The Anglo-Irish satirist Jonathan Swift once said, “Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.”
Although this can be interpreted in many ways, the Office of Finance, especially those in financial planning and analysis (FP&A), can take this to heart. Modern finance preaches quite a few things that help FP&A. Much of it relates to the speed of receiving information, a single version of the truth, integrating data, integrating plans, planning in the cloud, and so much more. With all the changes in the way data is received, available, and ready for usage, one area that is commonly ignored is the value of visualization. Yet as we will see, the potential is tremendous.
When it comes to FP&A, the modern generation of planning started with Excel models and/or OLAP cubes. Since that time, according to a recent Aberdeen white paper on dynamic planning, only 31% of companies with a dynamic planning process use visualization – and this is among organizations adopting best practices in dynamic planning, or best-in-class planning organizations.
This itself is troubling because it leads one to think of all the bottlenecks that we allude to solving for FP&A. Budgeting and planning software today speaks to many benefits: modeling, scripting, allocations, and collaboration, for example, all of which are quite the improvement from the days of Excel. When it comes to visualization, however, most advanced reporting requires multiple vendors and various ETL processes. Ultimately, even when you have the most powerful engine behind you, the results you communicate too often look archaic – and sends you right back to Excel or PowerPoint.
Just recently, I was discussing the FP&A process with some customers at the SAPinsider Financials conference in Las Vegas. Even with the ready availability of real-time actual to plans, and the ability to drill down into the most granular details, their concern was still that Excel was the go-to interface for reporting. We talked about modern business intelligence (BI) and visualization, and ultimately it came down to the fact that finance is still entrenched in the world of Excel or even Excel-like Web grids.
Presentation is everything
Modern BI and dashboards are an integral part of our lives. Every day, we use dashboards and charts to analyze bank statements, calories consumed, weather reports, and the like – and yet the information FP&A often communicates to its business stakeholders reflects something that is quite unaesthetic at the very least. As Swift’s quote indicates, if we are to have the vision and share it across the enterprise, presentation is of the utmost importance.
Every FP&A professional aspires to be a trusted business partner. We discuss the importance of presentation in every facet of our lives, from interviews to first impressions. The same holds true for the financial data we present. Consumption must go beyond just basic financial statements. Rather, it must include visual reports that highlight the use of trend lines, or the ability to extend the FP&A cockpit to end users via the Web or mobile devices to give them instant access to the latest data translated from finance to communicate results.
Productivity gains and streamlined processes
Going beyond Excel, too many organizations today still spend time communicating monthly, quarterly, and year-end reports via PowerPoint decks, and in the most egregious cases, printing them in stacked binders. FP&A professionals, through their experience, education, and business acumen, are truly the financial stewards of the enterprise, and the process of “ticking and bobbing” to align data in these decks is a poor use of their time. A recent study by Forrester indicated that a modern BI and planning system can help improve reporting processes by 98% with a 60% reduction in processes.
The power of modern BI and visualization allows finance to tell a real-time story based on the latest information. It allows finance to weave a narrative that allows them to not only gain trust but also to gain an audience – and most importantly, capture the mind and attention of the customer. Once this is achieved, what was once the vision can truly become the reality.