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Certinia winter release goes big on joined-up processes and data for services businesses

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright December 14, 2023
Summary:
Certinia's winter release emphasizes joined-up processes and data across Salesforce and its own finance, professional services automation and customer success applications.

Certinia Winter24 Cash Flow Forecast - Intelligence Summary tab with new chart and KPIs
Cashflow forecast (Certinia Winter24 screenshot)

End-to-end processes and data are a recurring theme in Certinia's winter release, announced yesterday, underlining the vendor's sharpened focus on providing a platform for services organizations, as championed by its newly arrived CEO. Highlights include the launch of Certinia AI, offering predictive modeling tailored to the needs of services businesses, the expansion of planning, analysis and reporting beyond financial data into operational metrics, new accounting automation capabilities, and closer integration of customer success functions into account management and service resource utilization.

The new AI capabilities take advantage of technology built into the underlying Salesforce platform on which Certinia's applications are built, using Einstein Discovery predictive modeling for use cases such as cash flow forecasting, schedule optimization and margin optimization. Certinia says its approach of embedding specifically trained AI models into existing business processes, and based on the customer's own data, "significantly reduces the risks commonly associated with AI adoption." The intention is to give users tools that are practically relevant to their goals, as Dan Brown, Chief Product & Strategy Officer at Certinia, explains:

This is all a part of our pragmatic AI positioning. We want to make sure that a couple of things happen. Number one, you can deploy it fairly quickly. Number two, it provides that predictive insight directly where you're making decisions. And last but not least, you can get as much understanding about those predictions as possible.

Today's announcements don't include any capabilities based on generative AI, but that's definitely on the roadmap for future releases. Certinia is looking at using the technology to, for example, automatically draft a customer success plan, or trigger a suggested action based on the results of predictive analytics. That has to wait until Salesforce opens up this aspect of its platform to ISV partners, but Certinia is already looking at use cases that will be relevant to its customers. Brown comments:

Salesforce, obviously, has not released its generative AI capabilities to ISVs. But we're working very closely with both the Einstein GPT and the Data Cloud teams. We're pretty excited about it. We think it's going to be really game-changing for us competitively.

Extending planning and analysis to operations

Much of what's notable in the winter release makes use of the ability to work with data across financials and professional services projects in Certinia and customer accounts and service records in Salesforce. For example, there are new versions of the former Financial Planning & Analysis (FP&A) and Financial Report Builder (FRB) in which the initial 'F' is replaced with an 'X' for 'eXtended', reflecting their expansion beyond the financial realm to add data from sales, operations, HR and other functions. The new XP&A capability opens up planning and analysis to encompass any operational data that's available within the platform and to connect it back to financial data. Similarly, XRB is expanding into operational areas with the first new purpose-built report pack targeting Professional Services Cloud (PS Cloud) customers.

One example of how customers might use XP&A is to bring in PS Cloud data sets to generate utilization reports by resource over month, and then compare actual versus scheduled billable hours. The tool is also designed to be more accessible to non-specialists than traditional FP&A tools. Laura Heath, Product Strategy Manager at Certinia, explains:

There are challenges with traditional FP&A tools. They tend to have restricted data sets. They can be inflexible in modelling. They can often require advanced data skills to use and offer limited analytics and insights.

With Certinia's early adopter programme for Extended Planning and Analysis, teams no longer need to be data experts. They can create plans using financial, or in this case, non-financial data sets available to them, and be presented with the measures and the dimensions automatically so that they can intuitively build the reports and plans that they want to see.

A playbook for the accounting period end process

For finance professionals, Certinia is introducing additional automation tooling for the accounting function. In an example of cross-fertilization between product development teams, this borrows the concept of 'playbooks' that the new Customer Success Cloud (CS Cloud) uses to co-ordinate team actions and automate processes around a specific goal. The goal of this financial playbook is closing the books at the end of an accounting period. The period-end playbook brings together the associated tasks, the people — who is responsible for doing what, who are the approvers — and timelines such as due dates. Apart from saving time by putting all the necessary information into one place and providing links to related tasks, one of the less obvious benefits of the shared playbook is better insight into what's happening at each stage. Heath explains:

This streamlines the process by providing a single place for teams to manage and run that period end. More than just to-do lists, period-end playbooks provide transparency. Everyone involved can instantly view the status of all the tasks. They can see if a task is delayed or if it's blocked. More than that, they can go in and actually co-ordinate with tne person who's been assigned the task and communicate with them.

Within the PS Cloud offering, Certinia's services estimation capability now has closer end-to-end ties between estimation, resource allocation and capacity planning. The overall aim is for services organizations to better predict revenue, demand and capacity for specific roles and skills. New utilization dashboards give more detailed insight into each individual's hours, assignments and skills development, while integration with Salesforce Experience Cloud makes it possible to give partners and customers access to resource requests and assignments in projects they're involved in.

Integrating customer success processes

CS Cloud, which is expected to be generally available early next year, now has closer process integration with other Certinia applications. For example, a user has the capability from within a customer success playbook to request a professional services request, and that resource allocation will show up in their utilization in PS Cloud. In another example, there is now a view available within the Salesforce account screen from which the user can view and edit the success plan without having to leave the Salesforce app. Another new feature is an activity tracker, which shows a record of everything of interest that's happening on an account, making it easier to get back up-to-speed after an absence, for example. This close linkage into Salesforce gives a single view of all activity within an account across sales, service delivery, support and billing, as Will Spice, VP of Product Management at Certinia, explains:

The account record becomes ground zero of everything that is going on. We have one set of data all in one place, telling us the whole story of everything that's going on with our account. That includes our success plans, work that we are delivering through professional services, or playbooks we're executing for customer success, the opportunities that we're selling, any support cases that we have coming in against this account, any billing that's happening associated with this account. So that real 360 perspective of what we are providing for our customer.

My take

The various enhancements in this release reflect a wider trend we're seeing across business software vendors, particulary those serving medium-sized companies and organizations. Enterprises increasingly want to join up processes and analyze data from across the organization rather than having to manage across disjointed silos of operation. In retrospect, this seems obvious — why wouldn't a services organization want to be able to see the cost implications of the resources it's allocating to projects and the impact on revenue, profitability and customer retention? Too often, though, the reality of how operational systems have been automated over the years means that these crucial metrics can't be assembled and interrogated until long after the decisions have been taken.

On a similar theme, it's interesting also to see Certinia move into teamwork functionality that's often seen as the domain of work management vendors such as Asana, Atlassian, Monday.com and Wrike. The playbooks that are core to its CS Cloud and which it is now starting to apply to other domains such as the period-end in accounting are typical of the processes that are often managed in these other digital teamwork apps. But Brown makes a strong case for embedding these processes into a system of record like Certinia. Messaging me in response to a question during a briefing about the announcements, he argues:

Work is not just a 'bag of tasks.' It requires a connection to demand (so that you can forecast), to the people (skills, availability), and the economics (cost). Those are other things we’re bringing to the table.

It's a good point, and one that raises a question those work management vendors would do well to bear in mind as they evolve their own product roadmaps.

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