Workday and Xero - two ends of the same spectrum?

Den Howlett Profile picture for user gonzodaddy October 10, 2017
I have been fortunate to see both ends of the cloud enterprise applications markets. The stand out players have much more in common than you'd imagine.

drury bhusri
Aneel Bhusri & Rod Drury - two CEOs cut from the same cloth?

In the space of a week I've seen the efforts of two vendors at opposite ends of the enterprise spectrum looking more similar than I could have ever thought possible. That's Workday and Xero.

Xero represents the very small mom and pop shop competing with Sage and Intuit globally, alongside a bunch of mostly local players in the territories in which it operates. Workday sells enterprise software to large organizations from what I term the upper mid-market all the way to some of the largest companies in the world. You might think they are world's apart. Both play in the finance field though Workday made its bones in HR, extending to finance. They share a remarkable degree of commonality.

Expenses, data, apps

Some years ago, Workday got itself into a bit of a pickle when Robert Scoble said very publicly that he actively disliked Workday's expense handling. In turn, Scoble got spanked for openly criticizing a business partner. To his credit, Scoble met with me in Paris and we shot a fun video in which:

Scoble acknowledges that he didn't fully appreciate what was going on inside his company and explains some of the lessons he learned. I wonder sometimes if enterprise people would be so gracious.

Fast forward to today. At Workday Rising 2017, Workday talked about how it is making expense handling for the desktop just as good as it is for mobile. What's more, expense management is getting a fresh set of duds. Last week at Xerocon, I quizzed CEO Rod Drury about the newly announced 'beautiful' expense handling capability it is introducing into its product. Both companies are modularizing and commodifying the travel and expense management market.

Last week, Gary Turner, EMEA MD for Xero talked in depth about the company's ability to provide benchmark data to the extent that it has a slew of templates accounting professionals can use that will help them advise clients. Drury went as far as to say that the data Xero holds for New Zealand and Australian businesses is better than that held by their respective governments to the extent that they are seen as helpful in understanding some macro-economic trends as they impact SMBs. Those templates are free to professional accountants.

This week, Workday introduced Data-as-a-Service, focusing upon benchmarking. It reported that in three days, more than 100 customers signed up. Workday is starting with a series of HR related benchmarks that from this perch, would not necessarily be controversial or super business sensitive. It demonstrated ways in which benchmark data might help organizations better understand relative performance. Workday is offering this as a free service to its customers.

In both cases, I see benchmarking as a massive differentiating advantage. It has surprised me that the normally conservative accounting profession has taken to this idea as quickly as it has. It might be something to do with the fact those same professionals see the writing on the wall as far as the commodification of mundane data entry is concerned. I have no doubt that by the time Workday is ready to offer benchmarks that tap the finance data, and which it has already heavily hinted as a 2018 offering, accountants will already be sold on the idea.

Last week I met a third party supplier who can ingest non-financial data to Xero reports. There's some API wrangling to do but it is doable.

This week, Workday discussed uses cases where Prism Analytics can ingest non-Workday data. Much of it is transactional in nature but reference was made to Department of Labor data and other non-transactional data.

Both Xero and Workday are a work in progress on that score but you get the picture.

Last week, Drury talked about the fact it is operating on Amazon Web Services and why this provides it with greater flexibility to scale operations as needed.

This week, Workday talked about customers having an option to deploy onto Amazon in the public cloud where that makes better sense rather than Workday's own cloud infrastructure.

What is going on? Try this on for size:

The power of a single codeline

Last week, Xero talked about frictionless accounting, a term with which I imagine our own Phil Wainewright would approve given he invented the concept of the frictionless enterprise. It is based upon the fact Xero has a single codeline that can be deployed wherever it is needed around the world.

This week, Workday doubled down on the 'Power of One,' an expression that differentiates Workday, reinforces the relative ease with which Workday can be implemented, the fact all users remain in the same application etc for all their HR/ finance admin tasks, anlaytics and reporting and all because everyone is on the same codeline.

This year, Drury talked in detail about the benefits of a global platform. Xero has had platform and partner capability for some time but this year saw much more meat on the bone with the showcasing of lighthouse partners.

This year, Workday finally opened up its platform after years of demurring in favor of building out core capabilities over which it retains absolute control. It showcased a clutch of design partner applications.

I've probably missed other functional similarities but let's stop there and consider why this might be the case.

It would be irrational to say the two systems are interchangeable in any meaningful way. They're not. But in the area of finance, they're both initially focused on the need for fiscal compliance using a method that has been around for 400 plus years and isn't going away any time soon. In both cases, they started with a clean sheet of paper (Workday in 2005, Xero in 2006) and then re-imagined what it means to operate HR and finance in Workday's case and finance in Xero's. They both realized that the value attached to building a single platform that functions anywhere there is an internet connection would be exponentially more valuable than attempting to recreate the past. Right now, both appear to have made the right bet.

There is more. Xero talks about 'beautiful accounting,' Workday prefers to draw inspiration from the consumer internet in the shape of Apple, Google and AirBnB as it continues to iterate the end user UI.

Customer service, the lynchpin

The thing that wraps this up in a bow is their approach to customers.

I've seen a lot of posts on LinkedIn authored or pinged by Gary Turner. They all make the same point: We're in this for the benefit of clients who we must help be successful. In closing out the main keynote, Aneel Bhusri, CEO Workday made a similar point, thanking customers and recognizing the important part that customer design partners play in how Workday iterates. You don't hear so much of that at other customer events where the focus is almost always inward looking towards the vendor and its capabilities.

While at Xerocon, I saw many happy faces and afterwards, arranged to call up a large regional practice I know from my days in the profession to hear their story. That's coming soon. As the keynotes played out, I emailed Brian Sommer, who is on the ground at Workday Rising. He said he's never seen so many happy customers. During the Workday Rising technical keynote, I heard Paul Wright, CIO Accuride make this comment:

During the sales process, the Workday sales people were really nice to me. You all know that. But afterwards, they were still nice to me! So are the support people. I hope they all carry on being nice to me.

When you hear things like that,  it's not hard to believe Workday's self-assessed customer satisfaction rating at 98.8%, a truly remarkable number. Xero sits at 95%. They've a bit of catching up to do.

Taking it all together, the combination of right technology choices, the ability to deliver a great customer experience and an obvious but demonstrable commitment to end user are what win in the 21st century. Regardless of which end of the spectrum you're playing. Now - what about that ill-served middle market...?

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