This article explores the arrival of Dynamics 365 Business Central and how you can achieve advanced reporting and budgeting.
What happened to the vision of the easy, self-service, one-stop shop business intelligence (BI) capabilities that countless companies across the world have been seeking? After years of investing in new ERP systems, including cloud-based solutions, home-grown data warehouses and even sexy, new dashboard tools, the vast majority of companies are far from BI Nirvana.
The sad truth is that most organizations I talk to have 5 to 7 different reporting tools between their ERP solution, CRM, Payroll, Web site data and other systems. It does not make it better that more than 90% of them do all- or a majority of their budgeting and forecasting processes in manual Excel sheets. Oh, and then the sales team or certain other departments have sometimes implemented an analytics tool to provide them with dashboards and easy ad-hoc analysis. This will often fix short term pain, but it will not take you to BI Nirvana. In some organizations, the IT department has spent a year or more to build a so-called “enterprise data warehouse”, often with only some of their data sources included, such as General Ledger data and Sales data, and most of the time with IT-dependent report writers, OLAP cubes or pivot tables as the only means of reporting on the data.
So, what is the status of companies’ BI capabilities as of today? The bad news is that it is far from the BI Nirvana that managers have been dreaming about for years now after watching slick demos from one BI software vendor after another. But, the good news is that things are getting better. You only need to step back and compare your BI capabilities today with what they may have been in 2005, 1995 or, if you were even around in….1985. Chances are that your information workers now have more and better reporting tools available to them. Of course, today you have more data sources than ever, and market dynamics change faster than at any time in history. So, somewhere along the way, business users took matters into their own hands and the result was that…..Excel became the world’s most popular report writer and budgeting solution. But, although Excel is quite user friendly, extremely flexible and familiar to almost every business user on the planet, it was never meant to be an enterprise-wide BI tool. So, how do one get to this utopian place called BI Nirvana? You might need “a little help from my friends” as Joe Cocker sang in his popular rendition of the original Beatles song. In other words, do your homework, talk to your friends both inside and outside your company and educate yourself. Although every organization should stake out their own BI journey based on their needs, available data sources, internal talent, platform strategies (i.e. database type, cloud versus on premise, etc.) and more, a few things seem to fall into a common formula for BI success:
1) Strive for a single BI solution that covers all or most of these: Reporting (financial and operational), budgeting and forecasting, dashboards/analysis and data warehousing. If some key functionality is not covered by the BI suite you select, then make sure it integrates directly with a powerful 3rd party add-on for whatever functionality is missing in the suite. The last thing you need are more reporting tools in your company….so make sure the BI suite eliminates or reduces the need for your other tools.
2) Don’t ignore the power, flexibility and familiarity of Excel. But it should not be a manual Excel model, it should be an Excel add-in that allows you to build reports and input forms that dynamically retrieves and even saves data to a database. Oh, and it should be web-enabled or be able to convert the Excel templates to dynamic, browser-based templates for easy end-user access.
3) Repeat after me: “I promise not to implement more proprietary BI tools with unfamiliar user interfaces and that also may require all my end users to install client software or use Terminal Server or Citrix to access a remote desktop”. Using cloud, hosted or on premise architecture is not the most critical question. What you need to empower your growing number of end users that are seeking BI Nirvana is a single, self-service, web-based BI portal where each user can run reports and drill down to answer their questions without bothering IT or the accounting department, they can enter their budgets and they can discover trends and answer Who? Where? What? questions in interactive dashboards.
4) Finally, and this is a no-brainer….your BI capabilities are only as good as the data available in your BI suite. So, if you don’t have a well-functioning data warehouse yet to give you that sought-after, single version of the truth, start planning for one. You are going to need it if you want to get to BI Nirvana. It is an exciting road ahead for organizations seeking a competitive edge through BI excellence, even if you meet a few bumps along the way. Vendors like Solver with its BI360 solution as well as several other software providers with modern BI suites are continuously investing to help companies’ BI visions come true. Good luck on your journey!
As many Management Reporter (MR) customers and partners have now heard, there were two announcements from Microsoft in the past few weeks about the future of Management Reporter: one was at the Amplify conference in Anaheim, California on Sunday, May 22 last month, and the other was in writing and can be found here. This blog is a follow up to the first one, written after the Amplify conference, but now with more information available from Microsoft.
For people that like to analyze and read between the lines in vendor announcements, you can read into what is meant with “no major enhancements (of MR for GP)”. For anyone that has been in the software industry for a while, it typically means one thing: MR is going on life support, but there will be bug fixes and maybe some small improvements as well as the typical 10 years of support that Microsoft often offers on major products that are being sunset.
What about MR for Dynamics GP (whose team the recent MR announcement came from) vs Dynamics SL and Dynamics AX? The recent MR announcement came from the GP team, so the slowdown of MR development there is confirmed. Now, MR supposedly has the same engine, albeit different integrations, regardless of it being AX, GP or SL, so it would be quite strange if there would be full development of deep MR functionality (not talking User Interface here) for AX, but not for GP. However, that is just speculation and for sure there will be someone taking care of MR, at least for AX 7/cloud and maybe later AX updates. So, let’s leave that door open as AX in the cloud is a very high priority for Microsoft.
And, it is a known fact that SL has a smaller customer base than GP and thus, less resources behind it, so although there has not been any MR announcements from the SL team, it would be very strange if MR’s destiny is not the same there as it is for GP customers using MR.
What about Dynamics NAV? Microsoft tried to use MR on NAV for a while, but it was discontinued a while back because MR really did not work well on NAV’s multi-dimensional database, and NAV customers moved on and today, use the native NAV report writer or ISVs, like Jet Reports and BI360.
However, Dynamics customers have many choices, probably more than most ERP systems on the market, and reporting and CPM vendors are as usual standing ready to help the customers to greener pastures when they decide the time is right to move off MR.
With that said, while existing customers that are completely happy with MR can easily stay the course with MR for a while, new customers should then decide if it is worth the risk to invest time and money in MR report writing or if they should implement a closely integrated ISV product that does the same as MR and maybe more, like reporting on both GL and sub-ledger data. There are several of these products, including BI360, BizNet, Jet Reports, Prophix and ZAP. Some of them using Excel and some using browser interfaces or both. As with any type of ISV product in the ERP space, the goal of an ISV is to stay relevant and grow by always staying ahead of the ERP vendor’s own functionality, which is often free and embedded, like you will see with MR for AX on Azure.
So, let’s assume that MR has reached its retirement age for all or most of the Dynamics ERPs and is now moving into the retirement home to enjoy the rest of its life there, with “minor releases.” What is next from Microsoft? Are they going to ignore the need for financial reporting? Are they going to look beyond MR’s limitation to only report on GL data? What about budgeting features or embedded visualizations?
Let’s make some educated guesses about the alternatives Microsoft may be thinking about for financial reporting and corporate performance management (CPM). Here are some potential options (not in order of likelihood):
Microsoft can change their strategy on MR and rebuild it into a modern, non-proprietary, cloud friendly report writer and try to expand it into also reporting on sub-ledgers, so customers don’t need to use two or more report writers for their different ERP reporting requirements.
Microsoft can keep MR on life support until they launch a brand new tool. Who knows, maybe they are in stealth mode and already working on something related to expansion of Power BI into a more full-fledged combined BI and CPM tool?
Microsoft can acquire a CPM vendor. It would then be likely be a modern, cloud-based tool since Microsoft is extremely focused on the cloud in almost all regards these days.
Microsoft can develop partnerships with financial reporting or full-fledged CPM vendors while they figure out the future, which again will likely be #2 or #3 above, or they may lean on their ISV channel for the longer term.
Ultimately, Microsoft knows that they will need a good reporting and budgeting tool for AX Cloud, Madeira and NAV, as these three ERPs seems to be what they bet their long term cloud and on-premise presence on.
In the meantime, Microsoft Dynamics AX, NAV, GP and SL customers probably have the best ISV community of any their ERP competitors, so there are plenty of pre-integrated third party solutions ready to take Microsoft Dynamics’ financial reporting to the next level. What that next level is can be food for thought in a future blog.
Recently, in two separate announcements, Microsoft has stated that they will no longer develop their Forecaster budgeting tool and their Management Reporter financial report writer. How does this impact the almost 200,000 Dynamics AX, GP, SL and NAV customers out there? Is it a bad thing or may it be a smart move by Microsoft?
To take Dynamics NAV first, Management Reporter has not supported NAV for a while and most customers look to best-of-breed third party solutions with a live NAV integration, such as the Excel-based report writers like BI360 (www.solverglobal.com) and Jet Reports (www.jetreports.com).
When it comes to selecting a Business Intelligence (BI) solution to get the most out of your Microsoft Dynamics ERP investment, you have four choices:
1) Use the tools that come natively embedded within different Dynamics ERPs
2) Extend or replace the native ERP BI tools with the Microsoft BI stack of tools
3) Implement a best-of-breed third party solution
4) Some combination of the three options above
These options and much of the discussion below would apply for any ERP system, not just the Dynamics (AX, NAV, GP and SL). This decision has a critical impact on the success of an ERP/BI deployment, and is often not discussed as thoroughly as it should be during the ERP/BI pre-sales process.
At Solver, our partner-centric culture is one of the biggest reasons behind our success. Our partners help us deliver superior BI solutions to the marketplace in a way that just wouldn’t be possible through direct sales. We see our partner channel as part of our own organization and treat them like our own employees. In fact, I see our partners as the reason we grew our customerbase in record numbers worldwide this year. While North America and EMEA have been core markets since we launched BI360 four years ago, we are now also firmly established in the Asia-Pacific region, less than two years after we entered the market there, and we have started our roll-out in Latin America.
We’ve learned through experience that if you want to take your product worldwide, there’s no better way than through strong partnerships. There are a few reasons for this. First, they can be local everywhere in the world. They are literally your “eyes and ears on the street.” This eliminates the need for offices in every country. Partners know the local cultures, they know local transactional systems that we integrate with and so on. So if you’re going to succeed with a channel strategy, you need to consider your partner channel part of your own family, because in a very real sense, they are.
Lastly, I would advise anyone looking to develop a successful partner strategy to invest in them like you would your own employees. Because essentially, they are! They require the same training and need the same access to resources as your own staff. When you achieve that, you’ll achieve nirvana with your partner channel. Admittedly, we’re still fine-tuning our strategy after just four years, but I would say that we are well above most other partner channel-driven organizations in our space. I also believe a good channel strategy is a little science and a little art. The scientific part can be adjusted, tweaked and tested, and the artistic part is about connecting with your people to achieve mutual success. I’m always asking: how can I better enable my partner channel? And I’m excited to see the results in 2014!
Watch this video to learn more about our partner program offerings and reasons for success!
One of the reasons Solver’s software is so intuitive and easy to use is because we built it for non-technical users. In fact, before we developed our software, we were business intelligence consultants, so we understood the unique challenges BI users faced. In the ’80s and ’90s, organizations typically had technical reporting experts in their finance department, or they used IT staff to do this—formal experts who were responsible for creating reports, budget models, etc.
When the 2000s came along, there was more focus on usability and ease of use. As a result, many of the tools from the 90’s were simply repurposed with a more user-friendly skin, but still had legacy platforms under the hood. This required a great deal of technology to be put in place before the end users could effectively use these tools. Even then, BI tools were still fairly rigid and difficult to use.
When we created the blue print for BI360 in 2007, we started from a completely different angle. Ease of use was our number one priority. Every time we built a feature into the product, we measured its success through usability testing. When we finished and launched BI360 in 2009, customers immediately recognized the difference. Suddenly, normal business users could take ownership of and create useful reports, budget models, dashboards, and even manage the data warehouse. It completely shifted the power from traditional finance users to everyday business users.
Getting an overview of your sales, top customers and products is quick and easy with BI360 dashboards. With intuitive, drag-and-drop simplicity, you can customize your data and create dashboards on the fly with pre-defined widgets and modules.
BI360 dashboards are web-based for both designers and end users, and offer total visibility into your business. Like every other BI360 product, our dashboards are created for business users and don’t require advanced levels of technical expertise. Plus, they offer out of the box integration for real-time ERP or data warehouse-driven dashboards. BI360 dashboards are part of the BI360 Portal and come integrated with the BI360 web reporting module, providing a single environment both for financial reporting and for dashboards. In other words, if a manager is looking at a sales dashboard, he or she is just a click away from running a live balance sheet report and drilling down into a cash account to see live transactions from the ERP database. BI360 is the only BI suite that provides this type of flexibility within a single solution and a single web portal!
Watch this quick demo of how to easily design your own dashboards with key metrics in just minutes!
People often ask me about our focus on the mid-market. There’s no question this is our area of strength. We’ve always been committed to over-delivering for our partners and customers, most of which happen to be in the mid-market. While we have customers in the multi-billion dollar revenue range, and our BI360 solution can certainly address the needs of any-sized enterprise, we like the mid-market because we know we can out-perform the competition and over-deliver on world-class customer service.
Another reason we thrive in the mid-market is because that’s where we started. Even our old consulting-focused business in the past has always been in the mid-market. We started working with ERP systems and grew our partner channel, all of which are pretty much focused on mid-market and the Microsoft platform.
Lastly, mid-market organizations traditionally haven’t needed—and probably couldn’t have afforded—a full-blown business intelligence solution. When I say business intelligence, I define that as financial reporting, consolidations, operational reporting, budgeting, forecasting, dashboards and data warehousing. We’ve always seen this as a competitive advantage, because our BI360 solution does provide all of these capabilities, and is priced for the mid-market enterprise.
As we continue to develop cutting-edge BI solutions for the mid-market, we’ll also continue to expand and serve those larger customers who want a highly flexible, cost-effective BI solution, some of them are currently using legacy solutions like Hyperion and Cognos and looking for a more modern platform that their business users can manage without constant IT or consulting assistance. But truth be told, we’ll focus on listening to our customers’ needs and develop BI360 accordingly, always thinking about ease-of-use when we develop new functionality, because that’s where we’ve built our foundation from the beginning!
There are a number of features that are desirable in a “report writer” today. At the core, it is important to have great calculation features and flexible formatting in order to produce high-quality financial statements, as well as operational (sub-ledger) reports. There is little doubt that Excel add-ins tend to be much stronger in this area than proprietary reporting tools.
On a higher level, there are other features to consider such as:
- Automated report distribution to end-users.
- A web-based front-end option for end users to run their own reports.
- Mobile access for the busy executive that wants to see fresh financials on the go.
- Collaborative features so managers can discuss and explain variances and other pertinent observations while analyzing a report.
- Integration of the report writer beyond the live ERP database, such as to a Budgeting module and data warehouse that also can integrate other data sources.
- Ad-hoc reporting (when a user needs an answer on the fly and it does not make sense to run or build a formatted report).
We designed the BI360 4.0 reporting module with all of the above criteria in mind. Hopefully, we are pushing the limits of the concept of a “report writer” to the next level so financial professionals and end users can help drive efficiency and analytical capabilities in their organizations.