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Analytics Plan & Forecast Visualization

Better Forecasting And Budgeting Starts With Analysis – IBM Cognos 10 in Action

FORECAST ANALYSIS

Much has been written about developing better forecasting and budgeting templates or improving the overall process. But to my surprise there is hardly any focus on the role of analysis. I have seen many organizations where managers ‘survive’ the forecasting and budgeting cycle without ever spending time performing meaningful analysis of their data. They simply focus on getting the numbers in to satisfy finance and senior management.

This is a wasted opportunity. People should use that occasion to gain insights about their business. Lack thereof is likely to result in forecasts and budgets that are not meaningful. Some of you might say: ‘Wait a second! Managers do obtain some reports.’ True. They get the classic variance report with a ton of detail. But working with this is time-consuming and it is extremely difficult to identify critical trends and to see the big picture.

Forecasting Report
A traditional variance report. What does it tell us?

BETTER FORECASTING WITH ANALYSIS

Using a Business Analytics platform like IBM Cognos 10, you can make is easier for managers to gain critical insights. Here are a few ideas that you might find useful. Let’s look at the example of a sales manager for a European division of a global company. This manager has to forecast revenue and associated expense.

1. GO VISUAL

First of all, toss those detailed variance reports. Line of Business managers will most likely not obtain any information from them. Human beings do much better processing visual information. You can find a lot of information about this topic on this blog. So, try to swap out those hundreds of data points with a few meaningful charts. Your teams will be thankful.

2. CONSIDER EXTERNAL DATA

The variance report does not really tell us anything about our business potential. We could therefore consider looking at external data such as market trends. More and more of my clients do that. It helps them with assessing their overall position and it also helps them set realistic but ambitious targets. The example below shows that market growth in Europe is a bit limited compared to North America and Asia.

Market Size chart
The situation in Europe is not looking good

3. STUDY HISTORY

History is not necessarily a predictor of the future. But we should not ignore it. We might be able to identify seasonality and to detect general trends. Pick the critical measures. Line charts are usually a great choice to display this type of data. The example below shows that revenue is cyclical and that the general trend is positive:

Revenue Reporting
On the rise: Revenue trend for Europe

 

4. CHANGE YOUR PERSPECTIVE

One of the nice things about modern Business Analytics tools like Cognos 10 is that we can view data from multiple different angles. Use that capability to your advantage! Try to explore different perspectives. Look at the example above. Now, compare this to the view below. Same data. Just a simple change in Cognos 10:

IBM Cognos 10 dashboard
A different perspective

Our biggest months used to be in summer time. But that has shifted towards year-end. Same data – different perspective. Explore!

5. BENCHMARK YOURSELF

It makes sense to learn from others as well. We could do some internal benchmarking as well. In our example, we could look at deal sizes (looks like Europe’s deals are growing nicely and they are above company average):

Deal size chart
The average deal has grown bigger

Ok. That sounds good. But does the deal size come at a cost? Once again, let’s do some internal benchmarking and look at the ratio of expenses and the associated revenue. It looks like Europe is slightly higher which might explain the higher deal size.

Expense Ration chart
Every penny that is earned in Europe requires higher expenses

That information is valuable. It also leads us to think further and to ask some critical questions (Does it make sense to review our spending? Does the higher spending lead to bigger deals?). We should obviously not stop right here.

6. LOOK AT LEADING INDICATORS

What about other non-financial data as well? For revenue budgeting, I might also want to look at a leading indicator like customer satisfaction. And I might also want to look at our track record of winning deals (win-loss-ratio). Take a look:

Customer satisfaction chart
Customer satisfaction is rising again. A leading indicator for sales?

BETTER INSIGHTS

This is a simple example. The manager is now equipped with a few key insights:

  • Market growth is low
  • Our revenue trend is still positive
  • Buying patterns have shifted
  • Our strategy of investing in selling activities has increased the deal size
  • Customer satisfaction is increasing which could lead to higher sales

These are valuable insights. And it did not take much time to obtain them. The old variance report would not have provided that insight and it would have consumed a lot of time.

Try to incorporate a few of those ideas in your forecasting and budgeting processes. Doing this with spreadsheets is obviously difficult and probably explains why so many organizations are stuck with the traditional approach. Business Analytics software like IBM Cognos 10 makes it a lot easier to do that.

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Plan & Forecast

Budgeting – Your Northern Star (Guest Post)

A budget plants an iron rod of confidence and accountability into the spine of your business.

I recently blogged about Six Ideas for Setting Successful Budgets:

  1. Budgeting begins with assessing the current business environment
  2. Leave your optimism at the curb
  3. Budgeting must be driven by strategy
  4. Connect the dots
  5. A careless budget will cause more pain
  6. Don’t forget the smell test

Today, I expand on ideas 4 and 5, which deal more with the actual preparation of the budget; the practical challenges.

Connect the dots

Because we assemble budgets at the line item level, we risk believing the process is simply the aggregation of line item budget amounts. This fragmented approach will yield a fragmented result, with little value to you or the business.

Budgets are not forecasts or estimates of what could happen. The budget is your plan of what will happen. Accordingly, the budget process actually starts from the top. A quality budget will tell a complete and coherent story at the highest level – like a navigator’s map, reflecting your point of origin, your destination (goals), the terrain (environment), distance to travel (measure progress), direction, optional routes (when stuff happens) and landmarks (reference points).

Northern Star
The Budget - Your Northern Star?

Getting the big picture requires that you understand the correlation/interaction of its components – the line items. For example, if you are increasing your direct marketing budget, have you also considered?

  • A possible corresponding reduction in display advertising
  • Costs for crafting direct marketing campaigns (usually more work than display ads)
  • Staffing costs for timely follow up on leads form direct marketing campaigns
  • Costs incidental to the staffing increase (tax, benefit, training, etc)
  • Effect of strategy on the fulfillment/sales/collection cycles

There are few items in your budget that truly stand alone. Make your budgeting process worth the effort you are putting into it by connecting all the dots to plot next year’s journey.

A careless budget will cause more pain

Understandably, the budgeting process can feel like a tedious, time consuming and futile effort. “Why set a budget? I can’t control what is going to happen to my business. We respond how we have to respond and spend what we have to spend anyway.”

This attitude will doom your efforts. The very purpose of budgeting is to gain control. As I noted, budgets are not just casual estimations of what might happen. A quality budget plants an iron rod of confidence and accountability into the spine of your business.

Sure, “stuff happens” to your business, but you control how it responds. Succumbing to the belief that budgeting is a pointless exercise will result in a careless effort to “just get it done.” The real pain will come the following year when stuff does happen and the maps (budget) you are using to navigate your business lack a Northern Star to guide you.

This was part 2 of the 2011 budgeting series on the Performance Ideas blog. More to follow soon.

About the author of this post:

Mike Duncan is Partner and co-founder of Bizzeness, LLC. Mike began his career with KPMG and Deloitte. He has been a business owner and advisor for over 30 years serving over 300 businesses in various capacities. Mike focuses on SMB’s with concept development, business modeling, start-up, market adaption, strategy and succession. Mike lives in the Kansas City area. You can contact Mike at mike@bizzeness.com.

Mike has written a prior guest post on this blog.

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Plan & Forecast

Annual Budgeting – Our favorite season?

BUDGETING

Yes, it’s that time of the year. The time that is often filled with pain and fear. No, I am not talking about Halloween but about the corporate budgeting process. Much has been written about the annual budget. And most of the written stuff is not positive. Jack Welch alone has provided us with a few memorable quotes such as:

“The budget is the bane of corporate America. It never should have existed.”

“But the budgeting process at most companies has to be the most ineffective practice in management. It sucks the energy, time, fun and big dreams out of an organization. (…) And yet (….) companies sink countless hours into writing budgets. What a waste!”

WHAT IS A BUDGET

In theory, a budget should actually be a rewarding and important process. Why? Let’s look at the purpose of a budget: It should outline how we want the future to look. It details planned actions, outlines investment areas etc.. When you think about it, these are very important tasks. And it should not be that nerve racking. Budgeting and planning allow us to sit back, look at our past achievements and provide us with the opportunity to lay out a path towards future success. Doesn’t sound too bad, right?

THE PROBLEM

Indeed, the annual budgeting process is anything but popular. No wonder. It is usually very difficult and the resulting value is dubious. So, what’s wrong? Many things. Here are a few statistics that I pulled together from various articles, books and conferences. Depending on the specific sources, number tend to vary a bit here and there. But the general trend is the same.

  • Over 70% of all budgets loose their validity after the first quarter of the new fiscal year. The speed and volatility of our global connected world renders many assumptions useless.
  • And estimated 94% of all executives do not have confidence in the budget numbers. They believe the numbers are either outdated, they are padded or they are meaningless. Huh?
  • 75% of all companies need more than three months to complete the entire cycle. Even three months is a long time these days. Responding to changing market conditions becomes very difficult with these long cycle times. Also, think about the enormous amount of resources that are invested into the process. Do we really want to spend all that time only to find that the output doesn’t actually reflect reality?
  • Over 75% of all budgets are believed to be sandbagged. Gaming the numbers remains a popular competition: cost center managers exaggerate expenses to protect their turf. Sales managers express negative market views to maximize their earning potential. Not good.

TIME FOR CHANGE

It’s time for a change! In the next few weeks I will share a few ideas for making the budgeting process more valuable. On Thursday, business advisor Mike Duncan will discuss the overall purpose of the budget. He recently wrote a nice article called Six Ideas for Setting Successful Budgets.

If you have stories and best practices to share, please get in touch with me.

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Events & Workshops Plan & Forecast Workshops

Rolling Forecasts Keep on Rolling

Am I surprised? Yes. Maybe I shouldn’t. Our rolling forecasts events were popular in the past, but they keep getting more and more popular.

ROLLING FORECASTS TODAY

Rolling Forecasts are indeed an important topic. And why wouldn’t they? Business and life in general is turbulent these days. No doubt about that. Just think about all the stuff that has happened this year. Major events like Tunisia, Egypt & Fukushima almost seem far away given the significant rate of change these days. And most of these events have a profound impact on the world economy. Think about Fukushima: it happened in Japan but the ripple effects created a serious tremor in Germany (the German government decided to completely pull out of nuclear energy within the next few years). Volatility and uncertainty have therefore increased the need to improve forecasting and decision making processes in almost every business.

THE FALL SEMINAR SERIES

Rolling Forecast Popularity
The number of participants is significantly increasing

We have been running a lot of rolling forecast seminars around the globe for the past few years. The workshops are very interactive and feature a ton of hands-on best practices. We used to run them as roundtable events with a huge focus on personal interaction and discussion. But the latest series is different. My colleague and friend Mark Rolfe just blogged about it earlier this week: we have been getting so much interest that the events are no longer roundtables. We just can’t find any tables that can fit 50-150 people. The events are that popular. This week, we had over 40 people in London. Next week, we are expecting well over 40 people in Bratislava. While I personally prefer the smaller sizes (more interaction), I am certainly happy to see that companies are interested in improving these critical processes.

HAVE YOU JOINED?

The trend is very interesting. It seems to me that we are about to see a profound change in the way we run our businesses. The traditional annual budget process is just not working anymore. The huge popularity of these events reflects this trend.

Are you interested? Please get in touch with me. You can find a description of the seminars on this blog. Also, take a look at the upcoming events in Europe. My colleague Tim O’Bryan can provide you with information about North America.

P.S.: We are conducting a small survey amongst the participants. Look out for some interesting results in late November.

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Finance Plan & Forecast

How to reduce detail in your forecasts

Rolling Forecasts are quite popular today. But to implement them properly it is usually imperative to reduce the detail in the forecasting models. Less detail speeds up the process and helps to increase the accuracy.  A recent post on this blog looked at some of the problems with too much detail. The big question though is to where and how to cut detail. While people tend to look at the chart of accounts first, many organizations actually have great success with making a few modifications to their timescale.

THE BIG SCALE

Take a look at the photo below. It symbolizes one of the key issues with forecasting: the further out we look the more diffuse our view gets. While we might have a good idea of what is going to happen next month, it is usually more difficult to do the same for the months after. That’s just the way it is.

Rolling Forecasts - The time horizonUnfortunately, most forecasting templates do not reflect this fact of life. Take a look at the original time-scale from a customer that I used to work with. The organization wanted to look beyond fiscal year end. However, all months were treated equally:

A traditional time-scale (208 data points)

Notice how much detail is being generated. And detail requires effort. As a business person, I will have to sit down and try to provide an amazing amount of detail. This could take a while. The basic assumption of this template is that business people are able to precisely quantify when something is going to happen no matter if it’s tomorrow or next year. That is dangerous and it’s simply not possible. Here is an example: I might know that a certain customer will purchase my product next month. But I will most likely not be able to precisely identify the same thing for next year. The forecast will therefore most likely be wrong from a timing perspective. Why the detail then?

A DIFFERENT TIMESCALE

How about changing the timescale? Take a look at the final redesign in IBM Cognos TM1:

Rolling Forecast Model
Less detail. Probably more accurate (112 data points)

The new version reduces the detail by almost 50%. And this approach pays tribute to the fact that the further out we look the more diffuse our view of the future becomes. Overall, we could argue that this template will produce more accurate forecasts while also making it easier for the business. This is a lot easier to work with! My client implemented a similar timescale with excellent results.

YOUR MODELS

Take a look at your current models. Is there an opportunity to alter the timescale? How much detail could you get rid of? If you want to embark on implementing a Rolling Forecast, you should most definitely look at this approach. Please let me know your thoughts and experiences.

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Finance Plan & Forecast

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication

Have you ever been to a giant buffet? Try to remember what it was like. We usually get excited when we see the various options and we ‘cruise the aisles’ to identify what we want. If you are like me, you have a hard time deciding and you end up wandering around taking a little bit of everything but nothing of anything. By the time you leave, you feel bloated and promise yourself to go easy next time. Chances are you won’t even remember what you ate.

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Finance Plan & Forecast Sticky

A Few Thoughts About Planning

There is an interesting discussion going on right now. Actually, it’s been going on for a few years. There are some people that argue against planning: “Why plan today? The world is so volatile! Any plan is typically rendered useless within a few weeks or months.” And then there are others who argue that planning is more important today than it’s ever been: “Planning helps us prepare for the future. It helps us consider our options.” I personally support the later opinion. Planning is a critical process today.

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Finance Plan & Forecast

Improve your forecasts – 6 things we can learn from weather forecasters

Back in April, I posted an interview with a master forecaster: Franz the Frog. Interestingly enough, this post is one of the most popular entries on this blog. But all jokes and irony aside: Weather forecasters are indeed world champions in forecasting and there are some lessons that we as finance professionals can learn from them. Let’s take a look:

LESSONS FROM MASTER FORECASTERS

1. Forecasts should be objective: Have you ever seen a subjective weather forecast? Well, it may feel like that sometimes. But weather forecasters do not publish what they think the public or the managers of the TV stations or newspapers want to hear. That would be dangerous. No, they strictly publish what their algorithms and forecasting processes show them. We can therefore rely on them (except for the obvious and inherent forecast errors that can occur).

2. Forecast discussions should look forward not backward: Huh? Well, weather forecasts focus on the future. Have you ever seen a weather person spend 75% of his time explaining past variances, apologizing and arguing about assumptions? No. Weather forecasts are strictly forward looking. The focus is on what lies ahead and not on what happened in the past.

3. Forecasts should be flexible: How often do we we get an updated weather forecast? Once per quarter? Once per month? No, the weather is too volatile for that. The forecast would be outdated within a few hours. People might be unprepared for a snowstorm, for example. Instead, weather forcasters continuously update their models when new information arrives. That way we can all rely on the most current and accurate forecast. We don’t have to worry too much about being caught in dangerous weather.

4. Forecasts should speak a clear language: Weather forecasts are being presented in a simple and concise manner: “Heavy winter storms expected with up to 20cm of fresh snow.” This type of presentation allows us to quickly make decisions (stay at home). The message is not hidden in hundreds of lines of technical details.

Today's forecast is detailed. The further out we look the less detail we have.

5. Detail is adjusted based on the predictive ability: What is easier to forecast – the weather tomorrow or the weather in two weeks? Stupid question: the weather tomorrow. Weather forecasts acknowledge that they cannot predict weather much further out than a few days. And they adjust the level of detail based on that insight. Today’s forecast shows detail by the hour. The forecast for next week is just a general trend (‘rising temperatures expected’). This approach obviously reduces the effort involved in creating the forecast. Most importantly, this approach avoids the trap of setting wrong expectations (“I thought it would be sunny in three weeks from now!”) More detail does not mean higher accuracy.

6. Forecasts are compiled with the help of modern technology:

Technology drives efficiencies and increases effectiveness

What type of instruments and tools do weather forecasters leverage? Weather frogs, old fashioned thermometers, wet fingers, flight patterns of birds? No, they rely on modern technology. They continuously push the envelope and upgrade their equipment. This tremendously speeds up their work while also reducing mistakes and increasing the accuracy. They actively look for new ways to improve their processes and techniques.

YOUR FORECASTS?

Think about your forecasts. How do they stack up when compared to these six characteristics? Are there areas where your forecasts can improve? If you are interested, join of of our Rolling Forecast workshops to learn more.

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Finance Interviews Plan & Forecast Sticky

Success with Forecasting – A discussion with Pieter Coens

Please meet Pieter Coens. Pieter is the Director of Finance & Control at Landal GreenParks in the Netherlands. He started his career in public accounting and joined Landal over 16 years ago. Pieter has held various positions in finance at Landal.

Landal GreenParks is a leader in bungalow-park management and rental. Landal has over 65 parks with a total of approximately 11,000 chalets. With 47 parks in the Netherlands, Landal leads the Dutch bungalow -park market. Outside the Netherlands, Landal has parks in Germany, Belgium, Austria, Switzerland and the Czech Republic.

Pieter gave a great presentation about Landal’s planning and forecasting processes at the IBM Finance Forum in Amsterdam on May 24th, 2011. We were able to have a quick chat at the event.

Christoph Papenfuss: You have implemented IBM Cognos to automate your budgeting and forecasting processes. What have you accomplished so far?

Pieter Coens: IBM Cognos currently helps us create an annual budget along with a monthly forecast. For that purpose, we have implemented several elements including models for Rental Revenue and our P&L.

Christoph Papenfuss: How did you manage your processes before that?

Pieter Coens: We used to manage our processes with a myriad of Excel files. It was very difficult. We ran into various issues such as managing excessive file sizes that slowed down the network, dealing with sluggish recalculations, difficulties tracing interdependencies etc.. Aggregating the different files was extremely cumbersome and time-consuming. And of course, there are the associated audit issues with spreadsheets.

Christoph Papenfuss: How are you benefiting from the implementation?

Pieter Coens: IBM Cognos has allowed us to automate a lot of the steps in the process such as preparing, distributing and aggregating planning templates. We are also able to develop more intricate models that provide us with better insights. Overall, we feel that our finance team and the business users are now able to focus more on the actual planning activities rather than the administrative tasks that I described earlier. My team is much more productive.

Christoph Papenfuss: You have an annual budget and also a monthly forecast. Who is involved in the process?

Pieter Coens: Finance is in charge of executing the process. But the business owners have to work and develop their own budgets and forecasts. They are in charge of entering their data in the models. Finance plays the role of the coach: we help the business make sense of the numbers and we guide them through the forecasts and budget iterations. This approach provides us with several advantages: By actively involving the business we can obtain more accurate and timely data. We also feel that the business is able to gain better business insights by actively working with their budgets and forecasts and the associated monthly actuals. Last but not least, Finance has more time to focus on value-added tasks such as performing analysis.

Christoph Papenfuss: You have a solid forecasting process. How often do you update the forecast and how far do you look into the future?

Pieter Coens: We currently use a monthly forecast. This allows us to anticipate and react to market changes. We ask the business to perform a detailed forecast for the next two months only. The remaining months until year-end are automatically calculated as a trend of the 2-month forecast. We found that creating a detailed forecast further out than 2 months does not necessarily result in very accurate data and it also takes a lot effort. We want the business to focus their energy on the short time-horizon and only forecast the know effects throughout the Full Year.

Christoph Papenfuss: You are proponent of driver-based models. Can you give us an example of how you have implemented this? Also, what are the benefits for the organization.

Pieter Coens: Driver-based models allow us to increase the speed of the budgeting and forecasting exercise. Also, we are able to perform better analysis at month-end and during the planning activities: Instead of just looking at an absolute variance, drivers allow us to review this from different angles such as price or volume effects. Food & Beverage Revenue, for example, can be calculated as Number of Guestnights * Average Spend on Food & Beverage.  The associated Cost of Sales are a percentage of the Food & Beverage Revenue that has been calculated.

Christoph Papenfuss: How did you go about implementing the IBM Cognos solution?

Pieter Coens: We decided to follow a modular approach and started with a few smaller projects. This allowed us to build critical skills and develop success much earlier. This in turn led to a situation where the business heard about our accomplishments and they started asking for additional projects e.g. forecasting on Operational Management Information.. Change management is a lot easier if the business users ask for projects instead of us pushing them to accept

Christoph Papenfuss: What else are you planning to do?

Pieter Coens: We are definitely looking to reduce the level of detail in our models. More detail does not mean higher accuracy. On the contrary, more detail requires more work and it does not necessarily drive accuracy. We are also looking to implement additional models such as cash flow and predictive modeling/forecasting for our Yield department.

Christoph Papenfuss: Thank you very much, Pieter! Good luck with your implementation.

Categories
Finance Plan & Forecast

3 ways to analyze and communicate Forecast Accuracy

Analyzing Forecast Accuracy

What’s the best kept secret in your company? Well, hopefully not your forecast accuracy numbers? Forecast accuracy should not be a calculation that happens behind closed doors. But the numbers should be communicated and analyzed to be really useful. Here are three ways you can communicate and analyze your numbers:

  • The table of shame & glory: One good way to display forecast accuracy is to collect the numbers in a heat map. Collect the numbers for different organizational units in a table and color code the values based on tolerance ranges (green = acceptable, yellow = hmmm, red = absolutely not). The advantage of this approach is that we can easily spot trends and also compare different organizational units. This type of table can also be used to motivate people to take their forecasts seriously. But once again: be cautious with putting too much pressure on forecast accuracy.

 

  • The bar chart of absolute truth: You can also simply compare forecasts and actuals in a simple bar chart. This type of format works ok for a single organizational unit. Having more than one in there makes a messy chart that is not worth looking at. The advantage here is that we can easily spot the absolute differences between the values.

  • The run chart of truth: A very popular way to display the forecast error is to visualize the percentage error in a bar chart (a so-called run chart). This is a great way to very easily spot problem areas and trends. Also, we can easily compare different organizational units.

Those are three great ways to analyze and communicate forecast accuracy. You will probably want to experiment with all three of them. Many organizations do use these in connection. 

Good luck with your next few forecasts! If you want to learn more, please join one of our upcoming Rolling Forecast workshops. Simply get in touch with me for an updated schedule.

P.S.: If you want to read more about measuring forecast accuracy, I highly recommend purchasing Future Ready by Steve Morlidge and Steve Player. It is one of the best books about business forecasting. You can read an interview with Steve Morlidge on this site.