Last week I spoke with Paul Turner, director solutions marketing at NetSuite to discuss the launch of SuiteFlow, the company's visual workflow composer. According to the blurbs, the tool allows customers to:
- Easily create workflows that automate, streamline and improve complex business processes across finance, marketing, sales and service.
- Respond to change rapidly by quickly adjusting business processes based on the needs of the business or organizational change.
- Deploy workflows that move an organization from manual paper and email-based collections processes to automated cash management.
- Drive return on marketing spend with workflows that improve conversion rates by intelligently and automatically nurturing leads.
- Eliminate maverick activity such as rogue sales discounting by implementing strong auditable approval processes.
- Improve performance with dashboards that provide clear visibility into process performance, bottlenecks, and improvement opportunities.
I'm always skeptical whenever I hear that a vendor has created an 'easy to use' visual composition tool. Past history tells us that 'easy' is a relative term that depends on the expertise of the staff available to use the tool. Crystal Reports springs to mind. Great if you're a power spreadsheet user, a bear if you're an occasional spreadsheet jock. The same holds true of SuiteFlow. "IT is a good candidate as are power users in marketing and finance," said Turner. There you have it. So how will this help the typical NetSuite customer?
Over the last year or so, NetSuite has made no secret of the fact it wants to take its solution up the food chain and away from the very small customer. And example is its marketing directly against SAP. NetSuite believes that at the current level of maturity, its offering is better suited to the mid-market where customizations are required. "Ninety percent of customers customize their NetSuite system," said Turner. SuiteFlow is the next step in the delivery of services that reflect that strategy.
While this may seem like a modest announcement it should send the odd shiver down the spines of on premise vendors. At a stroke, NetSuite gives the lie to SaaS applications as vanilla only offerings where customizations are off the table in lieu of a smorgasbord of configurations. That has always been the case with NetSuite scripting, SuiteFlow makes it obvious. The question comes: just how far can customizations go?
NetSuite thinks that business rules will tend to be data driven so that for example out of band occurrences surfaced via the analytics dashboard can be reviewed and processes re-engineered to accommodate or fix the issue. This is a sensible way to approach process iteration. "We think this opens the door to continuous process improvement by allowing companies to change business rules as circumstances change," says Turner. I asked whether this means you might be able to develop disposable processes, the kind you need to develop for say a specific marketing campaign. "Yes," said Turner emphatically.
Since SuiteFlow is a pure web based service, workflow and process development can occur in team environments. However, it wasn't entirely clear whether SuiteFlow can utilize NetSuite's existing Twitter integration as the messaging method by which new processes can be discussed and iterated.
But what is even more exciting than the end user benefit that SuiteFlow can bring is what it can mean for specific verticals. I’ve written in the past about the need for SaaS vendors or the resellers that partner with them to provide customized applications that are tailored to distinct verticals. I recently wrote a post about Google’s moves to automate some of the services that the resellers provide and questioned whether or not this was a threat to those resellers. The general response was that it in fact provides an opportunity for resellers to provide added value services on top of the applications – so to does SuiteFlow, and the broader NetSuite SuiteCloud ecosystem provide opportunities for resellers to build highly customized and differentiated applications tailored to specific verticals – all the more so for NetSuite given the breadth of touch points within a business that they provide solutions for.
I'm not that excited and not even sure Ben is correct. Developing for a vertical is not the same as customization. It is merely articulating the needs of verticals in the language and methods that vertical markets use. That's not to deny the need for vertical solutions which are coming out the gate from SaaS providers much more quickly than was the case with on-premise vendors. Since SuiteFlow is running on top of the existing SuiteScript system, I'd argue that SuiteFlow is fulfilling the need for both power users and ISVs to get solutions into production in the shortest possible time. That's a step change rather than a radical departure from the past.
The key difference between an on-prem and NetSuite's approach is that whether customizing or developing for a vertical, the NetSuite core is kept clean. As upgrades to the core are released, customizations are automatically carried into the new version. There is therefore no requirement for regression testing. Or at least that is the claim.
It will be interesting to see how NetSuite responds to the development of vertical market solutions. The current strategy of enabling a vibrant ecosystem of specialists is to be commended. It is a fast track way to grow the market for core solutions. But you have to ask at what point NetSuite realizes that the vertical market play is worth more than providing the platform. History teaches us that ecosystem players can grow into businesses that are far larger than the original market maker. It takes away a degree of power from the market maker that can prove unpleasant when it comes to pricing discussions and ecosystem management. Perhaps it will be different this time. I've yet to be convinced.
In the meantime, expect to see an acceleration in the development of vertical market solutions coming out of the NetSuite ecosystem and more squirming by its on-prem rivals.