For many financial planners out there, budgeting, planning and forecasting equals spreadsheets. Dozens or hundreds of them – that’s just the reality. You’ve accepted the fact that come the end of the fiscal year, you and your cohorts will be chained to your desk piecing together various versions of spreadsheets from each department and hoping that after several weeks of this, you’re able to consolidate the numbers into a workable budget for the next year. And then you hit a sales roadblock halfway through the year and have to forecast the impact…and go through all of this again.
The sheer amount of work this process takes is not the only challenge you face, and you’re not alone. Let’s take a closer look at 4 of the common challenges that are undermining your ability to be truly productive and add value when it comes to budgeting, planning, and forecasting.
Have you ever tried driving at night without headlights? I haven’t, but I can tell it’s a bad idea. In the same vein, your visibility issues when it comes to budgeting and planning mean you might be driving blind and that’s a bad idea for organizations that want accurate budgets and forecasts for the year/6 months/quarter ahead. Can you relate to these complaints?
- I’m unable to get real-time data from IT.
- The data I do get is siloed.
- We need to cut our sales plan back 10% and I have no way to see the financial impact, let alone quickly notify budget managers of the change.
Visibility issues might vary in complexity but they all mean the same thing: making decisions with inadequate or outdated information can inject serious error into every process at your organization. If you have old data to plan with, your budgets may be unrealistic. If you can’t provide timely insight to your budget managers, they can’t make good decisions (as would be the case with #3 above).
And if you’re not providing value-added contributions to the budgeting and planning process, your role as a planner will be undermined.
There is evidence SMBs are ahead of the curve when it comes to performance management. A 2010 Aberdeen Group study found that mid-sized companies outperformed their larger counterparts during the most recent economic slow-down and are more likely to use performance metrics pervasively throughout the organization. If you’re one of these businesses – or would like to be – you can cultivate a culture of fact-based decision-making by making the move from manual tracking of KPIs to the widespread use of business intelligence. BI is not just for large enterprises anymore!
Deploying BI is a big decision for any company, but especially for SMBs with limited resources and budget constraints. These are the top 3 considerations for SMBs starting BI projects in the next 12 months:
1) Spreadsheets – continue using Excel or stop? Excel is still the most pervasive analytics tool in the world and also the most commonly used database – especially for planners – because it is relatively easy to use and inexpensive. The good news is that there is a way to marry the best part of Excel into a BI infrastructure. In such a system, Excel is used for analysis and is directly connected to the reporting database so you can automate your reporting in a familiar environment. (Want to learn more? Click here.)
2) Your vendor approach – best of breed or single vendor? In the best of breed approach, you would plug the best product for your specific task into your BI stack. Smaller niche vendors are eager to provide the best products and services at a more affordable price than megavendors. Going with a single stack can be expensive and locks you in, but it does offer you access to a suite of products that should work together if your needs change/grow in the future.
3) Deployment strategy – SaaS or hosted?
Is your budgeting, planning, and forecasting process no longer useful to your organization? Does it take too long, involve cumbersome spreadsheets, and result in obsolete information? You’re not alone. Many of our clients came to us with these same complaints. In fact, we work with a hospital in New Jersey that used to collect 200 spreadsheets at the beginning of every budget cycle, then ended up with multiple versions of each spreadsheet by the end of the process…though now that I think about it, I’m not sure their budget cycle ever actually ended. It just merged into next year’s!
That is an obvious example of a company that had outgrown its budgeting and planning process. But some situations aren’t so obvious. You know you and your planners suffer at the end of every fiscal year, but is it so much that you should consider graduating to the next level of planning?
Here’s 5 ways to know if you’re ready to move on to a more sophisticated method of budgeting and planning:
1) You’re beyond the 6/6 spreadsheet rule.
Spreadsheets are excellent tools for individual tasks and ad-hoc reporting, but are poorly suited to repetitive, collaborative, enterprise-wide functions such as budgeting and planning. One rule of thumb that says, “If more than 6 people will use it more than 6 times, you should consider an alternative.”
2) Time constraints are limiting the amount of re-planning you can accomplish.
The best time to gain an advantage in the market is during a downturn. While your competitors may have been cutting costs during the recent economic crisis, if you had more agile planning processes in place, you would have anticipated change better and been more nimble in adjusting your business.
Yes, it’s the ubiquitous “examination of Excel” article that every BI blog posts at some point. But I think it’s important to discuss the limitations of Excel, especially for readers who are just beginning to realize that they cannot continue with manual data collection and reporting forever.
Question: What is the most popular database and what’s the most popular BI tool?
Answer: Excel and Excel
This isn’t surprising. Everybody knows how to use Excel and it’s installed on just about every Windows machine out there. Excel is intuitive and allows users to input data and output it into simple reports and charts – stuff we all need to do our jobs. You can even do some pretty complex stuff with it if you’re willing to learn how to write macros. But just because you can do something, should you? Obvious answer: No.
For one thing, Excel is not multi-user software. It’s only meant to be used by you on your machine. Translation: It’s not a database like SQL Server or Oracle. You can store a lot of data in it, but as soon as you have to share this data with other stakeholders in your organization, things start to unravel. You realize that not everybody is entitled to see the data you’ve put into the spreadsheet (creating authorization/ authentication issues) so you’ll have to extract just their part. Then you have to get it to them via email or FTP, and any interaction they have with the data will need to make its way back to your original version for reconciliation (creating update management and versioning issues).