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Tidemark Systems offers a suite of business planning applications that enable corporations to plan more effectively. The software facilitates rapid creation and frequent updating of integrated company plans by making it easy for individual business functions to create their own plans while allowing headquarters to connect them to create a unified view. I coined the term “integrated business planning” a decade ago to highlight the potential for technology to substantially improve the effectiveness of planning and budgeting in corporations, and it remains true that integrating business planning can produce superior results. Companies that maintain direct links between functional or departmental plans more often have a planning process that works well than others. Our next-generation business planning benchmark research shows that two-thirds (66%) of those that maintain such links have a planning process that works well or very well, compared to 40 percent that copy information from individual plans into an overall plan and just 25 percent in which plans have little or no connection.
Businesses commonly do a lot of planning within individual silos: There are sales plans, marketing plans, manufacturing plans, R&D plans and various others. However, in most companies the only unified plan is the corporate budget, which is a financial plan used mainly for allocating resources and controlling spending. Because they are focused almost exclusively on monetary consequences, budgets are not especially useful for planning the operations of a company, which requires attention to the things of a business (such as head count, numbers of purchased parts and tons of materials).
Tidemark has made significant progress with its software that I have previously assessed with how it unifies business planning and the company’s Fall 2015 release includes a new feature, Tidemark Complete, that enables companies to benchmark their performance against that of competitors. In almost all organizations, performance reviews compare results against the current plan or the previous quarter or year. While this is essential, it’s insufficient because business is not an “us-vs.-us” game; it’s an us-vs.-them competition. Even so, most companies don’t assess their results against the market because they find it too difficult and time-consuming to assemble the data. Tidemark Complete addresses this issue. The latest release also adds packaged configurations and metrics tailored for the insurance, hospitality and retail industries that enable such companies to accelerate their implementation of Tidemark. In the Spring 2015 release the company introduced packages for higher education and subscription commerce. The subscription commerce app is especially useful for companies with recurring revenue businesses for two reasons. One is that managing these types of businesses requires using metrics that are not directly available from the accounting process. These include the annual recurring revenue (ARR) and annual and total contract value (ACV and TCV). Typically, the finance staff assembles data from one or more sources in desktop spreadsheets to do the calculations, analyze the results and create reports. As well as time-consuming, this method is prone to errors and incompleteness in the data. The second reason is that revenue recognition in subscription businesses is often complex. For planning purposes, it’s useful to be able to automate the translation of booking events into reported revenue because it saves time and results in more accurate projections of future financial statements.
Ventana Research rated Tidemark a Hot Vendor in our 2015 Business Planning Value Index. Tidemark’s software offers all of the capabilities necessary to support state-of-the-art planning. That is, it offers engaging visualization and reporting functionality that enhances understanding and insight in developing plans as well as communicating results. It has workflows to manage plan creation and periodic updates that cut the time and effort required to supervise the process and thus shorten planning cycles. It offers integrated analytics to support the planning and review phases of the process as well as Storylines and Playbooks, methods that present an organization’s performance in narrative form with engaging data visualizations. An important reason why companies invest time in creating plans is to set objectives so they can periodically review their performance to those objectives. By organizing all business planning on a single platform, Tidemark allows each planning unit to review its results faster and headquarters to review the overall financial and operational performance sooner. Our research finds that companies that use a dedicated third-party planning application such as Tidemark are more able to uncover details during a review meeting because they can drill down to uncover underlying details while the meeting is under way. This enables managers and executives to get to information that can promote agility and provides an environment that encourages action in the whole organization.
Tidemark also offers built-in social collaboration capabilities in context. Collaboration is essential in the process of planning in corporations because it helps ensure that activities are coordinated. Companies have multiple objectives for their planning processes. Chief among these is accuracy. But since things don’t always go to plan, companies need agility in responding to changes in a timely and coordinated fashion, and collaboration facilitates this also. In a small business, planning can be informal because of the ease of communications between all members and the ease with which plans can be modified in response to changing conditions. In larger organizations the planning process becomes increasingly difficult because communications become compartmentalized locally and diffused across the enterprise. Facilitating collaboration across geographies or business silos addresses the communications issues. Tidemark’s collaboration capabilities address this issue more readily and completely than email or instant messaging. Setting and changing the company’s course require coordination to ensure that the actions of one part of the organization complement (or at least don’t impede) the actions of others. Better communication across the organization promotes coordination because it enables better understanding of the impact of policies and actions in one part of the company on the rest of it. Yet only 14 percent of companies are able to accurately measure that impact, and fewer than half (47%) have even a general idea. Integrated business planning coupled with a collaboration capabilities addresses that issue.
Using the most capable technology also helps. Using limited tools is a major barrier preventing companies from integrating their planning efforts; spreadsheets in particular are a major culprit. Our research reveals that across the spectrum of corporate planning activities, seven out of 10 organizations use spreadsheets to manage their planning processes. Tidemark’s common planning platform for individual departmental and functional plans, plus built-in analytics and reporting and its focus on ease of use, provides a compelling reason to switch from spreadsheets. Also, compared to using spreadsheets, Tidemark’s applications can make the planning process far more interactive by utilizing in-memory processing to speed calculations. When even complex planning models with large data sets can be run in seconds or less, senior executives and managers can quickly assess the impact of alternative courses of action in terms of their impacts on key operating metrics, not just revenue and income. Furthermore, having the means to engage in a structured conversation with direct reports can help executives implement strategy and manage their organization more effectively.
Integrated business planning applications are changing the conversation from a finance-centric approach to one that supports planning operations and finance in parallel. Companies that are dissatisfied with their current approach to business planning and are looking to improve important aspects of it including accuracy, insight, speed and alignment should consider dedicated business planning tools. When they do that, they should consider the kind of software that will enable them to support a better process. We recommend that they include Tidemark in their evaluation.
Robert Kugel – SVP Research
IBM’s Vision user conference brings together customers who use its software for financial and sales performance management (FPM and SPM, respectively) as well as governance, risk management and compliance (GRC). Analytics is a technology that can enhance each of these activities. The recent conference and many of its sessions highlighted IBM’s growing emphasis on making more sophisticated analytics easier to use by – and therefore more useful to – general business users and their organizations. The shift is important because the IT industry has spent a quarter of a century trying to make enterprise reporting (that is, descriptive analytics) suitable for an average individual to use with limited training. Today the market for reporting, dashboards and performance management software is saturated and largely a commodity, so the software industry – and IBM in particular – is turning its attention to the next frontier: predictive and prescriptive analytics. Prescriptive analytics holds particular promise for IBM’s analytics portfolio.
The three basic types of analytics – descriptive, predictive and prescriptive – often are portrayed as a hierarchy, with descriptive analytics at the bottom and predictive and prescriptive (often referred to as “advanced analytics”) on the next two rungs. Descriptive analytics is like a rear-view mirror on an organization’s performance. This category includes variance and ratio analyses, dashboards and scorecards, among others. Continual refinement has enabled the software industry to largely succeed in making descriptive analytics an easy-to-use mainstream product (even though desktop spreadsheets remain the tool of choice). Today, companies in general and finance departments in particular handle basic analyses well, although they are not as effective as they could be. Our research on next-generation finance analytics shows, for example, that most financial analysts (68%) spend the largest amount of their time in the data preparation phases while a relatively small percentage (28%) use the bulk of their time to do what they are supposed to be doing: analysis. We find that this problem is mainly the result of issues with data, process and training.
The upward shift in focus to the next levels of business analytics was a common theme throughout the Vision conference. This emphasis reflects a key element of IBM’s product strategy: to achieve a competitive advantage by making it easy for most individuals to use advanced analytics with limited training and without an advanced degree in statistics or a related discipline.
The objective in using predictive analytics is to improve an organization’s ability to determine what’s likely to happen under certain circumstances with greater accuracy. It is used for four main functions:
- Forecasting – enabling more nuanced projections by using multiple factors (such as weather and movable holidays for retail sales)
- Alerting – when results differ materially from forecast values
- Simulation – understanding the range of possible outcomes under different circumstances
- Modeling – understanding the range of impacts of a single factor.
Our research on next-generation business planning finds that despite its potential to improve the business value of planning, only one in five companies use predictive analytics extensively in their planning processes.
Predictive analytics can be useful for every facet of a business and especially for finance, sales and risk management. It can help these functions achieve greater accuracy in sales or operational plans, financial budgets and forecasts. The process of using it can identify the most important drivers of outcomes from historical data, which can support more effective modeling. Because plans and forecasts are rarely 100 percent accurate, a predictive model can support timely alerts when outcomes are significantly different from what was projected, enabling organizations to better understand the reasons for a disparity and to react to issues or opportunities sooner. When used for simulations, predictive models can give executives and managers deeper understanding of the range of potential outcomes and their most important drivers.
Prescriptive analytics, the highest level, help guide decision-makers to make the best choice to achieve strategic or tactical objectives under a specified set of circumstances. The term is most widely applied to two areas:
- Optimization – determining the best choice by taking into account the often conflicting business objectives or other forms of trade-offs while factoring in business constraints – for example, determining the best price to offer customers based on their characteristics. This helps businesses achieve the best balance of potential revenue and profitability or farmers to find the least costly mix of animal feeds to achieve weight objectives.
- Stochastic Optimization – determining the best option as above but with random variables such as a commodity price, an interest rate or sales uplift. Financial institutions often use this form of prescriptive analytics to understand how to structure fixed income portfolios to achieve an optimal trade-off between return and risk.
General purpose software packages for predictive and prescriptive analytics have existed for decades, but they were designed for expert users, not the trained rank-and-file. However, some applications that employ optimization for a specific purpose have been developed for nonexpert business users. For example, price and revenue optimization software, which I have written about is used in multiple industries. Over the past few years, IBM has been making progress in improving ease of use of general purpose predictive and prescriptive analytics. These improvements were on display at Vision. One of the company’s major initiatives in this area is Watson Analytics. It is designed to simplify the process of gathering a set of data, exploring it for meaning and importance and generating graphics and storyboards to convey the discoveries. Along the way, the system can evaluate the overall suitability of the data the user has assembled for creating useful analyses and assisting general business users in exploring its meaning. IBM offers a free version that individuals can use on relatively small data sets as a test drive. Watson is a cognitive analytics system, which means it is by nature a work in progress. Through experience and feedback it learns various things including terminologies, analytical methods and the nuances of data structures. As such it will become more powerful as more people use it for a wider range of uses because of the system’s ability to “learn” rather than rely on a specific set of rules and logic.
Broader use of optimization is the next frontier for business software vendors. Created and used appropriately, optimization models can deliver deep insights into the best available options and strategies more easily, accurately, consistently and effectively than conventional alternatives. Optimization eliminates individual biases, flawed conventional wisdom and the need to run ongoing iterations to arrive at the seemingly best solution. Optimization is at the heart of a network management and price and revenue optimization, to name two common application categories. Dozens of optimization applications (including ILOG, which IBM acquired) are available, but they are aimed at expert users.
IBM’s objective is to make such prescriptive analytics useful to a wider audience. It plans to infuse optimization capabilities it into all of its analytical applications. Optimization can be used on a scale from large to small. Large-scale optimization supports strategic breakthroughs or major shifts in business models. Yet there also are many more ways that the use of optimization techniques embedded in a business application – micro-optimization – can be applied to business. In sales, for example, it can be applied to territory assignments taking into account multiple factors. In addition to making a fair distribution of total revenue potential, it can factor in other characteristics such as the size or profitability of the accounts, a maximum or minimum number of buying units and travel requirements for the sales representative. For operations, optimization can juggle maintenance downtime schedules. It can be applied to long-range planning to allocate R&D investments or capital outlays. In strategic finance it can be used to determine an optimal capital structure where future interest rates, tax rates and the cost of equity capital are uncertain.
Along the way IBM also is trying to make optimization more accessible to expert users. Not every company or department needs or can afford a full suite of software and hardware to create applications that employ optimization. For them, IBM recently announced Decision Optimization on Cloud (DOcloud), which provides this capability as a cloud-based service; it also broadens the usability of IBM ILOG CPLEX Optimizer. This service can be especially useful to operations research professionals and other expert users. Developers can create custom applications that embed optimization to prescribe the best solution without having to install any software. They can use it to create and compare multiple plans and understand the impacts of various trade-offs between plans. The DOcloud service also provides data analysis and visualization, scenario management and collaborative planning capabilities. One example given by IBM is a hospital that uses it to manage its operating room (OR) scheduling. ORs are capital-intensive facilities with high opportunity costs; that is, they handle procedures that utilize specific individuals and different combinations of classes of specialists. Procedures also have different degrees of time flexibility. Without using an optimization engine to take account of all the variables and constraints, crafting a schedule is time-consuming. And since “optimal” solutions to business problems are fleeting, an embedded optimization engine enables an organization to replan and reschedule quickly to speed up decision cycles.
Businesses are on the threshold of a new era in their use of analytics for planning and decision support. However, numerous barriers still exist that will slow widespread adoption of more effective business practices that take full advantage of the potential that technology offers. Data issues and a lack of awareness of the potential to use more advanced analytics are two important ones. Companies that want to lead in the use of advanced analytics need leadership that focuses on exploiting technology to achieve a competitive advantage.
Robert Kugel – SVP Research