Trends are never difficult to forecast. Spotting the tipping points when growth suddenly rebounds and commodity prices soften requires far greater skills. It’s a capability that brings more in the way of competitive advantage too as companies that are adept at spotting subtle changes in their markets can quickly fine tune their strategies and tactics while their peers are left wondering what’s happening.
Currently most of the larger grocery retailers here in the UK are reeling from losses in market share and declines in their stock price that are a direct result of failing to recognize sufficiently early that uncertainty about jobs and softening wages would bring about a seismic change in their market. The net result of all this is that an increasing number of cash-strapped and apprehensive consumers are doing their weekly shop at discount stores. Meanwhile, the major players have to discount heavily to maintain sufficient market share to cover the high overheads that come from operating large format stores that typically carry 40,000 different products as opposed to the 2,500 found in a discount store. Retail analysts are already suggesting there might be casualties as the market settles down to a new normal.
This is just one example of how a bundle of economically important tipping points have come together to transform a market in a way that was not expected. My point here is that businesses need to do more than just monitor and project trends. They need to understand the context behind those trends. That means tracking leading indicators–such as consumer confidence, government policy on taxation, emerging technology– and collaborating with fellow business leaders to generate a range of possible scenarios, rather than a single, fixed, annual plan. Sure this all takes time, but it is time that will be paid back in spades later on when competitors are dumbstruck by unfolding events that you already have a strategy and a plan in place to address.
So, given the persistent uncertainty in many markets, here’s four trends that I expect to see more of in 2015;
1. Less hype about predictive analytics
As the year progressed, there seemed to be fewer mentions of predictive analytics in social media channels. This would suggest that it’s a topic that has quickly passed through what analysts Gartner call the “peak of inflated expectations.” Eventually predictive analytics will be recognized for what it is: a set of valuable statistical tools that can help an educated analyst find patterns and trends in data. It is definitely not the secret sauce that will transform planning and budgeting during the current uncertainty. Only scenario modeling and informed collaboration can do that.
If any of the business intelligence vendors that sell predictive analytic packages wants to take issue with this view, I challenge them to “walk the talk” and manage the next 12 months by applying predictive techniques to every line item in their 2015 financial budget. If they are still around by the end of next year, perhaps they can report back on the experience.
2. Moving from templates to models
Every time finance folk talk about budget templates, what they are really saying is, “I don’t give a monkey’s about how you get to them, just give me numbers.” In businesses where such a traditional approach persists, operational planning and financial budgeting remain disconnected. And reforecasts take forever, compromising the agility that is needed to navigate through the maelstrom prevalent in many global markets.
During 2014, there was increased recognition of the benefits that adopting driver-based approaches to planning and budgeting bring. But there was also a growing amount of scepticism about whether legacy FP&A solutions have the capabilities needed to model the complexities of manufacturing and supply chain logic. No doubt that dissent will grow as those advocating change find themselves hobbled by inadequate technology.
3. Growing granularity
As a way of improving accuracy, many companies have already increased the granularity of their budgets, with line items for the pay and benefits of individual employees, and revenue of every product. Others are exploring driver-based budgeting or its close cousin, integrated business planning (IBP) to deliver a holistic process from very detailed sales and operations planning right through to the line items in the budget and the corporate profit and loss account. Both these approaches mean those in Finance will soon find themselves in the domain of big data with models that run to many billions of data points. At the same time, much of the revenue growth that many companies need in 2015 will only be found in particular geographies, product categories, and customer segments, or, only accessed by developing new routes to market or digital channels. This too involves planning at a greater level of detail.
4. Relentless pursuit of productivity
Although finance folk are becoming increasing involved in providing decision support for colleagues in other lines of business, there will be no let up on driving down the cost of the finance function as a percentage of revenue – the usual benchmark for measuring productivity. Top performers have already reduced the cost of internal finance staff as a percentage of total revenue to half a percent, while the median remains double this at one percent.
When it comes to performance management processes, clearly moving away from spreadsheets and switching from systems that run in batch mode to those that run in memory will help reduce cycle times and improve individual productivity. However, as planning moves from templates to models, and those in the finance function become increasingly involved in ad-hoc scenario analysis, it is imperative that tools and solutions can be self-managed. To my mind, deploying an in-memory FP&A solution that can only be amended by a specialist negates much of the benefit, and precludes it ever being used for ad hoc scenario analysis.
At a time of discontinuity, it seems that financial planning and budgeting is at a tipping point too. The experience of battling through an unprecedented period of economic and business turmoil will have motivated many finance leaders to look for better ways to plan and budget. Somewhat fortuitously, new and increasingly cost-effective technologies mean there are now solutions available that will enable CFO’s and their teams to turn their dreams and aspirations into reality. FP&A has never been quite so interesting.