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by Eileen O'Loughlin,
Market Research Associate
Last Updated: November 29, 2015

There is a vast array of financial management solutions on the market today, with specialized functionality for almost any industry or size of organization. Moreover, the specific type of accounting can differ between programs—project, fund and fixed asset are examples. Add to this variety the constant change of standards, compliance requirements and technology platforms, and the process of selecting a solution gets tricky. This buyer's guide is intended to make the process much more bearable.  

Here's what we'll cover:

What Is Accounting Software?
Application Categories
What Type of Buyer Are You?
Market Trends You Should Understand
Benefits & Potential Issues
Recent Events You Should Know About

What Is Accounting Software? 

Business accounting software keeps track of the financial transactions within an organization. A core package includes general ledger, accounts receivable, accounts payable, payroll and reporting modules. These systems occasionally come with specialized functionality for particular types of businesses or companies. An example is fund accounting for nonprofit organizations and government entities. Because it's a critical business process, it's often a central component of an organization's enterprise resource planning (ERP) system.

Application Categories

Core accounting Core systems assist with the basic functions necessary to balance a business' books, including general ledger functionality, the ability to track accounts payable (A/P) and accounts receivable (A/R), fixed assets and bank reconciliation. Every business requires these core functions to manage its finances.
Project accounting This type of system helps project-oriented businesses maximize job profitability and efficiency by tracking detailed project costs. Businesses can examine past job costs and estimate future costs to choose the jobs that will achieve adequate profit. It tracks by project factors like labor, overhead, materials and equipment to improve decision-making.
Fund accounting These solutions support nonprofit and governmental entities in tracking their development and spending of funds. Nonprofit organizations can track their expenditures of donations or grants to make sure they meet fund provider requirements. These systems also allow government entities to make sure they meet unique Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB) regulations.
Inventory management This type of solution helps companies keep the correct inventory levels to maximize profit, avoid overspending and minimize the costs associated with inventory depreciation. The right system keeps inventory information up-to-date by tracking product levels as well as orders, sales and deliveries. The Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) stipulate specific ways to account for inventory to ensure proper reporting of value for inventory that has depreciated or undergone other changes. Software with inventory management capabilities ensures this is done correctly.
Billing & invoicing These systems automate the collection of payments from customers to enable timely and consistent collection with minimal human error. There are many different types of billing and invoice systems designed to support the wide range of industries, business models, payment methods and operational scales.
Budgeting & forecasting Users can leverage budgeting and forecasting solutions to project a company's financial outlook from historical data and estimate future conditions. These systems are typically used in businesses that must consolidate multiple departmental forecasts and budgets, and are most helpful where multiple variables drive the ultimate forecast.
Fixed asset accounting This type of system tracks fixed assets by providing a central database of important asset information, including location, check-in and check-out, due date for return, maintenance scheduling, audit history, cost and depreciation. Depreciation schedules are a core element of this specialty.
Payroll management Payroll systems help businesses track and process employee payrolls. They also compose and print paychecks, automatically withhold and pay government taxes and generate the necessary legal and tax reports on a regular basis. Automated reminders to pay required fees help businesses avoid legal penalties.

What Type of Buyer Are You?

Before evaluating your options, you must determine what type of buyer you are. Over 90 percent of buyers fall into one of these three categories:

Growing small-business buyers. These businesses are on the verge of upgrading basic systems, such as QuickBooks, to more robust small-business accounting systems that will support sophisticated functions (such as demand forecasting, intercompany accounts, increased data storage and others). Growing businesses upgrade their systems for a range of reasons. Industry-specific functionality will become important when a small company reaches a certain size threshold.

Enterprise buyers. These buyers represent businesses and organizations that need the functionality of a full enterprise resource planning (ERP) suite. Usually, these systems will include functionality for multi-company consolidation, international operations and foreign currency and other concerns relevant to large entities. Seamless integration is usually more important than specific features; however, there is considerable differentiation in both of these areas, and buyers should examine both. SAP and Oracle, two of the largest vendors, have some of the most feature-rich systems on the market.

Best-of-breed buyers. These buyers are focused on specific functions. For example, nonprofit organizations need to look specifically for systems that can perform fund accounting. This method tracks funds in such a way that different grant providers can see the right report on how each fund amount has been used. Meanwhile, in education, universities and colleges often need software specific to higher ed, for example to track the disbursement of financial aid. Construction companies or engineering firms, on the other hand, usually need a system that can break down costs by each project, location and other characteristics. For best-of-breed buyers like these, functionality is often more important than integration.

Benefits & Potential Issues

The key benefits of financial management systems are clear: better visibility of costs and expenditures, which leads to more financially responsible decision-making. In addition, systems can generate reports in a variety of ways to summarize this information cleanly for the right audience. For example, nonprofits can generate reports specific to a particular grant provider, detailing exactly where every cent of the funding ended up. This allows an organization to be accountable to investors, donors and lenders, maintaining trust and avoiding financial damage. These systems also allow companies to ensure compliance with reporting standards and federal requirements.

There are a number of issues that should be avoided when selecting a solution. Buyers in certain vertical industries must make sure the appropriate modules are included in the system they purchase. For example, engineering firms and construction companies should choose a system with a project accounting module. Another issue is a company's rate of growth; the buyer should consider how fast the company is growing at the time of purchase. This way, the company will not grow out of a system immediately after investing considerable time and funds in the selection and implementation processes.

Market Trends You Should Understand

As you evaluate solutions, consider these current market trends:

Software-as-a-Service (SaaS). SaaS is picking up speed as buyers realize the advantages of lower upfront costs and quicker implementation time. NetSuite is a prominent example of a SaaS system: In fact, it is available only as a SaaS offering.

Mobile apps. Mobile applications are gaining popularity across the board, and accounting is no exception. Check to see how each vendor is innovating on this front.

Increased specialization by industry. Increasingly, consumers are demanding more industry-specific features, and vendors are listening. Products that were once “horizontal”—such as Sage MAS 90/200, QuickBooks and Microsoft Dynamics—are increasingly adding new vertical features to cater to buyers’ specific industries. Make sure to keep a lookout for features that fit your particular industry when investigating tools and solutions.

Business intelligence. Interest in business intelligence is on the rise. Business intelligence takes the massive amount of data collected and organizes it into reports designed to support business improvement. Many vendors are now integrating business intelligence into their ERP and financial management systems.

Recent Events You Should Know About

Acumatica receives $13 million in new capital. Acumatica, a Washington-based provider of cloud-based business management software, announced in October 2014 that it had received $13 million in new funding from a group of multinational investors. “This investment validates the market acceptance of the Acumatica solution,” says CEO Jon Roskill.

Xero named most innovative company in Australia. Xero Limited, a leading provider of tax and payroll accounting products, was named by BRW as the most innovative company in Australia. This accolade comes not long after Xero placed first on Forbes’ list of the world’s most innovative growth companies of 2014.

Yayoi Co., Ltd. purchased by Orix Corp. Japanese financial services giant Orix Corp. announced in November 2014 that it had reached a deal to purchase the private equity-backed accounting software company Yayoi Co. The deal, estimated at $691 million, is seen as a way for Orix to expand its customer base to include additional smaller companies.

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