I spend a lot of time talking to organizations about moving to SaaS an often I hear their concerns around the apparent lack of flexibility that SaaS apps give them. In the broader context this argument speaks to the points raised by Dennis Howlett in his recent post about design thinking as it relates to enterprise software design. First a little background – in a former life I consulted as a design strategist, broadly speaking helping organizations in myriad sectors to rethink their products, processes and people to achieve what I always referred to as Design (capitalization intentional) something I articulated as the creation of a product or service that embodies design across all parts of it’s creation – a simplistic and much-used example would be the iPod that embodies many design aspects (hardware/product, software, service delivery, distribution and, essentially, the emotional design aspects).

Anyhow, what does this have to do with NetSuite’s latest release. Well NetSuite (see disclosure) is announcing this morning functionality that begins to move ERP software from an analytical and process driven experience to a design-led experience. What they’re beginning to create is the ability for software to mold to an individual user’s and organization’s personal paradigm. That’s a lofty ideal, and it’s early days, but looking deeply into the release gives me some confidence in taking this stance.

SuiteFlow is essentially a move to a flexible platform, in this case embodied in a graphical tool that allows for custom drag and drop customization for ERP. Users can create and alter custom workflows to support the way they and businesses need to work in real-time—whether the goal is to implement a more efficient automated collections process, create a rules-based lead nurturing process or overhaul receivables management. In a punch that sees NetSuite respond to the fears raised by on-premise vendors about lack of customization for SaaS apps, and to position themselves as a vendor enabling design-led thinking, NetSuite is taking the fight to the legacy players saying:

Businesses today face numerous challenges when trying to customize traditional on-premise applications to meet their specific process needs. Legacy software requires costly technical expertise and ongoing maintenance to design, implement and manage complex custom processes. The business users who know the most about the processes are frequently disconnected from the technical design phase and are powerless to make the real-world improvements necessary to accurately replicate workflow. The result work is often dated by the time of rollout because business dynamics have changed, and worse yet, the customizations can result in trapping the enterprise into a particular software version which cannot be upgraded. This old-world approach to business process management (BPM) is both costly and inefficient.

Which is a pretty strong argument – while on-premise software CAN be customized, if that customization is difficult and slow, and if it requires costly technical help to implement, it is, in-effect, useless. NetSuite and other SaaS vendors are bring simple customization to end users and in doing so driving quick and accessible gains in a rapidly changing business environment.

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There’s more to this than meets the eye but first a look at what functionality SuiteFlow brings. Users can:

  • Create workflows that automate business processes across finance, marketing, sales and service
  • Adjust business processes based on the needs of the business or organizational change
  • Deploy workflows that move an organization from manual paper and email-based collections processes to automated cash management
  • Utilize workflows that improve conversion rates by intelligently and automatically nurturing leads
  • Eliminate maverick activity such as rogue sales discounting by implementing auditable approval processes.
  • Improve performance with dashboards that provide clear visibility into process performance, bottlenecks, and improvement opportunities.

But what is even more exciting than the end user benefit that SuiteFlow can bring is what it can mean for specific verticals. I’ve written in the past about the need for SaaS vendors or the resellers that partner with them to provide customized applications that are tailored to distinct verticals. I recently wrote a post about Google’s moves to automate some of the services that the resellers provide and questioned whether or not this was a threat to those resellers. The general response was that it in fact provides an opportunity for resellers to provide added value services on top of the applications – so to does SuiteFlow, and the broader NetSuite SuiteCloud ecosystem provide opportunities for resellers to build highly customized and differentiated applications tailored to specific verticals – all the more so for NetSuite given the breadth of touch points within a business that they provide solutions for. As NetSuite say in their release:

In addition to providing enterprises with greater utilization of resources and shorter time-to-value, SuiteFlow also helps developers and independent software vendors (ISVs) get to market faster with their vertical applications built on the SuiteCloud platform.   ISVs already appreciate the point-and-click rapid prototyping available with NetSuite’s form and interface customization tools.  With SuiteFlow they can now apply this same advantage to business processes for their specific applications, greatly reducing development costs.

Of course one of the inherent benefits of SaaS customization, as opposed to on-premise customization, is that customizations do not create version lock amidst the fear that an upgrade will break the customization. Any process or workflow defined in SuiteFlow is automatically carried forward with application upgrades.

But stepping aside from the details here, I believe that SuiteFlow and related moves by other vendors (salesforce.com’s chatter for example) see software distancing itself from the ivory towers of IT and become truly a partner for change.

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Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

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