Las Vegas -- Technology took center stage at the FinNext 2019 FP&A Roundtable—with some surprising developments.
EMBRACING NEW TECHNOLOGY?
More than 30 attendees discussed their successes and pain points in implementing new technology. All agreed that a combination of efforts can help finance implement new forecasting and budgeting software: buy-in from leadership, leveraging influencers within the organization, testing with pilot groups, and agile development—pivoting quickly as lessons are learned.
However, when asked about new technology like artificial intelligence (AI) and robotic process automation (RPA), only one attendee said her company had implemented RPA in finance. A few were considering RPA, but most attendees shrugged. Many did not realize how simple the ideas of RPA is, convinced by the “robot” that it was a sophisticated tool beyond their grasp. Given all the media focus on AI, RPA and other types of digital disruption, it was a surprising admission.
Perhaps attendees did not employ RPA because they did not have the resources; nearly every attendee was wrestling with implementing and/or leveraging SaaS or forecasting and budgeting software. Some attendees were trying to switch from Excel to software while others were working out how to utilize it within their department and the business units. A few were even contemplating switching software providers.
Another challenge was fatigue from so much change in many parts of the organization. “Our problem was we had a whole year of testing and we started getting backlash from staff,” an FP&A manager said. “I had input all the way up the chain and then they didn’t just want to do it.” They were burned out from so many other IT transformations.
When roundtable leader Bryan Lapidus, FP&A, head of AFP’s FP&A practice, asked what the problem was with implementing budgeting software, attendees offered many explanations.
“You can have a great tool, but people are used to Excel,” one attendee said. “They’ll work offline in Excel, then import into the new tool, and we have to clean up the data. That takes a long process.”
Finance had no issues, another attendee explained. “Operations people had issues, especially with multiple operations people reporting into the software,” she said. Others said they saw finance people resist the change in technology. So how can FP&A and the organization overcome change and embrace new forecasting software?
There were the usual suspects of change management programs:
- Obtain management support: “If you can get senior leaders on board and be okay with seeing metrics that initially might not be clean, that is big,” one attendee said. “The sell is that over the long term, you’ll have better data to make better decisions. But it’s not an easy sell.”
- Build momentum by harvesting the low hanging fruit: “We had success on the path of least resistance and then we brought the holdouts along,” said one attendee.
- Commit resources: “Executives think IT is more prepared for the technology than they really are,” one attendee said. “If people don’t touch the data on a regular basis, they need to learn. It’s about making that commitment to teach.”
Other insights include the following:
One attendee noted that his organization has some people taking the lead and “others are noticing, and they are challenging themselves” to embrace the technology. They specifically sought out individuals who could influence others in the organization.
DEVELOP BROAD SUPPORT
“Everyone was involved in user testing,” one attendee said. “We adopted what the business wanted, not just what finance wanted. So the director of operations uses it. Departments use it. My biggest problem now is they want more data.”
Even the Excel holdouts agreed that spreadsheets for an enterprise were not the way to go. “The big joke was ‘We’re gonna insert a row!’” said one attendee, which received universal laughs from the group. She added, “A new CFO eventually came in and said, ‘This has to stop,’ so we finally invested in it. But it took years to solve everything.”
HIRE NEW BLOOD
One FP&A executive noted that bringing in new, digital talent from outside the company helped. “We did reverse mentoring to pair them with someone from within the finance organization,” he said.
The FP&A executives agreed that ROI was not necessarily the biggest selling point for management; new functionality was. “I sold the new software by saying we’ll provide more services,” one executive said. “Now we can do scenario planning for senior leadership. We can provide more services with the same headcount.”
MANAGE EXPECTATIONS ABOUT DATA
Everyone who had implemented a new system revealed a potential to derail even the best program: data clean up reveals problems that were hidden and will take longer than you expect to fix. Likely, your company has spent years with bad data, and being forced to trace sources to uses and deploy governance will be a slow process filled with conflicting opinions and challenges.
PLAY THE LONG GAME
Members who had the most sophisticated implementations revealed that they also had a three to five-year roadmap. Quick fixes led to outgrowing (and writing off) implementations, or multiple tools that overlapped and required multiple support. Successful implementations led to people wanting more data, reports and utility. Instead think about long-term plans, constant upgrades and modular design.
“Implementation is never over,” Lapidus said.
EARLIER ROUNDTABLE: IS FP&A ABOUT FINANCE OR BUSINESS PLANNING?
Earlier in the day, Lapidus led another roundtable around the future of FP&A.
“A recent, lively online debate posed the question, is the future of FP&A about business planning, or is it still financial,” said Lapidus. “The discussion swirled around business partnering, centralized versus decentralized teams, and the role of finance.”
At FinNext 2019, roundtable attendees simply did not see the conflict that lit up this discussion on LinkedIn earlier this year. First, the overwhelming majority acknowledged that they work for the CFO, in the finance organization, even if they were in the business unit. Second, those whose primary activities were in the business acknowledged that their role was to make business decisions based on financial analysis. Operations and finance are intimately linked, so supporting the business means bringing the financial point of view to the table.
Attendees did agree that one of the key ways to think about FP&A’s role is letting the business know what amount of financial freedom they have to do different things—how much financial risk they can take, and when the company is nearing guardrails, such as covenants.
HOW OFTEN TO FORECAST?
There were many different perspectives on the right frequency of forecasting, with some attendees saying they reforecast only one to two times per year, others quarterly or monthly. In some cases, the business was pushing back against FP&A, saying that a detailed forecast each month was too much. In part, this was driven by the culture of the company, including demands given by outside investors versus the latitude of being privately owned.
It also came out that different parts of the income statement were monitored differently, that expenses might be updated only after the monthly close, but revenue could have been more frequent, or had scrutiny on their metrics outside of FP&A (sales, marketing). The group also noted the difference between when the business had buy-in to the forecast and budget, versus when it was imposed top-down from finance, the CEO or the board. Ultimately, the degree to which a forecast and budget is effective is whether it helps us to make decisions. “If the decision cycles are fast, our reforecast must be frequent,” Lapidus summarized. “If decisions are based on years or decades, then reforecast can be infrequent.”
Lastly, the definition of short, medium and long-term differs for each business:
- Short-term is where the plans are set in motion and there is not much ability to change them. “We are simply forecasting the market reaction,” Lapidus noted. Finance plays a role here, all attendees agreed.
- Medium-term is where FP&A can change actions within the confines of the strategy. Finance plays a large role here among all attendees
- Long-term is primarily a strategic play and is the domain of the C-suite. Strategy drives the long-range forecast. About half the group indicated that they play a role in strategic planning, but all play a role in quantifying that strategic plan into a long-range financial plan.
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