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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

Last year Ventana Research released our Office of Finance benchmark research. One of the objectives of the project was to assess organizations’ progress in achieving “finance transformation.” This term denotes shifting the focus of CFOs and finance departments from transaction processing toward more strategic, higher-value functions. vr_Office_of_Finance_05_finance_should_take_strategic_roleIn the research nine out of 10 participants said that it’s important or very important for the department to take a more strategic role. This objective is both longstanding and elusive. It has been part of the conversation in financial management circles since the 1990s and has been a primary focus of my research practice since its inception 12 years ago. Yet our recent research shows that most finance organizations struggle with the basics and few companies are even close to achieving this desired transformation.

Today, finance transformation is not only even more necessary but also increasingly achievable. Advanced technology now can equip management teams with more powerful competitive capabilities. Its availability has raised the bar for everyone in business. Technology changes the terms of engagement, expands available marketing channels, alters consumer preferences and revolutionizes business models. The overabundance of hype when it comes to the popular treatment of information technology can obscure its usefulness in business. One of the most serious challenges for executives – especially in the Office of Finance – is to understand the practical application of information technology, neither embracing fads nor ignoring opportunities with real economic and competitive benefits.

Business computing tools continues to evolve in ways that make it more user-friendly and more affordable than ever, and thus it can assist in achieving finance transformation. The “consumerization” of business applications is now well established, as software vendors adapt technology to enable their software to adapt to the needs and preferences of users. Moreover, as technologies such as in-memory processing and big data analytics find increasing use in business, savvy executives will adjust their management practices to use them to their advantage. In-memory computing, for instance, makes it practical to easily engage in a numbers-based dialog for planning, tactical analysis and performance insights.

In my experience, this persistent focus on mechanics is necessary because relatively few finance and accounting organizations make effective use of available and affordable technology. Instead, a majority spend too much time “fighting fires,” many of which are the result of not using capable technology. To get beyond this situation, CFOs and controllers must evaluate their existing IT systems with an eye to using them to automate repetitive tasks and speed execution of cross-departmental functions. Doing that can free up time and money better spent on activities that return value, such as more insightful and actionable analyses or more accurate forecasting and planning. Our new research agenda for the Office of Finance attempts to balance the leading edge and mainstream use to help businesses find practical solutions.

Ventana Research’s Office of Finance practice uses two key criteria to select a research topic: It must have pressing relevance to finance executives as a means to improve their company’s performance, and information technology can play a role in addressing the issue. Our research agenda for 2015 emphasizes three broad technology-related themes serving the goal of finance transformation:

  • The use of software and other information technologies to expand and extend the department’s capabilities
  • More effective execution of the finance function
  • Using IT to make it easier to implement change.

Within each of these three themes we will be exploring a range of important topics.

First, to address basic requirements, we’ll look at the application of financial performance management (FPM) to help improve results. Ventana Research defines FPM as the process of addressing the often overlapping issues that affect how well finance organizations support the activities and strategic objectives vr_Office_of_Finance_18_spreadsheets_slow_closingof their companies and manage their own operations. FPM deals with the full cycle of the finance department’s functions, including corporate and strategic finance, planning, forecasting, analysis, closing and reporting. It involves a combination of people, processes, information and technology.  In each of these, not using the appropriate technology has a significant impact on how well a company performs. For example, spreadsheets are an essential technology for finance departments but often are used inappropriately. Our research shows that on average companies that use them substantially in managing their financial consolidation and close take more than two days longer to complete the process than those that use them rarely. Spreadsheets are often used to address the symptoms – not the causes – of technology issues. But automation through software dedicated to such tasks can eliminate the need for repetitive steps such as allocations and reconciliations or address the root causes of data that is hard to access, inconsistent or inaccurate.

Similarly, ERP systems are a core technology that supports finance operations. Forward-looking finance executives must take into consideration more than just the difficulty and cost of implementing and modifying these systems. A reluctance to make timely changes to ERP systems poses cost and risk issues of its own. Organizations that are have shied away from cloud-based ERP also should re-examine their assumptions for doing so.

ERP is a mature category, yet there are some business models and methods that most ERP systems do not handle well. The Office of Finance practice will be paying greater attention to areas such as configure, price and quote (CPQ) applications as well as recurring revenue software. Companies that offer subscription-type services (as their core business or one that contributes a significant share of revenues) will find it valuable to automate the quote-to-cash process as an end-to-end process, including control of the data created by and used in the process.

To strengthen its core capabilities, several technologies are particularly important to the Office of Finance. One, mentioned above, is in-memory computing. Because of its ability to rapidly process computation of even complex models with large data sets, in-memory computing can expand the range of planning, budgeting, forecasting and reviewing. It enables organizations to run more simulations to understand trade-offs and the consequences of specific events, as well as change the focus of reviews from what just happened to what to do next. For these reasons, in-memory computing also may encourage more companies to replace desktopvr_Office_of_Finance_04_spreadsheets_are_the_tool_of_choice spreadsheets (which have practical limits to the size, complexity and adaptability of the models that are created in them) with dedicated planning applications that can harness the power of in-memory processing.

More effective use of technology also means replacing spreadsheets used in repetitive collaborative enterprise processes with dedicated applications. Our recent business planning research reveals that a majority of midsize and larger companies continue to use spreadsheets for planning, forecasting and budgeting – and these companies continue to suffer the consequences, such as an inability to do effective contingency planning or drill down into underlying data to have visibility into root causes of opportunities or issues. People recognize that spreadsheets have shortcomings, but they rationalize their use because of their familiarity and convenience. Our research shows that many aren’t aware of the various categories of affordable and relatively easy to use software that provide a range of capabilities unavailable in spreadsheets. Those capabilities can go a long way toward making Finance more strategic.

For instance, predictive analytics is a technique that companies can utilize to achieve better results. It can be used to create more accurate or nuanced projections of future outcomes and is especially useful in quickly finding divergences from expectations to create more timely alerts. For instance, rather than having to wait until the end of a month to look at actual results and then initiate a course of action, early in the month a corporation could use predictive analytics to spot and address a probable revenue shortfall in a specific product line or to change production rates or shipments to avoid a likely regional stock-out caused by demand that is stronger than expected. Predictive analytics increasingly is embedded in planning applications.

Other, more specialized software tools also can promote a more effective finance function, and executives must focus on acquiring and using those that enable the department to take a more active role in improving performance in the company’s operations. Finance has the necessary analytical talent and is positioned to be a neutral party in balancing the requirements of different functional groups or where issues cross business units or geographic boundaries. For example, software that helps manage pricing and profitability is spreading from hospitality, transportation, retailing and consumer financial services to other areas, especially business-to-business industries. Used properly, this type of software enables a company to tailor its control of individual decisions regarding pricing, discounts and other terms to achieve the results best suited to its strategy. It can continuously make adjustments consistent with longer-term objectives in response to market conditions. Similarly, companies increasingly use expense management systems to gain greater control over aggregate spending and vendor selection. These sorts of systems can provide controllers and treasurers with greater forward visibility into future outlays, ensure volume discounts are utilized and honored, and help streamline the accounts payable process to earn early-payment discounts.

vr_fcc_tax_insightAnother operational area, taxation, incurs some of a company’s biggest expenses, yet direct (income) tax management is still in its infancy. Here also, most organizations use desktop spreadsheets to manage their direct tax analytics and provisioning, a time-consuming process that fails to deliver transparency or the ability to manage tax risk exposure effectively. They would do better with technology more conducive to a strategic approach to managing income taxes. Half the companies in our research said that having deeper insight into their tax positions could save them money. A growing list of software is available to make the tax provisioning process faster and more visible, enabling companies to make better decisions about the timing and aggressiveness of their tax positions. In addition, all larger and some midsize corporations can benefit from a dedicated tax data warehouse to support the automation of tax planning and provisioning.

The third area where technology can help senior executives achieve better results is in implementing fundamental changes in business management. For example, our benchmark research on long-range planning demonstrates that better management of technology and information can improve alignment between strategy and execution. As well, far from simply being a technology concern, cloud computing enables corporations to cut costs and gain access to more sophisticated technology than they could feasibly support in an on-premises deployment. Using effective technology can boost performance. The improper use of spreadsheets as seen in our research continues be an unseen killer of corporate productivity because they have inherent defects that significantly reduce users’ efficiency in these tasks. Increasingly companies have inexpensive options that are easier to use and enable more advanced, reliable modeling, analysis and reporting. Finance organizations are usually involved in developing scorecards to assess performance. In developing and applying balanced scorecards, companies must incorporate operational risks to the mix of measures. Managing operational risk outside of financial services is still hit-and-miss, as our benchmark research on governance, risk and compliance shows. Nonfinancial businesses rarely manage risk well, usually because they do not measure risk explicitly and therefore do not formally consider it as a trade-off in making decisions.

Another component of our 2015 research agenda is the Ventana Research Value Indexes – detailed evaluations of vendor software offerings in specific categories. We carefully assess an exhaustive list of product functionality and its suitability to task, product architecture and the effectiveness of vendor support for the buying process and customer assurance. Each Value Index represents the value a vendor offers and relevant aspects of its products and services for users. This year again we will assess financial performance management suites and introduce a new Value Index for business planning software to complement our benchmark research.

Information technology is an essential element of business management. Yet many senior executives and managers have too narrow and too limited an understanding of IT’s full potential, much as those managing corporate information technology usually don’t appreciate business issues and how IT can address them. The business/IT divide is a barrier that prevents many companies from achieving their performance potential. The divide need not exist. Business executives don’t have to be able to write Java code or master the intricacies of an ERP or sales compensation application. However, CEOs and executives should master the basics of IT just as they must understand the fundamentals of corporate finance, the production process and – at least at a high level – the technologies that support that process. My research agenda for 2015 that you can download continues to focus on the major issues in which technology plays a key role in addressing key issues that confront businesses. Please follow my analyst perspectives this year as I continue to focus on the practical use of information technology to improve the effectiveness of finance and accounting professionals.

Regards,

Robert Kugel

SVP Research

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