Plans, forecasts, budgets, and day-to-day operations have all been toppled by the global COVID-19 pandemic. As entire industries still face an unsure future for demand and revenues, even still relatively robust businesses are operating in scenarios they’ve never faced before—and that many didn’t plan for.
The pandemic has served as a reminder (albeit an often painful and tragic one) that change is as constant as it is unpredictable. And the need to establish a nimble and agile workplace and culture is key to weathering change, pivoting quickly, making data-driven decisions, and ensuring longevity. It’s not just about surviving but emerging on the other side with the fewest battle wounds and the most successfully pursued opportunities.
But business agility isn’t achieved overnight. It’s an iterative process, and it involves a sustained, company-wide effort that begins with finance championing the move away from annual, manual, siloed, static planning to a more continuous and modern active planning model.
Modern planning is the foundation for agility
Traditional, static planning processes (typically conducted on inflexible spreadsheets or unfriendly legacy planning systems) may be familiar, but they can create significant hurdles to achieving true business agility. Companies still rely on these older methods largely because they’re just there. They often stay there, too, because finance professionals and other stakeholders feel they have little to no bandwidth to step back and reflect on whether their static planning environment is truly serving the business as it should.
Which returns us to the critical issue of static planning: In a static planning environment, finance isn’t empowered to serve as the strategic force it’s so ideally positioned to be. Why? Because it’s too busy sifting through stale data, chasing down updates from different departments, making sense of endless versions of spreadsheets, generating ad hoc reports for business stakeholders, and being pigeonholed as nothing more than a budget gatekeeper.
Modern planning changes that.
With cloud FP&A software, finance teams and their partners throughout the business can leverage real-time data, cross-departmental collaboration, and a comprehensive data set that includes financial and operational information to provide a panoramic view of the company. Active planning technology also makes it easy to automate time-consuming manual tasks and create reports faster, model multiple what-if scenarios, and build flexible forecasts. All of which allows for more time spent on analyzing business-wide trends and drivers, mapping key correlations, identifying insights, and making data-driven recommendations. The organization can move with increased velocity and agility.
Uncover opportunities for automation
Automation is a foundational aspect of active planning. When the ACCA reports that 75% of finance professionals’ time is wasted re-keying and manually rolling up data, it’s not a big leap to conclude that saving hours on tasks by automating will give finance professionals more time to put toward strategic activities like analyzing data, identifying useful trends, forecasting outcomes, and more. It’s all part of achieving business agility.
Organizations aiming to increase their agility should consider incorporating five key initiatives that, over time, can help you get there. We outlined the first two—identifying your critical KPIs and incorporating nonfinance data—in recent blogs, so let’s explore the third.
If process automation is your next initiative, where do you start? Try automating as many low-value activities as possible. Focus first on automating those manual number-crunching bottlenecks in your current planning processes. This will generate the happy result of increasing the bandwidth of your team while speeding up the planning process.
Based on real-world experience with thousands of organizations, here are our top four contenders for automation:
- Reports. Establish a reporting capability and workflow that enables organizational leaders and necessary stakeholders to access, generate, and understand reports on their own. In your report automation efforts, be sure to include budget vs. actuals reporting to analyze real-time progress and identify gaps that could signal problems or opportunities.
- Modeling. Give operational leaders the right tools and cross-functional data so they can easily build and analyze models and test what-if scenarios—and in the process show the impact potential decisions will likely have across functional lines.
- Rolling forecasts. Use real-time data to update and revise forecasts the moment they’re needed, helping with faster and easier pivots.
- Data integration. Connect and consolidate all the necessary data into one single source of truth to ensure everyone is working from the same, shared data model. For many finance teams, automated data integration will prove an enormous time-saver.
ChristianaCare quickly pivots to month-to-month forecasting
This might seem like an inopportune moment to adopt a new planning model. But there’s no better time to take inventory of what’s working and not working, and to identify areas for improvement. At healthcare system operator ChristianaCare, the finance team transformed its old annual budget process into a far more responsive monthly forecasting cycle. And in what can only be described as a triumph of business agility, ChrisitianaCare made the switch not in four or six months as many would expect, but in only four days.
We’re all ready to see the other side of this pandemic. But as ChristianaCare and many other organizations have discovered, this remarkable environment has served as a kind of stress test—forcing us to face weak spots in our processes, workflows, and infrastructure, and inspiring many to address those weak spots. Like ChristianaCare, you can use this critical time to make critical changes and to begin the journey toward achieving true business agility.
And make no mistake: automation is a crucial underpinning of a modern, agile planning environment. When data automatically flows into plans, forecasts, and budgets, finance teams can focus on strategic activities like modeling what-if scenarios, analyzing performance data, and uncovering new business efficiencies or opportunities.
That’s why digital accelerators profiled in latest CFO Indicator aren’t wasting valuable time manually consolidating data from hundreds of spreadsheets and passing around hard-to-track versions of plans and budgets via email. (In fact, finance teams that don’t benefit from automation spend up to 83% of their time on nonstrategic tasks like data collection and consolidation.)
Many finance leaders see automation having its greatest impact in areas that can improve the value of finance itself. In the and earlier CFO Indicator report, execs said automating manual processes will bring:
- Faster and higher-quality insights for executives and operational stakeholders (40% named this a priority)
- A more strategic role for finance in the business and in decision support (26%)
- Improved productivity in finance (16%)
- Improved accuracy of reporting, planning, or other tasks (12%)
It might not feel like it, but now’s the time
It all couldn’t come at a better time as business data volumes are doubling every two years. So if automation seems important today, it will be life-saving tomorrow. Fortunately, finance tools won’t be sitting still either. Advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning will further free up analyst time by automating the creation of high-volume, high-complexity what-if scenario modeling at scale.
The days when finance hired people primarily for their Excel skills are over. Automation is changing the landscape for finance teams by freeing them to think and act strategically. In the process, they’re becoming more agile and valuable to the business—and at the very moment those strengths are needed most.