Coming of age

12 Feb 2007

Good software can help determine the success of a small to medium-sized enterprise (SME), but finding the right solution has always been difficult for companies with limited in-house IT expertise. Fortunately, the market has been evolving, bringing business process solutions that were once the sole preserve of large enterprise within the grasp of the SME.

Alan Connor (pictured), commercial director of Exchequer Software, argues that some of the biggest advances have been made around so-called off-the-shelf products.

“A decade ago it had to be bespoke because all that was available off the shelf were basic bookkeeping tools,” he recalls. “You can now get off-the-shelf software that facilitates 95pc of all business requirements.”

Exchequer is a mid-tier business software specialist with a range of products that demonstrates how far the market has come. What was known as accounting software has evolved into multifunction business tools covering a full range of processes like distribution and stock procurement, all performed from a single suite that requires little customisation.

“There might be 5pc of customisation where a customer needs to see a screen in a certain way or wishes to replicate something they had on their old Unix system, for example. This is where bespoke still has a place,” he explains, “providing a replication, perhaps as a comfort factor, or for building something that’s industry unique.”

Even here the concept of customisation is a long way removed from the days when a developer would come in to make changes at an exorbitant daily rate, according to Connor. Exchequer products come with toolkits that make them easy to tweak. There is also an in-built flexibility that makes the software adaptable to different business needs.

“In the old days ‘off the shelf’ meant that it did what it said on the tin and you had to change your business to fit the software. That really is a bygone era, although you still might end up in that situation with an entry-level solution. Our software will work in the vast majority of cases with the existing client procedures without any additional development.”

While Exchequer is an example of a software company that is thriving because of its ability to deliver ready-made business software, Ergo Software Solutions demonstrates that it is possible to help small firms improve their processes with tailor-made software solutions.

“In the SME sector we have identified a dire need for tailored solutions,” says sales director Marc Murphy. “More often than not firms haven’t been able to afford them and end up dovetailing their business processes to fit an IT system. What we have come up with is a middle ground. We can give them a tailored solution but one they take as an ASP [applications service provider] model. Software becomes a utility to the business.”

Ergo has designed a rules-based system that can be adapted for just about any business process, according to Murphy, and translated into a software system delivered as a web-based service.

“It’s like an empty house with all the plumbing and electrics in place. We plug in the business rules around what a company wants to do. If it’s a transport

company, for example, we can put in an end-to-end delivery management system,” he says. “By having a framework that they can simply plug into cuts down costs dramatically.”

Murphy is critical of packaged solutions that rarely fit a company’s existing business process and cost a lot of money to re-engineer. “You make the initial outlay for the software but by the time you have amended it to do what you want, you have paid the same amount of money again.”

One of the challenges for Ergo is articulating its service to the market because there is a widespread perception that tailored solutions belong exclusively to large enterprise. “It’s about educating small firms that this kind of offering is out there and that it can make economic sense for them,” says Murphy.

A customer engagement with Ergo Software Solutions will start with a free consultation. Then a business analyst goes in to define the customer’s processes in Microsoft Excel. From there, Ergo’s development team compiles the source code and the scripts to enable the application to be delivered across the web as a service.

Another criticism that Murphy makes of packaged solutions is that they frequently have functionality that the customer doesn’t need, yet still has to pay for. Recognising this as an issue, Exchequer Software prefers to take its customers on a journey, starting out with a basic financial package and adding functionality.

“In Ireland in the past decade 97pc of our clients have retained Exchequer. They have added modules as they have gone along and never outgrown the functionality,” says Connor. “One customer, for example, started with a simple distribution suite, then brought in a retail end, followed by manufacturing modules. Now they have implemented the e-business solution to link up to its website. The implementation has been phased to suit the business needs.”

Connor describes Exchequer software as a second-phase solution, suitable for mid-sized companies, but some start-ups might benefit from the ?5,000-plus investment even though entry-level systems can cost as little as ?500. “In a positive economic climate where companies can see long-term potential there is a valid argument for implementing the second software first,” he says. “You have to look at the total cost of ownership over five years and then make your decision.”

By Ian Campbell