August 21, 2014

Blowing Past Your Business Speed Limit

Hamish Nairn

What’s your business speed limit?

Oh, I’m sorry. Didn’t know you had one? But you do. You may not have noticed it before, but as the CFO, you see it whenever you request a new data view and it takes two, three, even four weeks for it to be created. Another clue is that your finance team includes a junior analyst whose full-time job is to pull, clean and analyze raw data out of your reporting system and into Excel – just to generate core financial metrics.

You spot it again when the CEO interrupts your latest presentation to the board with a helpful suggestion: “It would be great if we could see these sales metrics down to the store level after correcting for discounts.” Yes, you agree that it would be great, but creating it would require weeks of effort across the IT and finance teams. “That’s a great idea, and I’ve even asked for it before,” you respond. “But as I’ve learned, our data isn’t structured to give us those views on demand. Doing this would require IT to modify dimensions and rebuild the cube, which means we’d have to pull resources from other critical projects. So for the time being, we’ll probably have to keep working from the metrics we currently have.”

Clearly, there’s a limit to the speed of your business.  If you’re like most organizations, your reporting tools aren’t fast or flexible. They make changing your metrics a slow, difficult process requiring cross-team effort, so you postpone it or avoid it altogether. And management is forced to make decisions using data based on old business rules and outdated structures – like planning for the future by looking in your rearview mirror.

When you’re at the speed limit, business management is restricted. Inflexible data structures lead to inflexible business processes. It’s harder to identify trends, pinpoint risks and determine possible revenue plays.  It’s tougher to run in the now.

Meet the Three Speed Blockers

There are three major sources of business speed limits:

1: Inflexible technology. Your reporting tools are weighed down by the baggage of a legacy data environment. As your business evolves, it is very difficult to reconfigure the data in line with new structures. Changes to business rules, hierarchies or definitions generate large programs of work to reconstruct the data engine.  In fact, changes are often impossible due to brittle legacy architectures that can’t scale or bend and flex.  This becomes even more complicated if the processing capacity has memory or storage limitations.

2: Ownership conflicts. The CFO needs new data but the CIO controls it. It’s challenging to get new requests prioritized when the IT department is so busy just keeping the current data systems running. And within IT, changes to data reporting require cooperation across the data warehousing, data management, systems management and hardware teams, each with its own priorities and each with the potential to cause delays. Depending on IT’s backlog, projects that seem simple on their face can take months or years to complete.

3. Cost. Even when data reporting requests can be handled quickly and easily, changes still come with significant financial costs. Rebuilding data cubes, updating systems and conducting testing all require work. This generates labor expenses, impacts hardware performance and may be constrained by capacity or budget considerations.

These speed blockers reduce the agility of your business and increase the risk of management losing control over decision quality. The data and processes they create can’t keep up with a fast-moving business environment.

Some seek workarounds. For instance, analysts tired of waiting on change requests resort to manually calculating metrics from raw data in Excel models outside business systems. Over time, these models become cumbersome, error-ridden and stale. They are understood only by a small number of experts and pivot table gurus who can navigate the spreadsheets and the broken systems. These precious few hold the keys to visibility on business performance in the organization – a thought that should worry any CFO.

Working at the Speed of Business

The answer is to remove speed limits and eliminate the need for manual workarounds.  In our work with customers like Netflix, Cerner Health and Reddy Ice, we’re seeing organizations once buried under spreadsheets now accelerating their business by taking advantage of three key advantages to Tidemark’s cloud-first, mobile-based business planning and analytics software.

  • Tidemark provides data flexibility that matches the need for business flexibility. Users can quickly and easily view metrics across many dimensions. One tap on the tablet enables managers to drill into metrics or view a different dimension. Unshackled from Excel silos, multiple collaborators can participate in the same reports at the same time.
  • Tidemark is fast. The cloud-first computation engine delivers metrics instantly in your browser, with no error-prone analysts or manual workarounds involved. Everything and everyone uses the same, up-to-date system that is maintained by Tidemark. It’s always current, always available, and always fast.
  • Tidemark offers control over the data by managers who work at the front lines of the business. No more turf disputes between IT teams that hold up change requests. Modifications to definitions and hierarchies are straightforward, even for non-technical users. And because Tidemark hosts and maintains the system for you, you lower your ownership costs and have more IT resources to commit to other projects.

If the speed blockers mentioned above look familiar to you, perhaps it’s time to look seriously at a cloud-first solution that empowers the entire organization to manage performance, impact results, and equip managers to immediately understand the implications of their decisions.

It’s just what you need to blow past your business speed limit once and for all.

August 14, 2014

Analyze This: Introducing Tidemark Advanced Analytics

Christian Gheorghe

Most companies recognize the advantages of data-driven decision-making. And because they are the de facto stewards of corporate performance data, CFOs are increasingly viewed as strategic partners in management.

Unfortunately, existing planning and analysis tools are making it impossible for CFOs to fully live up to that role. The inherent limitations of these tools prevent them from pinpointing the key factors affecting their business, leave them unequipped to leverage advanced analytics that would improve their business decisions and the accuracy of their plans, and render them powerless to engage stakeholders beyond basic FP&A functions.

For today’s organizations – who can’t afford to operate based on an obsolete, rear view mirror view of their business — these shortcomings are simply unacceptable. This is why we are introducing Tidemark Advanced Analytics. This collection of innovative new features enables decision-makers to identify what factors impact their business, which in turn will help them narrow their focus in ways that lead to better decisions.

Tidemark Advanced Analytics handily addresses both sides of the data conundrum: business users harness the full potential of data, but they’re not overwhelmed by it. We achieve this by putting intuitive statistical analytics into the hands of every manager and stakeholder in the business – and in a way that lets them focus on outcomes, rather than on complex calculations. This leads to more accurate plans and risk-adjusted forecasts that incorporate the data most likely to influence outcomes. Meanwhile, managers can sift out confusing or misleading correlations that too often leave them drowning in data.

We designed Tidemark Advanced Analytics from the input and guidance we’ve received directly from customers. They told us that, to operate in the now, they need the ability to:

  • Quickly and easily identify business drivers and risks. Any manager can leverage our in-memory computational cloud to understand advanced statistical metrics, such as coefficient of correlation. That way, they can identify what is really driving the business and what poses the greatest risk.
  • Intuitively run scenario analyses and what-if modeling based on data context. Tidemark also integrates advanced, contextual analysis within recognized planning and forecasting processes, so managers can focus on the right factors at the right time and within the right process.  When everything is presented and analyzed in context, there’s less guesswork and confusion, and faster time to insight.
  • Democratize analytics to include more business users – not just the experts in finance. With Tidemark’s intuitive, consumer-like user experience, there’s no longer a need to depend solely on specialized data science expertise or hard-to-use statistical tools to incorporate the statistical insights gained from correlation and regression analysis. As a result, business users can more easily focus on the impact of a few key risks, resulting in plans they can act on with confidence.

This is what Tidemark Advanced Analytics delivers. Now business users across the enterprise – not just data scientists and IT experts – can harness advanced computation and statistical capabilities in the context of their financial and operational analytics. So whether you’re determining optimal pricing strategies, developing a hiring strategy that reduces churn, or identifying the most promising targets for a university fundraising campaign, Tidemark Advanced Analytics can help you achieve the outcomes you’re after.

An Industry First, Available Now

All this represents an industry first. No other provider has integrated these advanced statistical analytics capabilities within a financial and operational planning platform.  And true to our history, we’re not holding onto these breakthroughs until we roll out the next big release months from now. Because our cloud-first software applications are automatically updated, new features appear automatically and seamlessly, and our customers don’t have to slog through software upgrades and version management headaches.

We at Tidemark remain laser focused on advancing our core planning, forecasting and budgeting capabilities. So even as we introduce the groundbreaking stuff like Tidemark Advanced Analytics, our customers will continue to see us regularly refine, improve and extend the features they use day in and out.

Our customers never stop innovating, and neither will we.

August 6, 2014

Doing More With Less – Financial Planning for Higher Education

Ryan Chan

I think it’s fair to say that college students don’t put much thought to what it takes to keep their school running smoothly. They show up to school to take classes, enjoy a social life, explore opportunities, and graduate.

This certainly was true for me. I don’t blame my 18-year-old student self, because when you’re that age, you tend to be pretty self-obsessed. So when my school’s registration systems became overwhelmed, or when my Poli Sci final grade failed to appear on Blackboard the day after the exam, or when my scholarship funding took seemingly forever to be reflected in my tuition balance, it never really occurred to me that operating a college or university was exceptionally hard work.

It still is – in fact, it’s tougher than ever. And last week, I learned just how difficult things have gotten when I attended the Campus Technology 2014 Conference at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston. I learned that my perception of higher education over a decade ago couldn’t have been more naive or simplistic. After speaking with numerous higher ed professionals, I came to realize the vast resources required to run an entire university. And if this wasn’t already challenging enough, falling taxpayer support has led to subsidy decreases, tuition increases and greater fiscal pressures on institutions.

Stephen Rituper explains how Tidemark Financial Planning for Higher Education can help a Campus Tech 2014 attendee.

A common theme I heard at the convention was that colleges and universities are increasingly “doing more with less.” With rising tuition comes even greater expectations, yet schools must somehow deliver on these expectations by relying on static or shrinking overall revenues.

So how do higher ed business officers do more with less?

Most of those I spoke with felt they had no choice but to somehow work smarter — to eliminate activities that aren’t producing results and replicate or expand the ones that do. But doing so requires administrators to understand what’s really going on within the university by making optimal decisions based on real-world data. Typically universities use Excel for big data analysis, but a big complaint I heard at the conference was how difficult it is to identify certain line items within huge spreadsheets with dozens, even hundreds of tabs, and then try to use those spreadsheets to collaborate with colleagues.

Last year, Tidemark worked with Brown University to help them move from an annual planning process to a cloud-based, continuous planning environment. Brown’s new environment unifies the separate planning models and data repositories that previously existed across four different schools, giving budget owners and planners a single view of plans and analytics that can be shared across the university.

Brown University, University of Miami, Florida Atlantic University and the Association of American Medical Colleges choose Tidemark.Our work with Brown and other higher ed institutions helped us identify the different processes that higher education institutions go through in the planning process. Consequently, we developed Financial Planning for Higher Education, a packaged application designed specifically to reinvent strategic planning, revenue planning, personnel budgeting and control, departmental budgeting, capital planning and grant planning. Designed for use by any budget owner across the institution, Tidemark pushes planning and budgeting to the edges so department heads can understand and plan by funding course, grant, position, use, and more. And it uses unique features like Tidemark Storylines so a university’s financial story can be easily understood by provosts, donors, regulators and alumni.

Balancing higher expectations with shrinking incomes is no easy assignment. But Tidemark’s growing roll call of higher ed customers – including Brown, The University of Miami, Florida Atlantic University and the Association of American Medical Colleges –  can attest that “doing more with less” is suddenly getting a lot easier.

August 1, 2014

Too Important to Stay the Same

Caroline Japic

A defining characteristic of Tidemark customers is that they’re not interested in maintaining the status quo. They’re innovators by nature. It’s just who they are.

I just spent an entire day happily swimming in one of these pools of innovative thinking. The place was Kansas City, the headquarters of Cerner, a leader in the $66 billion global health IT solutions market. Cerner’s technology solutions and services are designed to help more than 9,300 healthcare facilities put information right where people need it most right at the moment they need it.  The company’s tagline sums up its obsession with innovation: Healthcare is too important to stay the same.

Well, we at Tidemark feel the same about financial and operational planning and analytics. And so, it turns out, does Cerner. But more on that later.

We were in Kansas City at Cerner’s Riverport Training Campus on the Missouri River, which is its own kind of reinvention. The campus is located in what was formerly Sam’s Town Casino—and the lights of the Steakhouse and Great Buffet still remain as a bright neon reminder.  This unique and fabulous facility is used for Cerner meetings and employee training sessions. This week it was the site of Cerner Datacon ‘14, a daylong immersion for roughly 500 of the company’s analysts and data scientists. Cerner hosts this annual internal confab because it’s very much a data-driven company, and because it wants the people who own and work with critical data to have access to Cerner’s founders and other company leaders.

Cerner’s Co-Founder and Vice Chairman Cliff Illig opened the conference with a powerful keynote about growing an enterprise. Illig traced his own story as owner of Sporting Kansas City, the American professional soccer club based in Kansas City, Kansas. The club is a member of the Eastern Conference of Major League Soccer and one of the ten charter clubs of MLS, having competed in the league since it began play in 1996. As a Soccer Mom myself, I was thrilled to hear how Illig has driven the success of SportingKC using the same principles used to grow Cerner. As an investor and business leader, Illig always looks for ROI. And last year his Club really delivered, winning the prestigious MLS Cup.

Our role at Cerner Datacon was to make sure the Cerner team realized they have access to a powerful, flexible and cloud-based computational platform that can help them get so much more from their data. Today, Cerner uses Tidemark software for capital planning and headcount planning – both pretty critical functions for a growing $2.9 billion global enterprise with more than 14,000 employees.  At Cerner, these processes were previously handled in Excel and locked into once-a-year schedules that left this fast-growing, data-driven enterprise working from information that often wasn’t current. With Tidemark, Cerner has a continuous forecasting environment where real-world data is updated in real time. Now that’s innovation.

To those 500 data pros in Kansas City this week, Tidemark offers ways to innovate even further – and to make the information they work with even more useful and actionable. My day at Cerner Datacon was filled with conversations around those possibilities, including:

  • Transforming information into knowledge and action
  • Understanding the revenue implications of changes to a product or service
  • Automatically generating the right data visualization for the audience at hand
  • Working with an analytics tool that doesn’t bury users in cells and confusing dashboards
  • More easily surfacing correlations and causations that help analysts accurately predict likely outcomes

Whether it’s healthcare or data analytics, Cerner understands when something is just too important to stay the same. And I can tell you it’s a thrill to go swimming in their pool of innovation.

July 24, 2014

Planning for Nightmare Scenarios – But Without the Nightmares

Caroline Japic

I recently came across a blog from CEB’s Peter Young, where he offers an excellent 10-step guide for scenario planning. Young’s idea is that, with the right methodology in place, it’s possible for companies to anticipate and blunt the damage caused by future calamities – and possibly even turn some disasters into revenue opportunities. To achieve this with some reliability, they need to combine some core best practices, a good dose of procedural structure, cross-disciplinary talent and data-driven models, and then apply all these to the process of predicting likely scenarios.

Scenario planning can be a nightmare

Young’s process is all about ensuring that your organization stays competitive in the face of potentially high-impact events. In FP&A, we talk about modeling what-if scenarios. In fact, it’s a fundamental capability of Tidemark’s software. But these are what-ifs on steroids – potential catastrophic events that could strangle your supply lines, scare off customers, or obliterate your competitive advantage.

Here’s my quick summary of Young’s list, though a more detailed version appears on his blog. Worth planning for, don’t you think?

  1. Formulate the most important problems you’re likely to face and the most crucial decisions you’ll need to make.
  2. Create a team representing the key disciplines across your company.
  3. Generate a list of major future drivers, or the events and influences likely to impact your business.
  4. Refine and rank these major driving forces.
  5. Establish the nature of the “alternate worlds” your company may face, including the logic and framework needed to test scenarios.
  6. Create a quantifiable model based on the scenario’s major forces.
  7. Gather data and quantify your assumptions, including historical data, internal structured data, and external unstructured data – everything you need to make assumptions that mean something.
  8. Run the model you built based on the what-if scenario framework you designed.
  9. Create data-driven narrative scenarios and outline your opportunities.
  10.  Present your results to senior management.

As Young points out, “Scenario planning can be complicated and resource intensive.” And if I were managing this process, I’d probably be losing some sleep over the steps involving wrangling and analyzing lots of data, then flowing that information into various useful scenarios, and finally finding a way to clearly communicate to decision-makers what these various “alternate worlds” might mean for your company.

And I’d get no sleep whatsoever if I was trying to get all this done by relying on spreadsheets or an old-school FP&A platform that affords little flexibility for on-the-fly scenario modeling. Just imagining it makes my head hurt.

The picture gets a lot brighter, however, once you factor in a modern business planning and analytics platform. Though it would streamline virtually every step in Young’s guide (not to mention FP&A overall), a solution like Tidemark would be a lifesaver in several key aspects of scenario planning, including:

  • Data gathering. Step 7 in Young’s scenario planning guide could trigger a nightmare for organizations whose internal data is stuck in silos, and whose legacy enterprise platforms impose rigid limits on how they import and use data – especially the unstructured stuff from external sources like social media networks, email and market trend info. Modern FP&A software is far more flexible. For instance, Tidemark’s architecture reorders the old “ETL” data integration process so incoming data is transformed only when business users need to access it. This makes it far easier to augment internal financial and operational data with the growing volumes of unstructured data that provides meaningful context to recognized performance metrics. The result is that your models for anticipating future events are based on more real-world data and fewer made-up assumptions that could ultimately be proven wrong in practice.
  • Analysis and modeling. A modern solution like Tidemark leverages the cloud as a computational platform. This means users access a computational grid that is free of cubes and that doesn’t limit data use by constraining volumes or dimensions. It also means data-driven decisions can be processed up to 10 times faster than typical cube-based approaches, which helps eliminate lag time and confusion over outdated information. So those complicated what-if scenarios don’t take forever to model.
  • Communicating scenarios and possible outcomes. An Excel spreadsheet or numbers-laden report might contain all the information senior executives need to anticipate how another Asian tsunami could constrict parts availability and threaten revenues, but getting to the point of insight requires a ton of heavy lifting for both presenter and audience. Tidemark innovations like Storylines and Playbooks use interactive infographics to represent complicated scenarios and potential opportunities in ways that anyone can understand – quickly and easily.

 

The best thing about modern, cloud-based FP&A solutions like Tidemark?  Scenario planning is just one use for them. They’re also instrumental in enabling a continuous planning environment that pushes budget and forecasts ownership (and participation) to every manager in your company. And the data that informs plans, budgets and forecasts is always current, so you’re never working off of outdated information.

And yes, they’ll also help remove the nightmares from your scenario planning. Because there are few things more valuable than a good night’s sleep.