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Business computing has undergone a quiet revolution over the past two decades. As a result of having added, one-by-one, applications that automate all sorts of business processes, organizations now collect data from a wider and deeper array of sources than ever before. Advances in the tools for analyzing and reporting the data from such systems have made it possible to assess financial performance, process quality, operational status, risk and even governance and compliance in every aspect of a business. Against this background, however, our recently released benchmark research finds that finance organizations are slow to make use of the broader range of data and apply advanced analytics to it.
Analytics has long been a tool used by Finance. Yet because analytical techniques for assessing balance sheets, income statements and cash-flow statements are well developed and widely accepted, finance professionals have had little incentive to do more even as the opportunities available to them have proliferated. Taking a narrow of finance analytics they have largely failed to take advantage of advanced analytics to address the full needs of today’s enterprise and thus to increase their own value to it.
It’s not that finance departments aren’t aware of their shortcomings. For instance, more than half (58%) of participants in this research said that significant or major changes to their process for creating finance analytics are necessary; only 7 percent said no improvements are needed. We found four main reasons for dissatisfaction with their process: it’s too slow; it isn’t adaptable to change; there aren’t enough skilled people to do this work; and data used in it is inaccessible or too difficult to integrate.
Usually, addressing some business issue requires dealing with a combination of the underlying people, processes, information and technology. Companies often fail to address the issue successfully because they focus on just one of these elements. We think it’s important to use the people, process, information and technology framework to isolate the root causes behind the issues. Let’s look at the role of technology – mainly software – in finance analytics.
Our research finds many companies have trouble with the technology aspects. Only 12 percent of organizations are satisfied with the software they use to create and apply analytics; more than twice as many (27%) are not satisfied. That’s probably because 71 percent of them use spreadsheets for analytics, a higher percentage than for any other tool. Two-thirds of these users said that reliance on spreadsheets makes it difficult to produce accurate and timely analytics. In contrast, fewer than half use innovative techniques such as predictive analytics (44%) to assist planning and forecasting, and just 20 percent are employing big data to process the flood of data into today’s businesses.
The research demonstrates a correlation between the technology a company uses and how well its finance analytics processes work. Two-thirds of participants who said their software works well or very well also said their finance analytics process needs little or no improvement. By comparison, just one in four of those that said significant changes must be made to the software they use have a process that needs little or no improvement.
Here again we find that the inappropriate use of spreadsheets is an issue. When asked whether spreadsheets cause problems in their use of analytics, 67 percent said yes. This is because desktop spreadsheets have inherent shortcomings that make them poorly suited for any sort of advanced analytics. In particular, they cannot readily manage analyses involving more than a handful of dimensions. (A dimension is some aspect of business data such as time, business divisions, product families, sales territories and currency.) Many of these dimensions are constructed in hierarchies: Branches roll up into territories which roll up into divisions of companies, for example. Analyzing data usually requires viewing the data from different perspectives (which translates into dimensions) to isolate an issue or opportunity. One such would be looking at sales by product family and region and then drilling down into specific branches or stock-keeping units (SKUs). In doing analysis, it’s difficult enough to manage the dimensions of the purely financial aspects of a business. Spreadsheets are especially ill-suited to analyzing operational and financial data together, such as the delivery method or product configuration details.
Our research data shows that not having the right technology is impedes finance departments’ ability to create and use more advanced analytics. We found several reasons why companies decide not to make these technology investments. The top three are a lack of resources, no budget and a business case that’s not strong enough. The first two may be valid reasons, but not wanting to commit resources and budget to advanced analytics could be a symptom of a poorly constructed business case, as I noted earlier. A lack of leadership and vision on the part of senior finance executives also plays a role. Many may say they want their department to play a more strategic role in running their company yet fail to follow through to adopt new methods and the necessary supporting technology.
But now a new generation of finance department leaders is emerging. These are people young enough to have grown up with technology and to be more demanding in their use of software and systems to produce results. The time is ripe for change, and it’s up them to drive finance departments to be more strategic in their use of analytics.
Robert Kugel – SVP Research
Our benchmark research on enterprise spreadsheets explores the pitfalls that await companies that use desktop spreadsheets such as Microsoft Excel in repetitive, collaborative enterprise-wide processes. Because people are so familiar with Excel and therefore are able to quickly transform their finance or business expertise into a workable spreadsheet for modeling, analysis and reporting, desktop spreadsheets became the default choice. Individuals and organizations resist giving up their spreadsheets, so software vendors have come up with adaptations that embrace and extend their use. I’ve long advocated finding user-friendly spreadsheet alternatives.
One of the first adaptations was for application vendors to use a spreadsheet (either a grid format or Excel itself) as a user interface. In these products users seem to be working in a familiar spreadsheet environment, but the interface is tied to an application that has controlled business logic, formulas and workflows, and the data is held in a relational or multidimensional database. This approach can give organizations the best of both worlds: the familiarity of a spreadsheet but in a structure that addresses most of the technological flaws inherent in desktop spreadsheets. Yet this approach isn’t always enough. It is fine for business processes in which a third-party application is the appropriate choice, but in many other situations where people collaborate using the same model, analytical methods and data, a spreadsheet – not an application – is the better choice. Moreover, our research finds multiple reasons why companies continue to rely on spreadsheets. More than half (56%) of participants pointed to user resistance to change, and many others cited a business case that wasn’t strong enough (that is, the benefits of switching did not merit the costs) and a related issue: that alternatives are too expensive.
In collaborative processes where a spreadsheet is the most practical tool, another alternative is a technology developed by Boardwalktech. The company’s Collaboration Platform (BCP) products support a secure, two-way exchange of data between multiple users.
Instead of having to collect multiple spreadsheets through the email system and then combine them, BCP users can automatically share information at the individual cell level when they want. For instance, working offline in a spreadsheet model individuals can enter actual results and evaluate changes to a forecast or plan, playing with whatever what-if scenarios they see fit. When finished, they can connect to the Boardwalktech server and click to share the updated information with others in the organization. Those people will have immediate access to the changed data.
This approach offers advantages to the way most organizations collaborate with spreadsheets. For example, the exchange of data between spreadsheet users is immediate and takes place at the cell level rather than replacing the entire spreadsheet. Thus, unlike when spreadsheets are exchanged through email, updates can be automatic and far more secure. When spreadsheets are connected through a server, contention (that is, two people trying to change the same data at roughly the same time) is an issue. Most server-based spreadsheets (such as applications built on an Excel server) deal with contention by controlling changes at the file or record-object level, employing a check-in and check-out methodology or record locking to control concurrency. This means that an entire spreadsheet or large portions of it cannot be altered until one person has finished making changes. This process can cause substantial delays. In contrast, BCP enables concurrent, multiuser collaboration at the cell level. Especially in larger spreadsheets shared among multiple users, that can cut down on delays in updates and changes because multiple people can be making updates to different parts of the spreadsheet at the same time.
Another attractive feature of Boardwalktech’s approach – especially when compared with collaborating on spreadsheets over email – is that individuals can share only a portion of their spreadsheet (even just the contents of a single cell) with other individuals. Adam, for example, may want to share only a few lines of summarized information from his forecast with Betsy, who needs it to drive some – but not all – of her projections in her part of the business. Adam and Betsy have different spreadsheets with different row and column structures, yet the shared data remains synchronized regardless of the changes they make to their individual spreadsheets. Colleen, a business analyst, may have a complex formula that every other analyst must use, and this formula will evolve over time because of changing business conditions. David and Ed will always be using the same, correct and up-to-date formula in their own, individual spreadsheets that used by others in the organization without having to check for updates.
Boardwalktech offers several prebuilt templates that support inter- and intra-business collaborative processes. For the latter, one area in which a third-party application often is not a viable solution is where analytical models of data and reports must be shared between companies. Cost, implementation times, existing software environments and licensing issues often make that impractical. Browser-based solutions may be more difficult for people to navigate through compared with a spreadsheet, especially if substantial amounts of data must be updated and people need to enter data across multiple dimensions. As well, people in different organizations may use incompatible approaches to modeling that reflect the different needs of their organizations. The ability to share only essential elements of spreadsheets without having to homogenize models and data structures eliminates serious barriers to collaboration. In addition, even within companies these issues can come into play, especially for cross-functional processes or among different business units.
Boardwalktech’s products include configurations for processes where spreadsheets are heavily used today. These include sales and operations planning (S&OP), trading partner collaboration, supply and demand planning and sales and revenue forecasting. For finance organizations the company offers treasury and cash management and tax planning as well as budgeting and planning. There is also a project and portfolio management offering, which can be used by IT organizations, facilities management, R&D and others to plan, assess and forecast projects and project-like efforts. These can be deployed singly or in combination. One of the advantages of implementing, say, a sales and revenue forecasting application along with budgeting and planning is that the sales forecasting can easily tie in with the budgeting, meaning that these top-line numbers, which are managed by the sales organization, can be updated instantly in the budget and at whatever level of granularity is necessary. As well, Boardwalktech’s IT Process Platform allows companies to take any spreadsheet-driven collaborative process and eliminate many of the inherent defects.
In 2013 Boardwalktech had couple of key steps forward with new integration framework using its ‘SuperMerge’ technology and advancements to configuring templates that are used for access and input. Both of which help further embrace and extend use of spreadsheets. For most organizations, spreadsheets are an indispensable tool but they are not always the appropriate technology, especially when used in repetitive, collaborative enterprise-wide processes. It’s important to understand their limitations and not abuse them. In some cases, third-party or internally developed dedicated applications are the right choice. In others, embracing and extending existing spreadsheet-driven processes is the most practical approach. If your organization is currently using desktop spreadsheets for some collaborative business process, it probably is putting up with a host of issues that are the inevitable result of the spreadsheet’s inherent shortcomings. If so, I recommend evaluating Boardwalktech’s collaboration platform.
Robert Kugel – SVP Research