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SaaS: flexible, efficient & affordable

This article appears in the issue January 2009, [Vol 18, Issue 1]
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Software as a service (SaaS) continues to make inroads into enterprise knowledge management, its progress fueled by the low cost of entry and minimal impact on internal IT resources. In addition, applications can be up and running in a very short time. That combination is helping to support a substantial growth rate for a number of SaaS vendors despite the overall economic climate.

Allen Vanguard creates solutions for protection and countermeasures against improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and other threats. The company’s equipment ranges from electronic countermeasures to bomb disposal suits, robots and decontamination technologies applied after a terrorist or industrial incident. Allen Vanguard’s products are used by public security and military agencies in more than 100 countries.

Based in Ottawa, and with facilities in the United States and the United Kingdom, Allen Vanguard needed a way for people in multiple offices to collaborate in the budget process. In addition, the company wanted to reduce its budget cycle time. Allen Vanguard had recently acquired a company that was using a SaaS product from Adaptive Planning with a variety of budgeting modules, so it decided to roll out that product to all its departments.

The Adaptive Planning software uses a spreadsheet format displayed through a browser. Information can be entered onto sheets from multiple locations and updated dynamically. "The spreadsheet format played an important role in our decision to select this product for companywide deployment," says Viktoria Tremblay, financial analyst at Allen Vanguard. "It is a familiar interface for many people, which is important because our users include managers as well as financial analysts."

Equally important were the advantages provided by the SaaS delivery model. "Adaptive Planning was a very cost-efficient solution for us," Tremblay says. "We did not have to put capital into it upfront, and the burden on our IT team was minimal."

A hierarchical model was set up with entities such as a department or location at the top level, then cost centers and accounts. "Integrating multiple spreadsheets was straightforward once the hierarchy was set up," Tremblay adds. "As data from each spreadsheet is saved, it rolls up automatically to the next level." Historical data is imported from Allen Vanguard’s enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. Managers for each department then make their budget predictions for the next quarter.

"One major goal of using Adaptive Planning’s software was to enable 12-month rolling forecasts," says Tremblay. A shortened cycle would allow for a more adaptive planning process, and when the annual forecasts are made, only data from the most recent month, rather than for the entire year, would need to be summarized.

"We already have a much better analysis of our business and where it’s going," Tremblay says. "We know more quickly what efficiencies we need to work on and we can build key metrics to measure performance, whether it’s by entity, department or individual employee. The more frequent forecast will be an added benefit."

Founder and CFO of Adaptive Planning Rob Hull believed that the SaaS model was the best one for delivering the collaborative planning and reporting application that he envisioned. Frustrated with the limitations he saw in Microsoft Excel, Hull wanted to develop an on-demand application with improved budgeting, forecasting and reporting.

"The core of the application is its ability to look backward and forward," Hull says. "Data for looking backward comes from the ERP system, and forward-looking data comes through either data entry or import of key drivers."

In addition to the budgeting, forecasting and reporting functions, the system also enables what-if analyses, which are particularly important in a volatile economy. For example, users can project the impact of fuel prices on revenue. To complement the collaborative, bottom-up budgeting and forecasting capabilities of the solution, an online recession survival kit provides a top-down, strategic, scenario-based approach to adapt to changing circumstances. The product is well suited, Hull says, to companies in dynamic environments that need frequent updates in their budget cycles.

Tech support for LMS

ANGEL Learning develops and markets enterprise e-learning software. The acronym ANGEL stands for A New Global Environment for Learning. The company’s flagship products are the ANGEL Learning Management Suite (LMS) and ANGEL ePortfolio, which serve both the K-12 and higher education markets.

ANGEL Learning uses SaaS products from Parature for customer support, including a user-accessible knowledgebase and a ticketing system for tracking cases. The company began using the products several years ago and recently reconfigured its customer service system.

"We had experienced a lot of growth, and our products had also become more complex," says John Klein, support center team lead at ANGEL Learning. "We wanted to align our ticketing system with the realities of our product offerings."

The rapid growth was welcome, but placed additional demands on the customer support staff. "Our product is very customized, so each customer inquiry tends to be different," adds Klein. "Not every question can be fielded by a customer service representative."

This past summer, ANGEL Learning revised its workflows, in part to make sure that customer inquiries could be routed to the correct subject matter experts. "Fortunately, Parature’s customer support software is flexible enough so we were able to modify it to meet our current needs," Klein says.

Products Klein had used in the past did not have that flexibility, requiring processes to be fit around hard-coded workflows, or sending tickets off to destinations that were no longer functional. In a time of growth, ANGEL Learning did not want to contend with those disruptions.

"The education market is not recession-proof," says Klein, "but it is recession-resistant. K-12 education is ongoing, and during slower economic times, adults frequently go back to school for retraining." With Parature in place at ANGEL Learning, Klein feels comfortable that the company can keep up with its continued growth.

Parature was somewhat ahead of its time for a SaaS product—its development began in 2000—but its delivery mode was partly necessity rather than planned.

"Our CEO, Duke Chung, was still a student at Cornell University when he and his colleagues concluded that a chat product for customer service products was commercially viable," says Gary McNeil, VP of marketing at Parature. "They were not in a position to distribute the product nationally unless it was done via the Internet. With the encouragement of their first venture capital investor, they did so."

Parature now has 700 customers and experienced an 80 percent growth rate last year. One of its customers is Linden Lab, which developed the Second Life virtual world software and uses Parature for customer support.

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