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The steady march of technology’s ability to handle ever more complicated tasks has been a constant since the beginning of the information age in the 1950s. Initially, computers in business were used to automate simple clerical functions, but as systems have become more capable, information technology has been able to substitute for increasingly higher levels of human skill and experience. A turning point of sorts was reached in the 1990s when ERP, business intelligence and business process automation software reduced the need for middle managers. Increasingly, organizations used software to coordinate activities as well as communicate results and requirements up and down the organizational chart. Both were once the exclusive role of the middle manager. Consequently, almost every for-profit organization eliminated management layers so that today corporate structures are flatter than they once were. Technology automation also eliminated the need for administrative staff to perform routine reporting and analysis. Meanwhile, over the course of the 1990s, the cost of running the finance department measured as a percentage of sales was cut almost in half as a result of eliminating staff and because automation enabled companies to scale without adding headcount. During the last recession, companies in North America and Europe once again made deep reductions to their administrative staffs, relying on information technology to pick up the slack.
Given this history, the best career choice that an individual can make today is to stay ahead of the trend. Information technologies, especially cognitive computing, will continue to eliminate relatively high-paying white-collar jobs in corporate life, especially in the finance and accounting function. Executives and others working in tax departments in particular should recognize that a major shift is under way in their field. Automation will transform their work over the next five years, driving a fundamental change in what they do. To succeed (or even survive), they will have to embrace automation.
Spreadsheets are a major impediment to making the tax function more strategic for a company and more remunerative for those working in the department, as I have noted. Our Office of Finance benchmark research finds that half (52%) of tax departments use spreadsheets only for tax provisioning and another 38 percent mainly use spreadsheets; just one in 10 utilize a third-party tax application. One well-known issue with spreadsheets is that they are error-prone – not a risk that tax professionals can be comfortable with. To be certain that the tax provision and other tax-related calculations are correct, individuals must double- and even triple-check the numbers. This overlaps with a second major issue with spreadsheets: They are time-consuming. Our spreadsheet research finds that those working heavily with spreadsheets on average spend 18 hours a month (equivalent to more than two full workdays) just maintaining their most important spreadsheet. Spreadsheets as so time-consuming that they prevent individuals from doing more valuable work, in this case tax analysis and planning.
Another related issue is that using spreadsheets for the tax function diminishes visibility into a company’s tax provision in at least two respects. First, using them takes so long that executives get to the numbers late in the financial close process. This matters because of the impact that tax expense has on a company’s profits. Second, spreadsheets are black boxes: That is, they are difficult to control, and it’s difficult for anyone other than the spreadsheet’s owner to understand their construction. Often, assumptions are buried in formulas and therefore hard to uncover. If these formulas are inconsistent or wrong, it’s not easy to spot them. (This was an important factor behind J.P. Morgan’s multibillion dollar trading loss, which I discussed.) When a spreadsheet is constructed with a given formula repeated in multiple cells, each of these must be updated when circumstances change, and it’s difficult to be certain that all of the changes have been made. Even with advanced techniques designed to make updates consistent, it’s hard to be sure that some cell wasn’t overwritten with another number.
Some people who work intensively with spreadsheets still view them as a form of job security because of their opacity. They think they’re indispensable because they are the only one who understands how their spreadsheet works. This is one of several reasons why their use persists in functions where they constitute more of a problem than a solution. However, these spreadsheet jockeys should recognize that their tools’ inherent inefficiency, lack of visibility and proneness to error make them vulnerable to being replaced by better technology. The real value of tax professionals is not their ability to overcome spreadsheet limitations. It’s in their training in understanding income taxes. Once freed from the drudgery of performing computations, massaging data and checking (two or three times) for errors, tax professionals can turn their attention to performing analytical work aimed at optimizing a company’s tax spend – and thus ensuring their value as employees.
Midsize and larger organizations, especially those that operate in multiple direct (income) tax jurisdictions and that have an even moderately complex legal entity structure, must use dedicated software to automate their income tax provision and analysis functions. They must manage their tax-sensitized data using what I call a tax data warehouse of record. Tax departments must be able to tightly control the end-to-end process of taking numbers from source systems, constructing tax financial statements, calculating taxes owed and keeping track of cumulative amounts and other balance sheet items related to taxes. Transparency is the natural result of a having controlled process that uses a unified set of all relevant tax data. An authoritative data set makes tax department operations more efficient. As noted, reducing the time and effort to execute the tax department’s core functions frees up the time of tax professionals for more useful analysis. Having tax data and tax calculations that are immediately traceable, reproducible and permanently accessible provides company executives with greater certainty and reduces the risk of noncompliance and the attendant costs and reputation issues. Having an accurate and consistent tax data warehouse of record enables corporations and their tax departments to better execute tax planning, provisioning and compliance. Using dedicated software today rather than relying on spreadsheets helps the tax department, and those working in it, increase their strategic value today so they won’t be obsolete tomorrow.
Robert Kugel – SVP Research
Supply and demand chain planning and execution have grown in importance over the past decade as companies have recognized that software can meaningfully enhance their competitiveness and improve their financial performance. Sales and operations planning (S&OP) is an integrated business management process first developed in the 1980s aimed at achieving better alignment and synchronization between the supply chain, production and sales functions. A properly implemented S&OP process routinely reviews customer demand and supply resources and “replans” quantitatively across an agreed rolling horizon. The replanning process focuses on changes from the previously agreed sales and operations plan; while it helps the management team understand how the company achieved its current level of performance, its primary focus is on future actions and anticipated results. Adoption of S&OP has increased as software to support the process has become more powerful and affordable and as a growing list of companies demonstrated its value in producing meaningfully improved business results. Even without adopting a full-scale S&OP management approach, companies can benefit from better coordination and collaboration between their supply and demand functions. Software plays an important role here, too, in facilitating this coordination and collaboration.
Steelwedge, founded in 2000, is one provider of it, offering cloud-based software for sales and operations planning as well as for supply and demand planning, related revenue and margin planning. It recently introduced its PlanStreaming platform, which provides a unified space in which organizations and their individual business units can create plans. PlanStreaming is specifically designed to support integrated continuous planning between demand chain roles (sales, marketing and demand planning, to name three), supply chain roles (including supply chain management, purchasing, manufacturing and operations) as well as finance. The software gathers input from both multiple enterprise systems and data sources outside a company to “sense” the condition of the supply and demand chains, incorporates plans and forecasts from multiple perspectives and applies advanced analytics to assess, predict and prescribe the best courses of action. PlanStreaming is designed to apply a continuous planning methodology to supply- and demand chain execution. The objective is to improve execution across the company: higher fulfillment rates with more rapid inventory turns resulting in increased revenues at wider margins.
“Continuous planning” is an approach that uses frequent, short planning cycles that can help organizations achieve greater agility, coordination and accountability in their operations. Such an approach includes establishing an ongoing dialogue between supply- and demand chains as well as finance to track current conditions and how they are evolving. It is an action-oriented methodology and approach to planning processes. To manage planning in such a comprehensive way requires dedicated software that enables flexibility in all phases. Continuous planning requires software to streamline and shorten planning cycles to rebalance the focus of the process from assembling a plan to acting on a plan rapidly and in a coordinated fashion. PlanStreaming addresses these requirements by automating the collection and normalization of data to make it continuously available for analysis. Data can be automatically monitored to provide alerts to risks and opportunities as business conditions evolve. It provides analytical tools that support rapid, action-oriented “what-if” scenario and contingency planning that conforms to a company’s strategic priorities and capabilities.
The need to improve planning processes is there. Our recent benchmark research on next-generation business planning finds limited satisfaction with the planning areas that Steelwedge addresses. Only half of participants that engage in demand planning (54%) said that they are satisfied with their company’s planning process. For sales forecasting the number is 47 percent; for sales and operations planning it is 43 percent; and for supply chain planning only about one-third (35%) said they are satisfied. The leading reasons given for their lack of satisfaction are that plans are not reliable, that processes are too slow and inflexible and that they involve using models that are difficult to build and maintain. We also find that a large majority of participants in our research use spreadsheets for these planning processes, which is likely an important factor underlying the lack of satisfaction. The research also shows that fewer than one in five companies collaborate very effectively in these planning processes. Here, too, dedicated software such as Steelwedge’s that integrates planning processes across multiple functions and business units can support deeper, more consistent collaboration among them.
A defining characteristic of supply and demand chain planning is that the details matter a lot. For example, accurately forecasting total revenue from some product isn’t enough to manage operations well. Companies need to accurately predict what individual customers at each location will want to buy. And they need to correctly identify which products – even down to the individual stock-keeping unit (SKU) – each customer will need. Dedicated software such as Steelwedge facilitates the collection, analysis and communication of this level of detailed information that streamlines planning and reporting to enable action-oriented supply- and demand planning.
Another significant characteristic of this type of planning is that the individual functional groups responsible for supply and demand chain execution have different objectives, which often are at odds with one another. Sales and marketing people want to maximize revenue, which can conflict with the ability of those in manufacturing to produce the goods. Manufacturing units want to maximize efficiency, but too-long production runs of one SKU may lead to stock-outs of another and require more investment in inventories. Rushed deliveries may keep customers happy but cut into profits. Sales and operations planning is a cross-functional process and discipline that is designed to bring all parties involved in supply and demand chain execution into a planning process that mediates the conflicts between these functions to produce a plan that aligns the objectives of each to achieve the company’s strategic objectives. PlanStreaming makes it easier for corporate executives to mediate the different objectives and incentives of the various supply and demand groups in their organization. This enables them to align the integrated plan to a company’s strategy to achieve a more optimal result.
A dedicated software application is superior to using desktop spreadsheets for creating actionable demand and supply plans because it eliminates time-consuming chores that impede effective planning. Creating an organization-wide plan from multiple business units requires integrating the details of individual planning units to create a unified view. Our spreadsheet research determined that even individuals with more than a decade of experience have difficulty combining spreadsheets to create a consolidated view and find the process time-consuming. Arriving at a plan that balances the needs and objectives of individual business units within the corporation’s overall objectives is an iterative process. Integrating desktop spreadsheets often forces companies that rely on them to spend a great deal of time on the mechanics of planning. This of course extends the time required to create a plan and hampers the organization’s ability to respond promptly to changes in supply and demand. In this respect, spreadsheets are a barrier to action-oriented planning. Nevertheless, our business planning research shows that 80 percent of companies use them for supply chain planning, 75 percent use them for S&OP and 63 percent use them to support sales planning. The research also found that more than half of participants in these planning areas say that spreadsheets make it difficult for them to manage their planning process. A core defect of spreadsheets when used for operational planning is that it is difficult to separate units and currency in analyzing and reporting the information that individuals need for their particular role (for instance, looking at input/output ratios in production or logistics or assessing customer profitability). Even for midsize companies, spreadsheets fail to scale to handle the scope and detail needed to support this type of planning.
As noted, Steelwedge’s product for S&OP, supply and demand planning is cloud-based. One important advantage of the cloud is that it offers ready access for everyone who might be involved regardless of where they are. Steelwedge also offers mobile capabilities because people who are involved in the process (such as those in field sales, those in warehouse operations or managers and executives) often are on the go yet need to be able to view and approve details without holding up the process.
Our research shows that direct links between interconnected plans produces better results. Two-thirds (66%) of companies that have direct links between plans said they have planning processes that work well or very well, compared to 40 percent that copy data manually from one plan to another and just 25% of those that have little or no connection between plans. Steelwedge’s PlanStreaming platform provides the integration point between the various supply- and demand planning groups in a corporation to improve accuracy as well as the effectiveness of its planning process. The quality of planning processes also correlates with the accuracy of the plans: Four out of five companies that plan well or very well said they have plans that are accurate or very accurate, compared to 24 percent that have processes that are managed adequately and just 5 percent that have poor management.
Implementing sales and operations planning or simply achieving better coordination between supply chain planning, demand planning and sales forecasting can be facilitated by a dedicated software platform such as PlanStreaming that supports all of the planning processes as separate activities and addresses the needs of the different groups. This approach allows companies to avoid organizational issues that result from imposing changes on well-established processes because of technology limitations. Such an approach also allows organizations to phase in the technology and to build competence in planning before transitioning to an integrated business planning effort. If the organization is committed to implementing integrated sales and operations planning, it can do so right away if all of the component pieces reside on a single platform.
Most companies would benefit from being able to plan more effectively for supply and demand chains. Those that face long or complex supply and demand chains need to adopt S&OP to ensure that the inherent differences in the objectives of various planning groups are mediated by senior management. (This is not easy because an S&OP culture must be instituted.) I recommend that companies that want to improve their supply or demand chain planning process evaluate Steelwedge. I include both those that want to move off spreadsheets to make their supply chain and sales planning faster and more nimble, and those that want to begin to implement an S&OP discipline or move their S&OP efforts from spreadsheets to a more capable, easier-to-use platform.
Robert Kugel – SVP Research