Matt Felzke
Best Budgeting Solutions for Microsoft Dynamics SL

Third party budgeting options for Dynamics SL are empowering CFOs and budget managers to effectively and dynamically plan for organizational and departmental growth, through secure and simple collaboration.  This article will discuss elements to consider when shopping for the best budgeting tool for your team.

I think it is safe to say that budgeting for a business is a task most would prefer to avoid.  Maybe this has something to do with the tedious nature of the tools available to budget managers.  Excel spreadsheets that are formatted into a budget might be okay for household planning, perhaps for a smaller company’s budget, due to the relatively small set of data, but growing corporations using Microsoft Dynamics SL are taking notice of the benefits of a third party budgeting solution to enhance their accounting and finance objectives.  Some of today’s more modern solutions streamline the process of budgeting by empowering contributors through secure collaboration.  Planning and managing profit and loss, employee budgets, project budgets, and other areas of a business is a necessary task so that corporation leaders can operate within their financial means, ensuring progress.

For most, if not all of companies, budgeting requires multiple players to bring analytics to the table to piece together a budget.  While Excel is the trusted spreadsheet application, it can be logistically challenging when it comes to inviting different departments and entities to collaborate in simple and secure ways.  Most finance teams have Excel – and perhaps Microsoft’s Forecaster, too – so investing in an independent software vendor (ISV) product might seem excessive.  This article will explore the benefits of budgeting solutions in the context of selecting the best product to enhance the Microsoft Dynamics SL experience.

Budgeting software purchases have become increasingly more popular these days due to the flexibility and ownership that all contributors and managers can have in the process of planning for specific units or the organization-wide budget.  Furthermore, there are budgeting and forecasting software applications that are Excel-powered, which translates to familiarity of formatting and functionality accelerated through a ribbon added to the top of the application without linking together manually built, separate spreadsheets.  Some third party budgeting solutions also utilize accounting logic with the business user in mind, with user friendly automation and template reuse.

Modern ISV budgeting and forecasting software are consumer-driven in the sense that logistics and security are prominent features.  CFOs can give department supervisors the ownership of their own budgets without a long e-mail thread with spreadsheet attachments or a messy linking of spreadsheets.  Whoever is managing the budget can then pull together a cohesive, collaborative, complete company-wide budget.  Sound too good to be true?  It’s not.  And the potential return on investment also might seem that way.

In terms of time, money, energy, and staff morale, a dynamic budgeting software can be an extremely valuable investment.  At this point, most professionals usually want to know what they should be looking for when they start shopping for a budgeting solution to enhance their Dynamics SL accounting.  You should consider proprietary versus Excel software, budgeting abilities, integrations between the product and SL, data storage source integrations, the option to acquire additional fully integrated BI modules via a suite, and the horizon of web budgeting.

We have already discussed the perks of Excel and the finance community’s familiarity with the product, but you should know that Excel add-ins enhances the program so that you can more powerfully and intuitively build secure, collaborative and reusable budgets within the interface.  On the other hand, proprietary platforms are also prevalent in the marketplace.

Some third party BI manufacturers have argued that Excel is a frustrating mess, and they have alternatively built their own proprietary interfaced Windows products or web-based products.  Because they are not situated within Excel, users should expect to go through significantly lengthier training to learn the formatting and functionalities in order to produce budgets.  Modern web-based budget interfaces can be an exception.  You’re going to spend money on training and the learning process either way, but an Excel add-in is going to be a logically smaller cost, unless you have a large number of users in which case, the time savings in managing the process is often worth the extra cost.  I’m not sure if the cost of training will be a big aspect in the decision-making process, but it is important to consider alongside things like budgeting abilities and types of integrations.

Software cannot be everything to everyone, but you should be looking for a foundation of features.  In today’s offerings, look for the ability to put actuals versus projections right next to each other, spreading of totals across a year, simple ways to add multiple line items for accounts, roll-ups, multiple currencies, templates that are reusable, visibility of authorship, and parameters like Department, Division, and Entity.  If you are budgeting for a potential fluctuation in the cost of goods, there are what-if scenarios that you can play out within some budget solutions.  For example, some software can empower professionals like the HR director to budget for new employees beyond the General Ledger, with room for salary, equipment, training, and supplies for onboarding, with calculations for statistical reporting and headcount numbers.  This is the present and future of business user friendly products – and ease of use is arguably the most important aspect.

I have written about the Online Analytical Processing (OLAP) cubes versus data warehouses integration decision-making – and deciding between live integration versus a data storage source data pull – but the important thing to focus on will be the ease of use.  Do you have someone on staff to manage an OLAP cube?  Do you have diverse types of data that you need to store in one place like a fully built data warehouse?  If you have other BI needs, how will a certain budgeting solution fit into that strategy?

Some budgeting tools are positioned within a BI suite of different modules, fully integrated for a unified approach to related, but distinct analysis.  If you are also responsible for financial reporting, generating dashboards, financial consolidations, and/or managing data in a warehouse – now or in the not-so-distant future, you should really consider going with a tool that is a part of a comprehensive BI suite.  This way, you can keep all of our tools under one manufacturer, consultant, partner, and support team.  Finally, the future of budgeting is in the Cloud.  Surprised?

Me either.  Cloud computing is the present and the future, and budgeting is following suit.  Keep your eye out for web budgeting for the flexibility of accessible and truly access-anywhere budgeting, but do not abandon the other elements that should inform your investment decision.  Web budgeting will inevitably continue to build momentum, so I will write more about this BI option in the future, but it should  be on your radar.  Solver offers a budgeting module stand-alone and as part of the comprehensive suite of BI modules and would be happy to answer questions and generally review BI360’s easy-to-use Planning solution for collaborative, streamlined decision-making capabilities with Microsoft Dynamics SL.

Matt Felzke
Automated Budgeting and Reporting for Microsoft Dynamics NAV

Automation is the functionality that makes all modern BI features that much more valuable.  This article will discuss automated budgeting and reporting for Dynamics NAV as a way to more efficiently analyze company data, so you can get to the other tasks on your plate.

Articles about reporting and budgeting for Microsoft Dynamics NAV are all over the place – in print, on LinkedIn, in search results.  In fact, I have written about reporting and budgeting, specifically for Dynamics NAV, on this blog before.  I would imagine that someone who reads these articles might have a subconscious response to the authors: “Maybe you think that generating reports and putting together budgets – and reading about them – is all I do for a living.”  If this is the case, I understand the sentiment.

Sometimes, with all the text available about these important data management and analysis processes, it might seem like reading, shopping for, and implementing business intelligence (BI) solutions could be a full time job.  However, the tools on the market today are meant to actually eliminate the tedium of manually building reports and budgets, whether in Excel, natively in Dynamics NAV, or within a third party, proprietary interface, so that you can get to the abundance of tasks that round out your job.

Dynamics NAV is an established, powerful, and increasingly more popular enterprise resource planning (ERP) system.  That said, no product can be all things to all users.  I’ve spoken to a lot of NAV customers who have asked why they should be looking outside of their trusted accounting system to spend additional money to manage an additional product for reporting and/or budgeting.  I used to get into the conversation about building a best-of-breed product for individual company needs and goals, but now I generally refer them to Solver CEO Nils Rasmussen’s article about Microsoft’s BI stack versus third party solution implementation.   I’ve discussed a variety of features and functionalities that incentivize an investment in independent software vendor (ISV) offerings, but there’s an element that makes the rest perhaps even more valuable.

On this blog, we have explored live reporting versus data storage source integrations, reporting beyond the general ledger (GL), options for BI in the cloud versus on-premises, financial consolidations, ad hoc reporting and project budgeting, among several other facets of today’s BI solutions.  Over the course of my own discovery about the marketplace, I have emphasized what I believe to be the most important element in any purchase: ease of use.  Business user friendliness has applied itself to automation.  Automation allows the finance team member to get back to the other responsibilities that are consistently stacking up on their to-do list.

In terms of Dynamics NAV, like with most ERP systems, there aren’t any truly fancy or modern native reporting or budgeting tools to meet today’s data analysis needs.  Report Writer is the built-in designer for financial reports.  There is also the option to utilize the budget input within the accounting system.  Both are naturally limited in their features and functionalities: Report Writer lacks the formatting and calculation abilities of an Excel tool; SSRS reporting tends to be too technical as it requires you to know SQL tables to write a report; and budgeting within NAV is more like Journal Entries without customizable budget forms like Excel offers.  Therefore, automation becomes a functionality that takes the processes you already dread in your current analytics and does them for you, as you prescribe – in a more modern, intuitive, and streamlined way.

In some ways, automation functions not just as a feature, but also as an assistant whose primary function is to generate regular or routine reports, including budget updates.  Automation as a functionality is something you will not find in Excel, Dynamics NAV’s native modules, or more mature, simpler third party products.  This article will explore the options to automate BI reporting and budgeting processes offered exclusively in modern, powerful, and dynamic ISV solutions.

Let’s tackle reporting first.  There are products that offer to automate report scheduling, and that includes e-mail distribution.  Imagine setting the pattern of distributing a revenue-by-employee report, and the reporting tool goes about running the report and e-mailing out every Tuesday at 10 AM.  The only time you would have to get involved again would be to make any changes to the process, whether it be timing, key performance indicators (KPIs), or who is on the distribution list.   Additionally, with certain solutions, you can automate the generation of report books.  For example, you can set up the automated generation of a whole month-end package of financial statements in a single Excel workbook.  It is this kind of expansive work being done – for you, by automation functionality – that will free up your time however routinely you have to put together reports.

Automation also extends to the management of multiple subsidiaries under a parent company umbrella.  You can automate your financial consolidations, including currency conversion and eliminations, across either multiple companies or even across Dynamics NAV and other ERPs that may be relied upon in certain subsidiary companies.  The flexibility of automated reporting is a supreme benefit – and brings us back to ease of use.

Easy to use, accessible, reliably powerful and intuitive – these are characteristics you should be seeking in any BI solution, including reporting and budgeting.  And this extends to the perk of automating your reports and budgets.  You want to look for automated out-of-the-box integration with friendly field names, so business users, as opposed to the IT department, can write their own financial reports.  There is also the option, for mid-sized or larger NAV customers that require more powerful BI reporting speed, to automate a data warehouse configuration for deployment in days, not weeks or months.  All this – and we haven’t even gotten to budgeting.

Budgeting is a process that I assume is the opposite of fun for anyone.  Therefore, automation of any part of the budgeting process is naturally going to be a sweet offering in the ISV marketplace.  Some third party solutions empower the business user to automate the budgeting process with user-friendly, customizable Excel or web-based budget forms, with easy loading of the completed budget or forecast back into Dynamics NAV.  While automation might seem like a non-essential luxury, for others, it means potentially less payroll and more productivity.

Automating reporting and budgeting processes seems like more of a service than a feature, and that is definitely the beauty of this nearly hands-off functionality.  Not every ISV product will come equipped with this feature, so it will be important to do your research.  Solver would be happy to answer questions and generally review BI360’s easy-to-use Excel, web and mobile reporting and budgeting solutions, equipped with automation to make collaborative, streamlined decision-making that much easier.

Matt Felzke
Best Report Writers for Sage 500

If you use Sage 500, it is beneficial for you to know the features and functions of today’s financial reporting and consolidation tools offered by third party manufacturers so that you can pick the right tool to help you meet company needs and goals for Business Intelligence analysis and reporting with Sage 500.

In today’s data-driven business world, a modern financial reporting tool is a requisite for any company that wants to continue being competitive in the marketplace.  In this article, I will discuss the plethora of options and available functionality offered by independent software vendors (ISVs), so you can navigate the market to pick the best reporting solution for your data analysis needs and goals, powered by business intelligence (BI) analysis, all while enhancing Sage 500.

A financial reporting tool allows the user to build customized reports that use transactional data from one of your data sources, either integrating live from Sage 500, a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) program, or from an online analytical processing (OLAP) cube or a data warehouse.    Most accounting systems are equipped with built-in report writing functionality, but there are plenty of third party products that you should consider for modern, powerful, and dynamic reporting.  ISV offerings are enabling finance professionals to craft reusable, individualized report templates that inform corporate leaders about the organization’s health, so they can then make the important decisions to progress.  It will be important for you to explore your options when it comes to accessing your data; Excel, web, mobile, and/or proprietary interfaces; and perhaps most importantly, the ease of use for business users.

When making an investment in a reporting tool, how you integrate your data should be a foundational element in your decision-making.  You will want to assess which is more advantageous for the specifics of your company: whether running live from Sage, integrating with an OLAP cube, a data warehouse, or another proprietary data staging space.  Integrating live from Sage 500 means that you will have access to real-time analytics, right from the ERP server.  More specifically, you will not have to ensure that your company information is first replicated to a storage database in order to access updated data.

You will have to invest a little more money in a data storage source, whether you decide to have someone develop and manage an OLAP cube or opt to go with a fully built, customizable data warehouse.  On the other hand, depending on the number of users who will need to run queries – and the size of said queries – in Sage 500 for reporting and consolidations, a data storage integration is preferable for high performance.

Both BizNet and Solver’s BI360 provide a live Excel-based integration to Sage 500 and other accounting systems, while a majority of third party options exclusively integrate data for reporting from a data storage source.  Meanwhile, you should also be considering the platform from which you will be designing reports.

If you’re like most finance teams around the globe, you and your team have been using Excel since at least college.  Some third party manufacturers have created proprietary interfaced report designers, and they are arguing that Excel is a pain in terms of securely linking and maintaining spreadsheets.  However, because of the ubiquity of Excel, formulas and formatting are second nature for most finance teams.  Furthermore, Excel-powered reporting tools are simply a ribbon add-in that enhances Microsoft’s spreadsheet tool with features that zoom in on secure collaboration and accounting logic.  BizNet and Solver’s BI360 are database-focused Excel add-ins, giving Excel users a head start on learning the reporting module, and there are no manual Excel reporting issues involved.  However, even though Excel is established in its popularity amongst finance teams, the internet and specifically, Cloud computing, are the present and future of BI.

When hosted by a third party provider, web-staged solutions, or Cloud computing, empowers users to securely access data from anywhere there’s an internet connection.  In the context of financial reporting, users can now create and run reports online, enabling collaboration and drill-down analysis.  Generally speaking, pure Cloud reporting options almost always grab data from OLAP cubes or data warehouses, so real-time reports are not an option, but there are some hybrid Excel-powered Cloud financial report writers.

Since business today is more around the clock and global in nature, many companies need to be comprised of lots of individuals, departments, and divisions around the world.  Web reporting works best for companies that are structured similarly, particularly where remote personnel are regularly connecting to the company’s network out of the office.  Adaptive Insights and Host Analytics are proprietary, pure Cloud platforms, but BI360 is a hybrid solution that empowers business users to either run reports in Excel, through a web portal, or on a mobile application.  The internet is extremely accessible on the go, but you want to make sure that it is also easy to use.  If the confusing experience of implementation delays or ruins the use of the product, how much money did you just waste?

As cell phones are now also functioning as alarm clocks for most of us, it only makes sense that financial reporting made its way into app form.  While you can’t yet craft financial reports on mobile apps, you can view reports on your phone with drill-down capabilities into Sage 500.  Since dashboards have already gone mobile in a number of products, financial reporting was a natural evolution for ISVs.

Because mobile applications for financial reporting are not comprehensive in their functionality, you should look for report writing tools that work for you and your goals first, and then, look at mobile applications as a bonus – at least for now.  More third party manufacturers will start rolling out mobile apps as smart phones become increasingly more important not only to our personal lives, but also to the professional realm.  Some ISVs have a head start, already offering a mobile modality to make report analysis that much easier for on-the-go professionals.

You should plan to evaluate your company’s data analysis and management needs as the first step of shopping for the right financial report writer to enhance your Sage 500 experience.  Because it requires such an investment of time, money, and energy, it is an important process.  Solver, Inc. is happy to answer questions and generally review BI360’s easy-to-use Excel, web, and mobile platforms for real-time or data warehouse integrated analysis and collaboration, with the option of email distribution of reports, as the best report writer for Sage 500.

Matt Felzke
Five Options for Replacing FRx…and Management Reporter is Only One of Them!

Finding a replacement for the retired FRx report writer can be frustrating and overwhelming, but for good reason.  This article will discuss five financial reporting tools as a way to explore the today’s solutions to meet your company’s modern BI needs.

Some people might think the topic of FRx’s retirement is old news – and they would not be wrong.  However, for several years, finance teams around the globe have relied on Microsoft’s free financial report writer, so the transition to a new tool has been slow and in some cases, resistant.  There is an ecosystem of third party products that support professionals by hopefully making Microsoft Dynamics a best-of-breed solution by offering what the accounting system cannot.  Additionally, as the years fly by, technology and the independent software vendors (ISVs) that manufacture Business Intelligence (BI) products continue to evolve at record speeds to meet customer demands for intuitive, powerful, business user friendly solutions.

For some, the move to Management Reporter (MR) was a default migration.  Loyalty to Microsoft and familiarity with the family of products led thousands over to new financial reporter succeeding FRx.  I have had a lot of conversations with customers about why they should invest in third party products at all, and I understand the confusion.  Dynamics is a Microsoft product, so why wouldn’t you rely on a BI solution within the same family?  Solver CEO Nils Rasmussen answered this question in detail on this blog, but the reality is that there is a growing public opinion that MR is underwhelming, especially after waiting almost a decade for a legitimate update to FRx.

There are a lot of options on the market today to replace and truly upgrade your financial report writing experience, post FRx retirement.  There are so many products and ISVs that it tends to overwhelm financial professionals as they begin the shopping process.  This article will focus on some of the top options for a solution to replace FRx as a modern and powerful, yet easy to use financial report writer.  I’m going to discuss MR in more detail, as well as F9, BizNet, Renovofyi, and BI360, so that, as you start to reach out to some of these companies and set up meetings, you have an idea of what to look for in a product to meet your company’s specific business needs in the context of what the marketplace is currently offering.

Management Reporter might be described as a hit by some, as nearly half of FRx customers have moved to MR, but only half?  And some are already jumping ship.  The marketplace has changed since FRx was first introduced, and in a lot of ways, ISVs are benefitting from today’s customer-driven dynamic.  To summarize the conversations I’ve had with disappointed MR users and the feedback on the internet, it is more of a replacement for FRx and less of a true upgrade.  More specifically, the only significant change has been in the user menu gateway; it is still only GL reporting without the flexibility of real-time web reporting – and a proprietary interface that, while very similar to FRx, it doesn’t offer the familiarity of Excel formulas and formatting.  With all the modern tools speaking to accessibility, collaboration, and mobility, it is no wonder that people are already looking for Management Reporter alternatives.

Recently, a more mature reporting tool, F9, has been creeping back into the spotlight, perhaps due to the frustrations with MR.  F9 is a slight upgrade because it is an Excel add-in, meaning that most users have the power of knowing and using the spreadsheet program’s formulas since at least college.  However, F9 is a first generation Excel add-in, so it is older, less intuitive and less efficient, especially when it comes to coding.  Additionally, reporting does not go beyond the GL just like MR, and you only have the option of running live reports from the ERP.  The flexibility of data warehousing, and web or mobile reporting is simply not here – something that will leave you behind in terms of your business decision-making.

Another option for exclusive live reporting with an Excel platform is BizNet.  BizNet is a stand-alone product, so like the other options already mentioned, it is not positioned within a suite with other modules, like budgeting, dashboards, or a fully built data warehouse.  This is not that uncommon, but again, if you are looking for an actual upgrade since you’re investing time, money, and energy anyway, why not have the option to expand and customize your BI capabilities?  Another thing to note with BizNet is that they have integrated to over 20 Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems and thus are spread thin across a large number of systems, which might explain why this tool often does not venture too far beyond GL reporting.

One solution went in a slightly different direction to insert themselves in the modern arena.  Renovofyi is an exclusively web-based financial reporting tool that counts some of the former FRx team as part of their organization, which makes them a relevant player, especially when it comes to FRx report conversions.  Relatedly, this product’s infrastructure is extremely similar to FRx, especially in terms of formatting, formulas, and row and column organization.  Therefore, instead of going the Excel add-in route, this ISV acknowledges that FRx customers were really comfortable with the product, but moves it into the globally flexible space of the web.  Unfortunately, the limitations of the proprietary interface of GL-exclusive FRx apply to this product, and if you’re going to spend money anyway, you might as well see a grander return on your investment – ease of use, flexibility, and depth to your financial reporting.

Solver’s BI360 combines a modern Excel add-in with the flexibility of web and mobile reporting, all the while being a full BI suite with budgeting, dashboards, and a fully built, configurable data warehouse.  BI360 is a third generation Excel add-in, meaning that business and accounting logic is employed for building financial reports.  BI360 has a web portal, equipped with a report library, that still preserves Excel formatting and formulas back and forth between Excel and the web.  As one of the only companies that offers a mobile application for financial reporting, this product is not only easy to use, but truly accessible anywhere there’s an internet connection and/or you have your mobile phone.  Perhaps most important to today’s professionals is the ability to report beyond the GL.  Sub-ledger reporting empowers different roles to make informed department-specific decisions – and it can all be done within the easy-to-use Excel.  There are a lot of modern BI capabilities, but it will be important to find the solution that is right for you and your company.

FRx’s retirement has been a pain to a lot of people, especially those that know how to use it like the back of their hand.  However, it can also be perceived as an opportunity to truly upgrade to the present and future of BI functionality.  Of course, it can be an overwhelming and time-consuming undertaking, but Solver would be happy to answer questions and generally review BI360’s easy-to-use Excel, web and mobile reporting solution, positioned within a full suite of BI tools for collaborative, streamlined decision-making capabilities.

Matt Felzke
Mobile Reporting and Dashboards for SAP Business One

In today’s increasingly global business world, there’s a growing demand for flexibility, secure collaboration, and accessibility when generating financial reports and dashboards.  This article will discuss mobile reporting and dashboards in the context of meeting modern professionals’ BI needs.

I was recently talking to a CFO of an international company who lived and worked from the headquarters in Seattle, Washington about the limitations and related frustrations he was facing in trying to run his company.  In the past few years, he has been traveling a lot, sometimes internationally, because of a reorganization and the growth of his company.  His team is using SAP Business One and Crystal Reports, but he is currently in the market for a new Business Intelligence (BI) solution that will empower him and his finance team to easily collaborate, report, and generate data visualizations whether they are in the office, in one of their international offices, or even somewhere like an airport restaurant.  Sound familiar?

Even if you are not facing the same struggle or cannot relate to being a growing international company, the demand for flexibility, accessibility, and mobility is commonsense.  As technology continues to enable professionals to produce financial reports, budgets, and dashboards in more efficient ways, I know it is not just me (and this CFO): more independent software vendors (ISVs) need to apply the principles of streamlining, turbo charging, and collaborating to all areas of BI.  The truth is, there are a few third party products that incorporate all of that, with a head start into the quickly evolving future.  In the case of this CFO – and a lot of SAP B1 customers, there is a need for some reporting that is specifically built for on-the-go decision-making.  This article will explore the concept of mobile reporting and dashboards for SAP Business One.

Since SAP B1 retired XL Reporter (XLR) and shifted their focus to Crystal Reports, there is a growing population of customers who are unsatisfied.  Just wander the internet for a minute, and you will find forums, web sites, and LinkedIn postings that speak to the disappointment that is related to the shift away from an Excel-based financial report writing tool to the proprietary interfaced Crystal Reports.  I have written about alternatives to Crystal Reports that take the ease of Excel-based reporting into today’s fast lane of reporting tools because, if there is going to be a replacement, it should be a true upgrade, especially for the investment of time, money, and energy that it will require.  And an upgrade means that financial reporting should take a different shape for the changing landscape of the business world.

For this CFO using SAP B1, he and his team wish they still had the easy-to-use Excel add-on tool, XLR, for financial reporting.  But he was also aware of options to move into the Cloud.  He was curious about the perks about accessing templates and running reports from anywhere there is an internet connection.  On the other hand, he had heard enough complaining about the non-Excel interface from his team, and he shared their frustration, as it felt like a step backward in terms of their ability to get things done.  At one point, he had assumed they would get used to Crystal Reports, and he admitted that they surely would, but he now wants more.  As we continued to discuss his wish list, it became clear to me that it broke down into three main concepts: flexibility, collaboration, and accessibility.

Flexibility refers to the ability to produce reports and dashboards in different ways, with the same efficiency.  As the workplace continues to change in shape, size, and geography, there are people working in the office on the network, working remotely – with or without access to Excel, and working from the backseat of a cab.  Excel is the preferred spreadsheet program around the globe, so professionals have been using the formulas and formatting since at least college.  However, my CFO pal was concerned about giving up Excel for the mobility of the web, and that simply is not true.  There are a few third party products that power their web portals with Excel formatting and the flexibility to go back and forth between the two.  It is sometimes all about knowing how to shop for your BI tool.  Meanwhile, with some finance teams spread out, whether it is because of business travel or home offices, there’s still a need for people to securely work together.

Finance teams might assign individual duties to different positions, but collaboration is inevitable.  You should be looking for a solution that allows people to securely collaborate across multiple modalities.  Whether it be Excel spreadsheet distribution, a web portal with a report library, and/or password-enabled access for designated users, your team should be able to safely collaborate on report writing and share dashboards whether you are working in the office on a PC, a tablet on a flight with WIFI, or on your mobile reporting application in the lobby of a prospective client.  There are solutions that empower you to access and participate at whatever coordinates you find yourself on the globe, at whatever time of day.

Accessibility is really where mobile reporting and dashboards for SAP B1 bring together all three of these elements.  Most professionals, especially at the executive level, are carrying smartphones.  There are few ISVs who have released mobile applications – and they worth your consideration, as a feature of a reporting module, or when replacing Crystal Reports.  If you are attending an international conference or participating in a sales pitch in a different time zone, your other responsibilities do not pause.  Mobile applications allow you to make informed decisions regarding the current health and future of your company from wherever you are with the ease of your smartphone.

Mobile reporting and dashboards is relatively limited in terms of those offering the product, but it is safe to assume that ISVs are rushing to roll out their reporting and dashboards mobile applications.  The current offerings typically are dashboard-related and zoom in on one key performance indicator (KPI) at this time, due to the size of mobile phones.  However, in terms of urgent decision-making, this might be all that you need, whether it is a summary of figures in a table or visualized data in charts or graphical scorecards – especially when you don’t have any other way to access company data, in some cases.  It is a powerful evolution that speaks to the demands of today’s business world.  You are bound to have a lot of questions about the best way to combine flexibility, collaboration, and accessibility in a BI solution that includes mobile reporting and dashboards for SAP Business One.  Solver would be happy to answer questions and generally review BI360’s easy-to-use Excel, web and mobile reporting and dashboard application, positioned within a full suite of BI tools for collaborative, streamlined decision-making capabilities with SAP Business One.

Matt Felzke
Convert FRx Reports to Management Reporter or Look for Alternative Options?

Now that Microsoft has retired FRx, report conversions have become a checklist item for replacing the retired financial report writer.  This article will discuss FRx report conversions and the third party reporting tools offering FRx upgrades.

The era of FRx is over – and has officially been over for a little while.  On this blog, I have written about how to replace the Microsoft financial report writer – and the costs associated with that task.  But now, as companies are moving away from FRx, replacing it with Microsoft’s successor, Management Reporter (MR), or even already replacing MR, there is a demand for converting the financial reports created in FRx to the selected new solution.  Logically, some software manufacturers anticipated this and produced a conversion tool, ensuring that the transition in reporting is more automated.  However, as some companies may still be procrastinating with replacing FRx, there is probably a general confusion about options to make this upgrade.  In this article, I’m going to discuss the routes for FRx conversion, so that if you haven’t participated in this important task or have moved on, but still holding on to FRx because you don’t know how to convert your old reports, you will be aware of your options.

Let’s first tackle MR since I know a lot of people went to Microsoft’s replacement, probably by default.  If you are in this boat, you might already know that MR comes with automatic conversions of FRx reports.  MR is the follow up to FRx, and the two products are very similar, with perhaps the main exception being an updated main user menu and some minor feature enhancements (and loss of certain features), so this conversion is not necessarily rocket science.  However, the real frustration with MR is the all too familiar limited features and functionalities.  It is still a proprietary interface, so the familiarity of Excel is not there.  The conversions assist this update, but MR is arguably not much of an upgrade with only providing basic GL reporting, but you can feel pretty confident that your FRx reports will come with you using this financial report writer.

True upgrades from FRx come in the form of Excel-based report writers, like Jet Reports, BizNet, F9, and BI360.  With the exception of F9, these report writers are already in a league of their own because they offer sub-ledger reporting.  Some of them can report on a few sub-ledgers, while others have extensive integrations across most – or all ERP sub-ledgers.  Additionally, because the aforementioned reporting tools are all powered by Excel, for FRx “report conversion,” they simply require you to export your FRx reports to Excel.  From there, you will add in your own formatting and any formula fixes, so the relics of FRx don’t hold you back when you access or adjust any FRx reports in the Excel.  From then on, you will run the reports directly within Excel using the add-in ribbon for the business intelligence (BI) analysis.  Again, not all of these options feel like true upgrades from FRx.

Out of these report writers that are FRx and MR alternatives, there are a couple outliers.  When it comes to F9, besides the fact that it is an Excel add-in and there’s been a recent uptick in its popularity, it is a basic GL report writer.  Some partners I have spoken to have attributed their resurgence in relevance, after FRx having been around for nearly a couple decades, to a general feeling of disappointment in the long awaited MR.  Unfortunately, all you’re getting from investing in the mature F9 is an Excel GL-only platform versus the free FRx or MR, when you can be getting so much more, especially if you are already willing to invest in a third party reporting product.

Solver’s BI360 has a complete FRx conversion tool coming in the second half of 2014, in addition to other elements that make it more flexible for the mid-market companies moving away from underwhelming report writing solutions.  I think it is fair to say that these older products, some retiring like FRx and some still in the spotlight like F9, were not built in the context of today’s fast-paced, big data, around the clock, global business demands of today.  That said, when you embark on converting your FRx reports to a new application, you might as well move to a product like BI360 that offers the hybridity of Excel and web- and mobile-based reporting, data warehouse and/or live integrations from the Enterprise Resource Planning system.  The web capabilities have become increasingly more valuable to companies as Cloud computing in general has become popular, most likely due to its practicality in the global marketplace.  However, usually products are one or the other.

One product that has focused on FRx conversions exclusively online is Renovofyi.  Renovofyi has a couple things going for it, when it comes to marketing its product.  For customers who knew FRx like the back of their hand, Renovofyi is proud to showcase that it is extremely similar to the retired Microsoft offering, especially when it comes to formulas, formatting and the organization of rows and columns.  This is perhaps largely possible because some of the creators of Renovofyi were part of the FRx team, and they have taken it into the 21st century.

Instead of moving into the world of Excel, Renovofyi developers capitalized on the idea that their targeted customers were very comfortable operating FRx, including the proprietary formatting and interface.  While developers assumed customers were not interested in learning a new set of product formulas, they did take note of the demand in the marketplace for web for secure accessibility around the globe and across time zones.  It is the pairing of the FRx familiarity with the near necessity of web accessibility that makes this product a competitive player on the market and in the context of FRx conversions and pure GL reporting.  Additionally, their web site mentions that they only charge a flat fee for conversions, no matter how many reports they convert.  However, again, if you are willing to invest time and money into an FRx replacement, it will probably be worth it to consider something with more flexibility and more power.

In the end, even though this article is about FRx conversions, maybe another important takeaway should be that replacing FRx should be an upgrade.  The conversions are an important feature to look for, but consider data integration methods, sub-ledger reporting, Cloud-based and/or on-premises, and the option for a comprehensive suite of BI tools, including a mobile application for reporting, budgeting and dashboards, before making an investment.  There are several affordable solutions on the market that will potentially deliver a much bigger return on your investment because they are a true upgrade.  Solver offers an Excel, web and/or mobile-based reporting module stand-alone and as part of the comprehensive suite of BI modules and would be happy to answer questions and generally review BI360’s FRx conversion options for a transition to modern reporting and Business Intelligence capabilities in the post-FRx era.

Matt Felzke
Dashboards for Microsoft Dynamics NAV

When it comes to Business Intelligence, Dashboards are the Most Valued Player these days. This article will explore the features and options, so  you can pick the best Dynamics NAV dashboard solutions for your company’s goals.

Hopefully, you’re aware by this point: dashboards are leading the Business Intelligence (BI) tool marketplace in terms of demand.  Results from 2013’s Financial Executive International CFO Technology study by Gartner proved that dashboards, scorecards, and performance management solutions are the top priority for CFOs.  Today’s fast-paced business demands require that decision-making be user friendly and accessible for all levels of the company – and dashboards or scorecards make company performance analysis straightforward.  More specifically, dashboards are business intelligence visualizations of company data.  Dashboards are scorecards, graphs, and charts that utilize key performance indicators (KPIs) to demonstrate your organization’s trends, successes, and challenges – either collectively, departmentally, or focused on a project.

As you might have guessed, dashboards in the BI world get their name from vehicular consoles that we’re so used to reading at a glance to make informed decisions about how we drive our cars.  Similarly, company decision-makers can get a glimpse of the organization’s trajectory with a quick scan of a graphical scorecard.  Business dashboards, however, are uniquely manufactured for adjustment, and interpretative interaction, with drill-to and drill-down abilities so you can evaluate your input transactional and operational data to make informed choices about the future of the company.  Now that we have established the vitality of dashboards, let’s discuss the variety of technology offerings to consider and understand before investing in a functionality upgrade to Microsoft Dynamics NAV.

 

Firstly, dashboard solutions can pull their information from disparate sources.  You can produce dashboards live from Dynamics NAV, analyzing real-time data.  This option empowers users to know how the company is performing at the moment they produce the dashboard.  The ability to analyze data in real-time from NAV is optimal when managers, CFOs, or accountants must have real-time reports, as well as smaller organizations that only require the simple ERP dashboards, without the time and money needed to manage a BI databases, like an online analytical processing (OLAP) cube or a data warehouse.  On the other hand, bigger corporations probably need something a little faster and more stable than just integrating live from Dynamics NAV.

An OLAP cube or data warehouse integration allows bigger groups of professionals to generate dashboards without the sometimes slow data queries from NAV for real-time analysis.  The data storage source integration is perfect for high performance BI.  However, replicating data from NAV to the OLAP cube or data warehouse is a requisite.  Pulling from a stable BI data storage source ensures that the Dynamics NAV server does not have to slow down.  At the same time, you can also consider the hybrid solutions that offer both methods.

There are a few solutions for sale that empower the user with the ability to produce dashboards live from NAV and/or pull from a static data source.  Real-time analyses are usually utilized for important operational data reporting, as in inventory or sales analysis where department heads may require up-to-the-minute information.  Other data visualizations only require periodical updates because they are focused on routine analysis (weekly, monthly, quarterly), so utilizing an OLAP cube or Data Warehouse integration is sufficient.  However, software that invites both integration types are obviously going to be more flexible, but not always more costly.  There are additional aspects that you should consider in order to best meet your company’s needs by implementing the right product.

Today’s data visualization solutions work on different technology platforms, and it is a customer essential to comprehend the differences.  Some third party dashboards run on a proprietary server.  These all rely on a vendor-specific interface that can be a potentially big learning curve for those that are used to Excel.  Some products wow with their graphical capabilities, but require an education on unique formatting and functionalities.  Excel and Dynamics NAV come equipped with their own dashboard options, but are organically restricted in their abilities due to the fact that dashboards are not the focus of either product.  But there are add-in products that function within Excel.

Solutions that work within Excel will empower your finance team to work with the nearly universal familiarity of Microsoft’s spreadsheet application, employing formulas and features that most of us already know like the back of our hand.  The native Excel dashboards can be created in the spreadsheet, but because dashboards are the number one BI product for CFOs, there are several vendors manufacturing more powerful options.  Excel add-ins will probably be the most accessible route to take with dashboards because of the ease of use paired with more powerful results, but there are options to meet your around-the-clock, around-the-globe demands more adequately.

Web-powered software solutions are becoming quite popular due to their accessibility and mobility.  Dashboard web options are no different.  There are several web-based dashboard products in the Cloud, or for on-premises installation, building from a variety of visualization choices, with drill-down and KPI analysis – all the while through a web portal that can be securely accessed anywhere with an internet connection.  Relatedly, mobile applications are building momentum.

While web portal dashboards only require an internet connection, mobile dashboards just require that you have a smartphone.  As the marketplace becomes more globally focused, executives are moving around the globe and making business decisions around the clock – and dashboards can inform these choices nearly anywhere.  Dashboard solution manufacturers are taking note, and some are already offering a mobile application.  Because of the mobile screen size, these apps tend to zoom in on just one KPI or chart at a time.  Regardless, you might be in the boat where you want it all when it comes to dashboards – Excel, web, and mobile – and there are options for that as well.

There are a few products on the market that have more than one of the dashboard modalities for increased flexibility, accessibility, and mobility.  Additionally, some of these dashboards are positioned as a module in a comprehensive suite of BI tools, and dashboards are sometimes offered at a discount when purchased in a bundle of other tools.  Suites offer a secure, fully integrated experience – and web portal – with one vendor, one support team, and one consultant for all modules.  Simple?  Absolutely, and it’s all about time saved and ease of use.

Anybody comfortable using Dynamics NAV might be a little resistant to learning new software, and if it isn’t easy to use, why invest at all?  Before committing to a product, make sure that you think your co-workers will be able to effectively generate dashboards without IT assistance.  Today’s dashboard offerings should be easy to implement and use by business users without IT management.  Solver offers an Excel, web and/or mobile-based dashboards module stand-alone and as part of the comprehensive suite of BI modules and would be happy to answer questions and generally review BI360’s easy-to-use data visualization solution for collaborative, streamlined decision-making capabilities with Dynamics NAV.

Matt Felzke
Reporting and Document Management for Microsoft Dynamics, Sage X3 and other ERPs

As document management, reporting and business intelligence comes together, a new era of holistic data and text management begins.  This article will explore the world of content intelligence with a focus on the new product category offerings.

In 2007, Gerry Brown, now a Senior Analyst of Customer Engagement & Marketing Technology for Ovum in London, created the term, “content intelligence,” an aggregation of Business Intelligence (BI) and content or document management for improved insight and decision-making power.   What had been two disparate processes and sets of data became one as a customer driven term.  The concept was simple – professionals would like to be able to not only search for their scanned, virtual documents, but to analyze financial reports and drill down to the text and content that lies outside of already input data in Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems like Microsoft Dynamics and Sage.  The concept was more than just another buzz word; it combined and streamlined two different analyses into a singular, more holistic approach to corporate performance management, and it is really starting to build momentum.

Back in the 1980’s, software systems started to emerge that were built to virtually manage printed documents, photographs, and other paper-published materials.  Later on, new applications, called electronic document management (EDM) systems, entered the marketplace that organized and maintained electronic documents, created on a computer and stored on the local network.  EDM systems organically evolved to manage any type of file that could be captured and stored on a network.  Essentially, these applications became self-service virtual file cabinets.  Fast forward to the mid 2000’s, and we’re back to Gerry Brown’s “content intelligence.”

Content intelligence is a concept, potentially a buzz word in the business world, but more specifically, it is a new product category.  This new offering in the world of analysis combines business intelligence reporting and data analytics with document management.  Traditionally, document management has scanned, filed, and made documents quickly retrievable by extracting text as search keywords.  Content intelligence, as Brown predicted, allows professionals to “slice, dice, and drill down on text and data as an integrated whole,” in an effort to interpret patterns of text and communication for more informed decision-making.  By combining these two conceptual processes, business end users have self-service access to their data and their text.  But how?  What does it look like?

 

Where does this drill-down happen?  What kind of options are out there?  How can I shop for this new type of solution and what should I know before deciding what is right for me and my company?  You will for sure have questions with any new product category, and it always helps to have a foundation of understanding before you can navigate your own research.  This article will explore the world of content intelligence, otherwise known as document management for BI in an effort to answer some of your questions and point you in the right direction when it comes to weighing your product options to find what solution is best for your company.

Printing and storing documents can be expensive – in printing supplies, space, and the retrieval time.  Document management applications function as a way to eliminate printing, physical file cabinets, and the navigation of filing systems that can be overwhelmingly large, seemingly non sequitir, or even just out of date.  More specifically, quality document management systems rely on quick scanning of documents, so you can import electronic files into a network destination that is easily accessible.  With a modern product, you should be able to find scanned documents in seconds because of keyword or full-text search capabilities.  Document management has become user friendly, intuitive, and powerful.  With this refinement, evolution was inevitable.  Now, sophisticated products are integrating with ERPs like Microsoft Dynamics and BI tools to include filed electronic documents in the analysis arena.

One document management vendor, PaperSave, recently paired up with Solver’s BI360 in response to several customer requests for BI analysis capabilities.  The PaperSave product offered electronic workflow management already.  Now, customers want to be able to access the invoices, receipts, and written communication within their ERP as a payables, receivables or some other sub-ledger transaction – for accessible analytics.  PaperSave decided to pair with a BI product like Solver’s BI360 to power the drill-down analysis, and the partnership is paying off for customers.

The integration is simple.  Every time a record is input into Microsoft Dynamics, the product partnership generates a link to the scanned document for accessible evaluation.  This same drill-down path is then also re-produced in financial reports in the BI tool, such as within an Accounts Payable report.  The drill-down functionality will allow the user to answer detailed questions without bothering his or her accounting staff, by drilling down to see the specific scanned document, for example a receipt from Office Depot, which make up the transaction.  Users can access this point-and-click feature in real time from anywhere they can log on to their Dynamics server, anywhere they have internet connection for web-powered BI Suites like BI360.  This upgrade saves money on time and space needed for document management and retrieval, empowers users with self-service BI by drilling down to make more informed assessments and related decisions regarding the health of the company.  This kind of partnership elevates the BI infrastructure of a company as well.

Generally speaking, content intelligence makes for more holistic and streamlined analytics.  Weekly, monthly, project, or annual reports or budgets can include a more complete picture with the ease of point-and-click linkage to the scanned document.  Because of the security built into both solutions, your data and scanned files are accessible only to privileged parties.  Additionally, all important documentation is in one secure space that authorized users can access easily.  With a digital copy of invoices, correspondence, and other print documents, there’s less data input errors.  Budgeting, planning, and modeling will have the functionality to include limitations, capabilities, customer communications, and any monetary risks in the forecast for future profits.  In general, this evolution makes management of company data and any print data the most streamlined it has ever been.  It is a comprehensive response to the actual and physical reality of big data, from multiple sources.

In terms of an investment, it is another software system, but it is built to save substantial money, time, and space, so the return on investment (ROI) is a potentially quick turnaround.  Document management software should be easy to use for the business end user, and it will be important for you to shop for a solution that integrates with your ERP and your BI tools.  Not every BI solution is equipped to integrate with a document management system, so make sure to invest wisely in an option that is a true upgrade.  There is a lot to consider whenever purchasing wide-reaching software, but hopefully, this article gives you a head start in the process.  Solver, Inc. is happy to answer questions and generally review BI360’s easy-to-use Excel, web, and mobile comprehensive BI suite with integration to document management systems such as PaperSave and DocLink.

 

Nils Rasmussen
Microsoft BI Stack or Best-of-Breed BI for Microsoft Dynamics AX, NAV, GP and SL?

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.

Let’s begin with a definition of BI (as per Microsoft):

“Business intelligence turns information into action through data gathering, analysis, monitoring, and forecasting to identify opportunities, minimize risk, and improve management insight.”

Before we go into detail on BI for the Microsoft Dynamics ERP solutions, let’s look at BI from the standpoint of the partner organization that will be reselling and implementing the ERP and BI solutions and then customer that will be using these tools:

1) Philosophical viewpoint
Is it better for a Dynamics ERP customer to get both the ERP and the BI components from a single vendor, in this case Microsoft?

a) Typical, initial customer opinion: Yes
Why would I not want a single ERP/BI solution from a single vendor? That must mean that I get something that is fully integrated out-of-the-box, where ERP/BI releases are synchronized and always compatible, and if something ever goes wrong, I can just call the helpdesk and whether the issue is ERP-related or BI-related, they will take care of me. If I am dealing with a big, global vendor like Microsoft, I can expect a fully integrated support solution.

b) Typical ERP partner (reseller) opinion: Yes
My prospective customers don’t want to hear that I propose a BI solution from a different vendor than that of the ERP system I am selling them. They would want to hear that it is all one integrated package from Microsoft, so I will lead with this offering and then, if the Microsoft BI stack does not cover their needs, the customer will hopefully come back to me later and ask for something better, at which point I can bring in a third party BI solution.

The situation above plays out every day all over the globe.  There are both pros and cons to this “single vendor” approach:
• Pros:
Unless there are any objections in the sales process, the partner gets to sell the ERP system and do the implementation. The customer will spend less money up front on software as many of the BI tools from Microsoft are included in the underlying platform, and the customer gets to deal with a single vendor if there are issues.

• Cons:
As we will discuss below regarding features and functionality, the customer will often find that all their BI needs are not fully covered. However, as they typically have already sunk a lot of money into the implementation for report writing, OLAP cube and/or Data Warehouse design, and the various tools in the Microsoft stack have already been installed, there is a great barrier to changing strategy “midstream.”  Having to now rewrite the deployment architecture, to pay for a 3rd party BI tool, and to deal with a second vendor is a great departure from the initial plan. Furthermore, the customer might have discovered that calling the ERP helpdesk with a BI problem (such as a broken Cube or PowerMap issue) is often not the right helpdesk for a BI issue. Additionally, if a report or cube has been customized by the partner, the partner consultant is probably the only place to go for help, as Microsoft does not directly support customizations and other consulting organization resources will have steep learning curves and will be expensive to get up to speed on the custom reports.

In summary, what initially during the purchase process looked like a great ERP/BI combo story with reduced risk, integrated platform, single vendor support, single Microsoft BI suite, and simplicity (number of tools, etc.) may turn out to be a solution in need of a 3rd party, best-of-breed BI software investment after the fact, with the possible reworking of some of the initial implementation of reports, budget models, or other collateral.

Now, you would think that Oracle, SAP, or other mega ERP vendors have their act more together than Microsoft, but the truth is that they don’t:
• Oracle tried to solve their BI problems by acquiring companies like Hyperion, Siebel (where Siebel Analytics originated), Brio and other companies.
• SAP went on a shopping spree and bought Business Objects (who again had acquired SRC, Crystal Decisions, Cartesis, etc.), Outlooksoft and more.

The fact is that while Microsoft may have their own issues when it comes to delivering a comprehensive BI suite for their Dynamics customers, so does every other ERP vendor.  The case can be made that Microsoft actually has a better BI story than most ERP vendors. And because Microsoft has a massive, global independent software vendor (ISV) program, there is a rich ecosystem of third party BI vendors supporting the Microsoft platform with integrations to all four of the Dynamics ERP systems.

Note: If you are into the history of BI, here is a good overview of the many BI acquisitions of the last decade.

2) Functional Viewpoint
So, if we go beyond the higher level arguments presented above, and we dig down into features and functionality, is it best to go with the Microsoft BI stack of tools or a third party solution?

Let’s start by looking at what the Microsoft BI stack looks like. The following list is not all-inclusive, but covers at least 90% of the available tools:

Microsoft BI tools:
- Excel
- Power BI
- Power Map
- Power Pivot
- Power Query
- Power View
- SQL Server Reporting Services (SSRS)
- SQL Server
- SQL Server Analysis Services (SSAS) and various Dynamics OLAP cube builders
- Management Reporter (has replaced FRx for GL reports)
- SharePoint (to set up dashboards, host reports, etc.)
- Native Dynamics ERP Report Writers
- Native Dynamics ERP transaction query/list tool
- Forecaster (budgeting and forecasting tool late in its life cycle)
- Native Dynamics ERP budgeting

So, if you are a potential Dynamics ERP customer, the most obvious observation is likely that this list contains approximatly15 different tools. Some of them are Excel add-ins, some are proprietary report writers and budgeting tools, some are web-based and some are platforms to build data warehouses or OLAP cubes. So, even though many of the tools are free, the implementation, training and ongoing maintenance of the tools is not free. More importantly, as an end-user, where do you go for a Payables report, for a P&L report, to create a quick trial balance query on the fly, to enter a payroll or revenue budget, to see a sales dashboard, and so on? Well, the answer is that you would be going a lot of places (tools, interfaces, etc.) in the Microsoft stack for these needs and if you are the power user on the finance team, you will be going to a number of training classes to learn the different tools.  Some of these tools, like SSRS, SQL, SSAS and SharePoint are highly technical developer oriented tools, and most users may need IT’s help to develop and maintain their critical BI applications.  Then there is the concern that if something truly breaks, you will likely have to deal with multiple different helpdesk resources at Microsoft due to the complex interdependencies that exist in the Microsoft BI stack.

Now, again, it is important to state that Microsoft is by no means a laggard amongst ERP vendors when it comes to BI. If anything, they provide more tools, with more features and choices than perhaps any other ERP vendor out there.

But wait, there’s more…..

3) Which solution is it better for the Partner to sell?
If you are not an ERP customer reading this, but rather, you are a partner, you have additional items to consider when it comes to proposing the Microsoft BI stack versus a 3rd party BI solution:

• What will help win more ERP deals?
This is a tough one, if your prospective customer is happy with the Microsoft BI stack and how it solves their business’ needs and you don’t think they will come back after the ERP implementation and ask for major additional functionality such as budgeting, forecasting, financial reporting, dashboard or data warehouse functionality beyond what you just implemented for them, then you probably helped them make the right choice. If not, then you have some explanation and “selling” to do once your customer asks you why you did not advise them to look at some best-of-breed third party solutions before they sunk time and money into the existing BI implementation.

It is commonly seen in our experience that most prospective customers hope and believe that their new ERP system has all the BI they need built right in. If you explain that this really may not be true in fact, and explain why right up front, chances are good that you will be rewarded for your consultative, “trusted advisor” approach, as it is highly appreciated by almost anyone ready to go into a big ERP investment.

• Software margins and maintenance
Most of the Microsoft BI stack is free or included in the software scope of the ERP deployment, and that means no software margin and no recurring maintenance for the partner, while the opposite is true for 3rd party BI vendors. And, because the software is being paid for, there is also a staff of motivated developers always working away on a new version of the BI tool, while the opposite is often true when an ERP vendor acquires or puts free BI software into their solutions. Furthermore, as a partner, when you get margin on software and maintenance, you are also helping pay for your own company’s selling expenses, and which will allow you do a better job with presentations, proof-of-concepts, and other sales materials that will ultimately win you more ERP deals and maintain happier customers.

• Solving most or all of the customer’s functionality needs
Does the pure Microsoft BI stack or the third party best-of-breed BI solution give your customer the simplest, yet most complete solution? Chances are that the answer here is: No single one of them do the best job on their own. Take Dynamics AX 2012 for example.  There are hundreds of pre-built SSRS reports and Analysis Services cubes that come out-of-the-box for the various ERP modules. There is generally no reason to not use these included tools and to try to recreate everything in a third party BI tool. However, the need to look beyond the base material for better functionality or specific customizations often is driven by the pre-existing business requirements.  When an assistant controller or analyst sits down at the end of, or after the ERP implementation and says, “Hmm, I need to design a rolling 12 month Cash Flow statement with a trend chart.  Where is that included report?” or “I need to create a budget model that replicates the layout of our old, manual Excel spreadsheet templates and I need to integrate it to the GL and Payroll. Where do I go? ” SSRS? Management Reporter? Forecaster? The Excel add-in for AX? Each tool has its own interface and user manual. Each tool has its own specific strengths and weaknesses.  The truth is, you would need most of these tools and complete knowledge of how to deploy them appropriately.

So, what do you do? In many cases, you would get the optimal solution for your customer by combining some of the pre-built, native BI tools with the best-of-breed third party BI solution.

• I sell multiple ERPs; which BI tool do I use so I can build a sound BI practice?
Many Dynamics ERP vendors typically sell more than one ERP system. For example, they may sell Dynamics AX and Dynamics NAV, or Dynamics SL and Acumatica or Dynamics GP and Intacct. This adds even more complexity to the BI picture because although some of the Microsoft BI stack is universal and will work across many of these ERPs, there are still the native (built-in) ERP report writers that always differ from system to system, as with native ERP budgeting and sometimes dashboard functionality. So, in summary, there is great advantage to be had in aligning with a single third party BI suite that works for all the ERPs you are selling will that will allow you to build a BI practice within your partner organization that can thrive, even with limited staff.

Summary
Should Microsoft follow SAP and Oracle and acquire more BI tools and hope that this results in the “BI singularity” and the coveted “one version of the truth?” Probably not. If history tells us anything, it has not worked for any ERP vendor so far, and it is not likely to do so any time in the near future. What Microsoft does very well is to attract a host of software companies that develop best-of-breed solutions to fill gaps in Microsoft’s story or cater to specific industry verticals. If you went to any of the recent Microsoft Convergence conferences, you would see 15+ BI vendors in the exhibit hall, most of them thriving and growing even though Microsoft alone has 15+ tools in their own BI stack and despite many of them being completely free.

Even though many Dynamics ERP partners try hard to stick with a “pure” Microsoft story. The fact is that this is a living, breathing eco-system of Microsoft teams, partners, customers and best-of-breed ISV vendors, and in the end, customers will want to find the best solutions they can in order to maximize the value of their investment in Microsoft Dynamics. The question is, is it better for them to discover the optimal BI solution during the ERP sales process or after they have made significant investments in time and money trying out the “pure” Microsoft BI stack first?

Matt Felzke
Cloud Reporting, Budgeting and BI Options for Microsoft Dynamics

Cloud BI software comes in different shapes and sizes for Microsoft Dynamics.  This article will discuss the options for deployment and compare the BI solutions on the market today.

While Cloud computing and Software as a Service (SaaS) platforms are growing in terms of popularity in the business sector, for some, it remains foggy at best.  I get this confusion.  It is a fast-moving evolution that makes a lot of sense, but if you are used to hosting your software on premises, as most of us have always done, the shift makes a lot of sense in theory, but not always so much in practice.  Questions of cost, security, access, management can start to pile up, and the frustration of confusion is exacerbated by the fact that some of us are inevitably going in the direction of the cloud, for parts of our IT solutions or the whole kit and caboodle.  However, there are some really impactful Business Intelligence (BI) options for Microsoft Dynamics users, and it never hurts to know your options.  This article will break down the facets of Cloud computing and explore a few Cloud BI options for Microsoft Dynamics.

First of all, let’s discuss the advantages of housing your data and analytics in the cloud.  The implementation of the application is typically faster because it does not require you to install on-premises; in fact, you’re not doing any installation at all.  The responsibility of speedy, quality performance is that of the vendor, and that is their primary focus instead of the IT department who is being pulled in many other directions, so they are able to provide a faster, high performing service.  Additionally, Cloud platforms consider your performance requirements and can make adjustments for your peak performance demands.  As far as security goes, in response to public opinion of early models, Cloud options are now armed with modern, intense security infrastructures.  Another aspect that gets debated regularly is the cost of SaaS.

I have written about the comparison of on-premises versus SaaS costs before, but both sides passionately defend their assertion that their option is cheaper in the long run.  In terms of the return on investment (ROI), on-premises solutions will argue that your purchase and ownership of the software will pay for itself within 3 to 5 years’ time, especially as the monthly subscription never ends with Cloud SaaS pricing.  Cloud solution vendors assert that there are several hidden costs associated with on-premises ownership, including more training, support, consulting, as well as upgrades, updates, and hardware.

The important thing is to do the math yourself – get all the details about outside costs that you will have to afford with both solutions and do the math for a 3-5 year span.   Then, know that, with SaaS, you’re not renting to own – you’re paying the Cloud host to provide the comprehensive service of hosting your data, without any IT involvement, and keeping it running and up to date.  Another thing that I know people can find confusing is the difference between SaaS and Cloud computing.

SaaS is a type of subscription-based pricing, and Cloud computing is a method of managing software (that happens off site as opposed to on-premises).  When you go the Cloud computing route, your software is managed off site, and you are subscribing to that service, so you will essentially be renting the Cloud-hosted software through SaaS pricing.  However, you can also have your software on-premises, but rent instead of owning, so again, that would be set up using a SaaS price structure.  Relatedly, there are two types of Cloud computing.

The first type of Cloud BI solution is a pure Cloud solution.  Two BI vendors that offer Cloud-only software are Adaptive Insights and Host Analytics.  These two vendors provide the off-site hosting and management that Cloud has become increasingly popular for – for a monthly subscription price, without hidden prices, upgrades, licenses, maintenance, and the overall responsibility of owning software.

On the flip side, you will either be running Microsoft Dynamics in-house or in a different cloud, and the data needs to be moved or replicated to the cloud where the BI solution is housed, limiting the amount of Dynamics modules and data detail that is feasible to continuously feed into the BI cloud solution from Dynamics.  Additionally, pure Cloud BI solutions like Adaptive Insights and Host Analytics do not offer live reporting off data in Dynamics since data has to be moved into the BI solution’s cloud first.  This means that a product like Adaptive Insights or Host Analytics is an additional cost and training effort to the live, operational BI reporting tool that accountants require to work with real-time data from Dynamics.

The other Cloud option is a hybrid: Cloud and on-premises.  As a customer using a product like Jet Reports, TargIT, ZAP, or BI360, you can choose how you want to deploy the software.  There are a number of Cloud-hosting partner providers, like Tribridge’s Concerto, SMB Suite, SaaS Plaza, Data Resolution, Rose ASP, or Microsoft Azure, among many others, that will host the product as a SaaS offering, still eliminating the need for IT to manage the product.

In this hybrid category, you are able to start with an in-house BI solution and move it to the Cloud – or the other way around – when you decide that one way is better meeting your company needs than the other.  Additionally, in almost all cases, a BI solution like BI360 will then be installed in the same cloud as Dynamics, which also enables live reporting – and it is quicker and easier to update data from Dynamics to the BI solution, when using an Online Analytical Processing (OLAP) cube or a data warehouse.

Speaking of a data storage source, if you do end up with some of your data sources or applications in the cloud and some in-house, a data warehouse becomes an important investment.  In order to bring together both the on-premises and cloud data into a single repository, you will need a data warehouse to enable BI front-end applications like reports, dashboards, and data discovery.  So, if Cloud computing was not unclear enough already, did I make it more difficult?

I hope not – Cloud BI options are pretty straightforward in that they are either pure Cloud or a hybrid, which tends to offer a little more flexibility.  Both are set up on a SaaS pricing plan because they are hosted by a service provider.  It is important to weigh the importance of live reporting and flexibility, as well as the ongoing monthly subscription fee in the context of your company goals.  There are lots of things to consider, but it is worth your time as Cloud offerings continue to become more and more popular.  Solver, Inc. is happy to answer questions and generally review the hybrid Cloud option, BI360, as easy-to-use Excel, web, and mobile BI tools with both real-time or data warehouse integrated analysis, budgeting and collaboration as a way to accelerate company performance management for Microsoft Dynamics.