The annual Oracle OpenWorld user group meeting provides an opportunity to step back and take a longer view of business, industry and technology trends affecting the company. Last year, after listening to Larry Ellison’s and Mark Hurd’s vision for the future of IT, I wrote that Oracle had to continue shifting its focus to business applications because the accelerating shift to cloud computing would lead corporations to outsource their IT infrastructures, services and security to third parties. Eventually, this would substantially shrink the market for corporate IT departments, which has been Oracle’s strength. At this year’s conference the company demonstrated how it is applying its technology strengths to create a competitive advantage that it can apply to its broad business applications portfolio.
The topic of corporate governance received renewed attention recently after the publication of an open letter signed by 13 prominent business leaders, including Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway and Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase. The first principle the group advocated in the letter is the need for a truly independent board of directors. To achieve that aim, the letter suggests having the board meet regularly without the CEO and that the members of the board should have “active and direct engagement with executives below the CEO level.” From my perspective, translating this idea into reality would be helped by a change in the dynamics of most board meetings. I would eliminate the standard presentation of results and begin the meeting with questions and observations from the board members directed to company executives related to its financial and operating results and any other matters on the agenda. This could take place with or without the CEO.
Effective capital planning and capital investment are vital to a company’s long-term success. The choices a company makes in this regard – how much to invest and in which facilities or projects – almost always have a profound impact on its competitiveness and performance. Because they have limited financial resources, well-managed companies take pains to ensure that these decisions support their long-term strategies and are made as rationally as possible. To do this they must have a disciplined approach to assigning priorities to capital investments within the context of the company’s specific strategy and objectives, as well as the ability to easily identify and eliminate unnecessary projects or excessive spending. And since business environments are dynamic, companies must also continually review their investment portfolios to assess their performance to plan and their strategic value while they also consider new investments to support and expand the existing long-term portfolio.
Some aspects of planning are easier to handle than others. For example, large majorities of companies in our Office of Finance benchmark research said that they handle the basic functions of accounting (83%) and external financial reporting (78%) well or very well. In contrast only half (49%) said that they perform strategic and long-range planning well or very well. One reason for the discrepancy may be the tools that they use. Almost all (91%) companies said they use spreadsheets to manage their long-term planning and investment processes. Spreadsheets are the wrong choice for any repetitive, collaborative company-wide processes such as strategic and long-term planning. For example, tracking and revising projects and major company initiatives over time in desktop spreadsheets is time-consuming because they lack capabilities designed for these purposes, such as the ability to manage projects as a set of resources and activities along a time dimension. With such capabilities planners are able to see quickly the financial and operational impact of delaying or accelerating a capital project. Unlike spreadsheets, software dedicated to planning often includes built-in analytics and visualizations that help executives formulate plans and assess performance. Spreadsheets don’t make it impossible for companies to plan and manage strategic and long-range projects and investments, but doing that is so time-consuming organizations may not have time to do more valuable work – for example, comparing the impacts of different economic or business scenarios on a set of investment alternatives, or performing side-by-side assessments of existing project portfolios. Dedicated software can enable a company to gain agility in adapting its portfolio of projects and investments. By shortening planning and review cycles and being able to examine the impact of different scenarios on the fly, decision-makers can do more frequent in-depth reviews and reassessments of investment performance or priorities.
Dedicated planning software also can improve executives’ ability to do long-range planning to ensure they have the right strategy to succeed in the markets they serve and the right assets to support their strategic objectives. To achieve those goals they must allocate investments in those assets as optimally as feasible and possess sufficient resources (both financial and other, such as personnel with the appropriate skills) to support those investments. These are the key activities in the long-range planning process: