Social collaboration next frontier for automation

Having taken its first steps into the cloud almost 10 years ago, document process automation specialist Esker is now looking to enterprise collaboration as the next major evolution of automation. Freya Purnell spoke with Esker chief operating officer Emmanuel Olivier about what the future holds, and why it’s harder than ever to close a deal.

It might have taken almost a decade to convince large corporates to push their process automation into the cloud, but you would be hard-pressed now to find an enterprise that is blind to the charms of Software-as-a-Service.

As far as Esker COO Emmanuel Olivier is concerned, it’s not before time.

“Software as a whole really is about providing benefits to companies. The cloud really is the right way to do that because it provides the flexibility that an on-premise solution doesn’t,” he says, adding that cloud acceptance is growing.

“We’re coming to a point where we expect what we are using in the technology world to evolve quickly, to change quickly, to improve quickly, so that it fits better our needs. More and more people see this aspect, and they’re also still happy not to pay for the licence upfront.”

 

Dealbreakers

You would think the push for austerity and efficiency amongst companies and governments the world over in recent years would have been the perfect sales environment for companies like Esker, whose bread and butter is automation and simplification. Not so, apparently.

“That’s a nice story, and I was preaching it many times in the past – don’t worry, the worse it gets, the better it is for us,” Olivier says. “It’s not true.”

The problem, he says, is that companies are simply collections of people also buffeted by the effects of uncertain times.

“The ability for people within organisations to make decisions has gone down, partially because organisations are more careful about investments and commitments they make, but partially because people themselves are more careful, and they are always looking for ways to making sure if things go bad, it’s not going to be their fault,” he says.

This translates into more people being involved in decision-making, longer lead times, and legal departments keeping a tight grip on even the smallest details. Even where there is a strong business case and return on investment outlined for a particular deal, it’s not enough if the people can’t align.
“The need for more automation is there because of the economy, but the ability of organisations to translate that need into actual decisions and projects is slow,” Olivier says. “You have to build a business case for the company, and you almost have to build one for the people you’re talking to as well.”

 

Future developments

With the march to the cloud underway, would Esker stop offering its on-premise solution, in favour of SaaS options only? Perhaps, in the long term – but only if such a decision was driven purely by the needs of customers in Europe, the Americas and in APAC, Olivier says.

Esker certainly intends to keep developing its DeliveryWare platform and will provide technical support for at least the next 10 years. Customers are also increasingly asking for ‘private cloud’ solutions which sees the solution hosted in a dedicated environment rather than the multi-tenanted model of the cloud solutions.

What is also on the agenda in the immediate future is to increase the efficiency of the accounts payable (AP) department by including in Esker’s AP solution the ability to generate and store purchase requisitions.

If a purchase order already exists in the ERP or other financial system for a particular order, when the invoice is received for that order, a three-way match can occur and there is no need for any further workflow. For invoices where there is no purchase order, currently a long reconciliation process and complex workflow to have it approved can ensue.

“If you can go through a process reengineering effort so there is an order for more of those purchases, then you move the workflow upfront and every invoice that comes in is automatically approved,” Olivier says. “From an AP perspective, you save a lot of time, and for the CFO, you know exactly what you have committed to as a company, you can plan for your financing needs, and you can close your books a lot faster.”

In the longer term, Esker plans to address the process issues that arise when there are exceptions – for example, if the quantity of an order is 10 times what a company usually orders, or the delivery address looks suspicious.

To deal with such exceptions, currently the user would have to leave the solution, call or email a sales representative or customer, or involve other people in making a decision.

“Those decisions from an internal control and a business efficiency perspective are made but they’re not tracked. So what we want to do is add functionality to our platform so that it becomes a collaboration tool,” Olivier says.

This would involve inviting people such as a customer service representative or even the customer to join the platform, to enable resolution of these exception issues more quickly and easily inside the solution, with a trackable trail.

It’s a big shift, and Esker will be moving towards this gradually. The company intends to launch a platform for customers to use with other users within their company initially this year, before moving onto inviting external customers to be a partner in the network.

“From a technology standpoint, it is not extremely complex – what’s complex, as always, is people. That’s why we want to take a business situation, focus on that situation and penetrate that market. When we have a change in how people behave, we can expand and go onto the next part,” Olivier says.

“It becomes a tool that is crossing the borders of the organisation as a user. If you make the same analysis on the AP side, you can do the same with suppliers. Gradually what you have is not internally focused but a collaborative tool that’s open to the world – a network for companies to do business with each other focused on back office processes.” 

 

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