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Tidemark announced the release of the Fall 2013 version of its eponymous cloud-based application that my colleague assessed earlier in 2013. This new release adds capabilities for labor planning and expense management as well profitability modeling and analysis. These two areas of planning and analysis are common to all businesses. The new release adds features that enhance the software’s ability to do sales forecasting, initiative planning and IT department planning. The company continues to refine its modeling capabilities to make it easier for people engaged in the planning process to translate their expectations and concerns into a quantified view of the future. For example, users now can build models using natural-language modeling. The objective is to eliminate the need for help from business analysts or experts trained in the use of a tool and immersed the details of the IT plumbing, such as the metadata used for specific general ledger accounts or operational data.
The Tidemark product fits into our business planning software category. It enables rapid creation and frequent updating of company plans by connecting the individual plans of business units in a unified view. It has workflows to manage periodic updates to an integrated plan and analytics to support the planning and review phases of the process. It offers engaging visualization and reporting functionality that enhances understanding and insight in developing plans as well as communicating results. It has built-in social collaboration capabilities in context because business planning requires collaboration.
Direct integration of individual business unit plans is a key capability of business planning software because it promotes coordination across a corporation. Companies in our research that plan using summarized business data much more often reported a lack of coordination than those that directly link their plan details: 27 percent of those that summarize data experience a lack of coordination in reacting to changing business conditions, compared to just 7 percent of those with direct links. As well, to facilitate planning among today’s dispersed organizations, Tidemark’s mobile capabilities support sharing plan creation and review on such devices.
One distinctive aspect of dedicated business planning is that it handles the operational and financial aspects of a plan in parallel. Traditionally, a budget-focused planning process conflates the two to produce a financial plan. Financial planning (budgeting) and operational planning have fundamentally different objectives, but they must be connected. Budgeting is about financial control; it’s about not failing. Planning aims at finding the best way to succeed. You can’t budget effectively without a plan, and you can’t plan effectively unless you consider fiscal constraints. But the two shouldn’t be homogenized, which is the way almost all companies do planning and budgeting today. Business planning software enables executives and managers to understand both the operational and the financial consequences of their actions, but it 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.
The business planning category has emerged in response to the growing sophistication of users, especially as baby boomers are replaced by generations of workers who have more demanding expectations of how software should work. Complementing this trend are improved technologies, which already are having an impact on how companies do business planning and forecasting. The cumulative effect of a decade of advances have brought traditional processes to a turning point that will profoundly change how businesses look to the future and decide their courses of action. Tidemark was founded to produce technology to help organizations increase insight, accountability and agility by addressing the shortcomings of using budgeting as a management tool, especially when it is performed using desktop spreadsheets.
The user experience figures heavily in Tidemark’s design. It enable individuals to configure the applications to work the way they want them to in the context of the business, adapting processes, data collection and information presentations to meet the specific requirements of an organization. User interfaces follow this pattern. Collaboration, for example, is set up to understand which individuals the user will interact with in a particular context. As the user moves from task to task, that list will change. This capability is consistent with what I expect to become the norm in social collaboration in enterprise applications.
Tidemark’s competitive strategy is to push as much as possible of the planning process out to individual business users. The objective is to collect all relevant information in a context that helps a business unit plan and execute better while giving executives an integrated view of the individual plans. Devolving the modeling process and automating data movements and aggregations allows those in the financial planning and analysis (FP&A) function to devote more time and thought to the analytical aspects of their work, something I call “putting the A back in FP&A.” To do this, Tidemark aims to
facilitate the process of translating managers’ thoughts and expectations into models that enhance the value of the forward-looking information they can provide senior executives. This approach also promotes greater accountability because the outcome is the business unit’s plan, not allowing users to think of it as the finance department’s budget. Tidemark also places configuration and modeling into the hands of the users. Different parts of the business plan in different ways, and this differs between businesses. Moreover, as business and economic conditions change, the planning process must adapt in ways that suit the needs of those doing the planning.
Tidemark’s main competitor today is the status quo. Companies continue to use their budgeting process as a proxy for integrated business planning, which is only indirectly supported by individual business unit plans. This market is dominated by desktop spreadsheets and range of mostly legacy financial performance management (FPM) software, which includes dedicated planning applications from large vendors as well as smaller ones along with cloud-based vendors. Tidemark is changing the conversation from a finance-centric approach to one that support planning operations and finance in parallel – in short, business planning.
Companies that are dissatisfied with their current approach to business planning and are looking to improve what our research finds in a third to almost half of organizations as important like accuracy, insight, speed and alignment of their business planning should consider business planning. When they do, they should consider the kind of software that will enable them to support a better process. We recommend that they include Tidemark in their evaluation.
Robert Kugel – SVP Research
Business software is beginning to undergo a design revolution comparable to the seismic shift from the green screen to the graphical user interface (GUI) that began in the mid-1980s. Three forces are at work. One is the retirement of large numbers of members of the baby-boom generation and the rise of a generation that grew up with computers and computer games from a young age. Also, software and technology vendors have been recognizing the need to “consumerize” business applications as mobile device interactions, gestures and other newer user interface (UI) conventions, and are incorporating these innovations in their stodgy products. I commented on this in my assessment of Tidemark early this year. A third factor, “gamification” is all the rage in business consulting circles. The idea is to engage younger employees more completely by transforming dull, routine chores into more entertaining pursuits. I join with those skeptical of just how fun one can make clerical tasks. But software can – and should – be made less tedious (and therefore more productive), especially for a new generation of users.
I saw evidence that the generational shift is upon us when walking around this fall’s Dreamforce and Oracle OpenWorld conferences, which were held just weeks apart. It struck me that the crowd at the 2012 Dreamforce was younger and its energy level was higher. While the focus of Dreamforce has shifted more to those working in IT rather than line-of-business roles (and in this respect the event is increasingly like OpenWorld), I found there more of a sense of fundamental change in design and use of business computing even (and maybe especially) when you stripped away the cloud ballyhoo. The applications I saw demonstrated seemed more fluid, agile and easier to use. By contrast, many of the newer business applications on offer from Oracle have a stale look and feel to them.
Supporting the design revolution over the next several years will be evolving information technology. For example, HTML 5 enables a richer, more capable set of capabilities in web-based and mobile software. A growing number of vendors offer low-cost computing infrastructure in the form of platform-as-a-service, which significantly reduces barriers to entry for startup software companies because up-front costs are low and businesses enjoy fewer constraints to scaling up. Third, there are the ongoing gains in the price and performance of computer processing power and memory. It is – and will continue to be – difficult to say which of these is most important, since each will feed off of and drive the others.
Until the 1990s, the market for business applications was pretty small. The client-server revolution had a profound impact on the design of business software, making it easier to work with and more flexible compared to the mainframe applications that preceded them. Much of this change was driven by a switch to relational and multidimensional databases, easier-to-use development tools, and the adoption of graphical user interfaces, which permitted event-driven programming. These underlying technologies made it easier for people to do computer-related jobs. With that came a change in how users expected to work with business software and the information they expected to get from their systems. The new generation of technology was easier to use, more flexible and more powerful. This, and the increasing homogenization of infrastructure elements and buyers’ demand for open standards, also contributed to the decline in the cost of developing applications and drove demand for more off-the-shelf applications.
Today we’re on the cusp of a similar generational change as the evolution of underlying information technology drives a major redesign of business software. To oldsters, the coming shift in business computing may be welcome, disconcerting or both. If you’re a baby boomer, you probably can remember what things were like before the client-server era and maybe what life was like before personal computers. The major shifts that took place in the 1990s are about to be repeated in ways that are subtle individually but fundamental in aggregate. People entering the workforce today and people who are in the process of taking leadership positions in companies have a different set of experiences and expectations in dealing with computing devices and technology than the boomers. The set of CIOs that came of age in the 1990s and even some millennials will need to forget old certainties, or the organizations that employ them will be forced to lose their old CIOs.
I’m pretty sure that accounts receivable or order entry will never be fun for all but the chosen few. For the rest, I’m equally certain these processes can be far less painful to execute. More fluid interactions with the software, less burdensome training, easier collaboration and greater adaptability to personal preferences are all feasible and increasingly essential for the coming releases of business applications. I also foresee increased automation to improve efficiency and reduce processing errors in these sorts of purely mechanical tasks. The result will be that, more than ever, executives and managers will need to rethink how work is performed in their parts of the business. Corporations must automate as much of the purely mechanical aspects of work as they can. This is especially true in the finance function, which still grinds out work that can and should be handled hands-free by software. In the process, companies must shift the focus of what people do to tasks that require knowledge, insight, perspective and judgment – things that (for now at least) are not easily supplied by IT. That would make back office work “funner,” if not exactly fun.
Robert Kugel – SVP Research