Posted by Charlotte Taylor on 25/02/19 13:01

what are cloud business planning solutions? 

You may know that your forecasting solution is falling short but what are the options when it comes to improving your planning processes? Here is a brief guide to what financial planning solutions can do and which pain points they can solve.  


The basics of financial planning

Financial Planning solutions aim to solve the challenge of forecasting, planning and budgeting in a business.

What naturally flows from financial planning is the need to report including full management reports, including P&L, balance sheet and cash flow statements. As a company grows and acquires more entities it may need more complex consolidation capability. 

The invention of planning solutions have been driven by growing demands on finance. Which tend to be precipitated by:

  • More Complexity
  • Speed of Growth / change
  • More data from many sources
  • Security issues
  • Ensuring Accuracy
  • Need for sharing information an better collaboration

You may have been managing a number of these pain points in your role. Growth, acquisitions or expansion adds complexity to planning. Whilst existing tools like Excel, prevent easily sharing, information and can add days of work for finance teams, whilst raising the likelihood of error and security risk. So we answer what do financial planning solutions do for you. 

 

WHAT WILL cloud PLANNING SOLUTIONS DO?

 

Whether you are looking to plan long term, forecast more regularly or budget faster, automated planning solutions are built to ease the whole process of planning. The three most powerful benefits of a modern day planning solution are in data management, automation and the move to a cloud infrastructure. Let's take a closer look at these:

DATA management

Integrating data from many sources.

Many people talk about wanting a 'single source of truth'. This enables a completeness of vision and drawing data from multiple systems to feeds their plans. 

As businesses grows so do the number of systems which hold and process data. Creating a plan which draws from many sources of data can be tough, when there's no joined up approach.

The growth and development of API's and connectors, now means integrating data is much simpler than it was. Downloading, uploading and manipulating large volumes of information is time consuming, prone to error, and dull. The ability to connect up and pull data direct from system to system saves in time and effort but rewards in accuracy and job satisfaction. Hours saved in messing around with data can be spent analysing and adding value.  

Cloud planning can pull actual data into forecast models. Data can be refreshed easily. This makes producing up-to-date reports easier and faster. Add a new date range, or filter on another dimension, refresh and the report is ready to go!

 

Automation, what can it do for planning

Budgeting involves gathering information from all the cost centres in a business. Contributors and the finance team can spend hours inputting, calculating as well as manipulating lots of information. 

 

Driver based planning

You may hear terms like Driver Based planning. This allows users to put in ASSUMPTIONS, which as the word suggests, allows you to attribute a value based on pre-defined formula's to calculate common cost of an activity. It can also be used to perform more complex calculations to project the impact of growth rates.  

Take a simple example like calculating the cost of sales. Rather than split down the costs of travel, accommodation, subsistence etc., an 'assumption' of cost can be attributed to 'a meeting'.  So when budgeting a cost centre manager can add the number of meetings for the year and a cost will be attributed. This is easier, saves time and has less margin for error. 

The other end of the spectrum is the use of assumptions to plan company wide. So you can ask questions like 'if we grow by 10% how will that impact our cash flow or Cap ex requirements.  Drivers will calculate outcome based on historical data, and formulas running behind the scenes saving hours of messing around with formulas. 

See an example of a driver based plan:

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Multi-dimensional modelling

When modelling costs and revenue to forecast future performance finance are restricted to two possibly three measurable aspects. The reason for this is largely the limitations of the tool they are using - Excel.

The ability to plan against more 'dimensions' such as; time, people, products, location, projects and many more, enables a far greater sophistication in modelling and the ability to forecast accurate outcomes. 

Instead of a flat view of results, forecasts can be more 3D. Spinning data to mix any number of combinations. More importantly, the more variables you model against the more likely you are to be accurate in your predictions.  

See what multi-dimension modelling looks like:

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Cloud infrastructure

Financial planning was traditionally done on Excel, a powerful on-premise application which could do most things.  One major limitation is being able to share documents easily. This results in multiple versions of the same document being used across the business, which means some poor soul has to then do the compilation work. 

Excel is static. It can't be updated live. At the same time many people need to input information to produce budgets. Excel makes it difficult to control formatting of information which creates a lot of work for finance in reconciling and defending the data. 

Cloud enables many people to make updates to the same version. Information is backed up and stored in a cloud server, which means volumes of data don't need to be manually manipulated in Excel. 

Information can be added at a high level, whilst automation can allocate this across time and divisions as necessary. Detail can be accessed using a 'drill down' capability, which reduces volumes of information.  

Being able to lock cells and sheets supports greater security. Security has always been a concern in Excel. Cloud planning solutions can be controlled by a central admin and enable different levels of access dependant on job role and sensitivity of information. 

Being SAAS means software updates are done globally, avoiding many versions of software running across an organisation. It means as you grow or retract the software can shape to your needs, reducing costs. 

 


 

PAIN-POINTS cloud planning software solves

 

  • The need for better reporting
  • More regular forecasting
  • The ability to model more flexibly  more 'what if' scenario's 
  • Pull more data into plans for a 'single source of truth' 
  • Create reliable accurate consolidation reports 
  • Share results more easily using different reporting formats. 
  • Improve collaboration 
  • Improve accuracy in the numbers , and security of information
  • Speed up the budgeting cycle
  • Reduce time compiling numbers
  • Find more time for analysis

 When surveying our 90 + customers, all needed to tick at least 3 or more of these pain points. 

 

Reporting

Reporting is the 'communication' end of the planning solution. It is the bit that ensures the organisation knows how it's performing and understand the aims and objectives of the business. 

Reporting has long been a bug bear for finance. The organisation will scream for the results, but often don't read half of what is produced. 

The modern reporting functionality in cloud planning solutions allows for more flexible reporting. Gone are the days of strict pre-formated reports. 

The aim is to allow all to access the relevant information in a format which makes sense. This may mean dials and graphs pushed out to dashboards. For others it may be in more traditional numbers format. 'High' level reporting with the ability to 'drill down' to the detail reduces the size and volume of information being passed around the company.   

Monthly management reporting packs can be 'refreshed' with current data making them faster to produce. Whilst some systems allow you to push results into your existing Excel reporting pack with a handy Microsoft Office connect add on.  

By creating a more 'self'service' culture, those consuming reports can produce reports as hoc which is less onerous for finance. Leaving them more time for analysis.  

  

Rolling forecasts

Rolling forecasts allow for more regular updates of plans and predictions moving away from the traditional annual budget.  Most companies re-plan at least quarterly, but would prefer to forecast more regularly. What prevents this the time it takes to forecast using tools like Excel. 

The automation in cloud planning solutions allows for creating assumptions, which drive forecasting models. These 'assumptions' are built for your business. Examples range from calculations around common expenses, to the impact of growth company wide. This means you are not relying on complex formulas buried in spreadsheets. 

Forecasting regularly allows you to see trends early and gives you more time to react to change, instead of waiting 3 months for a forecast which once produced is already out of date.  

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What If scenarios

Asking questions is at the heart of good analysis.  The time it takes to create scenario's in Excel is what impacts the number of questions you can ask.  Data, automation and more dimensions  makes creating scenarios much easier. 

Scenarios help to identify opportunities for the business, as well as avoid risks. This is the added value which can make the difference in providing insight and inform better decision making. 

Excel by it's nature is columns and rows, with pivot tables. At most modelling three parameters of information is it's limit. Modern forecasting systems, allow you to model many dimensions, time, product, services, divisions and geography.  This opens up the opportunity to model across projects which typically rely on many dimensions such as resources, time, customer information, as well as costs and revenue. 

For many businesses, projects are how they work. Being able to build scenarios based on particular project timelines, outcomes, and resource requirements globally and across different business entities makes life so much easier. Take a look at how Christian Aid did it.

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The ability to ask more questions means when change happens be it currency rates, cost of shipping, interest rates or any number of variables you know you can have the answers at your finger tips, and ideally you've already modelled and stress tested the impact of these changes.  Accurate reliable forecasts, breeds trust and confidence in the finance team. 

With the power of driver based planning and automation you can create scenarios 'live' to answer questions from the business.  Planning solutions can differ vastly in the number of scenarios you can produce. So if you want to knock out reams of 'What If's' or need to test and share many versions of your model, then check out if limitations apply. 

 

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Growing companies often have to raise Funding. When going through an investment round, many companies need to produce 10+ more models, and stress test them. Models need to be able to be shared with others and new iterations produced. This puts a lot of pressure on the finance team and CFO. 

Depending on the solution, some attach further costs on creating large numbers of scenarios. So if a debt raise is imminent, think about how you are going to satisfy the demand for good modelling information.  
watch

 

Single source of truth 

Today data drives so much. It is the oil in the cogs of business, and yet extracting and harnessing it is tough. Multiple systems, which house silos of data,  frustrates the job of pulling together a single view of information. 

A Modern planning solution will do this for you. Using API's or integration tools, they can pull data from multiple systems, providing a 'one source' version of information. 

Using information from anything from CRM, to HR to production and General ledger systems or extracting from ERP systems means organisations can model against any data. 

It also means performance and results across the business and divisions are being built into the plan, which helps ensure accurate information and engage everyone in the process.  

infographic of single source of truth for CFO's

 

Consolidation

 

A good planning solution will provide the functionality to do simple consolidations. That is adding up and reporting the results as a group of businesses.  When companies begin to cross charge and more complex adjustments are needed, then you may need functionality beyond the core planning modules.

Some planning solutions provide for this.  Others don't.  The important thing is to ensure that when buying a system, that your provider understands what you need consolidation functionality for.  Many sales people or software providers may not understand what you are defining as consolidation.  So make sure you have a consultant implementing who knows the finance first.  

 

Collaboration

A cloud based systems makes sharing easier than good old Excel. Sharing and working together to produce plans means more robust outcomes and more engagement from everyone. Not to mention eradicating the need for linking and manipulating large volumes of Excel sheets. 

When everyone understands the objectives of the business, It means less discord between departments and better understanding of goals, performance measures and the stresses on the business. 

Organisations trade across countries, currencies, companies and and more. As companies grow and acquire, more systems and cultures are thrown into the mix, which makes the need to collaborate across the business even more critical. 

Modern planning solutions makes it possible to work on the same versions of a spreadsheet and other documents consecutively, which means everyone has the most recent version.  

When it comes to reporting, self service makes it easier for all to access information, and drill down which means everyone can understand where and how number are created. 

Processes can be streamlined and tracked, so everyone can see who's working on it, and the updates are constantly being refreshed. 

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Accuracy & security

Bad data damages trust. When the company stops trusting the numbers then good decisions are impacted, with  'gut feel' taking over from reason, which is based on good analysis. 

Accuracy is often affected by handling large volumes of data which have to be manually manipulated, usually in Excel. 

Added to that modern planning solutions allow you to restrict access levels. Lock sheets and track changes, which will put most CFO's minds at rest. 

 

Speed up processes and budgeting

Budget cycles typically take up to three months, and culminate in Year End. They suck up weeks of time from your finance resources, and no one enjoys the process. 

The functionality of cloud planning solutions can speed up your budgeting by months. They remove the need to create many Excel versions. There is no manipulating massive tombs of data or hours needed to reconcile and defend the numbers. 

Cloud means everyone is working on the same version. Assumptions reduce the calculations as well as the number of cells which need populating. The margin for error is cut as less is asked of contributors and with plain English formulas, and drill-down everyone can understand and see how numbers are calculated. 

The ability to lock cells and control access as well as formatting, means the finance team aren't chasing and correcting but thinking and analysing. 

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Time for insights and analysis

Analysis is regularly cited as finances strength. The ability to dive into the numbers and identify trends, question results and identify possible opportunities as well as risks. 

Most finance departments would love to have the space to ask more questions. The barrier is time an capability. Automation which cloud planning solutions offers means producing models is faster. More dimensions to model against and access to data all makes light work of the heavy lifting involved in traditional budgeting and forecasting, freeing up time to  build more scenarios to model possible outcomes. 

 

 


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