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Host Analytics has introduced AirliftXL, a new feature of its cloud-based financial performance management (FPM) suite that enables its software to translate users’ spreadsheets into the Host Analytics format. I find it significant in three respects. First, it can substantially reduce the time and resources it takes for a company to go live in adopting the Host Analytics suite, lowering the cost of implementation and accelerating time to value. Second, it enables Host Analytics users who have the appropriate permissions to create and modify models and templates that they use in planning, budgeting, consolidation and reporting. This can enhance the value of the system by making it easier to maintain. Third, it can make it far easier to routinely collect and connect planning and analytical models used by all departments and business users as it has outlined in its planning cloud offering. Although it has limitations in its initial release, AirliftXL gives corporations a workable alternative to stand-alone spreadsheets and has the potential to substantially increase productivity and effectiveness of an organization in the full range of budgeting, planning, consolidation and reporting functions.

AirliftXL addresses a fundamental issue that diminishes the productivity vr_ss21_spreadsheet_maintenance_is_a_burdenof companies, especially finance departments. I’ve noted in the past that desktop spreadsheets are indispensable tools for individual tasks and ad-hoc analysis and reporting, but they are poorly suited to repetitive collaborative enterprise-wide functions such as planning, budgeting, consolidation and reporting. Spreadsheets are seductive because so many people are well trained in using them that they can translate their ideas into even complex models, do analysis and create reports. However, the productivity that spreadsheets afford in authoring is more than offset when they are used over time. Desktop spreadsheets have fundamental technological shortcomings that make them unwieldy for any repetitive, collaborative task. After more than a few people become involved and a file is used and reused, cracks begin to appear. Very quickly, a large percentage of the time spent with the file is devoted to maintaining and updating them, as our spreadsheet research has shown with up to 18.1 hours per month in maintenance that I have analyzed. Spreadsheets are notoriously error-prone. In addition to monetary losses, some of which have been spectactular, there is a drag on productivity as users try to locate the source of errors and discrepancies that routinely occur in spreadsheets and then fix those mistakes.

AirliftXL enables ordinary users to create spreadsheet models and reports in Microsoft Excel and then quickly convert these to the Host Analytics enterprise system. Those that “own” a model, analysis, report or process can control these in Host Analytics. This speeds the process of setting up Host Analytics because there’s no need for someone to “translate” the company’s current set of spreadsheet models, analyses and reports. This cuts the time (and therefore the cost) of setting up the new system.

It also means that whenever changes need to be made, those responsible can make the changes themselves. Allocations and analytical models used in planning and consolidations can become part of a company’s system almost immediately. These alterations can be effected by “exporting” the Host Analytics object to a spreadsheet, modifying it and uploading back to the system. As well, users can create new models, analytics and reports in Excel and import them into the Host Analytics system. There’s no need for resident expertise or consulting time to make such changes. AirliftXL provides an organization with the best of both worlds: first, the up-front productivity that comes from enabling the author, a subject-matter expert, to quickly translate his or her ideas into a spreadsheet and, second, the ongoing productivity that is achieved when the plan, analytic model or report is kept in a centralized, easily accessible and controlled environment. These same authors can update and expand their analytical models or reports. Host Analytics can render models back into an Excel spreadsheet and the owner – not a consultant or trained IT person – can make the necessary changes and then upload them back into the system. This is an important capability because change is a constant in businesses and these changes must be reflected in financial performance management systems.

Organizations have hundreds, sometimes thousands, of spreadsheets circulating that support a multitude of processes and users in every department and business unit. AirliftXL can help incorporate them into a controlled enterprise software environment. Information that today is kept in one part of an organization can be viewed and used by others. Budgets and integrated business plans can quickly incorporate the most up-to-date information. Complex models now held in spreadsheets can be more controllable, consistent and safely accessible to a wider group of users. Creating links across individual spreadsheets (say, sales forecasts prepared by the sales organization and a company income statement forecast prepared by Finance) is straightforward, although linking to external data sources (say from a spreadsheet to a relational data store) is a little trickier. As well, Excel’s built-in financial, statistical and logical functions are all maintained in Host Analytics.

AirliftXL has the potential to be an important differentiator for the company. IBM Cognos has had something like this in Cognos Insight but from my analysis it is not as easy to use as the Host Analytics feature. Some corporations have finance IT professionals with deep subject-matter expertise as well as IT systems skills, but even their presence does not address the root cause of the misuse of spreadsheets. Most people who understand the needs of the business lack the IT skills necessary to use their company’s systems. They default to using spreadsheets because it is more expedient than trying to transfer their knowledge to someone who understands IT systems.

While AirliftXL is an important first step in taming the spreadsheet problem, it has limitations. For one, it’s not possible at this point to create a dynamic model such as an integrated income statement, balance sheet and statement of cash flows. This is a snap in a two-dimensional spreadsheet grid but much harder when working with a relational or multidimensional database. Moreover, there’s no guarantee that the spreadsheets imported into Host Analytics will be free of formulaic errors or even if it is well constructed. Thus, companies will need to put quality control processes in place, especially if a spreadsheet can have a material impact on the accuracy of financial statements or could defeat controls for fraud. It also would be handy if some vendor would create a product that could automate the digestion of masses of spreadsheets floating around companies as described in this patent for extracting semantics from data.

Despite these reservations Host Analytics’ AirliftXL provides an VI_FPM_Hot_Vendorimportant capability that can cut costs of deploying and maintaining its software and increase its value to a company. This advancement builds on top of its recent rating as a Hot Vendor in the 2013 Value Index on Financial Performance Management.  I recommend that corporations looking to change or upgrade all or some of their financial performance management suite consider Host Analytics and how AirliftXL helps transition the use of spreadsheets to a dedicated application approach.

Regards,

Robert Kugel – SVP Research

Oracle continues to enrich the capabilities of its Hyperion suite of applications that support the finance function, but I wonder if that will be enough to sustain its market share and new generation of expectations.VI_Financialmanagement At the recent Oracle OpenWorld these new features were on display, and spokespeople described how the company will be transitioning its software to cloud deployment. Our 2013 Financial Performance Management Value (FPM) Index rates Oracle Hyperion a Warm vendor in my analysis, ranking eighth out of nine vendors. Our Value Index is informed by more than a decade of analysis of technology suppliers and their products and how well they satisfy specific business and IT needs. We perform a detailed evaluation of product functionality and suitability-to-task as well as the effectiveness of vendor support for the buying process and customer assurance. Our assessment reflects two disparate sets of factors. On one hand, the Hyperion FPM suite offers a broad set of software that automates, streamlines and supports a range of finance department functions. It includes sophisticated analytical applications. Used to full effect, Hyperion can eliminate many manual steps and speed execution of routine work. It also can enhance accuracy, ensure tasks are completed on a timely basis, foster coordination between Finance and the rest of the organization and generate insights into corporate performance. For this, the software gets high marks.

Unfortunately, this FPM suite remains more difficult to deploy and maintain than other vendors’ suites, and its user experience is becoming dated. As well, social collaboration is increasingly important in business, especially to fit specific requirements of the finance function, as I recently noted. Oracle understands that it must address changing user experience requirements as the baby boomers retire and are replaced by people who have fundamentally different expectations of how software is supposed to work. While there was plenty of evidence at OpenWorld that Oracle is taking steps to remedy this at a corporate level, it’s up to individual units to implement changes to their software portfolio, and it’s not clear that this is a priority for the Hyperion group. But in other areas, Oracle is busy addressing gaps in its FPM offerings. It is adding mobile enablement to Hyperion Financial Management and Planning, starting with an executive approval application to ensure that necessary signoffs can occur anywhere to speed the completion of routine work. To address the growing popularity of its cloud-based rivals, Oracle’s long-awaited Planning and Budgeting Cloud Service should be available by the end of 2013, providing budgeting, planning, collaborative forecasting and reporting as services to companies. And the company is offering financial and management and reporting in the cloud to streamline production and delivery of reports.

Hyperion still has the strongest franchise in the finance function, the legacy of achieving early market dominance in software for vr_fcc_financial_close_and_automationconsolidation, reporting, planning and budgeting. It succeeded because it gave the finance department autonomy from IT with applications designed by people who understood their needs. Hyperion offers a rich set of capabilities to automate the extended close cycle – all of the activities that start with the preclosing functions and continue through completion of external reporting. Our recent benchmark research on the financial close found a correlation between the time it takes a company to close and the degree of automation that it applies to the process. On average, those with a high degree of automation are able to close their books in 5.7 days, compared to 9.1 days for those that apply little or no automation. Oracle’s Financial Close Suite of applications is designed to enable companies to execute their period-end close faster and more accurately while requiring fewer resources. This is important because managing their close well is an issue for more than half of companies. Our research found that 61 percent of corporations take more than six business days to complete their quarterly or semiannual close (the consensus best practice is closing within six business days). Rather than achieving a faster close, which 83 percent of companies said is important or very important, the research found that on average it takes a day longer for companies to close than it took them five years earlier. In conjunction with better process design, using software to automate manual processes, manage all phases of process execution and limit the use of desktop spreadsheets is an effective way to shorten a company’s close cycle. Oracle’s Financial Management Analytics allows finance executives to closely monitor this extended close cycle.

One recent addition to Oracle Hyperion’s Financial Close Suite is Tax Provision. Accurately calculating and reporting direct (income) taxes is a time-consuming, labor-intensive process for almost all midsize and larger companies. I’ve written about the importance of using technology to bring the tax function into mainstream finance. There are two necessary IT elements to managing this process. One is ensuring that all of the data needed for provisioning and any subsequent audit is readily available. An option here is a tax data warehouse for companies that have a large number of legal entities and/or operate in multiple tax jurisdictions. Hyperion doesn’t have this capability. However, for companies that have less complex requirements or just want to simplify and centralize the gathering of tax data, it provides the second necessary element: an environment that manages tax data collection, improves the accuracy of the data and the calculations (by substantially reducing the need for desktop spreadsheets and rekeying of data from source systems) and automates data movement through configurable wizards. Especially in the quarterly and year-end accounting closes, numerous adjustments may take place that can affect the tax provision or changes in tax calculations that can have an impact on reported results. A tax provision application can speed up the back-and-forth adjustments, helping to shorten the accounting close cycle. It also can enhance the effectiveness of the tax function because those professionals will have more time to spend on analysis and optimizing a company’s tax position rather than wrestling with spreadsheets.

Oracle has added important new capabilities to its FPM suite since acquiring Hyperion. Expanding the suite has helped the company sustain its franchise in the face of determined competition from large to smaller sized software vendors such as IBMInfor and SAP, as well as smaller ones including Adaptive PlanningAnaplanHost AnalyticsLongview and Tagetik. The generational change that’s under way in corporations poses a serious competitive threat to Oracle. For finance professionals, word of mouth and brand loyalty count far more than “enchanted boxes” or “undulations”: That’s how Hyperion came to dominate the market. But times change, and Oracle is vulnerable because of the time and cost of deployment, ease of use and maintenance and user experience of its FPM suite. These were reflected in our 2013 Financial Performance Management Value Index. This year’s OpenWorld demonstrated that Oracle can pivot – albeit slowly – to address a rapidly evolving applications software market. With Hyperion it needs to focus more on addressing core competitive issues if it expects to sustain a leading market position.

Regards,

Robert Kugel – SVP Research

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