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Sage Transform - can we tie finance software to the issue of digital trust? And does AI and blockchain play a role?

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed November 12, 2021
The second day of Sage Transform featured an ambitious keynote by Sage CTO Aaron Harris. But did it work? And how does his picture of global change tie into finance teams? And yes, it's time to revisit Harris' views on blockchain.

Sage Intacct Aaron Harris keynote
(Day two keynote with guest Elena Senel)

Sage Transform 2021 is in the books. As I noted in my day one review, Transform was one of the most well-conceived "hybrid" events of the enterprise year - one of the few that didn't feel like a mad scramble of changing circumstances.

The event also brought an unexpected challenge from a colleague on the ground in Las Vegas.

As I've mentioned, I was in the virtual seats for this one. I was bolstered, however, from my in-person interactions with Sage Intacct executives and customers two weeks ago, during Sage Intacct's in-person analyst event in Healdsburg, California.

Yesterday's post, Sage Transform - knocking down barriers is the theme, but how do finance teams change?, rounded up the news highlights and keynote message to customers. I also asked what I believe is the critical question for Sage Intacct, at Transform and beyond: if finance teams need to transform, how do they get there? The day two keynote didn't add to the main press release news, but it did flesh out the answers to this burning question, albeit with a few curveballs.

"If we can address bias, the digital divide and trust, we can create fair markets"

We got a preview of Sage CTO Aaron Harris' day two keynote in Healdsburg; I'd call it one of the most ambitious keynotes of the year. Why?

Because Harris presented an unflinching view of the challenges we collectively face, including the ratcheting climate issues, supply chain disruptions, social unrest and civil rights transgressions, geopolitical polarization and instability, and algorithmically-driven big tech sites mostly exacerbating, rather than solving, all of these problems. Oh, and mix in the worst pandemic in at least a century.

Discouraged yet? I give Harris credit for taking a necessary break from our industry's relentless tech optimism. I urge readers to check out the replay (once it's available), and take in the tour-de-force visuals that are, perhaps, unsettling - but very real.

The question is: how do we rally an effective response? And here, Harris has some surprising data to share: it turns out businesses, often derided as the biggest contributors to this state of affairs, may have a pivotal role to play in a better way forward. Why? Because as trust in other institutions declines, trust in business stands out. Can digital technology and transparency help to restore trust? As Harris told us at the analyst day event:

Around the world, [studies show that] businesses are still viewed as both competent and ethical - meaning there is still belief around the world that business has the opportunity, and has the best capability... It's not bragging rights, but it's definitely the most trusted institution.

Now we start to see a different vision for Sage Intacct, where the product itself is connected to "trusted" digital networks. Harris told Transform attendees:

If we can address bias, the digital divide and trust, we believe we can create fair markets. Digital networks are efficient by design. First, by transmitting a document digitally, it saves paper. Physical transport reduces your environmental impact.

Secondly, digitally-shared documents create an efficient way to work. Engaging symmetrical information drives trust, and is an efficient use of your team's time. Finally, network architectures eliminate the need for multiple, duplicated point-to-point relationships.

AI is a force for change - but what kind?

For Harris, those technological advancements bring hope - and an opportunity to reshape the world. Harris rolled out a slew of examples, including Ruby Kumari, who runs a sewing school out of India she manages to power with solar mini-grids. Then Harris brought Teens in AI CEO Elena Senel on stage (pictured above).

I liked this move, because I felt one undernourished spot in Harris' analyst presentation was the need to show how AI, which can be a force for productivity in the enterprise, is also a big factor many of our predicaments. AI can definitely cut both ways - sometimes in the same use case. On the main stage, Harris got that balance right:

AI can recognize thousands of faces instantly. Unfortunately, we know AI is going to get a few faces wrong, applied in the wrong way. This inaccuracy can have devastating consequences. AI can have an incredibly positive transformational impact on our society. But if we hope to succeed, we have to go back to the basic premise.

To train computers to think like humans, we need to assemble trainers that reflect our diversity. Simply put, we need more women, and we need more people of color in technology. Over the last couple years, I've had the good fortune to work with an incredible organization called Teens in AI. Teens in AI exists to inspire the next generation of ethical AI researchers, entrepreneurs, and leaders who will shape the world of tomorrow.

Senel shared some of the projects her organization has spearheaded, including digitizing mental health services for young people. I was struck by the breast cancer project:

A couple years ago, a team decided to tackle - or to explore - breast cancer. That team only had about four or five days to develop a model that had an almost 80% prediction for breast cancer. When we connected them to The Cancer Research Institute in London, they said, 'It's incredible Elena. Teir intuition, the way they approached that problem, and how they're trying to solve it is incredibly similar to what we're trying to do at the Cancer Research Institute - and we have PhD researchers working on this problem.'

Does this tie back to finance software?

At this point in the keynote, attendees might have been wondering the same thing readers are. Harris said it himself:

So what does all this mean for financial management software?

His answer?

It means we have enough scalability to capture every transaction in real-time. With enough detail to look at all business dimensions, there's no need for batch processing anymore. It means effortless, economical elasticity.

It means you don't have to plan for your busy time. Zero-latency analytics, enough computing power to automate all of your workflows and massive datasets that lead to unconstrained machine learning. And this leads to our North Star. I told you a year ago about our technology vision that guides all of our product investments at Sage. We want to partner with our customers to completely digitize their business.

That vision is far beyond a narrow focus on finance teams. Will it energize customers? We'll see. A big factor will be how Sage Intacct delivers more embedded functionality, including AI, while helping Sage Intacct users connect to global digital and banking networks. Harris connected the dots:

We want to elevate human work. Now, this leads to a very specific - and I think quite ambitious - vision for finance and accounting. The entire history of accounting technology has limited us to work within cycles like the monthly close, the annual audit, quarterly tax compliance - these only offer periodic point-in-time visibility, paired with after-the-fact assurance. We believe we can leverage technology to eliminate these cycles and move to continuous, real-time strategic value.

The pandemic forced the issue - a central them in two customer stories I filed.

About that blockchain challenge

I am notorious, I suppose, for pushing back on blockchain hype - I've even banned it from my video show. No surprises, then, when this tweet came along:

With Harris' emphasis on digital trust and transparency, you had to figure blockchain would come up. In 2017, I did a piece with Harris where he expressed considerable skepticism about blockchain as a market-changing force. His views were closer to mine: blockchain is a useful tool with limited, if intriguing use cases. During our 1:1 sit down two weeks ago, I asked Harris: had his views on blockchain shifted? As he told me:

When blockchain first came out, I thought it was a solution looking for a problem. That was naivety on my part. The thing that bugged me about it was people suggesting that blockchain was going to replace the general ledger. That's directly attacking my turf, right? Even today, I'm still not really sure if there's a case for the blockchain and the general ledger.

So what's changed for Harris? It's the bigger problem of digital trust versus misinformation:

I can only say that I've really developed a deep concern about disinformation, about the lack of trust in our markets, and the toll that it creates. And blockchain really could be civilization-changing. It could completely disrupt our markets in a positive way. Having technology operate the markets instead of now, in many cases, [the same] institutions and governments that aren't trusted. That's pretty big deal. So I've sort of come full circle.

My take

If readers are interested, I can share more on Harris' changing blockchain views. The blockchain use cases Harris is talking about here focus on restoring trust in financial markets by making them auditable. That's not too far from blockchain's crypto-currency roots.

However, when I look at my 2017 piece, I noted: "As long as we're stuck in pilot project mode, [enterprise] blockchain momentum will be sluggish." I'm struck by how little that's changed, though I expect we'll see a couple production examples in 2022.

When Sage acquired Intacct, I was concerned for Intacct in this regard: in my view, most enterprise acquisitions don't fare well for the customers of the acquired product. I keep looking for signs that Intacct customers are experiencing a weakened focus, or losing key executives. Yes, there have been some leadership changes - that is inevitable. But even Harris, who is now CTO of Sage itself, keeps a strong hold on the needs of Sage Intacct. I did think, however, in the last couple years, Sage Intacct lost a bit of their messaging hold on finance transformation, talking more about HR for example.

To an extent, that HR talk is necessary - HR is an area where Sage Intacct does need to weigh in more heavily. Consider diginomica contributor Brian Sommer's talking point: the obstacles payroll integration poses to the goal of the so-called "continuous close." Surprisingly, given the breadth of Harris' keynote, I found that Sage Intacct actually doubled down on the finance team focus this year.

That opens up the question of the customers in Vegas, however. Were their top issues different than these? That's where Sommer comes in. He's now flying home from Vegas - a piece on his views from the ground at Sage Transform will be out next week.

End note: Sage Intacct issued their customer awards yesterday. One of the winners was Tandem HR. If you haven't read about how they achieved a granular level of profitability analysis, I highly recommend  checking out Profitability matters in cloud ERP - Tandem HR's journey towards business insights with Sage Intacct.

Updated, November 13, 2021, 7:30am UK time, with a number of tweaks for reading clarity.

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