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The theme of transforming the finance organization is hot again. The term “finance transformation” refers to the longstanding objective of shifting the focus of finance departments from transaction processing to more strategic activities such as providing the rest of the organization with forward-looking analysis. I focus on the technology and data aspects of this type of business issue in these analyst perspectives because they are usually essential to achieving some business objective. However, technology rarely fixes a problem by itself. If it were a simple matter of just buying software or having better data stewardship, it would be relatively easy to achieve finance transformation. But it’s not simple at all. When it comes to changing how the finance and accounting organization operates, there’s no substitute for leadership. Doing that requires changes in the habits of the department, which include the CFO changing how the department works with the rest of the company.

Our benchmark research on the Office of Finance confirms that most company executives want their finance department to take a more strategic role in running the company. It also shows little progress in achieving finance transformation. To be sure, there are enough examples of the finance organization taking the lead to provide trade publications and vendors with case histories, but for the majority progress has been slight. When we compared the attitudes of executives and managers about the finance department’s performance generally, we found a big disconnect between how well people in Finance think they’re doing and what the rest of the company believes: Half of research participants who have finance titles said that the department plays an important role in their company’s success, but just one-fourth (24%) of the rest of the company said that. In fact, most people outside of the department said that Finance is doing only an adequate job.

As with most situations in business, there are multiple factorsvr_Office_of_Finance_08_it_takes_too_long_to_close_the_books that prevent finance departments from becoming more strategic. The accounting close illustrates the range of challenges that finance executives may have to overcome in improving the department’s performance. Closing the books within one business week is generally acknowledged to be a best practice in finance. Yet our research finds that only 40 percent of companies complete the quarterly close in six or fewer business days and 53 percent close monthly in the same period. To accelerate the close, finance executives often must address multiple issues to improve performance.

Technology plays an important role in accelerating the close. Our research correlates using more automation and fewer manual spreadsheets in the close process with closing the books sooner. But that might not be the only thing that’s holding up the close. Another factor – one that’s hard to measure – is the impact of other parts of the business on preventing the department from finishing the process in a timely fashion. For example, nonfinance processes (such as doing inventory) that aren’t completed until the second or third week of the following month may hold up completion. The accounting organization has no direct control over when work performed in other departments is done. And those outside the finance organization may resist making these changes, which may seem to them arbitrary or unwarranted burden-shifting.

Some issues that hold up the close or create avoidable work in finance and accounting departments are not always easy to spot. For example, I recently wrote that companies that have even slightly complicated revenue recognition requirements under the new accounting rules ought to write and manage their contracts with customers with the explicit aim of minimizing the workload of the accounting department. Contracts that are poorly or inconsistently drafted or that do not enforce common language will make finance departments hire additional staff or temporary accountants and potentially delay the quarterly close. In addition, those working outside of the accounting department often don’t realize that they are doing things that complicate the accounting process. This is especially the case when, for instance, data is collected in spreadsheets rather than in a dedicated enterprise system or when the data entered is incomplete, inconsistent or not collected at all. Often, it’s less burdensome to address the source of the accounting hassle at the source. Here is another situation in which leadership matters. Unless the senior leadership team understands the ultimate impact of, say, people not following procedures or neglecting to fill in a couple of fields on a form, it’s unlikely they will be motivated to enforce the changes that must be made. It’s even harder if the CFO does not have a good working relationship with the rest of the organization or cannot effectively communicate the need for change.

A truly strategic finance organization is one that embraces continuous improvement, uncovering the root causes of time wasting activities, addressing them methodically and investing the time saved into finance transformation projects. Addressing the sources of time-wasting finance and accounting processes requires a CFO who is unwilling to accept the status quo and has sufficient interpersonal skills to drive change. The senior leadership team also has to support a more strategic finance department. For example, the CEO needs to make it clear that closing sooner is everyone’s business and with good reason. How soon after the end of a period the finance organization closes its books affects the timeliness of the information it provides to the rest of the organization: In our research, half of companies that complete their monthly close within four business days said the information the finance department provides is timely, compared to just 29 percent of those that take five to eight business days and 19 percent of those that take nine or more business days.

Implementing change in business is never easy. Finance transformation almost always requires fixing information and technology issues, especially those that automate and enhance control of finance and accounting processes. Without leadership by the CFO, though, very little will happen.


Robert Kugel – SVP Research

Ventana Research recently released the results of our Next-Generation Business Planning benchmark research. Business planning encompasses all of the forward-looking activities in which companies routinely engage. The research examined 11 of the most common types of enterprise planning: capital, demand, marketing, project, sales and operations, strategic, supply chain and workforce planning, as well as sales forecasting and corporate and IT budgeting. We also aggregated the results to draw general conclusions.

Planning is the process of creating a detailed formulation of a program of action designed to achieve objectives. People and businesses plan to determine how to succeed in achieving those objectives. Planning also serves to structure the discussion about those objectives and the resources and tactics needed to achieve them. A well-managed planning process should be structured in that it sets measurable objectives and quantifies resources required to achieve them. Budgeting is a type of planning but somewhat different in that is financially focused and is done to impose controls that prevent a company from overspending and therefore failing financially. So while planning and budgeting are similar (and budgeting involves planning), they have different aims. Unlike budgeting, planning emphasizes the things that the various parts of the business focus on, such as units sold, sales calls made, the number and types of employees required or customers served.

Integrating the various business planning activities across a company benefits the senior leadership team, as I have written by enabling them to understand both the operational vr_NGBP_02_integrated_planning_works_betterand the financial consequences of their actions. There are multiple planning efforts under way at any time in a company. These plans typically are stand-alone efforts only indirectly linked to others. To be most effective, however, an individual business unit plan requires direct inputs from other planning efforts. A decade ago I coined the term “integrated business planning” to emphasize the need to use technology to better coordinate the multiple planning efforts of the individual parts of the company. There are good reasons to do this, one of which is accuracy. Our new research reveals that to be accurate, most (77%) planning processes depend to some degree on having access to accurate and timely data from other parts of the organization. For this reason, integrating the various planning processes produces business benefits: In our research two-thirds of companies in which plans are directly linked said that their planning process works well or very well. This compares favorably to 40 percent in those that copy planning data from individual plans to an integrated plan (such as the company budget) and just 25 percent of those that have little or no connection between plans.

Technology has been a major barrier preventing companies from integrating their planning efforts. Until relatively recently, joining the individual detailed plans of various departments and functions into an overall view was difficult because the available software, data and network capabilities were not sufficient to make it feasible and attractive to take this approach. To be sure, over the past decades there has been steady progress in making enterprise systems more accessible to ordinary users. But while dedicated planning software has become easier to use, evidently it’s still not easy enough. The research reveals that across the spectrum of corporate planning activities, three-fourths of organizations use spreadsheets to manage the process. We expect this to change over the next several years as the evolution in information technologies makes dedicated planning software a more compelling choice. One factor will be enhanced ease of use, which will be evident in at least two respects. Software vendors are recognizing that a better user experience can differentiate their product in a market where features and functions are a commodity. Ease of use also will extend to analytics and reporting, making it easier for business users to harness the power of advanced analytics and providing self-service reporting, including support for mobile devices. The other factor will be the ability to 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 will be able to quickly assess the impact of alternative courses of action in terms of their impact on key operating metrics, not just revenue and income. Having the means to engage in a structured conversation with direct reports will help executives be more effective in implementing strategy and managing their organization.

Technology is not the only barrier to better planning. The research demonstrates the importance of management in the process, correlating how well a planning process is managed with its accuracy. The large majority (80%) of companies that manage a planning process well or very well wind up with a plan that is accurate or very accurate. By contrast, just one-fourth of companies that do an adequate job achieve that degree of accuracy and almost none (5%) of those that do it poorly have accurate or very accurate results. Additionally, managing a planning process well requires clear communications. More than three-fourths (76%) of companies in which strategy and objectives related to plans are communicated very well have a process that works very well, while more than half (53%) with poor executive communication wind up with a planning process that performs poorly. And collaboration is essential to a well-functioning planning process. Most (85%) companies that collaborate effectively or very effectively said that their planning process is managed well, while just 11 percent of companies that collaborate only somewhat effectively expressed that opinion.

vr_ngbp_03_collaboration_is_important_for_planningCollaboration is essential because the process of planning in corporations ought to get everyone onto the same page to 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 to have agility in responding to changes in a timely and coordinated fashion. 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 entire enterprise. Setting and to a greater degree changing the company’s course requires coordination to ensure that the actions of one part of the organization complement (or at least don’t impede) the actions of others. Coordination enables understanding of the impact of policies and actions in one part of the company on the rest. 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 address that issue.

In most organizations budgeting and operational planning efforts are only loosely connected. In contrast, next-generation business planning closely integrates unit-level operational plans with financial planning. At the corporate level, it shifts the emphasis from financial budgeting to planning and to performance reviews that integrate operational and financial measures. It uses available information technology to help companies plan faster with less effort while achieving greater accuracy and agility.

For companies to improve competitiveness, their business planning must acquire four characteristics. First, planning must focus on performance, measuring results against both business and financial objectives. Second, it must help executives and managers quickly and intelligently assess all relevant contingencies and trade-offs to support their decisions. Third, it must enable each individual business planning group to work in one central system; this simplifies the integration of their plans into a single view of the company and makes it easy for planners in one part of the business to see what others are projecting. Fourth, it must be efficient in its use of people’s time. Success in business stems more from doing than planning. Efficient use of time enables agility, especially in larger organizations.

Today’s business planning doesn’t completely lack these features, but in practice it falls short – often considerably. Senior executives ought to demand more from the considerable amount of time their organization devotes to creating, reviewing and revising plans. They should have easy access to the full range of plans in their company. They must be able to engage in a structured dialog with direct reports about business plans, contingency plans and business unit performance. Information technology alone will not improve the effectiveness of business planning, but it can facilitate their efforts to realize more value from their planning.


Robert Kugel – SVP Research

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