘Recalls Plus’ (Ray Wang’s review here) It is a simple iPhone app (free on AppStore) to track consumer recalls and provide real-time alerts on selected categories and products.

I personally love the concept, as few apps better symbolize the essence of this blog title ‘Consumerizing Enterprise’! I knew the product was in the making for some time, but did not know any details. Here are some personal impressions as a consumer, after downloading and playing with the iPhone app for a while.

It’s a nifty app that does one thing well: track recalls and has an extremely simple user interface. Instead of signing up on various brand and government web sites and receiving a ton of emails on every recall, you can create a watch-list of products (including food, allergens) and set up a filter for alerts. It also gives you a few pre-defined categories, based on the kid’s age group and also lists all recent recall news. It is a clearly useful app for any family that is concerned about recalls (like we are).

The broader idea is to connect the enterprises (brands and retailers) to the end-consumers in the context of a key concern of most parents. The app could also be quite viral, giving parents a chance to easily share a recall alert on Facebook or Twitter to potentially interested friends. For enterprises, the app could ultimately be a channel to engage with the end consumers or at the minimum, learn a bit more about their preferences and usage.

I saw some questions on how SAP makes money. I don’t know if SAP is hoping to make tons of money with this app, especially from consumers directly. I suspect if it gets in the hands of many consumers and gives some more insights to its CPG customers, SAP might not be too disappointed. Moreover, almost every consumer app starts with a freemium approach. SAP already has a consumer employee application in the market (StreamWork) that has a freemium model, though I don’t know the future plans for the RecallsPlus product. If you would like to find out more, please contact Rishi Diwan, the product owner.

‘A journey of a thousand mile begins with a single step’ and this app is probably the first step of SAP into the consumer software world, where SAP has a stated ambitious goal to reach 1 Billion users by 2015.  I am sure SAP will need to learn a lot and reiterate quickly in this widely different world, as Rishi mentioned in the interview. But it’s a start and it’ll be exciting to see more cool apps from any software vendor connecting enterprises and consumers.

App available on iTunes: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/recalls-plus/id499200328 
App web site: http://www.recallsplus.com/ 

Feb 8, 2012

'Social Enterprise' and 'Consumer Social': 5 Behavioral Differences

Saw this funny cartoon in an otherwise serious (&excellent) article:

After nearly falling off my chair laughing, I felt like adding another box:
Social Media: "Social Enterprise emancipates individuals to be collaborative free agents building collective intelligence in the cloud" - 3 books and 10 keynotes later, they still haven’t caught on :-)

Don’t get me wrong. I am a big believer in Social Enterprise or Enterprise 2.0 (or the puzzling phrase 'Facebook for the Enterprise'), a concept heavily promoted by the likes of IBM, Salesforce.com, InformationWeek, Yammer etc. However, as a practitioner, I always felt there are some fundamental behavioral and structural differences between the ‘consumer social’ and the ‘work social’ worlds, even without getting into the universally understood challenges such as security, data privacy, tool features etc.

My perspective is as a passionate user of work collaboration technologies (before the social buzzword) and also as someone who has evangelized and tried to drive the adoption in every group and company (small to large) I worked for over the last 13 years. The results have been mostly mixed and let me share some patterns of challenges:

Lack of mutual self-interest: Real collaboration is through strong individual motivation and mutual self-interest, not by a corporate edict (‘thou shalt collaborate’). In your company, if people do not regularly make new connections without a pressing need, even over lunch, interaction without a concrete short-term reason is unlikely or not sustainable. Aligned self-interest is hard to establish without personal relationship and trust. Hence, social interaction might work for deep existing relationships, but not for new casual ones (or 'weak ties'), lowering the allure of ‘click and collaborate’.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs: Most people work to pay bills and the goal is to get the job done as quickly as possible. Work is at the lower levels of the Maslow's pyramid (safety/ employment), whereas in online social networks, people just want to ‘waste time’ building a connection and empathizing, in the esteem/ self-actualization levels. You may have a few good friends at work, but it’s not the same as wading through tons of status feed from relative strangers at work at 10pm.

Network effects: might be the biggest barrier to adoption. Metcalfe’s Law sounds great, but also means that the value kicks in only at critical mass. Otherwise, you go there once or twice, but have no reason to revisit and slowly forget or give up. There’s an interesting paradox – the smaller and specific the network is, the more valuable it is for the employee (self-interest and relevance at critical mass), but the greater and general purpose the network is,  the more valuable it is for the company (IT investments, streamlining, ROI etc),  making it challenging to merge the two motivations. There’s also a ‘chicken and egg’ problem in network, as it is hard to migrate everyone to a new tool, but also less valuable if everyone is not on the same tool. Facebook famously and brilliantly solved the network problem by going after college after college, giving exclusivity and relevance per each network, but it continues to be hard for enterprises, especially due to the challenge of reaching critical mass in multiple sub-networks.

Different online habits: People vary widely in their communication preferences (e.g., email vs. in-person) by personality, nationality, culture, age etc.  Most executives & business people prefer verbal communication, even if they claim to be 'social'. Many employees do not feel comfortable in openly debating complex issues electronically, for the (legitimate) fear of misinterpretation. You cannot stay anonymous in an internal network, raising the stakes. You have to be na├»ve or rationally risk-seeking (e.g., people in satellite offices) to engage in company-wide (or even org-wide) open discussion on sensitive topics. 

No ‘Ashton Kutcher’ prize: Every company already has one – its CEO. The charisma of people in an enterprise is mostly determined by the organizational structure rather than follower count or social activity. There’s a clear pecking order as to whose opinion is more important, even more in a hierarchical organization (like the Orwell quote: “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others!”) Investing in internal social tools for increasing influence is hardly worth the effort, unlike the ‘people social’ world, where the Google VP in Egypt or grass-root Twitter activists could become instant celebrities. Clearly, flatter and democratic organizations will be the future norm, but it’ll take some time.

Does it mean Social Enterprise is a fad? Absolutely not. There are clearly select classes of enterprise business problems, cut out for social tools, I feel. Hope to discuss that in a later post.

Why do you think consumer social-like behavior does not easily translate to enterprise?

P.S  Is this ‘Facebook in the enterprise’?

Feb 2, 2012

Future of Retail: Why eBay's Milo is cooler than any mobile coupon apps

I think of shopping as a necessary evil and never believed in the eBay ‘shop victoriously’ slogan. Online shopping saves time, but some items need to be looked at (‘squeezing tomatoes’) or should be ‘returnable’. Amazon doesn’t help. Store web sites? Good luck finding anything useful like stock availability there and I hate shipping fees!

Enter eBay’s Milo.com. It is not a sexy app. It is a plain web site that lets you check real-time store inventory connecting with the back-ends of major retailers, but I think it points to the future of retail (according to eBay CEO John Donahoe), whether eBay or someone else succeeds there. Why:

Milo answers the key consumer question – is the item available in-stock across multiple retailers & stores at a good price (than just price alone), instead of the painful ordeal of going to each web site or physical store. Milo helps you decide whether a drive to Best Buy or Sears is easier than waiting for a package, even if 2 days from Amazon Prime.

Milo is not perfect. It works only for a few national chains and has many glitches. I don't think many people use it. It’s not a cutesy mobile app that bombards you with coupons or makes you feverishly run for offers or check-ins or announces your shopping skills to your friends. It is a start-up acquired by eBay in 2010, but interesting point here is demonstrating the value of tight real-time inventory check and availability-to-promise function across all stores and online. This establishes the consumer at the center of his multi-channel activities, without being segmented as mobile/ social/ web/ physical shopper, especially when mobile-to-web, web-to-store, mobile-to-store and even physical catalog-to-mobile-to-store flows are much more the norm.

In the last few years, many high profile mobile apps for shopping/ scanning/ pre-purchase promotions have emerged – ShopKick, AmazonPriceCheck, eBay’s RedLaser (which still needs to integrate better with Milo) etc and loyalty card/ mobile wallet/ payment apps from start-ups and behemoths alike. However, for physical goods, any app without a tight link to the back-end inventory, catalog and order management processes is only marginally useful at best, and embarrassment at worst (like the recent Best Buy fiasco) emulating the death march of Borders and Circuit City.

eCommerce is bound to explode, but still has huge disadvantages against brick-and-mortar stores for physical goods. Seamlessly integrated solutions connecting enterprise software (such as SAP) and consumer front-ends (mobile/ web) to offer multi-channel commerce are increasingly required to meet the new user expectations, merging online and offline commerce. As a curious consumer with enterprise software background, this is a fascinating convergence and I hope to discuss some observations in this blog and also learn from you!