December 9, 2014

Learn How Shelter Insurance Transformed its FP&A Process

Michaela Dempsey

In the financial planning and analytics (FP&A) world, there are plenty of old school systems. By that I mean systems that make it difficult or impossible for decision makers to use real-time data to develop accurate and attainable plans, realistic budgets and risk-weighted forecasts. Cobbled together over years, these time-sapping old school solutions aren’t built for modern business.

While many executives recognize they’re working with an outdated FP&A platform that fails to meet their needs, they don’t always realize how easy it is to trade that old school system for a cloud-based, collaborative solution.

Tidemark, Constellation Research and Shelter InsuranceNow you can hear directly from someone who’s done it – and in the process has cut her company’s annual budget cycle in half. On Friday, Dec. 12, Tidemark will host a webinar with Constellation Research that outlines how one business – Shelter Insurance Companies – has undergone this very transformation. Featuring Tina Workman, Shelter’s Vice President of Accounting and Assistant Treasurer, and Hoger Mueller, Vice President and Principal Analyst at Constellation Research, the webinar will offer real-world tips and best practices that are bound to be helpful to any executive looking to more effectively plan and operate in a real-time world. “FP&A Transformation: From Old School to Activity-Based Budgeting and Rolling Forecasts” kicks off at 11 a.m. Pacific Standard Time on Friday and dives deep into Shelter’s transformation from the strictly traditional accounting system they’d been using for years to a cloud-native, mobile-first FP&A platform.  Register for the free webinar today.

Interested in a sneak peek at Shelter’s FP&A transformation? Then check out this spotlight from a new Harvard Business Review research report. The free report, “Transformational Journeys: Modern Business Planning, is the product of extensive independent research and numerous detailed interviews.  (We partnered with HBR to help their researchers gain access to a representative sample of companies that have implemented Tidemark to transform their FP&A processes.)  Here’s how HBR tells it:

Tina Workman had a mule, but what she wanted was a fast workhorse. Maybe a mustang.

Workman is vice president of corporate accounting and assistant treasurer for Shelter Insurance Companies, a Columbia, Missouri-based company that writes property and casualty and life insurance in 17 states and also operates a reinsurance business. In Workman’s colorful lexicon, her “mule” was her company’s nearly 20-year-old mainframe general ledger accounting sys­tem, which hadn’t been updated since 1996. The “mustang” represented the fast and flexible financial systems she envisioned to replace it.

The old system had no drill-down functionality, a limited number of data fields that could be used to dissect information, and no real way to perform analyses. “Because the mainframe couldn’t delve into the data, we had to pull it out using Access and create reports,” Workman says. “It was cumbersome and manually intensive. If someone asked how much policy pre­mium we wrote in one state for the past five years, it was a challenging question to answer. It was very difficult to support good decision-making.”

The system wasn’t too much of a liability in the late 1990s or even the early 2000s, she says, in part because many of the company’s peers were using similar technology. But as time went on it increasingly put Shelter at a competitive disadvantage. “Our industry and our business are just moving much faster now,” she says. “We needed systems that would help us meet the real-time information needs of management. That old system was a ticking time bomb.”

In 2014, Shelter began working with two new cloud-based financial systems, one for general led­ger accounting activities and another, from a separate vendor, for financial planning and analy­sis. The systems, which Workman says are highly compatible, went live in September. She adds that her experience in searching for the right systems said a lot about why her company chose to move its finance operations into the cloud.

“To find our general accounting system, we issued a request for proposals (RFP) and basically solicited all the vendors we knew that were either best of breed for insurance or just had good account­ing systems,” Workman explains. “We pared that down to four vendors. Three were offering on-premises solutions and the fourth was a cloud solution. We then held two straight days of demonstrations from each of those four vendors, and it was remarkable how well our employ­ees were able to understand the cloud version versus the others. I think the difference was the cloud system was already built. A lot of the others were not; their salespeople were just telling us we could do this or that. With an SaaS solution you can actually see what you can implement.”

Even though Workman has just begun using her new software systems, she’s optimistic about their capabilities. “In the past, we always started budgeting in July and finished in November,” she said in early September. “Now we’re starting in September and I’ll be presenting the finished product at the December board meeting.” She anticipates shortening the budgeting time frame even more and segueing into activity-based budgeting with rolling 12-month fore­casts. She also wants to load industry data into her planning and forecasting system to bench­mark Shelter against its peers.

“I have no doubt that we’ll enable better decision-making,” she says. “We will know what we bud­geted and how we budgeted it because our system offers so much transparency. Line-of-business managers will be able to dissect their information. Maybe, because they have access for the first time to total costs per vendor, they’ll see that they need to negotiate better pricing or terms from a particular vendor. Or see that a certain agent has lost three policies in a single month, which they can then address. We will have significantly more capability to analyze data and take action on it.”

Download the full HBR report here, and find how you can map out a new-school transformation of your own.

December 5, 2014

Big Data Finance: Looking Beyond the General Ledger

Christian Gheorghe

When you weigh the forces that will shape your business in the coming weeks or months, where do you look for data that gives you insight, the information that will inform your plans and forecasts?

If your answer is only the general ledger, then I have some advice for you: Keep looking.

Why? Because we’re now living in a real-time age, where applications, social networks, cloud services and networked sensors throw off endless streams of data that, when assessed and analyzed properly, have the potential to tell you:

  • What’s really driving your business
  • What external factors or market forces are most likely to threaten your success
  • Which scenarios have the best chance of netting you the biggest return

Tidemark’s vision has always focused on improving how organizations plan and run their businesses. We believe there’s a significant need to re-imagine and improve financial planning and analysis (FP&A) processes for today’s enterprises. Tying together financial and operational data provides greater visibility into the business, and adding external unstructured data to this mix allows you to leverage Big Data to gain unprecedented power that leads to growth-targeted actions and outcomes. As the new Impact Report from 451 Research shows, Big Data Finance is on the rise – and Tidemark is “ahead of the curve” in offering the capabilities decision-makers need to derive real business value from unstructured data streaming from sources like Twitter, Thomson Reuters, Nielsen, Moody’s and the U.S. Department of Labor.  In the report, available only to 451 Research subscribers, analyst Krishna Roy summarizes the argument for Big Data Finance and the distills the value proposition of Tidemark’s new Fall ’14 Release:  “Both externally and internally generated information can be brought into the performance management mix to provide new insights into metrics and key performance indicators, which wouldn’t be possible using structured data only.”

The 451 Research report details the key advancements built into Fall ’14, including predictive analytics capabilities such as correlation and causation. It also outlines how Tidemark now handles dynamic aggregations without requiring the presence of rigid hierarchical relationships, as well as a breakthrough feature called intersecting dimensional hierarchies that allows users to perform analytics across any business dimension and hierarchy combination, and to drill down any level of data in the application to view illuminating details and contextual information. This enables companies to explore and analyze their business in ways they could never do without Tidemark, or as 451 Research describes as, “…not easily achieved, or even possible in some cases, with cube-based technologies.”

All of this is packaged in Tidemark’s acclaimed cloud-native, mobile-first platform designed for today’s real-time enterprises and built for users accustomed to the ease of consumer-grade software.

If you’re weighing the notion of incorporating Big Data Finance into your own budgeting, planning, and forecasting (BP&F) consider the bottom line from 451 Research:  “Organizations seeking a mobile-friendly financial planning and analysis service with a big-data angle will like what Tidemark has to offer.”

While the 451 Research Impact Report is only available to subscribers, a demonstration of Tidemark Fall ’14 is available to anyone. Schedule a live 30-minute demo today, and find out how Tidemark can help you look beyond the general ledger to unlock the true potential of Big Data Finance.

December 1, 2014

Brown University: Where Data Drives Decisions

Caroline Japic

It’s an annual ritual at colleges and universities around the world: Planners in the Office of Budget and Finance toil for months as they try to develop forecasts, plans and budgets for the coming year. It’s hard work to track funds by use and source, to develop accurate endowment plans, personnel budgets, capital plans and revenue forecasts. And because most planning platforms prevent administrators from collaborating meaningfully with faculty and other stakeholders, the process is longer and more painful than it needs to be, and budget owners across the institution don’t have access to data that could reveal variances between forecasts and actuals while they still have time to change course.

Brown University recently replaced its legacy planning and budgeting system with Tidemark. Its experience is detailed in a new research report from Harvard Business Review. The free report, “Transformational Journeys: Modern Business Planning,” is the product of extensive independent research and numerous detailed interviews.  (We partnered with HBR to help their researchers gain access to a representative sample of our customers who are undergoing their own transformation.)

Here’s the Brown University story as told by HBR:

When Brown University finally replaced its 1970s-era financial system with a cloud-based system in 2013, it discovered that the budgeting software it had been using for four years couldn’t work with the new system’s data structure. The school quickly chose to install a cloud-based financial planning and software application that could communicate with its new cloud-based financial and HR systems. The results were revelatory.

“Getting reports out of our 40-year-old system had been pretty hard,” confesses Susan Howitt, the Ivy League university’s associate vice president for budget and planning. “You couldn’t just look at data and slice and dice it in the budgeting system. All our multiyear planning was basi­cally done in Excel spreadsheets, which you can never quite keep in sync.” 

With its core systems now integrated, managers and decision-makers at the university have a single source of data to work with, eliminating time-intensive manual processes and enabling more collaborative planning that drives better decisions. This also gives university management a much better view into the nooks and crannies of the school’s finances. “If somebody comes to the provost and says, ‘I need $10 million for a new initiative,’ our provost can say, ‘That’s great, but I see your department has $2 million of unused funds. What’s the plan for those funds and how are you going to use them toward this initiative?’” Howitt says. “This gives us more opportu­nities to talk about how to best use our resources to advance our academic and research mission.”

Roberta Gordon, a former Brown employee who oversaw the implementation of the new finan­cial system before taking a job with an IT services firm, adds that virtually all of Brown’s core data systems are now cloud-based, befitting an institution of its stature. “Brown’s administra­tive systems are support systems and should not drive what the school does,” Gordon says. “But they should be at least reflective of its role as a premier institution—and now they are. That wasn’t the case with its legacy technology, and it wasn’t what the university wanted to provide for the faculty members who teach and conduct research there. We didn’t want them to be submitting expense reports on paper, for example. We wanted them to be focused on their value-added work.”

In short, the new systems reflect a new way of thinking about how the university operates. “There has been a big push from our president, who has been here just over two years, and our new provost, to have data drive decisions,” Howitt says. “They recognize that we work with a certain set of resources and they want to be able to decide how best to invest those resources. Knowing where the money is, and what people you have, helps you make those decisions.”

The HBR report also documents the transformational journey of other Tidemark customers, including Hubspot, Reddy Ice, Eventbrite, Acxiom, Shelter Insurance, Blackstone Group and Cerner.   Download the free Harvard Business Review report here.

Complimentary Live Demonstration of Tidemark for Higher Education

And if you’re wondering how easy it can be for you to realize a similar transformation at your own institution, I invite you to attend our 30-minute online demonstration: “Simplify Student, Faculty, and Endowment Planning with Tidemark EPM for Higher Education,” from 10:00 to 10:30 a.m. PT on Wednesday, Dec. 3. Register for this enlightening webinar today. It’s free, and I promise it will be an educating.

November 21, 2014

Learn How Strategy Works – Then Build One

Caroline Japic

Roger Martin is the influential dean of the Rotman School of Management. In Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works, the award-winning guide for companies looking to lead, Martin describes the five-step process companies must follow to define – and then make – the choices that ultimately lead to success. The book also illustrates concepts by sharing the transformational journey of P&G from 2000 to 2009, an era of tremendous growth that saw the number of P&G brands with $1 billion or more in annual sales grow from 10 to 25.

On Tuesday, Nov. 25, in a complimentary Harvard Business Review webinar sponsored by Tidemark, you can hear many of these insights directly from Playing to Win co-author Roger Martin.

We’re sponsoring this webinar because, in Playing to Win, Martin delivers proven concepts and processes that are applicable to businesses in any industry and at any stage of maturity. Their discipline of strategy development – applied to such globally known brands as Oil of Olay skin crème and Bounty paper towels – is especially powerful because it’s fully customizable to any product or service category. In other words, you don’t have to be P&G to implement the Playing to Win methodology.

To Tidemark customers and those considering a switch from legacy business planning and analytics platforms, Martin’s insights are especially relevant. For instance, as a crucial final step in strategy development and execution, the authors encourage leaders to establish structures, systems and measures (financial and otherwise) that inform decision-makers how closely the businesses is hewing to the strategy it worked so hard to develop.  They also emphasize the need for cross-functional communication and collaboration, and for a simple way of communicating strategy, goals and progress.

At Tidemark, we share the conviction that these capabilities are characteristic of successful organizations. That’s why we’ve built our cloud-native, mobile-first business planning and analytics software to enable organizations to realize those essential elements of the Playing to Win playbook.  A wide range of companies – from Shelter Insurance to Blackberry (where Rogers once served as board director) – rely on Tidemark to help them execute their own strategy and transform their business in the process.

Our success is defined by the choices we make. I encourage you to make the choice to join Roger Martin and Harvard Business Review on Tuesday, Nov. 25 from noon to 1 p.m. EDT for this complimentary webinar. And learn how you can define and act on the choices that will lead to your success.

Register here for Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works.

November 12, 2014

Built for the Era of Big Data Finance: Tidemark Fall ‘14

Christian Gheorghe

I firmly believe we’re all witnessing an industry-wide transformation. It’s driven by the digital economy and the disruption that results from having access to more data than most businesses know what to do with. This is leading to a significant shift in how CFOs and their finance teams view and approach their roles in the Era of Big Data. Ernst & Young, who spoke to 50 large media and entertainment CFOs (including Disney, Time Warner, Univision, Netflix, DreamWorks Animation just to name a few) reported in their research that, “today’s priority for an overwhelming 74% of CFOs is the evolution of digital — using digital to drive their growth agenda and data to deliver the insights that enable game-changing decision-making.”

At Tidemark, we’re constantly researching and finding new ways to better solve the pain points of our customers. It’s the backbone of our thinking and an important priority for each individual at Tidemark; helping our customers is what we work to accomplish everyday. We do this by working closely with CFOs, CIOs and their teams.

This is how we came to realize that today’s managers had questions about their business that no existing software could help them answer. The Era of Big Data has unleashed information traditional systems simply weren’t built to process – the endless stream of real-time, structured and unstructured data from enterprise applications, data warehouses, cloud services, point-of-sale sensors, social networks and more.

Making Big Data Safe for Finance

Understanding how much of this information was useful to enterprises – and then, of course, figuring out how to use it – required us to re-imagine traditional financial planning and analysis (FP&A) by looking at it through the lens of Big Data. Answering what was once called the impossible and the improbable, then incorporating those capabilities into business planning, requires the most advanced computational cloud so requests aren’t hampered by the limitations of other systems. And learning from previous requests, so you can do a progressively better job of answering the tough questions in the future, requires the latest machine-learning capabilities.

You’ll find all this in Tidemark Fall ‘14, the latest release of the cloud-native, mobile-first Tidemark platform. Built for this very moment – when the Era of Big Data is transforming the role of finance – Tidemark Fall’14 harnesses these advanced technologies within its breakthrough Predictive Business Analytics functionality. Now every company can leverage Tidemark’s computational cloud to really take control of Big Data to improve business performance with real-time, accurate, risk-weighted forecasts and plans.

Leveraging Spark ™ the Tidemark Fall ‘14 release brings machine learning capabilities that let you understand the causation and correlation of business drivers, taking the guesswork out of determining what’s really driving your business. You’ll also gain a clear-eyed view of the factors that could stand in the way of your success. These new Predictive Business Analytics capabilities allow teams to ask and answer the questions they never could before.

  • What correlations can we draw from the results of previous point-of-sale promotions to determine which type will drive the most sales leading up to next Saturday’s rivalry game – and should we put it in an end cap or at check-out?  
  • How do we determine our “red line” for rain probability so we can make sure we have enough drivers on hand to maintain our on-time delivery performance if it rains as forecast, yet not overstaff to the point where we completely erode our margins?   
  • What factors really drove the increase in business last week and can we how much will it cost to try to replicate those across all our regions?  

By no means is this all you’ll find in Tidemark Fall ‘14 release. We’ve also added new dynamic capabilities that empower you to bridge the gap between finance and operations – features that help you plan critical business initiatives, as well as understand and act on the meaningful context surrounding performance information pulled from multiple sources.  You can respond in real-time to changes in your business environment by constantly monitoring the impact of the specific line items most likely to affect revenues or expenses.  Drill through to see data at the most granular level – such as SKU items in regional stores for large retailers – and then analyze various scenarios so you can choose the right path to achieve the best outcome. And because this is Tidemark software, you’re never bound by the constraints on volume or dimensions that you’ll find with cubes-based platforms.  There’s plenty more to the Tidemark Fall ‘14 story, and I encourage you to learn about it here.

If Tidemark Fall ‘14 were a movie, the credits would be filled with the names of our customers: Netflix, ReddyIce, HubSpot, Shelter Insurance, Cerner, Brown University…the list goes on. They’re the ones who are asking the improbable and impossible questions, who are no longer satisfied with planning for the future by looking into the past. They’re the ones who drive our ambition not just to evolve our core FP&A capabilities, but also to take planning, budgeting and forecasting in entirely new directions.  The features we build into every new release of Tidemark software directly flow from their input, and for that we are in their debt.

Just like the map is not a terrain, the spreadsheet is not the business. Let’s continue on our journey to empower finance to be the new driver of transformation together.