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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.

Regards,

Robert Kugel – SVP Research

Our recently published Office of Finance benchmark research assesses a broad set of functions and capabilities of finance organizations. We asked research participants to identify the most important issues for a finance department to address in a dozen functional areas: accounting, budgeting, cost accounting, customer profitability management, external financial reporting, financial analysis, financial governance and internal audit, management accounting, product profitability management, strategic and long-range planning, tax management and treasury and cash management. Among the key findings is this: Not using the most capable software is an underlying cause, often unrecognized, of process, analytics and data issues.

Process design, analytics use and data availability and quality vr_Office_of_Finance_02_key_challenges_for_finance_departmentswere the three most frequently cited issues, each selected by slightly less than half of participants. Software was the least frequently named issue, chosen by just 24 percent. That software was the least cited factor either means that most companies have this aspect of their business nailed down or – more likely – that they are focused on the symptoms and do not recognize the root causes of many of their process, analytics and data issues.

The lack of concern about software in finance departments points to a problem we have observed in our research for a decade. There is a connection between the technology that a company uses to support its processes and the issues that arise when it uses ineffective technology. Persistence in using such tools to execute finance processes is an ongoing barrier to improving the performance of finance departments. For example, companies often handle the mundane chore of accounting reconciliations with desktop spreadsheets. When electronic spreadsheets were introduced decades ago they offered a major improvement in the time required to perform processes. Today, however, dedicated software can perform the process even faster and more cleanly. Our research shows that companies that use software designed to automate their reconciliations process can close faster than those that have manual, spreadsheet-driven processes: More than twice as many that use automation (57%) can close their books in six or fewer days as those that do not (27%). Other research we have done consistently points to reliance on desktop spreadsheets as a root cause of process, analytics and data issues.

vr_Office_of_Finance_17_automating_reconciliationSoftware can have a profound impact on how well a company carries out essential processes. We find that the best-performing finance organizations adopt a total quality management approach to finance and accounting. As in a manufacturing operation, the objective in any finance department process should be to design quality into the process (for example by addressing root causes of errors in calculations and classification) and to ensure consistent execution of that process. Yet spreadsheets often are a source of errors: More than one-third (35%) of research participants said they have found data errors in the most important spreadsheet they use. The inappropriate use of spreadsheets instead of a dedicated application is often the source of problems that result in unnecessary work for the finance organization to correct them. Such glitches also affect other departments, operations and even customer-facing roles such as billing and credit. Inconsistent execution can even nullify the benefits of a well-designed process, but software with built-in workflow can eliminate the root causes of issues that arise when processes are managed with spreadsheets and email.

One of the most important roles that a finance department has is providing the rest of the company with analysis and vr_ss21_errors_in_spreadsheetsperspective on business results to enable them to understand “the why behind the what.” Here, too, using the appropriate software can be a critical factor. Desktop spreadsheets are fine for relatively simple ad hoc analyses. However, because they are two-dimensional grids, desktop spreadsheets have a limited ability to manipulate data in multiple dimensions such as by business unit, product family, currency, geography and time. Moreover, creating periodic reports in spreadsheets consumes valuable time that would be better spent focused on addressing other, more valuable tasks. Self-service reporting, which I have advocated, and using the reporting capabilities of enterprise software are two alternatives. Replacing desktop spreadsheets with more capable software can address analytics issues.

The results of our research show that many finance executives and managers are unaware of the negative impacts of using inadequate software, especially the misuse of desktop spreadsheets. People “know” that desktop spreadsheets are the wrong choice; there is overwhelming evidence of their shortcomings. Yet they continue to be the default choice to support many repetitive, enterprise-wide processes because their convenience and familiarity have trumped their shortcomings. Until recently the alternatives were not sufficiently better to convince people to change their habits. That is no longer the case.

There are many compelling reasons for finance and accounting departments to increase end-to-end process automation by substituting dedicated applications and controlled data flows for spreadsheets. Ultimately this is a management issue. Finance executives must periodically evaluate the applications they use and determine whether there are better alternatives. They should routinely triage the desktop spreadsheets commonly used and replace them with more efficient and fully capable automated systems.

Regards,

Robert Kugel

SVP Research

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