The end of the supplier centric integrated suite; Now the client centric best of breed suites. By David Smith on Feb 4, 2022
One of the defining differences between the approach taken by North American accounting firms and their technology suppliers compared with Australian/New Zealand firms and their suppliers is the integrated suite.
Those of my vintage can recall the birth of technology for the accounting profession in the late 1970s. Companies like Hartley Computer, O’Reilly Computer, Anpac Systems, were just some of the suppliers who kicked it off. A few years later Solution 6, Handisoft, and Cee Data joined in with APS and Accountants Office in the 1990s. Interestingly, nearly all these companies were sold. MYOB is now the owner of most of them.
The key feature of these early products was the integrated suite. It was a three-legged stool consisting of practice management (time and billing), accounts production, and tax preparation (although tax didn’t join the party until the mid 1980s). In the last 20 years, the stool has grown an extra leg with document management becoming part of the core suite.
The benefits of the integrated suite were clear. It reduced duplication of data as sharing of data across applications was enabled. In theory, it created efficiencies as it was easier to move from one application to another thereby improving workflows. Finally, it had the benefit of a similar look and feel making the systems easier to use and reducing training time.
Over time these suites have continued to grow to add more and more functionality. That has not been a bad thing but has become the achilles heel of the suite providers.
The bane of any software developer is a technology shift requiring a major or complete rewrite of their application. It happened to me in the 1990s when the statutory records and SMSF software we wrote at PKF (now BDO) had to be rewritten from DOS to Windows. The issue was the driver for the sale of the business to Solution 6 (now part of MYOB).
For the past 15 years, this issue of technology shift has been the great challenge of the technology providers. It has been clear for all of that time that the shift to cloud computing was inevitable. Some suppliers resisted for a time, but all have adopted the mantra that the cloud is the future.
Moving applications to the cloud is not a matter of a few tweaks. To do it properly a complete rewrite is necessary. For suppliers with integrated suites, this then becomes an enormous task. Customers will not move until the functionality of the desktop suites is replicated. It is very difficult to have parts of the suite in the cloud and parts not in the cloud. It is very clunky. No one has successfully managed in all these years to redevelop their entire suite to the cloud. Acquisitions have been made to fill gaps but a full, all in the cloud, with fully equivalent functionality still seems a long way away. The further a supplier falls behind, the harder it is to catch up as the early adopters build out their features and enrich their products.
The other challenge for the incumbent suppliers is the need to keep their current desktop solutions up to date and continue to support them while trying to redevelop and move their customers to a new suite. It’s a daunting task.
What we’re now seeing is a step change. Cloud computing has enabled effective integration between applications using open APIs to expose data and functionality between applications. Data sharing (and functionality sharing) is enabled all but eliminating this advantage of the integrated suite.
This is enabling single application providers to create individual applications to replace one or more legs of the core suite stool. By focusing on their single application, these suppliers are able to focus on enhancing the functionality at a faster speed than the integrated suite suppliers. It is for this reason that BGL is able to succeed with its CAS Corporate Affairs software that competes directly with some suite providers.
In practice software, we’re seeing companies like FYI develop sophisticated document management, workflow, job management, and collaboration systems with automations that have a significant impact on practice efficiency. It has now surpassed the functionality of the suite providers.
So it seems pretty obvious that we are going down the North American road of “Best of Breed” software rather than suites. APIs enable the integration and innovation is enabled by single application providers having a greater focus on making their application the best it can be.
Practitioners should be thinking about the right package of solutions for their business. Rather than a suite, perhaps now is the time to embrace a suite of best of breed applications that unlock the innovations brought to the table by the new suppliers. Particularly in a post lockdown world, it is even more important to enable remote, highly engaged, and collaborative environments. Find the time to look at what these new technologies can deliver.
David Smith conducts firm reviews and facilitates the development of strategic plans and business plans. Contact David at [email protected] to explore how he may be able to help your firm.