With 2013 more than halfway over, are chief financial officers learning to embrace the cloud this year as several experts predicted in the final days of 2012? While attitudes differ drastically depending on who you ask -- from evangelist to staunch opponent -- it seems finance professionals are at least softening on the issue that has been their main objection to cloud-based software: data security.
The sheer amount of questions that attendees asked during a particularly crowded breakout session at last week's Proformative CFO Dimensions conference in New York City demonstrated finance professionals' interest in -- and in some cases, continued skepticism toward -- the cloud. But surprisingly, data privacy only came up once.
Instead, end user buy-in, implementation and functionality were top-of-mind concerns for the audience, showing that while these finance executives might not be quite ready to deploy cloud-based financial management systems, they're at least considering the feasibility of cloud tools for their organizations. And although Warren May, comptroller at the International Association of Firefighters and the session's speaker, presented a cloud success story, he didn't advocate it across the board. Rather, he readily acknowledged that his choice might not be right for everyone.
Unclear ownership costs lead controller to cloud-based software
May's session was titled From Fire Fighter to Rain Maker with Cloud Computing, and his presentation recapped how his organization selected and adopted a new financial budgeting and reporting tool. Before deploying software from Host Analytics, May said the nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C. was using Microsoft Excel for those processes, which caused accessibility problems for remote users. In addition, people were unable to perform what-if scenarios and reports were static, with no drill-down capability. May said he wanted a new system that had a spreadsheet-like interface, was easily accessible, required minimal IT involvement, and was produced by a viable vendor with valid references. Another key requirement was the ability to integrate the tool with the organization's Microsoft Great Plains accounting system.
Four options rose to the top: a Great Plains-produced tool that the company already owned but had never implemented, Host Analytics, and systems from two on-premises vendors -- Prophix and Centage. May said Great Plains was quickly tossed out of the running due to inadequate functionality, but the remaining contenders were comparable in terms of capabilities, so the choice ultimately came down to long-term cost.
"What really tipped the scales for me was that [with] the on-premises solutions I was looking at I couldn't get the warm fuzzies of what upgrades would cost [or] what maintenance would be over a three- or five-year period," he said. "So that's what made it easy for me to [choose] the cloud [because] I knew what those costs were going to be -- a monthly subscription fee."
Since implementing Host Analytics, May said the budgeting process has been reduced to weeks instead of months, and the organization is more agile thanks to near real-time financial data. Future plans for the tool include creating dashboards for executives and integrating it with the document management system and membership database.
CFOs concerned about IT and end user buy-in
One question midway through May's session opened the floodgates for approximately 10 others in succession, showing just how eager the audience was to pick the brain of a finance leader successfully using cloud-based software.
In addition to questions about the implementation process and differences in functionality between May's cloud-based and on-premises options, several attendees wondered how to get key constituents to buy into cloud technology.
For instance, one attendee asked how May fostered user adoption, since end users reluctant to learn new systems can cause an implementation to fail. "I had a luxury [that] unfortunately many of you may not have -- my users were ready for change," May replied. He nonetheless stressed the importance of training in user adoption, especially since end users might only use a new system for budgeting once per year and could forget their training in the meantime.
Another audience member expressed concern over potential dissension from IT. During his presentation, May said several times that Host Analytics requires virtually no internal IT involvement on an ongoing basis, and the attendee pointed out that decreased job security might be a reason for IT to resist cloud-based software. May advised keeping the IT department involved in the software vetting process, but ultimately he didn't have a clear answer to the issue. "Hopefully you don't come across that too often," he said.
Others asked May about his company's use of the tool and specific capabilities on a more granular level. But while May certainly praised the cloud-based software and the benefits the organization has reaped since implementing it, he underscored that on-premises technology is undoubtedly still a respectable and sensible choice.
"Cloud or on-premise -- it's your preference," May said. "Cloud was my preference."