Certinia summer release brings 'pragmatic' AI and team playbooks to finance and projects

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright August 16, 2023
Services business systems vendor Certinia brings out its summer release, emphasizing a pragmatic approach to AI and playbooks to support teamwork in the finance function as processes become more automated.

Female accountant of color at work with hourglass in foreground © AndreyPopov via Canva.com
(© AndreyPopov via Canva.com)

Certinia, the services business systems vendor previously known as FinancialForce, introduces its summer release today. As well as new AI features — obligatory in any vendor product announcement these days — there's an interesting new approach to finance automation that brings the concept of template playbooks to managing finance processes such as the monthly close. Other new capabilities include further improvements to resource management, a new overview dashboard for managing multiple projects, more detailed analysis and control of procurement, and an improved dashboard for tracking customer success.

The emphasis of the new AI capabilities is on practical outcomes, which Certinia frames as 'pragmatic AI'. These harness the Einstein Discovery statistical modeling and machine learning toolset that forms part of the underlying Salesforce platform on which the Certinia product set is built. The goal is to go beyond predictive analytics to offer suggested steps towards a achieving an improved outcome. Dan Brown, Chief Product and Strategy Officer at Certinia, explains:

We've had artificial intelligence capabilities in our systems, whether it's auto-regressions in forecasting for various financial and services metrics, or in the optimization functionality in our resource management. But with the summer release, we're introducing a different set of capabilities, some of which have been in early adopter. These capabilities are really more about how you take the data that is in your Salesforce system, and bring it into an Einstein Discovery solution, and then incorporate it back into your application.

We think about this as a very pragmatic approach. It's something that provides greater visibility into how you use artificial intelligence, in contrast to how artificial intelligence can be really a black box inside of a solution. This is more of a solution where you can see the application, you can incorporate it into your system of record, and take action on it.

For example, a report on the number of days customers take to settle invoices not only shows the metric over time, but also makes suggestions about how to achieve faster settlement and shows the projected impact on cashflow. Other examples include suggesting ways to improve the profitability of planned client projects, how to fine-tune services estimates to improve win rates, or ways of more quickly allocating staff to projects in a resource management context. In each case, the potential impact is shown to help decision-making and provide new ways of understanding the business. Heidi Minzner, Vice-President, Product Management, elaborates:

We consider these scenarios [as] closed-loop, meaning not just giving an indication of something that might happen, but also what steps you can take to improve those metrics or change the business outcome.

We also consider them end-to-end ... not just applying them in the application where the user's taking action, but also extending some of our existing analytics dashboards to include these key metrics as well. So you can get a different view of already established business metrics and how the changes that you might make based on the suggested improvements might also change your analytical outlook or your business metrics.

A playbook for period end

New finance automation capabilities include a partnership with OCR and NLP vendor Klippa to automate accounts payables throughout the Certinia system, along with a highly topical function that can apply an inflationary price uplift to selected billing contracts at once, rather than having to update each individually. But in this release, Certinia has also thought about supporting the teamwork required to streamline automation. Brown explains:

This is in part automation, but it's also in part about accounting teams and teamwork. It shouldn't surprise you that that's an important theme for us, since much of our software is about how teams come together and deliver value.

To this end, Certinia has taken the concept of playbooks, which are a core component in its customer success offering, and applied the same concept to finance and accounting processes. A playbook is simply a set of tasks and processes that an organization uses to handle certain events, which acts as a template that users can follow to ensure the various tasks are completed as required. For example, the summer release includes a playbook template that finance teams can use for the period end process. This not only makes it possible to ensure that everything is done on time — because the playbook is digital, it becomes possible to go back and analyze where the process can be improved. Minzner explains:

We can create all the tasks related to period end. You can do assignments of those tasks. They can be scheduled, and they are repeatable. Accounting teams will really start to get a good gauge on what is their true days-to-close metric by having the start and end dates for each of those assignments.

These aren't just for period end. They're actually accounting playbooks, we just have special designation for period ends, since it centers around a period with well-defined dates. But you might imagine using a playbook for an external audit, or your annual operating plan, so it's not exclusive to period-end.

Playbooks are a familiar concept in services organizations for handling projects and implementations, but Certinia is somewhat unique in applying the concept to back-office operations in this way, believes Brown. He sees it as an important differentiator:

We believe that in service economy companies, as we continue to drive automation in your system of record, you're going to need software that facilitates collaboration and team orientation. We think we're uniquely positioned in that regard.

Tracking customer success

New features in the Customer Success (CS) Cloud include a Success Tracker dashboard, which provides a single view of all tasks and objectives in a success plan. CS leaders can view analytics for operational metrics across the CS function. And there's continued emphasis here too on best practice playbooks and template success plans. Brown comments:

The point here is that templatizing and normalizing this type of work is really on the strategic agenda for all customer success leaders. There's a degree of opaqueness on what activities are being done, and what activities have high leverage for success. That's really what the strategy is here, and this continues to be driven by large, strategic customers in our portfolio.

In a briefing with media and analysts ahead of today's release, Scott Brown, CEO of Certinia, included news of signing the company's largest deal in its history in the quarter just closed, one of a number of new wins for the company. He observed:

We continue to have really good success, in particular with net-new logos, where a lot of software businesses today are really suffering on getting new customers to come in and invest in their platform for the first time. We've been very fortunate to have a lot of customers that are brand new to us join the Certinia family, including this largest deal that we just did, and to have the capability to grow with them over time.

He said that the name change from FinancialForce to Certinia has been very well received. Equally important, it helps to reposition the brand as an end-to-end platform for services organizations and businesses. He added:

It's given us the degrees of freedom to open our aperture on everything that we want to do, from opportunity to renewal. So many people that talk just strictly about a PSA space or an ERP space is much narrower than what we aspire to be, as you've seen, and the impact that we want to have for our customers.

My take

Pragmatism shows through, not only in the approach to AI — avoiding generative AI hype — but also in the introduction of the concept of playbooks to the accounting function. Typically, back-office vendors have left the management of work to other teamwork and collaboration platforms, so it's interesting to see Certinia building this into its product offering. In my view, it's an astute move. Digital teamwork becomes increasingly important as organizations become more digitally connected.

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