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Does Your Business Run on Excel? Undo!

For Americans, this may seem like a distant footnote. But bear with me.

One of the UK’s leading health agencies, Public Health England (PHE), has revealed a massive under-reporting of covid-19 cases due to an Excel blunder. The truth is that many mid-market businesses are too dependent on Excel. We’ve all become stuck in an Excel circular reference. The challenge is how to escape.

Excel has become ubiquitous for a reason. It is extremely simple to start and amazing what you can do quickly. But for some mid-market businesses, Excel has become an unplanned core back-office system. It is often the link between systems and processes; it is sometimes used to store critical data; and it is often used to present and explore data throughout the business.

Finance people can’t get enough of it. The rest of us can’t remember all its functions, but we still use it anyway.

But why is it dangerous?

  1. Excel is fundamentally unstructured and easy to change. This makes it incredibly convenient. But it also allows for unending tinkering. And it can be very difficult to assess the impact of changes and to identify errors.
  2. Excel files, passed between people by email, or shared in folders (or worse on USB drives!) are a recipe for error, confusion and unauthorized access. Good systems go hand-in-hand with good processes, and Excel encourages neither.
  3. Excel is a dead-end. There is no “pathway” to formalize an Excel process into a more managed system with proper controls, an audit trail, security, data management and error-checking. Excel is not a sound basis for automation or integration.

In the meantime, see our ERP and Integration Knowledge Center for more on smoothing out systems and processes


In short, Excel can lead a mid-market business to the point where it is very difficult to scale and where the business is exposed to fraud or blunders like PHE’s. But since it works most of the time, and the cost of replacement looks high, the easiest thing is just to carry on with it.

But the bottom line is that to run a business well you need integrated systems that support efficient, agile processes, and deliver useful management information to enable decision making. You won’t get all that with Excel.

Your company’s systems strategy should have some principles to avoid an overdependence on Excel. What might they be?

  1. Use Excel—when it’s appropriate. For example, new ideas, new opportunities, or an informal look at data. Use Excel as a personal tool for tackling problems.
  2. Establish your business’s timeframe or scale-of-use for Excel. For example, “We won’t use Excel to manage this project for more than nine months.” Or: “It wouldn’t make sense to run a new business line on Excel once revenue exceeds $100k per month.” Or: ‘We always ring alarm-bells when someone starts using Excel’s built-in coding platform’.
  3. Here’s the tricky part: you need an integrated set of systems and processes that can smoothly replace Excel when the time comes.

Excel is an amazing product; it is ubiquitous for a reason. But its convenience can be its downfall—or yours. Like all powerful tools, handle it with care!

If your company needs help replacing Excel with an affordable integrated system, get in touch. We have a lot of experience helping mid-market businesses streamline their systems, and we’re always up for an informal chat.

Freeman Clarke is the largest and most experienced team of part-time (we call it “fractional”) CIOs and CTOs. We work exclusively with ambitious organizations and we frequently help our clients use IT to beat their competition. Contact Us and we’ll be in touch for an informal conversation.

How Successful ERP Projects Can Transform a Business

We’ve recorded a series of discussions with our ERP experts: Regional Directors David Birnbaum, Kingsley Hill, Craig Teahen and John McCaffrey. They discuss:

This audio focuses on How successful ERP projects can transform a business.

You can listen to the other audios in this series here.

Freeman Clarke is the largest and most experienced team of part-time, or fractional, IT leaders. We work exclusively with organizations looking to use IT to grow their business. For an informal conversation, contact us and we’ll be in touch.

How Systems & Digital Drive Business Value for Private Equity (PE)

Private Equity (PE) ownership of mid-market companies is increasing. Of course, PE investors are driven by valuations, and these days IT/tech is at the heart of business value.

In the PE space, there are four areas where IT strategy and execution drive value:

1. Building in scalability

PE houses building an integrated group of companies will often aim for one of the companies to be the “platform” onto which they can add other companies.

The platform company will have well-implemented processes and technology. It will provide good service at low cost, and provide clear, flexible and timely management information. It will have the capability to grow and deliver high margins.

Most importantly the platform company may be valued at twice the multiple of the others due to its ability to assimilate and support acquisitions.

2. Due Diligence

IT/tech due diligence in mid-market deals is often overlooked. Or it’s a box-checking exercise, because traditional DD providers use lengthy old-fashioned checklists. These provide limited real value and lack commercial insight (and are often hugely over-priced!).

More thorough DD providers carefully check the basics: security, compliance, risks, legal exposures, contracts, people, suppliers and costs. But in the mid-market, DD expectations need to be realistic. Most importantly, value-focused buyers use DD to gain insight into future opportunities in addition to the risks.

3. Enabling Marketing Innovations

These days almost every marketing innovation has its roots in technology – businesses and consumers are increasingly finding, choosing and buying products and services online.

Brands that want to engage with consumers will tend to do so by establishing a 1-to-1 relationship. They offer immersive digital experiences that provide value to the consumer and insight and lock-in for themselves.

For B2B suppliers, the ability to integrate your systems with your clients is critical, and areas like security and reliability can enable you to acquire and retain high-value corporate clients.

These marketing innovations make mid-market businesses more attractive to PE.

4. Digital Transformation

These days, a company’s size is no indication of its ability to transform the entire market. Even a smaller company can radically improve its internal operations and valuation using digital technology.

For PE-owned businesses, or businesses looking to maximise their value to PE houses, digital transformation can be invaluable. Read our article on the four types of digital transformation and how to get started on using tech to make fundamental improvements to your mid-market business.

Freeman Clarke is the largest and most experienced team of part-time, or fractional, IT leaders. We work exclusively with organizations looking to use IT to grow their business. For an informal conversation, contact us and we’ll be in touch.

How to Get Started With an ERP Project – Part II

This is the second in a two-part series on how to launch a successful Enterprise Planning Resource (ERP) project. For more information on ERP in plain English, check out our Knowledge Center.

You can read Part I here.

Freeman Clarke is the largest and most experienced team of part-time, or fractional, IT leaders. We work exclusively with organizations looking to use IT to grow their business. For an informal conversation, contact us and we’ll be in touch.

 

ERP Pearls of Wisdom from Our Experts

We have recorded a series of discussions about ERP. Two of our Regional Directors (Christine Parker Stubbs and Victor Kemeny) and two of our Principals (Kev Cooper and Peter Taylor) discuss a number of topics relating to the success and complexities of embarking on such a project; The transformational effect they can have, the pitfalls, horror stories, choosing the right products and suppliers and how to get started.

This audio focuses on ERP pearls of wisdom from our experts.

You can listen to the other audios in this series here.

Freeman Clarke is the largest and most experienced team of part-time, or fractional, IT leaders. We work exclusively with organizations looking to use IT to grow their business. For an informal conversation, contact us and we’ll be in touch.

How to Get Started With an ERP Project – Part I

This is the first in a two-part series on how to launch a successful Enterprise Planning Resource (ERP) project. For more information on ERP in plain English, check out our Knowledge Center.

You can read Part II here.

Freeman Clarke is the largest and most experienced team of part-time, or fractional, IT leaders. We work exclusively with organizations looking to use IT to grow their business. For an informal conversation, contact us and we’ll be in touch.

3 Common Problems with Systems Integration

Integration challenges can be difficult to identify. In this video, Freeman Clarke Co-founder Graeme Freeman explains three of most common problems created by systems integration and how to get started on fixing them.

You may find other posts in our ERP and Integration Knowledge Center interesting.

Freeman Clarke is the largest and most experienced team of part-time, or fractional, IT leaders. We work exclusively with organizations looking to use IT to grow their business. For an informal conversation, contact us and we’ll be in touch.

A Concise Introduction to Integration Problems Part II: How to Solve Them

(This is the second of our two-part series on integration problems.
Click to read
Part I: How to Spot Them.)

So, you have identified that your company has integration problems. Morale is affected, reporting is overly complicated, you can’t plan for the future, and customer service is suffering. So, what can you do about it?

Look Before You Leap 

When looking to fix integration problems, you have a spectrum of options: at one end is a long series of fixes to individual issues; at the other end is a major, transformational project.

Either way, strategize first! Before you do anything, your Board should consider these questions:

Be aware that this discussion can reveal personal tensions in your organization. In most cases, when systems aren’t integrated, it means that departments aren’t communicating with each other — so this kind of discussion can be quite stormy, as departments may blame each other for your company’s struggles.

Avoid the blame-game. Aim for a dispassionate acceptance of the current realities and the need for change. Then figure out who will have ownership of the solution.

Putting Together Your Integration Dream Team

You need focus to solve integration problems. So, start with a competent team that has resources and authority. Appoint a Director to be accountable and give them a twelve-week timeframe within which solving integration problems is their priority.

Why twelve weeks? Because the time period needs to be long enough to actually make a difference, but short enough that business-as-usual issues can wait, so this project can genuinely be a priority.

The initial focus should be on creating a list of issues with (a) estimates of the three-year business impact of each, and (b) an assessment of how readily solvable the problem. From this list you can select, say, the top three or four problems with a commitment to solve or substantially reduce them in twelve weeks.

How to Take Small Steps Forward

Remember that integration solutions are on the spectrum between individual fixes and a big, transformational project. It may be tempting to think big — but it may not be necessary! For each issue, consider the following:

More Serious Redesign Projects

If it turns out that more serious redesigns are necessary, you’ll need an even more strategic approach. Go back to the beginning and consider how to reorganize your business to suit the needs of your customers. For example, automate manual activities wherever possible, unless it makes commercial sense or provides enhanced service that your customers value.

Then start thinking through the main processes, key performance indicators, and options for back-end systems. (Naturally, if you reduce the number of back-end systems, there will be fewer technical integrations, so there should be fewer sources of potential problems.)

A word of warning: some vendors market their solutions as a single brand, when, under the bonnet, they actually provide multiple products which are not fully integrated. So, one “product” may actually be composed of many partly integrated pieces of software.

The solution may then lie in Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP). Basically, ERP takes all of the core processes you need to run your company — finance, HR, manufacturing, supply chain, services, procurement, and others — and integrates them into a single system.

The goal is to provide all the separate aspects of your business with the same information in real-time. And the result can a huge springboard to scalability and growth.

You can read Part I: How to Spot Them here.

For more posts on ERP and Integration issues, visit our Knowledge Center.

Freeman Clarke is the largest and most experienced team of part-time, or fractional, IT leaders. We work exclusively with organizations looking to use IT to grow their business. For an informal conversation, contact us and we’ll be in touch.

ERP Explained: The Basics

At Freeman Clarke, clients frequently ask for our help with their Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) projects. We’re not surprised, because ERP projects can take mid-sized businesses to an entirely new level. But they’re also notoriously difficult. ERP projects can be ruinously expensive — it’s often said that 75% of them fail.

With this in mind, in the coming weeks we’ll be developing our ERP Knowledge Center. It will provide a comprehensive introduction to ERP systems, how best to implement an ERP project, and how to avoid the common mistakes that lead to expensive and frustrating ERP failures.

But let’s start with the essentials.

What is ERP?

Consider all the core processes you need to run your company: finance, HR, manufacturing, supply chain, services, procurement, and others. The most basic function of ERP is to integrate all these processes into a single system. The result is that all these separate parts of your business have access to the same information in real-time.

But new ERP systems are anything but basic. They use the latest technologies such as machine learning and AI to provide information, visibility, and efficiency across every aspect of a business. And the promised integration may not materialize if the system is not implemented correctly.

Initially these products were targeted at the manufacturing sector. But they have generalized their offers to cater to every kind of business in every sector.

What are the advantages?

 There are too many advantages of a well-executed ERP system to list in one blog post! But we can say that the advantages break down into four main categories:

  1. Reporting. In the past, to generate reports, many companies had to manually merge data from multiple systems. (Many companies still operate this way!) ERP automates reporting and provides updates in real-time.
  2. Risk Management and Compliance. Each sector has its own regulatory ERP systems can be adapted to the needs of any particular sector or business, providing automation and transparency.
  3. Automation of Business Process. ERP promises to streamline front-office and back-office processes.
  4. Customer Service. Slick, integrated processes make for a more reliable business with fewer errors, which means that your people can focus on customers. And ERP systems often include Customer Relationship Management (CRM) to track and retain customers.

What are the options?

The best-known products are from Oracle, including PeopleSoft, Netsuite and JD Edwards; SAP (the full product and it’s confusingly named versions); Sage; Microsoft Dynamics and Microsoft Dynamics NAV; IFS; Epicor; and Access.

But the list of options can seem endless, as specific sectors have their own ERPs — you’ll find products for the legal sector, logistics, manufacturing, professional services, and facilities management.

How do I start an ERP project?

An ERP project is a major undertaking for any organization. If you’re approaching this for the first time or your current ERP project is going south, call Freeman Clarke for a low-pressure, no strings-attached discussion. Our people are experts in all aspects of ERP projects, solutions and products.

We’re also completely unbiased — unusual for the IT world, we have no commercial connections with suppliers. We simply use our skills, knowledge and experience to serve the best interests of our clients.

And look out for content in our ERP Knowledge Center, where we’ll provide straightforward, useful content on crucial issues like how to start on ERP project, how to implement a successful ERP project, and using ERP to solve integration problems.

Freeman Clarke is the largest and most experienced team of part-time, or fractional, IT leaders. We work exclusively with organizations looking to use IT to grow their business. For an informal conversation, contact us and we’ll be in touch.

3 Focus Points for Successful Systems Integration

Freeman Clarke Co-founder Graeme Freeman explains the three areas you’ll need to focus on for a successful systems integration project and provides ideas for building on that success.

You may find other posts in our ERP and Integration Knowledge Center interesting.

Freeman Clarke is the largest and most experienced team of part-time, or fractional, IT leaders. We work exclusively with organizations looking to use IT to grow their business. For an informal conversation, contact us and we’ll be in touch.

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Graeme Freeman
Co-Founder and Director

Subscribe to our Business Insights

Plain English board-level briefings focused on technology strategies to deliver competitive advantage and business success.

* Please enter an email address
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You can unsubscribe at any time.

Thank you.

You’ll now receive regular expert business insights.

Call us on 0203 020 1864 with any questions.