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Software maker flourishes with cloud-based ERP

Software maker BRG couldn't justify traditional on-premises ERP, but a cloud-based ERP system proved to be a perfect choice.

Salesforce has never been about ERP.

From the get-go, the cloud computing pioneer stayed away from the complexity of ERP, focusing instead on sales force automation and other pieces of the customer relationship management puzzle. It eventually expanded into other customer-centric technologies, such as marketing, social networking, service and support, and has only recently branched into areas like analytics and the Internet of Things.

But that hasn't stopped others from offering cloud-based ERP applications built on the company's popular Force.com development platform. Vendors such as FinancialForce and Rootstock have brought ERP to the Salesforce cloud, enabling small enterprises to take advantage of a technology that previously was out of their reach.

Three years ago, cloud-based ERP proved to be just the tonic workforce-management software maker BRG needed. While the Dallas-based company was, at 140 employees, far too small at the time to justify a traditional on-premises ERP package, it was experiencing one of the main indicators of readiness for ERP.

"We lacked the ability to connect data to projects effectively," Marshall King, BRG's vice president of tools and enablement, told TechTarget during an interview at Salesforce's recent Dreamforce conference in San Francisco. "We couldn't manage the business. We couldn't drill down into practices and tell where we were succeeding and failing."

King said that BRG, which like many smaller companies had grown dependent upon Quickbooks to run its financials, was hampered by a lack of connectivity between its various core systems. As a result, it was taking too long to close quarters, and employees couldn't find the data that could deliver the insights they needed.

Then, BRG discovered FinancialForce, and after a five-month deployment of the vendor's professional services automation and finance applications, the value of its data was unlocked.

"The biggest initial change was the visibility of financial information," King said. Not surprisingly, the sudden availability of previously elusive information was a revelation for employees, who were keen to see visualizations of things such as revenue and sales projections. "Requests for reports and dashboards exploded," King said.

It's worth noting that whereas many applications typically result in increased business agility, BRG's adoption of cloud-based ERP has actually slowed the business down slightly, and King said that's been a good thing.

"Some of the processes took longer because we [were moving from] a bit of a sloppy system," he said. "It introduced a rigor that gave us more confidence in our information."

Frank Scavo, president of management consulting firm Strativa Inc., based in Irvine, Calif., said it's not uncommon for young companies to have experiences similar to BRG's when moving to ERP. It's a reality of ERP adoption that companies should expect to spend some time catching up.

"Most companies implementing ERP, or migrating to a new ERP system, have significant problems with inaccurate or incomplete data," Scavo said via email. "There's no point in trying to do things faster if there are problems with the data foundation."

While having a cloud-based ERP system has forced BRG to become more deliberate with its data, that doesn't mean it hasn't helped the company to grow. Since the deployment, the company has more than tripled in size to 450 employees working on four continents, and King said FinancialForce has supported that growth by, for instance, accommodating multiple currencies.

And it's not like there haven't been any efficiency gains. King pointed out that the company has only added the equivalent of half an employee to the billing team despite its growth.

FinancialForce's tight integration with Salesforce has also brought other benefits, such as the ability to use Salesforce's Chatter tool to collaborate around ERP data.

Along those lines, King said BRG sees an opportunity in opening up its ERP data to customers, allowing them to communicate with project teams, download invoices, access project documentation and the like. "It would be a strong differentiator for us to be able to do that," said King.

In fact, one of BRG's largest customers, USAA Insurance, isn't allowed to use popular applications -- such as Box, SharePoint and Skype -- but it is allowed to collaborate externally via Salesforce and Chatter. And BRG undoubtedly has other customers that are similarly restricted.

But the biggest priority the company faces now is adding a human resources module to the equation. King said the company lacks strong onboarding and succession planning processes, and it also plans to hire an additional 65 people by the end of the year. That's a bunch of pain points that an HR app from FinancialForce or another Salesforce partner can help to alleviate.

"Just like we want to improve the customer experience," King said, "we really want to improve the employee experience."

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