2016 Year-End Financial Close Breakthroughs: Lessons Learned

2016 Year-End Financial Close Breakthroughs: Lessons Learned

It's over – you no longer have to worry about the dreaded year-end close. 2016 is truly behind us. However, the stress of the financial close period only repeats itself next year, or next quarter if you're not using the right tools and techniques.

year-end-2016

This guide discusses the challenges in financial close and reporting, what solutions are available to make the process smoother, and the best practices to make these solutions work efficiently.

What Challenges Do You Face at Financial Close?

What does your financial close look like? Do you rely on spreadsheets and emails to collect and consolidate financial data? Are you relying upon a legacy system that has passed its prime? And do these techniques drag out the closing period so it’s longer than five to seven days?

In a January 2017 webinar entitled “War Stories from the Fiscal Year-End Close and Reporting Season of 2016,” Planful VP of Product Marketing John O’Rourke moderated a panel that discussed what kinds of hurdles companies faced in 2016 as they tried to close their books, and how organizations can ease the pain going forward. This guide touches on some of the issues the panelists brought up.

As O’Rourke pointed out, the essential process of the financial close consists of four steps: collect, consolidate, report, and disclose. That’s easier said than done, though. Today’s multinational business has to contend with currency translations due to branches in other countries, inter-company transactions, minority ownership calculations, and supporting multiple GAAP standards, to name but a few issues.

SpreadsheetsAll of that becomes much more difficult when you’re using tools such as a spreadsheet or legacy systems. Spreadsheets don’t allow for collaboration between accounting and finance team members, and there aren’t effective quality control mechanisms or audit trails in place to ensure data is correct. Legacy systems are often expensive to maintain and may not meet today’s more stringent requirements.

Moreover, both of these methods make it very difficult to share information with internal and external shareholders. While it’s easy to attach a spreadsheet to an email, readers can’t see a revision history or, go back to an earlier point, or even know whether data is completely accurate. And legacy systems might not generate reports in formats that are simple to read or distribute.

Even GL/ERP systems aren’t the best solution for year-end close. Although these software programs provide basic and generalized accounting features – they’re not designed to integrate and consolidate data from other GLs and the reporting capabilities are often limited.

What Are the Business Impacts of These Challenges?

Every time you close the books past the targeted closing date, you and your team feel stressed, right?. Your collective health isn’t the only thing that suffers, though. The inability to close in a timely fashion hurts your organization, too. For a start, decision makers don’t have the information they need to make the right choices for the company.

CFO business partnerWhen you take too long to close the books, or if the results are not accurate, the c-suite and other stakeholders will lose confidence in the finance department. As a result, executives will start creating their own versions of the truth for decision-making, which can lead to additional problems.

When executives have accurate and current information, their forecasts will be more meaningful. It’s hard to predict what will happen in the next quarter, let alone next year, when the numbers you’re looking at aren’t the most recent. Forecasts become more powerful and better indicators of future performance when they’re based upon numbers that reflect the current reality.  And think about the additional value finance can provide to the business with more time to analyze the results.

These challenges can be surmounted, when you utilize the proper best practices as well as the right tools. During the webinar mentioned above, three finance professionals discussed the steps they took to streamline the financial close and accelerate reporting. Before they discussed the solutions they used, they recounted the difficulties their businesses experienced when closing the books.

What Are the Problems Real Companies Have Faced with Financial Closing and Reporting?

The webinar featured two Planful clients: Tim Brown, CFO of the Boston-based Motus, a firm that provides reimbursement, tracking, and BI solutions, and Dwight Lloyd, financial controller at Alabama-based P&S Logistics, a conglomerate of companies in the transportation and logistics industry. Annie Nguyen, Planful’ controller, also shared her insights into best practices for the financial close process and accelerating financial reporting.

Before moving to the cloud, financial processes were slow. The companies used a combination of spreadsheets and on-premises solutions. Data was in silos. There was no easy way to reconcile financial data with information stored in other systems, such as the sales pipeline. It could take a minimum of two weeks just to reconcile financial information with sales forecasts.

The approach to managing their firms was akin to looking in the rear view mirror; managers couldn’t get data in a timely fashion, so they were constantly looking at previous financial information to make decisions as opposed to having the most up-to-date numbers. Linking multiple spreadsheets was a struggle because the numbers wouldn’t balance properly.

With on-premises solutions, members of the finance team needed to be on-site and wait for the system to process data. People working off-site couldn’t access the reporting software, so they would have to send in their numbers or call their on-site colleagues and provide the information over the phone. The on-site staff would need to enter the data manually after checking it for errors.

Another challenge that businesses face is checking the quality of financial statements. It can be a lengthy and frustrating process – how do you know who entered what information when? With spreadsheets, you can’t see a revision history, there are no time and date stamps, let alone information on who inputted data.

What Are the Best Practices for Streamlining the Financial Close and Reporting Process?

Brown, Lloyd, and Nguyen discussed what their companies did to address these challenges and make their financial close and reporting process streamlined. Moving to a cloud-based solution simplified and in many cases eliminated the issues their businesses faced when attempting to close the books in a short period of time while also sharing information with stakeholders and remaining compliant to regulations.

cloud-computingWith a cloud-based system, there’s no more waiting for data. Information is available in a matter of hours, not days or weeks. Companies can perform reconciliations on a daily basis. Managers can make decisions about expenses on the spot and adjust their outlays accordingly during the present quarter.

In addition, more kinds of data are available. With ERP software, you might only be able to see information in a given module of the software. That’s not the case with cloud-based financial close and reporting solutions: you can see operational data as well as financial.

Checking the quality of that information isn’t hard, either. Employees have different levels of access, so only someone with authorization can enter data. A time and date stamp means you know exactly when that employee entered or updated data, as well.

Moreover, reporting is no longer a chore. Cloud-based software automates the reporting process entirely. At the touch of a button, you can generate a variety of reports. Again, you don’t need to wait for information – it’s already in the system.

The automated flow of data makes it easier to stay compliant, too. Cloud-based software can create GAAP-based financial statements for auditors. Need to make changes to reports? Not a problem – formatting changes are quick and easy, and you don’t have to go through many steps to perform them.

The Advantages to a Cloud-based Financial Close and Reporting System

Cloud-based financial close and reporting software offers a number of advantages over other solutions. It makes closing and reporting simple, fast, accurate, and efficient.

The automated nature of cloud-based software means that manual data loading is virtually eliminated. And when it comes to sharing information with stakeholders such as members of the C-suite, the board, or other investors, the solution does the work of generating reports for you. Compliance becomes a breeze, too – once again, the system generates the documents you need so that auditors can easily see relevant information and you can avoid financial penalties.

It’s also easier to collect information. Cloud-based software connects to other systems that you use (such as ERPs or HCMs), so you don’t need to worry about accuracy or that the data isn’t current. Moreover, because there’s no more manual entry of information your staff doesn’t need to spend hours validating data and correcting errors.

As a result of the efficiencies cloud-based software introduces into the financial close process, businesses have a better grasp of their financial information, which means they can make better decisions. They’re no longer relying on numbers that are weeks out of date. Instead, their decisions reflect information that’s current so their forecasts are more realistic and achievable.

Your laborious and lengthy financial close and reporting process isn’t a badge of honor, and you don’t have to go through the same nightmare every year, every quarter, or even every month. Cloud-based software streamlines these actions so decision makers can make better choices. To learn more, watch the webinar replay: War Stories from the Fiscal Year-End Close and Reporting Season of 2016.

Watch the Webinar Replay

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Earning a Seat at the Table – How to Be a Finance-Led Organization

Earning a Seat at the Table – How to Be a Finance-Led Organization

Recent surveys show that while CFOs are still focused on the bottom line, cash flows, controls, costs, and risks, they also want to take on a more strategic role.

They want to partner with the management team and help determine the direction of the company.  But how do CFOs achieve this balance?  How do you gain the respect of the organization and take on a leadership role?  These are questions that were answered by the NYC Chapter of the CFO Leadership Council at its February panel discussion titled “Earning a Seat at the Table – How to Be a Finance-Led Organization.”

Led by moderator Bruce Cooperman, Managing Partner at Nereus Advisors, the panel included Peter Lehrman, CEO at Axial, Neal Modi, Head of Finance at Kargo, and Ken Rugg, CFO at Rashti & Rashti.  Here are the highlights of the panel discussion.

What does it mean to be a Finance-led organization?

According to the panelists, this is largely a cultural issue and starts from the early stages of an organization.  CFOs must help the company make the right decisions, and evaluate and assess new opportunities.  Finance needs to be seen as more than just a controlling organization focused on cost cutting.  Besides running the annual budget process, Finance needs to provide information, ask the right questions, and help managers run the business.

A key technique recommended by the panelists was running quarterly business reviews (QBRs) to drive transparency across the business, share information, and get input from other groups on operating decisions.  Organizations need to be Finance-led in good times and bad times.  They need to make required adjustments based on conditions and transitions that may occur.

Leading CFOs can teach the organization to think about the ROI of decisions.  Most employees don’t have the expertise to assess opportunities and returns.  CFOs need to provide this support and guidance.  The CEO should have confidence in the Finance organization to be providing the ROI lens to all decisions.  This includes assessing the return on invested capital of new products, programs, and initiatives.   

How does Finance remain as a leader during transitions? 

bigstock-Business-Woman-876649.jpgIn order to lead through transitions (e.g., reorganizations, IPOs, M&A’s), the CFO and Finance must, most importantly, understand the business goals and objectives of the CEO.  Whether the focus is growth, profitability, cash flow, or other goals, these should drive the focus of Finance.  Finance should try to run similarly in good times and bad times – must be consistent, forward-looking, and transparent.  Some pressures cause extreme situations, but the CFO needs to be the voice of reason in good times and bad.

How to get CEO/founder to support Finance leadership?

This part of the discussion was based on a question from the audience.  One recommendation was to make the focus less about power and more about the business model and how Finance supports the model and helps the company achieve its strategy.  If the CEO/founder is not ready to hear the truth, that’s a big problem.  Investment in Finance needs to match the needs of the business.

In a family-owned business, this can be difficult.  It takes time to build the case for investments in Finance processes and systems.  The CFO must be diplomatic, patient, and persistent.  The CFO plays a bigger role in smaller companies, often playing the COO role.  CFOs must know their audience and adjust based on discussions with the CMO, CRO, CIO, and other executives.  Instead of being a finance conversation, it needs to be a business conversation – CFOs must be curious and consultative.

What roles/tasks have you taken on outside the traditional Finance role?

On this topic, panelists commented that pricing is a critical area for the CFO to be involved.  The CFO doesn’t have to control pricing, but should be close to this process.  Sales compensation is another important area for Finance involvement.  The CFO should also focus on the key area of restructuring the business, evaluating cost-savings opportunities.

Employee recruiting and retention is another crucial area for the CFO to focus.  The CFO and Finance can be effective in reducing turnover and costs if the right programs are in place.  That involves looking at the payback of various employee perks – snacks, gym membership, health, tuition, and so on – and making the right investments.

Software tools or processes that help become a Finance-led organization?

big_data.jpgWith regards to systems and processes, panelists commented that in order to be Finance-led, the organization needs to have strong data integrity and good sources of information to provide to managers and staff.  If this isn’t the case, it can lead to extended reporting and analytical cycles.  The end-user tools are less important – data hygiene is more important.

Panelists also cautioned CFOs to be careful.  No system is 100% complete.  All tools or processes will require some customization in order to meet business needs.  Finance needs to be able to sift out the right information and deliver the right KPIs for running the business.  The system must be intuitive and easy for users – they won’t read the manual.

Data or metric debt can be a big risk.  The panelists recommended rigor around how Finance organizes and shares data and information.  To be effective, Finance needs the right data model – chart of accounts (COA), reporting hierarchies, metrics, and business rules.  Panelists recommended hiring people who are excited about data management and new systems – in other words, data analysts who can crank out the analysis.  Ease of use is critical to drive employee usage.

Culture, communication, processes, and systems

This was a great panel discussion that took on a life of its own as the audience began chiming in with their own questions soon after the panel began.  In summary, being a Finance-led organization is dependent on culture, communications, and having the right processes and systems in place to empower managers across the enterprise with timely, accurate information.  It requires the CFO and Finance to be a strategic advisor, evaluating and assessing new business opportunities, and to be consistent in good times and bad.

Cloud-Accounting_1.jpgAs usual, I’m always looking for the role cloud-based, enterprise performance management (EPM) solutions can play in helping CFOs become more strategic and for Finance to take on a leadership role.  There are many opportunities here, including using EPM solutions to build the annual budget, report on actual results vs. budget, and support regular business reviews.  EPM solutions can also be used to update budget assumptions on a periodic basis, using techniques such as driver-based rolling forecasts on a quarterly or monthly basis.  EPM solutions can also be leveraged to model new scenarios and evaluate new business opportunities.

And with regards to the last section of the discussion on the importance of data integrity – EPM solutions often are implemented as a replacement to spreadsheets and manual processes.  Why?  EPM solutions streamline planning, reporting, and analysis – providing a single source of the truth for decision-making.  They can integrate data from multiple systems (ERP, HCM, CRM, etc.) and provide a common chart of accounts, reporting hierarchies, KPIs, and metrics that are used for enterprise-wide decision-making.

To learn more about how EPM software helps reduce reliance on Excel and improves Finance processes, check out the white paper “5 Signs You Are Abusing Excel.”

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Want a Smoother Year-End Close? Get it Right Each Month and Quarter

Want a Smoother Year-End Close? Get it Right Each Month and Quarter

The term 'snowball effect' is often used to describe processes that start from an initial state of small significance and then build upon themselves, becoming larger and larger.

When it comes to a smoother year-end close, the more seamless the monthly and quarterly closings are, the better. By establishing solid processes for monthly and quarterly closings, organizations can set themselves up for a smoother year-end close with a lower risk of surprises.

It’s a Vicious Cycle – That Repeats

More often than not, the year-end close and reporting cycle is a stressful process that goes on for weeks or even for months. From the collection and consolidation of financial results, to the creation of year-end financial statements, to audits and regulatory filings – finance teams are often distraught throughout the process.  But thanks to technology, the process need not be such a stressful and painful affair anymore.

Complexities of the Financial Close

nesting dollsThe financial close and reporting process is like a nesting doll. There are a lot of sub-processes embedded within the main process. It usually begins with the collection of financial results from multiple systems, divisions, and subsidiaries with each having their own charts of accounts and business practices. These results then require consolidation following US GAAP or IFRS guidelines.

If the business operates in different geographies there will be the additional complexity of multiple currency conversions, intercompany reconciliations and accurate accounting of minority interests. Period-end account reconciliations themselves can run into hundreds and thousands and there are typically many changes and adjustments required before the CFO is ready to sign off on the financial results.

Leveraging spreadsheets and email to manage the financial close and reporting process may work for smaller companies with simple requirements. But as organizations grow and evolve in complexity, the collection and consolidation of multiple spreadsheets can cause errors and omissions. Regardless of the technology and tools used, in order to avoid problems at year-end, the overall approach and process itself must be solid.

Lessons Learned from War Stories

At the recently-held webinar, War Stories from the Fiscal Year-End Close and Reporting Season of 2016, sponsored and led by Planful, the focus was on learning from the mistakes of the past and trying to formulate a new approach in 2017. The intent was to look at best practices that can be implemented through experience and avoid the pitfalls that organizations encountered in 2016.

finance_in_the_cloudMany issues were highlighted during the session: from process issues to the limitations inherent in spreadsheets and legacy applications. The panelists explained how cloud-based EPM software can be leveraged to streamline the year-end close and how the process itself required tinkering and a rethink in terms of approach and execution to acheive success.

When working toward a smoother year-end close, it is important to evaluate the monthly and quarterly close processes. If there are bottlenecks or oversights in the monthly financial close and reporting process, these issues can be magnified in the year-end close process as a Cascade Effect. A Cascade Effect is an inevitable and sometimes unforeseen chain of events due to an act affecting a system. Careful review and optimizing of the monthly and quarterly processes can be key to mitigating an extended year-end close cycle.

Automate and Accelerate 

Automating as many processes as possible can reduce the chance of errors and increase the speed of the financial close. One of the biggest advantages in closing the books and delivering results sooner is to make time for more business analysis and evaluation of new business opportunities.  The cascade effect need not always be a destructive process.

While a poorly run month-end close process can set off a chain of events that negatively affects the year-end close, a solid monthly process can have positive downstream effects. The faster and more accurate the month end close and reporting process, the better chance companies will have for a smooth year-end close.

Attend to Reconciliations Early

accounting books.jpgA big challenge in the year-end close process is account reconciliations. If these are performed and signed off on a monthly basis, there will be less work required come year-end. When it comes to intercompany account reconciliations, resolving out-of-balance issues each month rather then plugging the difference and kicking the can down the road will make the year-end close process much smoother.

Cloud-Based EPM is Your Friend

With Cloud-Based EPM software, automating processes has never been easier and, EPM software implementation has never been faster. The month-end close and reporting cycle can become a routine and streamlined process, setting off a chain reaction of efficient processes that lead to a smoother year-end close.

Many organizations perform their year-end, quarter-end, and month-end close and reporting processes using Planful cloud-based EPM solution. These companies have replaced either spreadsheets or legacy, on-premises applications with our cloud-based EPM platform and the results speak for themselves.

If you’re looking for smooth month-end close and reporting and want to learn more about the cloud-based approach, watch the webinar, War Stories from the Fiscal Year-End Close and Reporting Season of 2016. From there you can view a demo to learn even more about how Planful can help with your month-end and year-end closings.

Watch the Webinar Replay

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Planful Winter17 Improves Reporting and NetSuite Integration

Planful Winter17 Improves Reporting and NetSuite Integration

In the Northern Hemisphere, winter means the doldrums for many people.  But in addition to spring, one thing to look forward to is using the Planful Winter17 release.

This release includes improvements in several areas, including better user experience, enhanced user productivity, improved reporting, and easier integration with NetSuite ERP. Here are the highlights of this release.

Improved User Experience

The Winter17 release adds a number of new features that are available in all supported browsers.  This includes the Actual Data and Capital templates, and Template-Based HR in Host Planning, as well Dynamic Reports saved as Snapshots.  The release also includes enhancements to personalization features, including controlling visibility of the customizable banner, company logo, and background image on the Application Selection page.  The main benefit here is improved flexibility and more options for users.

Enhanced User Productivity

The Winter17 release includes a number of enhancements designed to improve user productivity.

Winter17 dated hierarchies-1.pngWithin Planful Consolidation, we introduced enhanced “Org by Period” functionality.  This is an advanced set of features, including dated hierarchies, that allow users to maintain old and new consolidation hierarchy structures and to generate reports comparing financial results based on different structures.  This capability will be especially powerful for organizations who are actively acquiring or disposing of companies, or have frequent reorganizations.  It gives them the needed ability to analyze the impact of these changes on their financial results.

In Planful Planning, this release includes new application lifecycle management (ALM) capabilities that enable customers to easily move input templates across multiple tenants.  This release also includes the cross-browser support mentioned earlier.

Enhancements to Planful Modeling include enhanced data integration APIs, improved hierarchy management, enhanced folder structure for the web and Excel interface, and improved user experience when refreshing views and reports.  This release also enables administrators to see all calculations that are scheduled and to make changes to the schedule from a common interface.

Improved Reporting

The Winter17 release includes a number of enhancements in Reporting.  A big improvement is an enhanced user experience for Static Report Sets across all modern web browsers.  This includes advanced formatting capabilities, such as font types, font size, and color, additional border types and color, header formatting, granular data formatting, improved grid features, and improved rules builder.  The main benefit here is modernization, improved usability, and flexibility in reporting.

Improved Integration with NetSuite

Winter17 Netsuite tab.jpg

The Winter17 release includes great news for NetSuite ERP customers.  Planful can now be integrated with NetSuite as a selectable item under the EPM tab within the NetSuite application window.  In this release, we’re also previewing a native NetSuite data connector that makes it easier for users to integrate, map, and load NetSuite ERP data into Planful.

Learn More

While the groundhog may have predicted 6 more weeks of winter, Planful has you covered with many new features and enhancements designed to help customers automate and accelerate planning, consolidation, reporting, and modeling processes.  And there’s more to come in our Spring17 release, which will be highlighted at Planful World in May.

If you’re an existing customer and want to find out more, you can view the full release notes in our online help and discuss these new enhancements via our Customer Community.  You can also view the Winter17 new feature release training webcast to get more information.  If you’re a prospective customer and want to learn more, sign up for a Planful Live Demo.

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Year-End Close and Reporting: What’s Behind the Numbers?

Year-End Close and Reporting: What’s Behind the Numbers?

For finance and accounting professionals, there are three words in the English language that induce headaches and in some cases, outright panic: “year-end close.”

At medium to large companies, you could be looking at many different spreadsheets with data sourced from various financial applications, and you have no idea how accurate those numbers are or whether you’ve got the latest version.

Year-end close shouldn’t strike fear into your heart, though. Read on to learn how to accelerate the year-end close process, ensure the quality of your financial statements, and how to easily share information with internal and external stakeholders, and comply with regulatory requirements. You’ll also learn about the steps one company took to transform its financial close and reporting process into a smooth and painless procedure.

High-Quality Data: The Linchpin to a Smoother Financial Close

The biggest obstacle to accurate financial reporting is not having a single source for reliable financial results. Usually, this hurdle arises because companies depend on spreadsheets to collect and store this data.

SpreadsheetsSpreadsheets have two major benefits: they’re simple to use and they perform a variety of functions. That being said, they’re not an appropriate solution for enterprise accounting or financial reporting. The biggest problem with spreadsheets is that they’re not designed for security and control of a corporate process – there could be several versions of the same spreadsheet, but how do you know which numbers accurately reflect the latest financial results? When you try to combine the figures from multiple tabs into a single worksheet, you might accidentally omit some, or introduce errors, which further affects reliability.

Instead of using spreadsheets, many organization are switching to cloud-based EPM software with robust consolidation and reporting capabilities. These systems are designed to automatically load data from multiple general ledgers (GL) and other sources – both on-premises and in the cloud. You and your staff don’t have to worry about which information is correct and/or up-to-date anymore.  And a nice bonus is that many cloud-based EPM solutions allow users to continue using Excel as a front-end for data entry, reporting and analysis.

Sharing Financial Reports with Stakeholders: It Doesn’t Have to Be a Headache

Finance executives need to provide reliable, transparent financial results to your internal and external stakeholders. Even before the advent of regulations such as Sarbanes-Oxley, internal stakeholders (such as other C-suite members) and external stakeholders (such as shareholders) expected to receive timely, accurate financial reports. And in many cases, you must provide this information in less time and with fewer resources than ever before.

Your company’s year-end close process has a significant impact on the finance or accounting department’s ability to deliver credible financial reports. Organizations that are able to close the books in 5 days or less, gain a big advantage over those who take much longer, allowing them more time for analysis and delivering more accurate financial results, faster.

When finance can’t produce timely and accurate financial results, both internal and external stakeholders will lack confidence in the business. Cloud-based EPM software not only allows finance staff to generate financial reports faster, it lets you package information in a variety of ways that make it easy for all stakeholders to understand data. This includes standard financial statements, packages of reports for management, as well a board books and presentations that include text, charts, and graphs.

Regulatory Compliance: Yes, It Can Be Easy

In addition to satisfying internal and external stakeholder information needs, businesses are required to meet regulatory requirements (such as the aforementioned Sarbanes-Oxley). That can be challenging, as regulations continue to evolve.

Keeping up with changing regulations in your own jurisdiction can be tough enough – what if you’re in the finance or accounting department of a large, multinational corporation? When you don’t meet regulatory requirements, government agencies can penalize you financially. Executives might even face criminal charges.

Again, cloud-based EPM software provides the solution to this problem. It can automatically create regulatory filings, in many cases for multiple jurisdictions. This saves time as well as hassle for you and your team.

Golden State Foods: A Cloud-Based EPM Use Case

Golden State FoodsGolden State Foods is a privately held food manufacturer and distributor based in Irvine, CA. It’s one of the largest diversified suppliers to the food industry, servicing approximately 125,000 restaurants in more than 60 countries. Golden State Foods has 50 locations on five continents.

After completing a round of acquisitions, Brad Tingey, Golden State Foods’ corporate controller, realized that it was time to consolidate the company’s finances – the accounting department was using spreadsheets for financial consolidation and reporting. The spreadsheet approach was no longer appropriate to handle the financial reporting needs of such a large company, and Tingey turned to Planful for a solution.

Golden Gate Foods implemented Planful’ cloud-based EPM software that consolidated reporting across multiple ERP systems and multiple currencies, and handles complexities such as intercompany eliminations, and minority-owned subsidiaries. Thanks to Planful, Tingey says that the year-end close process has gone from being long and frustrating to one that is smooth and quick as a result of automation. Data is more accessible, comprehensive, and transparent, and stakeholders receive accurate information faster than ever before.

Tingey and his team chose Planful because the firm’s solution gave his department control over reporting. Moreover, Planful’ cloud solution delivered the speed-to-value that Golden State Foods sought. In fact, Tingey would like to expand the use of Planful’ solutions for his business’ planning needs.

Cloud-based technology has transformed the year-end close process. It no longer has to be a source of dread for you and your team. To learn more about how you can make your financial close a painless process, watch and listen to the webinar Managing the Complexity of the Financial Close.

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Planful Adds New EPM Talent to its Leadership Team

Planful Adds New EPM Talent to its Leadership Team

In late 2016 Planful added another talented EPM executive to our leadership team.  I’m talking about Chris LaBruna, who joined the company as Chief Revenue Officer.

Prior to joining Planful, Chris LaBruna was Chief Revenue Officer at Saama Technologies and before that he spent almost 12 years as VP of Sales at Hyperion and Oracle.  He also spent 3 years as VP of Sales at Business Objects, so Chris has a lot of experience in the EPM and BI markets.  I recently sat down with Chris to get his perspective on the market and the opportunity for Planful.

John:  Chris, welcome to Planful.  What are your key responsibilities as Chief Revenue Officer (CRO)?

chrislabruna-335723-edited.pngChris: Thanks, John.  As CRO, I’m responsible for all new revenue generation activities at Planful. That means I’m focused on the integration and alignment of all sales-related processes, including sales, solution consulting, partner sales and development, and our sales development representatives (SDRs), who usually serve as the first touch point as prospective clients get engaged with Planful.  I’m also working closely with the Marketing team to make sure our demand generation programs align and support our revenue goals.       

John:  Roger that.  Chris, you’ve been in the EPM market for a number of years – in fact, we worked together at Hyperion and Oracle for most of them.  What’s your current assessment of the market? 

Chris: Yes, we did have a good run there.  Although the EPM market is mature, it’s really heating up now.  There’s a big shift going on in the market from on-premises systems to the cloud, with many companies moving off legacy systems to more modern and progressive solutions like Planful.  On top of that, there are thousands of companies still struggling with spreadsheets for their planning and reporting processes – in small, medium, and large companies.    

JohnWhat changes have you seen in the market over the past few years?

Chris:  Good question.  One thing is that Finance executives are more comfortable now with using financial applications in the cloud.  That’s what is driving a lot of the growth.  In addition, customers are more demanding, especially if they have deployed EPM solutions in the past, so they expect a lot from their EPM vendors.  I’m also pleased to see more integration between Finance and Operations, which is good for companies and also creates new opportunities for vendors like Planful.

John:  You’ve worked for some great companies over your career.  What attracted you most to Planful?

Chris:  There are a number of things that attracted me to the company.  First of all, we have a great product that solves real business problems for companies in planning, forecasting, consolidation, reporting, and financial and operational modeling.  Second, we have great people, a great executive team, and a solid board of directors.  There’s a lot of great EPM DNA in the company and in our management team.  In fact, I worked with our CEO Dave Kellogg at Business Objects and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to work with him again.  And last but not least, we have over 650 customers who are getting great value from our solutions and are willing to help us tell our story.  That’s a great combination that makes Planful well positioned in the market.

John:  What do you see as the key market opportunities for Planful? 

Chris: From a technology standpoint, as we discussed earlier, the big opportunity is to replace legacy applications that companies have outgrown for EPM processes, as well as spreadsheets and manual processes that are bogging down Finance departments.  The great thing about a cloud-based platform like ours is that we can provide solutions to large enterprises, as well as to small and mid-sized companies. But the real driver for upgrading these technologies is to partner with customers to help them address the complexities they face in their planning, forecasting, consolidation, reporting, modeling and analytic processes.  That opportunity is almost endless.

John:  What would you say is the biggest challenge for Planful?

Chris:  While we have a great solution for companies, we aren’t alone in the market. There are many other competitors going after the same opportunity.  So our biggest challenge is getting our message out there and distinguishing ourselves in the market versus other vendors who aren’t necessarily delivering quality solutions to their clients.  This includes lower-end solutions that don’t scale and grow, as well as highly customized solutions that are too expensive to deploy and maintain.

John:  What do you see as the biggest impact Planful can have on our customers? 

Chris:  We help Finance teams become more productive in their roles and provide more value to their organizations.  This means spending less time on data collection and more time on value-added analysis and supporting decision-making.  We help them align Finance and Operations and be better business partners.  When that happens, companies save money.  They make better use of existing resources.  And they take advantage of new market opportunities that can increase revenue and profits. That’s where the real value and ROI comes from.

John:  Last thing, what do you like to do in your spare time when you aren’t trying to transform Finance?

Chris:  Well, like yourself, I like to stay active in my spare time.  That includes skiing, playing golf, cycling, traveling, and spending time with my family.

John:  Thanks, Chris.  It’s great having you on board, and I look forward to working with you again.  Best of luck in your new role at Planful. 

To learn more about the Planful leadership team, follow this link.

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User Experience in EPM: What Is This Thing Called “Design”?

User Experience in EPM: What Is This Thing Called “Design”?

In a three-part series on the topic of user experience (UX), I’ll help you to understand the role of product design and user experience in the creation and evolution of the Planful Enterprise Performance Platform and how it affects you, the buyer or user of EPM solutions.

In this first installment, I’ll introduce the concepts of design, graphic design, the designer role, interaction design, the science of human factors, the Design Thinking problem-solving method, and the role of Apple and Steve Jobs in shaping our industry.

Design Is…What Exactly?

In the 1980s, the word design was not yet mainstream. Its street use mainly referred to the fashion industry and, in that context, typically referred to “Designer Jeans.” Those from Jordache, Gloria Vanderbilt, and Calvin Klein were the frontrunners. The iconic ad was Brooke Shields purring “Nothing comes between me and my Calvin Kleins.” Men partook heavily in the trend as well. Remember, these were the waning days of disco.

jennifer beals.jpg

Jennifer Beals and Michael Nouri wear Marithé et François Girbaud jeans in Flashdance (Wikipedia)

While in college at this time, I discovered and pursued

graphic design

. Graphic design is essentially visual communication. It’s the creation of production specifications for visual communication via text and both static and moving images – referred to as graphic communication.

The original graphic designers produced the end product by hand. Scribes recorded business deals on clay tablets or papyrus. Remote monks produced bibles via calligraphy and illustration. Then, with Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, monks produced bibles via the composition of movable type and illustration printing plates to be used for relatively mass production of printed artifacts. In these cases, the same person either produced the product by hand or created the tool used to produce identical copies of the product. The same person often performed the production as well.

graphic design icons.jpg

Icons from a graphic design signage system for the U.S. National Park Service. (Wikipedia)

What Do Designers Do?

Designers of printed communications compose artwork – again, words and images – which are typically photographed and converted into the photo-etched printing plates used by high-speed printing presses. For most mass-produced products today, the roles of product specifier (designer) and product producer have been largely divided. Designers create the specification for the tools and/or processes used to produce a product or deliver a service. Other people create those tools and/or make the products or deliver the service. Today’s printers rarely design, but rather print what is specified. Cars are built by production line workers.

Successful designers are not artists or authors, but rather facilitators and servants. They need to anticipate and satisfy the needs and preferences of those who will pay attention to and/or buy and consume the message or product created. While this calls for artistry in execution, what’s produced is an agent that facilitates the greater outcome of sustainable value creation in a business or functional context. Designers are in part slaves to fashion. The scribbled logo in the movie poster below was cutting edge for us in school at the time, but quickly became passé, just like the torn shirt and leg warmers worn by Jennifer Beals in the movie Flashdance.

flashdance.jpg

An example of ‘80s graphic design, used to promote the movie Flashdance, 1983.(Wikipedia)

Whatever is designed and produced must be feasible (it needs to work), viable (it needs to serve a sustainable business need), and desirable (people must accept, if not enjoy, the result). Job satisfaction, for example, comes in part from seeing people use and enjoy something you helped create.

Design Today

Fast Forward to 2017. Design is seemingly everywhere. Efficient, globalized production and distribution have brought consumer products to much of the world. If not eliminated as a differentiator, product reliability and safety have been mostly commoditized. At the very least, they’ve been segmented into tiered quality classes with clear expectations for build quality and performance. In this world where product differentiation based on performance is more difficult, brands have turned to the factor of how their products look and work as a way of standing out and increasing value.

In the technology sector, it was Apple, of course, that pioneered and set the standard for how good form (the product’s “look”) and good behavior (the product’s “feel”) could elevate common or inferior functionality to the status of being irresistible to buyers. What made Apple’s designs even greater was the harmony between their proprietary hardware and software, both seeming to come from the skilled hand of the same person (Steve Jobs and his maniacal obsession with every detail).

Design’s fundamental practice – the process of creating plans and specifications for things to be produced and used by other people – is quite similar regardless of what’s being produced. Architects and designers of clothing, cars, packages, retail stores, and even songs, movies, and businesses, share similar basic techniques for getting the results right.

These timeless methods have, over the past decade or so, been collected into an overarching approach to problem-solving known as Design Thinking. Design Thinking optimizes the process of finding out what people want, what product or service would satisfy them, and how to deliver the resulting value to them in a sustainable manner using the feasible/viable/desirable framework mentioned above.

design thinking framework.png

The Design Thinking framework. (Wikipedia)

Now, what does this have to do with enterprise performance management (EPM) software?

Design for Software

In the 1990s, the role of user interface (UI) design was made familiar. Most software products have the need to “interface” with people. UI design is the practice of deciding how a computer system presents its data, capability, and status – or what it has, does, and is doing– to its human operator, and how this operator tells the computer what to do. Interfaces evolved from early matrices of physical switches and levers to punch cards, then to keyboards and display screens, and eventually to mice, graphical UIs, and voice. In the early days, software was used to solve complex and mission-critical problems, such as to decipher enemy communication codes, perform complex math calculations, orchestrate the world’s air travel, and send men to the moon.

Because the operators of these systems were often genius-level, educated, specialist, and/or highly motivated individuals, they were able and willing to tolerate a UI that was crude and obtuse by today’s standards. With today’s broad use of computing for routine tasks, an ultra-simple UI is mandatory if a user’s desired task outcome is to be worth the effort to learn and carry out the necessary input commands. At its core, a computing UI exists to facilitate the dialog between the computer system and its operator or user.

keypunch.jpg

A keypunch card user interface. Any hanging chads? (Wikipedia)

Graphic design was always about communication. As UI display technologies advanced to enable more elaborate graphical displays, graphic designers gravitated into user interface design, albeit not without overcoming some big hurdles.

For one, graphic design is primarily about one-way communication from a sender – a magazine editor, book publisher, municipal road network, billboard advertiser, etc. – to a receiver. Communicating with a computer is bi-directional, or interactive. The user and the system act as both senders and receivers (computers, of course, also enable communication among multiple users, as with email and social media).

Computer software is also what I call formless, malleable, boundless, and evolving. When compared with books, buildings, coffee makers, and traditional artworks, a software product is much more difficult to “see”, and understand, in its entirety. A website can only be seen one page at a time. Its full form and volume are only hinted at through its table of contents and the act of its exploration.

Our view of the software world is mediated through two-dimensional windows of varying size, and our instructions to it are sent via keyboards and pointing devices (and now voice, etc.). User interface, or interaction, designers need to design not only how software programs look (the fonts, colors, and layouts of their presentation) but also how they work (how a user can get a program to do what is wanted). This is, in many ways, a much more complex and difficult intellectual challenge than the design of static two-dimensional messages.

While related to other interactive products, such as cars or musical instruments, software must reveal its form via a two-dimensional presentation that’s in some ways quite restrictive, but in others limited only by one’s imagination. The UI, while important, provides only the face of our enormous digital machines. The real machines are hidden among boxes and wires strung around the globe, carrying out the work we give to them. But as the face of such processes, the UI has an outsized effect on the actual and perceived day-to-day well-being of the machine’s users. The situation in fact mirrors how we interface with other people. Faces and their expressions are like the user interface to the body and soul.

The science that makes the built world tolerable and usable for people, whether physical or virtual, is called human factors. Designers need to internalize basic human factors best practices in order to design products that are legible, understandable, fit the size and shape our bodies, and don’t kill us. When designers aren’t sure what will work best for a new product design, they conduct design research to discover how real users work with current products.

With the same users, new product designs are tested before being built and deployed. Such testing measures the true metric driving the product design effort: user experience. User experience is measured with data obtained by asking key questions:

  • What is the experience of the person using our product?
  • Are they able to accomplish their expected goals?
  • Are they able to do so efficiently?
  • Do they feel confident and in control when doing so?
  • Are they inclined to trust the product and use it for more varied and challenging tasks?
  • Would they recommend its use to others?

Designing Alongside Engineers and Business Owners

Because it’s a full-time job to learn and execute such a challenging product development role, the UX discipline is now staffed by specialist designers, researchers, and prototypers. As with their architect, product design, and graphic design predecessors, UX professionals produce product specifications that drive the work of developers – the computer programmers who write the actual software code that constitutes the product – a task that is often artistic in its own special ways.

Initially, just as with the early producers of graphics and physical products, developers designed and created the UIs of their software products. Inevitably, however, markets and users demanded a level of product sophistication that only teams of specialized experts could produce.

How does the production of cloud software compare to, say, that of hammers? With the latter, a designer specifies the shape of the wooden handle and steel head, according to the business needs determined by a product manager. An engineer creates molds and lathe settings for the creation of multiple exact replicas, and production line workers create and assemble the parts. For the former, a designer interprets business requirements and then defines how a product feature should look and work. An engineer then writes the code to enable the feature to appear and run efficiently whenever needed. Then a technical operations team maintains the delivery system – the databases, servers, and connections needed to run the computing service.

There are, of course, many more specialized roles (system architects, researchers, project managers, and others) and nuances to these roles. The work is often collaborative and iterative rather than serial. The basic landscape and flow, however, are similar.

Design at Planful

At Planful, we’ve spent years building and optimizing an EPM software machine: a cloud-based platform able to run an organization’s modeling, planning, analysis, reporting, and consolidation processes. In 2015, we began a concerted effort to significantly improve our product’s user experience. If you use our product now, you’ve surely already noticed the improvements we’ve made. However, our effort continues – and in fact never ends.

As we continue to renovate our current product’s look and feel, we’re also designing and building new capabilities to improve how users track processes, understand their company’s key performance indicators, and model potential business outcomes. Software is boundless and evolving. Our design team will work to maintain Planful as the industry leader in trust, functionality, and user experience for cloud EPM.

Winter 17 screen.png

Detail from a screen planned for Planful’ Winter 17 release.

This lesson has presented the fundamentals of design as it applies to software product design. In lessons 2 & 3, we’ll look at the elements of UX design – appearance, behavior, and functionality – and the unique product design challenges posed by EPM software (lesson 2), and finally, the unique UX benefits provided by the Planful platform (lesson 3). Stay tuned!

Sign up here for a live demo of Planful to see the latest in our user experience.

Register for a Live Demo

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The Road to Renewal – Creating Customers for Life

The Road to Renewal – Creating Customers for Life

What’s more important to a cloud-based software company – acquiring customers or retaining them?

The answer.  Acquiring new customers is important to driving growth in the business, but retaining customers is even more important.  Why?  Think about the leaky bucket analogy.  If there are too many holes and water is leaking out of the bucket faster than its being poured in – then the bucket will never be full.

Ensuring customer success is a core value and focus at Planful.  Onboarding customers, getting them live, and driving long-term satisfaction are mission critical processes to us.  As such, they get a great deal of attention by our management team.

The philosophy of the Planful’ Customers for Life program was recently highlighted in a report published by Blue Hill Research, titled “Analyzing Planful’ Customers for Life Program: The Road to Renewal.”  The report was written by Hyoun Park, Chief Research Officer, based on an interview with Alison Holmlund, Planful SVP of Customers for Life.  Here’s a brief summary of the report.

Keys to Successful EPM Renewal

This research report was written as part of Blue Hill’s focus on the “customer journey,” highlighting best practices leveraged by vendors to drive customer renewals, and the impacts of this on customers.  As with other cloud-based software companies, Planful must retain customers for multiple years to be profitable.  As a result, we need to provide value and support customer needs across the full customer journey, from initial awareness of the company, through to selection, implementation, and ongoing usage and support, to addressing new needs.

Blue Hill Research identified three keys to successful EPM renewal embraced by Planful:

  1. Training: Successful customers took the time to pay attention to train and onboard employees on how to use the solution.
  2. Clear Goals: To achieve success, companies must first define success in short phrases that are clearly identifiable.
  3. Prior Experience: Clients with prior EPM software experience have an advantage in gaining value and preparing for renewal.

On the last point mentioned, prior EPM software experience, Blue Hill validated that this is common across many software categories.  Customers who have prior experience with packaged software understand the implementation steps and are typically more successful than those switching from spreadsheets for the first time.  This is mostly due to the massive process changes that often occur as companies switch from spreadsheets to a packaged software solution.  Customers upgrading from spreadsheets are usually successful, as long as expectations are set correctly regarding the implementation process..

Getting to Renewal

leadership_alisonh2x__profile.pngGetting to renewal can be even more challenging than the initial sale, if the expected value from the software has not been achieved.  So the Planful Customers for Life (CFL) team immediately gets introduced to customers when they select the solution.  The team then stays connected to the customers throughout the training and implementation process, and through the support cycle.

Formal renewal discussions typically start 3 – 6 months prior to the official renewal date.  However, Blue Hill noted that the renewal itself is meant to be an anti-climactic process, quoting Alison Holmlund as saying, “Renewal should be an afterthought based on the customer’s existing success, meeting the needs of the customer, and achieving business objectives.”

Learn More

Blue Hill Research wrapped up the report with its recommendations for current and potential clients of Planful.  To get the details and learn more about Planful’ Customers for Life program, download the report.

Access the Research Report

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