Q&A: Bringing operational intelligence to the mid-market

Disruption is the name of the game for businesses of all sizes currently, especially those working in the challenging mid-market sector.

Keeping up with changing markets, hyper-growth, and customer demands means that these firms need the right business technology in place to give them the information they need, when they need it, in real-time. But often, the challenge comes from not keeping pace with the disruption they're facing, or the business software they need to grow with them to meet the demands of their customers.

To get his take on these issues, we recently caught up Peter Dickinson, a veteran of the New Zealand technology scene and CEO of Greentree, a business software player that is rapidly making a name for itself in the UK. Peter shared with us his 35 years' experience in business technology to discuss the challenges facing mid-market businesses, the importance of operational intelligence, and the differences between the UK and New Zealand tech scene.

What are some of the key differences between the UK and NZ tech scene currently?

We share a lot of cultural similarities with the UK, including a similar work ethic and sense of humour but there are some differences. New Zealand is a small country with a tight community – this creates a culture of collaboration. The entire tech scene in New Zealand is looking outward, and we recognise the benefits of knowledge sharing to encourage innovation. In the UK, there’s often a more dog-eat-dog edge to competition, resulting in less knowledge sharing in the tech community as a whole.

What are the top three lessons you’ve learnt from working in technology for over 30 years?

The top lessons I’ve learnt over the past decades aren’t necessarily technology specific, but have definitely stood me in good stead:

Choose your partners wisely: One overriding piece of verbal advice I was given was, “In business, the most critical thing will be who you partner with.” I can’t recall whose advice it was but it has held true, particularly in terms of business ownership and shareholdings.

Work with likeminded people: While you don’t have to agree on everything, it is incredibly important to work with likeminded people in terms of your values, beliefs and what you’re trying to achieve. If you have good congruence with your business partners, then life will be marvellous. If you don’t have that, life can get difficult.

Disruption as a constant: Technology disruption has been an absolute constant over the last four decades and it continues to come in exciting waves. The lesson is to always be on your toes and be ready for the next big change to hit. At Greentree, our focus is on staying ahead of those waves and helping our customers to ride them.

Are you seeing a change in attitude towards cloud in the mid-market?

The mid-market can be conservative when it comes to embracing new technology. Many companies have made a major investment in their legacy business systems and are understandably cautious when making a change. We often see that companies fear the ‘disruptive’ when it comes to new technology. That said, for a growing number the appeal of a cloud-based approach, in terms of technical roll-out and the commercial models available does definitely have a growing appeal.

However, we are far from a one size fits all solution when it comes to the cloud for the mid-market. For some companies, a cloud approach is best, whereas for others, on-premise or as-a-service might better meet their particular needs.

Greentree speaks a lot about operational intelligence – is this just a buzz word?

No, not at all. All of our customers can attest to the fact that operational intelligence (OI) has a real impact on the way their business operates. Essentially, OI harnesses data to streamline data delivery and automate key processes. Very few of us want to spend our days performing dull, repetitive tasks or seemingly pointless administration. OI enables the automation of much of this, so the system connects the dots in your processes, without the need for human intervention and diminishing the risk of human error. What’s more, when OI is delivered across a fully integrated business system, it provides a live view of what’s relevant to each individual in your business, giving them the data they need, when they need it. Operational intelligence is something that any organisation in any industry can benefit from – and it’s not something that needs to be bought, just implemented. Ultimately, it leads to smarter decisions and a stronger business.

What are some of the challenges you’re seeing and hearing from your customers in the mid-market?

The constant in the mid-market is complexity. Unlike smaller businesses, there’s a degree of complexity in mid-market business supply chains and organisational structures that can make it quite difficult for business managers to juggle the operational management of the business whilst growing and developing it. The keys to addressing this – consistent access to accurate data, across the business, when needed, and the automation of painful processes – aren’t held by that many organisations, and trying to build these in are key objectives.

What do you think some of the key trends and innovations will be in the next year?

The key trends that will face businesses over the next year will be focused around uncertainty, both in terms of markets and technology innovation.

On one level, the wider business environment will continue to be difficult for firms, thanks to exchange rate volatility, international market fluctuations and new laws and regulations. However, this will pale in comparison to the existential anxiety companies’ face against their competition, particularly when a single technology disruption can allow a competitor to outmanoeuvre an incumbent almost overnight. This trend alone is driving investment in innovation, separate from anything else going on in the market.

At the same time, new innovations across different markets are dramatically increasing the likely volume of ‘unknown unknowns’ that might affect your business. Thanks to a host of factors, such as Kickstarter and disruptive companies such as Uber and Airbnb, innovation is being delivered at an increasingly rapid rate, and businesses have the interesting challenge of keeping up with the unknown.

What is your take on Gartner’s postmodern ERP?

Postmodern Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), as defined by Gartner, are ERP solutions made up of multiple integrated ‘best of breed’ apps, rather than a single software suite. While there is an argument that niche systems can better meet the market’s rapidly changing needs, at Greentree we’ve got a slightly different take on the issue. We think postmodern ERP is great for large businesses who have the in-house teams and budgets to make sure the disparate apps are at least partially integrated.

It’s mid-sized businesses that are problematic – how do you capture the benefits of best-of-breed apps without overloading your IT department (if you have one), or losing the advantages of a properly integrated ERP system? It’s a balancing act to capture the best of both worlds. However, with the right core ERP solution, you can still integrate best of breed, niche apps, without losing all the benefits that make integrated ERP software so valuable.

For most medium-sized businesses, this best-of-both-worlds solution is the best way to get what you need – the data and simple integration of traditional ERP, with the niche services that other apps offer.

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