User Recommendations for Project-oriented Software
Written By: Charles Chewning Jr.
Published On: June 7 2006
In the first part of this series on project-centric software (see Project-oriented Software: Many Choices, Many Differences), we examined the particular challenges faced by professional service organizations (PSOs), and some of the elements required for success. We looked at two interesting Deltek offerings in this domain (Deltek Vision and Deltek FMS), and we'll turn now to two other significant products: BST Enterprise and Microsoft Dynamics SL (formerly known as Solomon).
BST Enterprise (http://www.bstglobal.com/default.htm), published by BST Global, is aimed specifically at environmental, engineering, and design firms. International design firms are the main customer base. Currently, BST Enterprise supports 200 to 300 design firms in 37 countries. The typical firm size is 250 to 350 employees, giving BST Enterprise over 80,000 users. BST Enterprise is geared specifically towards larger companies with a geographically dispersed workforce requiring internet-based access through a portal. The system is thus completely .Net-architectured (written in Visual Studio .Net), with an open platform promoting seamless integration with outside applications as well as users in remote locations.
BST Global has created a software development kit (SDK) called Freedom Framework, which allows users (employees and business partners) to bridge the gap between the system and outside devices and people. The major components of this strategy are Blackberry alerts, smart documents, portal web parts, and custom applications. Given the size of firms within BST Global's target market and their geographic dispersion, implementation services receive significant attention to detail. When a system is installed, BST Global consultants spend a great deal of time identifying what specific information drives the decision-making process. Once this has been determined, a specific set of trigger points and matching alerts can be designed and associated with one or more people within the firm.
Given the international markets in which BST Global competes, BST Enterprise has been designed as a fully compliant global (multicurrency) business management system. And although the BST Portal (dashboard) can be tailored to meet the needs of specific clients and users, a default portal has been created to meet the needs of executives, project managers, project directors, operations managers, business development, and finance. This is perhaps one of its strongest features. Any web parts are preconfigured standard views, users (or their business partners) can create views that are specific to their business and industry.
BST Global has adopted the concept of management by exception, and has designed many business processes that are launched when some form of alert is triggered. While many products support alerts of some form (usually e-mail), BST Enterprise has developed a complete business management system that launches specific functions, or allows users to jump to a business process from the alert. For example, users can create an alert that notifies them when a project has reached a billing milestone (say, 30 percent completion). The alert will be shown on the user dashboard, and from there the billing process for the job can automatically be launched.
BST Enterprise also supports the notion of full collaboration, where multiple users access the same information or functions. For example, multiple people might be working on a client's project plan. The team collaboration web site might include announcements related to the project, shared documents, tasks and their status, menu functions, and links to URLs pertinent to the project or customer. Rather than imposing standard data input forms, BST Enterprise supports input/output documents that look and feel just like spreadsheets. When users access one of these smart documents and input data, those changes are posted back into the business management system. The same smart documents can be used for review purposes with the modified data posted back into the business management system.
BST Enterprise supports the notion of tree views, whereby users can move up and down the tree (project, phase, task, and organization), and select from a more limited set of reports rather than having to wade through an extensive list of all possible project reports. Finally, BST Enterprise supports its own customer relationship management (CRM) and project management applications as well as an integration with Microsoft CRM and Microsoft Project.
BST Enterprise plays very well in the international market as well as with larger design firms. It probably is not quite as appropriate for smaller US-based firms: although these firms may be technologically savvy, the learning curve for a product such as BST Enterprise may be a bit of a challenge. In addition, these firms may not require all of the functionality typically used or required by a larger firm.
BST Enterprise does not support any horizontal applications, including inventory management or service management. This is a deliberate and strategic decision by BST Global. It also does not currently support collections management, but will be introducing such an application later this year. Given the global enterprise market in which BST Global has chosen to compete, its lack of a reseller channel could be viewed as a competitive disadvantage, particularly when local resellers may be more aware of opportunities in their geographic region.
Microsoft Dynamics SL
Microsoft Dynamics SL (http://www.microsoft.com/dynamics/sl/default.mspx), formerly Solomon, is a horizontal business management system with a particular focus on project-oriented users as well as industrial distributors.
Microsoft Dynamics SL will certainly compete favorably in the PSO market where time and expertise is "sold," but its horizontal nature allows it to compete in a mixed-mode market where products are sold as well as time. For example, an industrial distributor or manufacturer may contract with a customer to provide materials and services, not just services. If the project is complex or lengthy, project management functions may be required in addition to product or manufacturing functions. In other cases, a finite project (with a start and end date) will morph into a longer term service contract in a later phase. In these cases, project management is important, but it is not the sole requirement.
MS Dynamics SL is the only product among the four reviewed in this series that supports a service management application suite. While this may not be required by organizations that are strictly project-oriented, it is becoming increasingly important where post-project services are less project-centric and more service-oriented. Microsoft Dynamics SL is a robust business management system, and its back-end accounting functionality is certainly superior to the three vertically-focused products reviewed here. This net superiority really seems to be the case for many other industry-specific products when compared to a horizontal business management product with one or more industry-specific applications.
MS Dynamics SL is also the only product among these four solutions to support inventory (along with Deltek Vision, which will be releasing an inventory application later this year). All material purchased must be assigned to a project. This probably works fine for many project-oriented organizations, but as services begin to move toward an environment where material is just as important as labor (IT infrastructure installation, service and repair, field service, and so on), the ability to purchase in bulk (reduced unit cost) and to react to emergencies (middle-of-the-night swap-out of server/network material) becomes a business imperative. This then drives the need to carry critical inventory and (as a result) to account for that inventory.
Although all four products support extensive reporting, Microsoft Dynamics SL supports a full suite of business analytics applications: BIO (Business Intelligence Optimization) for Microsoft Dynamics SL, Microsoft FRx Professional, and Microsoft Forecaster Professional. BIO for Microsoft Dynamics SL is an operational analytics application that gives decision-makers unique and relevant insight into business drivers. Slated for release to manufacturing in May 2006, it provides personalized role-based business performance scorecards, as well as robust strategic, operational, and financial analytics. It also provides sixty unique perspectives for analyzing business data across fourteen common organizational roles. People can view the analytical reports from the tools they are used to (including Microsoft Excel, Microsoft Office SharePoint Services, Microsoft Office Business Scorecard Manager, and the rest of the Microsoft system product lineup), or directly within the application itself. Built on Microsoft SQL Server Analysis Services, it also fully integrates with SQL Server 2000/2005.
Microsoft Dynamics SL supports several third-party collections management applications that will help users manage their accounts receivable. As indicated earlier, a project is not complete until all invoices have been fully paid. Although all of the products reviewed here offer a payroll application, Microsoft Dynamics SL supports a comprehensive payroll application that includes robust union tracking and calculations. Consulting projects that primarily use salaried employees may not require sophisticated union-related functions, but many federal contracts that use hourly (union) employees will require such functionality.
While its horizontal nature (distribution, service management, and so forth) does allow Microsoft Dynamics SL to compete very well in a mixed-mode environment, this same quality is probably a disadvantage when competing in the PSO market. Many firms do not require these mixed-mode functions, and their purchase decisions are dependent on project-oriented functions only. Microsoft Dynamics SL does provide these functions, but the system itself is not specifically designed for PSO firms. In other words, the functions are there, but not in the same way as one would find in the other three products reviewed.
Microsoft Dynamics SL supports an older menu structure that may not appeal to technologically advanced organizations. While the menu structure can certainly be customized, this requires some work. The product has just introduced a dashboard but does not yet support portal access. The dashboard will be improved over time, but support for an Internet-based (.NET) system is projected for some time in the future. And while Microsoft Dynamics SL does support most of the functions required by a PSO firm, many of these requirements (primarily resource planning and proposal creation) must be met by a third-party application rather than being native to the product. This may not necessarily be a disadvantage, but it might be if the third-party vendor does not keep up with the core product, or worse, if it goes out of business.
Microsoft Dynamics SL does integrate with Microsoft CRM, a very powerful CRM application, but Microsoft CRM is a horizontal application with no direct support for the PSO market.
There is no distinctly superior project-oriented business management system. Each organization must determine what it needs to do well for success. These success factors may depend on the specific requirements of the industry niches in which the organization competes, as well as on how the organization is structured. Some organizations thrive on the leading edge of technology, while other organizations in the same niche are more comfortable with more basic functionality.
Each of the four products reviewed has individual strengths that will be of significant interest to some organizations. Once needs have been defined in a comprehensive way, they must be compared against each likely business partner, at which point several should be selected for more intensive investigation. In the end, the product chosen will meet the user's requirements as well as a host of subjective criteria such as price, implementation services, training, the health of the vendor, the suitability of the vendor or reseller as a good business partner candidate, and the degree to which users "like" the system. Ultimately, this last factor may be one of the most important selection criteria. A system that appeals to people will be the system that will be most easily integrated into the organization's daily business practices.
About the Author
Charles Chewning, Jr. is president of Solutions, a Richmond, Virginia (US)-based consulting firm specializing in accounting software selection. He is considered a leading software selection expert. Chewning has written a number of accounting software reviews, and is a frequent speaker on the subject of accounting software selection, as well as sales and marketing. He is the publisher of The Accounting Library (http://www.AccountingLibrary.com), and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.