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Oracle ERP Cloud forced Cetera Financial to rethink ways

Some users resisted Oracle SaaS platforms for ERP, EPM and HCM but came around to single entry point, modern tools for planning and budgeting, and familiar, Excel-based UIs.

Replacing aging on-premises applications with a smaller set of integrated SaaS applications can be an uncomfortable cleansing exercise. While users resist letting go of familiar software -- not to mention ways of doing business -- the forced simplicity of SaaS often improves efficiency, eventually wins over skeptics and leaves the organization far better off.

Cetera Financial Group, a Los Angeles-based provider of services and technology for financial advisory firms, experienced that sometimes difficult journey in its Oracle ERP Cloud implementation for financials, accounts payable and receivable, and procurement, and Oracle EPM Cloud for planning and budgeting. Both went live on August 1, just seven months after the contract was signed. The company had previously moved HR to Oracle HCM Cloud.

The lack of customizability of the new SaaS applications "definitely came up for us," said Matthew Whitehead, Cetera's vice president of financial planning and analysis. This was especially the case with procure-to-pay, expense and validation procedures executed on the company's decade-old Great Plains ERP software. Users questioned the need to drop familiar methods and force themselves into what they feared would be a rigid configuration.

So, the company worked with implementation partner PwC to come up with guiding principles to minimize customization and make the most of configuring the Oracle ERP Cloud software. "We always ask ourselves: What's the root cause here?" Whitehead said. "Why are we getting these requests for it to be different than the out-of-the box delivered [product]?"

Matthew WhiteheadMatthew Whitehead

That evaluation process produced intelligent debate over hard questions. "Why does Cetera think they're different than the rest of the thousands and thousands of installs and knowledge that Oracle has gained over the years to be able to make this a robust cloud solution? Ultimately, we were able to land, I think for the most part, within the swim lanes of the [ERP] configuration," Whitehead said.

The issue was more pronounced with Oracle EPM Cloud because that software forces users into its frameworks for financials and workforce planning, he said. The company worked to identify its broader goals, best practices and financial modeling needs and ultimately decided to take full advantage of the EPM software's key performance indicators and driver-based inputs.

As a result, Cetera was able to shrink the chart of accounts that is delivered from the general ledger so users could focus more on planning-level accounts, according to Whitehead. "It would give us speed and agility in our ability to continuously forecast, plan, report and measure ourselves, and that model was really exciting for us," he said.

The chart of accounts turned out to be crucial in other ways that Whitehead said he wishes he realized at the start. Dependences between the ERP and EPM clouds made it challenging to implement them in parallel. "For ERP, getting our chart of accounts nailed down early and finalized upfront is really critical and has downstream implications on the EPM side." Specifically, EPM is "very dependent" on the metadata model for its integration with ERP.

Cloud version of Hyperion has familiar feel

Another key move was swapping out the current planning and forecasting tool, Solver BI360, which was one of the first things Whitehead put in place when he arrived at Cetera in mid-2015. Lately, though, BI360's Microsoft Excel-based reporting and close tie to Great Plains ERP made it seem like a "low-tier solution," he said. Because Microsoft was no longer supporting Cetera's version of Great Plains, it was time to move on from BI360, too. The company also needed to migrate off its service and bring the data center on premises or take it elsewhere.

The new Oracle Planning and Budgeting Cloud Service (PBCS), which is part of EPM, has improved the company's forecasting capabilities while preserving much of the employees' preferred user interface. For Whitehead, it's also the place where Oracle delivers its Hyperion business intelligence and corporate performance management technology, which he used heavily in a previous job at GMAC's financial services wing.

"It's the Hyperion Essbase, OLAP-based database structure -- block storage -- in the cloud, along with all the other types of features you get with a cloud application: web forms, workflow approval processes, dashboards, reporting," he said. PBCS also has Hyperion Financial Reporting Studio, "a more robust kind of standard reporting deck," delivered as an Essbase Excel add-in that also allows reporting in HTML and PDF format.

"At the end of the day, if you ever told [finance users] you're going to take away Excel, you'd have a mutiny," he said. Excel is "still our sweet spot. We can be pretty efficient from a power-user perspective." But for this deployment, and to better serve the needs of business users, Cetera needed something with a more standardized, streamlined and easy-to-use interface. "When we demoed it, we were like, 'Wow: This really does have the best of both worlds,'" Whitehead said.

PBCS also brought new data structures for accounts, departments and organizations that called for users to swallow another big change, according to Whitehead. Planning and budgeting had been done at the vendor level -- "a very low level of detail," he said, that isn't standard in PBCS.

With users complaining that they needed to hold onto vendor-level planning, Whitehead and team analyzed the pros and cons and decided instead to hold managers accountable for broad spending categories like technology and travel.

"It was a mind shift," Whitehead said. "They just struggled with the idea of how they would build their budgets up without that as a dimension of their data model." But there was a compromise: a PBCS feature that allows adding supporting detail to a cell, such as comments and Excel spreadsheets.

Users reacted positively. The PBCS data model is also more efficient and allows faster calculations by avoiding having to add vendors to the metadata structure. "That vendor list just blows up the model when you have 2,000 to 3,000 vendors to choose from," Whitehead said.

Single entry point to Oracle ERP Cloud

Whitehead said one of the biggest challenges was figuring out how to communicate the impact on procurement, expenses, planning and budgeting. "Those are the three biggest areas that touch hundreds and hundreds of users," he said. The company was also moving its expense system off on-premises SAP Concur to Oracle ERP Cloud.

So, Whitehead and CFO Jeffrey Buchheister worked with Cetera's marketing and corporate communications teams to articulate a vision and convey it to users. HR and the in-house training department, Cetera University, would help with training.

"We structured a set of communication strategies to ensure that we were communicating the vision, how it's going to impact them, what are the benefits that this new technology will drive, why we're making this investment," Whitehead said. The message was that Oracle ERP Cloud and EPM Cloud would bring a paradigm shift that drives growth and provides insights into the business.

Asked what he would have done differently, Whitehead said, "It would have been helpful for us to develop a more robust set of complex use cases and then been able to get down to the underlying solution and really try to understand where we may run into challenges."

Now, with ERP and EPM in the cloud, employees have better access to information and data. Separate log-ins for Great Plains, BI360, Concur and the old Paramount procurement system are a thing of the past, removing a huge roadblock to user adoption, Whitehead said.

Now, employees get on the Oracle cloud through one intranet portal. "They already go into HCM to input their time … goals and performance reviews," he said. "It's now just another icon or card within that same solution that then brings them into the planning and budgeting side or into the ERP side to put a procurement request in. That whole experience for the end user is dramatically improved. The feedback we're getting has been tremendous."

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