*This opinion piece is provided courtesy of Gadget.co.za.
It’s not often that actors like Ashton Kutcher and Gwyneth Paltrow have to compete for attention with accountants, but they have an uphill task this week.
At the Sage Summit 2016 conference in Chicago this week, these big stars are due to participate in keynote events highlighting their ventures into high-tech start-ups in the next two days. However, the biggest news came in yesterday’s opening keynote address by CEO Stephen Kelly, who declared a technology revolution for entrepreneurs and business builders.
Kelly was under significant pressure to deliver: More than 15 000 entrepreneurs and small and medium enterprise owners make the Sage Summit the world’s largest gathering of entrepreneurs and business builders. He did not disappoint them.
After investing more than R2bn in research and development over the past year, Sage unveiled a plethora of new mobile, social, chatbot and Internet of Things offerings.
“With a more connected world comes new demands on our hero business builders,” said Kelly.
“We are working on making concepts like the Internet of Things, machine learning, blockchain and data sciences into a reality for businesses, accountants and partners. This is way more than cloud and mobile-first. It’s designing and building technologies that truly power businesses, freeing entrepreneurs to grow and win.”
With, 100 000 accountants around the world using Sage software, along with numerous other user categories, much of the buzz was focused on the news that the company’s real-time accounting solution, Sage Live, will be integrated with cutting edge tools from sales software leaders Salesforce.
Sage also formally launched a new admin “bot” – an artificial intelligence conversation system built into instant messaging and social media platforms. Called “Pegg”, it is a smart assistant that uses conversation to let users track expenses via any messaging app.
“Pegg removes the complexities and enables entrepreneurs to manage finances through conversation,” according to a company statement.
“By digitising information at the point of capture, it takes away the pain from receipts and expenses, eradicating the need for paper and data entry. “
The first social platform to integrate Pegg is Slack, a social network geared towards enterprise messaging and collaboration. However, users can also work with it in Facebook Messenger, which has led the market in introducing chat bots.
“With the rise of freelancing and the sharing economy, the number of small businesses is growing exponentially,” says Kriti Sharma, Sage’s global director for mobile product management.
“Most of these business owners use messaging apps, and with Pegg we aim to bridge the gap between these apps and work, rendering accounting invisible to the end user and making running a business as simple as sending a text.”
One of the most visionary evolutions of financial software was demonstrated by Sage’s executive vice president for product marketing, Jennifer Warawa. She showed how Sage Live can be integrated with TomTom Telematics for businesses with any size vehicle fleet to record mileage and automate expense reports – without any human intervention.
By running on the Salesforce platform, it can use existing integrations with third parties like TomTom WEBFLEET and make service journey data automatically available in Sage Live.
While this in itself may not set pulses racing, the vision behind such integration suggests a near future where administration takes second place to the more serious business of, well, running a business. It is not intended to put accountants out of business, but rather to allow them to play a more strategic role in business growth rather than focus on the “hard labour” of coordinating documents, logs, and other activity information.
The CEO’s keynote also saw some hard-hitting criticism of the support structures provided by officialdom. For one thing, it emerged that South African businesses are not alone in feeling that government lets them down. Kelly unveiled research which showed American entrepreneurs expressing high dissatisfaction with the support they get from the US government.
In case there was any lingering suspicion of the Summit being a mere public relations exercise, he also weighed in on the ineffectual role of official events like the World Economic Forum in Davos, which he dismissed as being “out of touch”.
This echoes the views expressed earlier this year by Anton Van Heerden, managing director of Sage in South and Southern Africa. In a post on LinkedIn, he wrote that important voices were being excluded from the conversations taking place at Davos: “Those of the risk-takers, entrepreneurs and small business owners who are increasingly the major drivers of wealth and job creation around the world.”
As a result, Kelly announced this week, Sage would introduce a series of policy events around the world to focus on the real needs of entrepreneurs.
It is a risky move to take Sage beyond the world of software and into the realm of policy. However, it is clear that the quest to remain relevant to customers goes beyond technology.
*Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee