Earlier in the year, Adaptive Insights made its Torchie Awards. These awards are designed to honor those companies that are doing the most innovative work with Adaptive Insights' technology. We are always interested in what customers think and how they're working with technology as an aid to their businesses, but we find that awards don't tell the whole story.
As an alternative, I asked if we could pose some questions to award winners to get a deeper insight into customer thinking and also to test alignment with Adaptive Insights' thinking. We received replies from:
Amy Watson, Financial Systems Manager, Comvita
Richard Robinson, CFO, Sioux Steel Co
Nancy Shyer, Director of Finance, Room to Read
Don Sherwood, Senior Director FP&A, Callidus Cloud
Sarah Sebby, Financial Planning Manager, Clarke
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These are selected comments from respondents, lightly edited for brevity. Our commentary follows.
At Insights, Adaptive Insights CEO Tom Bogan talked about it being a great time to be in finance. Do you share that view? If so then why?
Robinson: Finance has a big voice and a definite seat at the table more now than at any other point in my career in the past. Finance is viewed as the function that has the answers.
Watson: We now (more than ever before) have the tools available to find exciting new ways to model and automate accounting processes. The new models are enabling the business to make better and faster decisions, creating an agility we didn’t have previously.
Sherwood: We see, more than ever, finance in the cockpit with the CEO.
Sebby: The technology is here that improves our speed and efficiency.
Shyer: Our organization is committed to data-driven decision making. We want Finance “seated at the table,” and, accordingly have invested in systems, staff and staff development.
Getting close to and understanding the challenges of the line of business is a key ingredient in the planning, budgeting and forecasting cycles. How do you go about getting alongside those people? What are the chief lessons you'd offer to others faced with that same challenge?
Watson: Having buy-in from leadership and them seeing the benefits of our forecasting system is key as top-level confidence percolates down through the business. We have learned over time that communication, educating users and providing adequate documentation on the modeling up front pays dividends later on.
Shyer: Here we’ve created “tiers of expertise and engagement” with our worldwide Finance organization, where we learn about requirements, get inspired with new ideas, and obtain design review and feedback from our super user finance colleagues in our countries
Sherwood: We strive for a partnership at Callidus, but that also means holding the manager accountable and setting targets aligned with guidance and street expectations. A partnership means saying no as often as yes, if not more often.
Sebby: I work for a smaller company, so when our business managers need information, I work to provide them with easy to understand reporting. This allows for more time for discussion.
Robinson: I think being visible to the rest of the organization is key. Having visibility along with a clear understanding of the numbers and the ability to communicate financials clearly and easily allow collaboration across multiple functions. Once the collaboration is in place, it is easier to understand the challenges in the business.
Budgeting, planning, and forecasting have been a focus for finance professionals since forever, and yet LOB professionals are rarely enthusiastic about their required efforts. How do you show them the value of this process?
Sherwood: One example is determining the sales support required to achieve sales targets. We are realistic about what resources we need to achieve desired growth.
Shyer: Our line leaders comment about the ease of use, timely access to information, and value the improved analytics they can see. Our International Operations partners are highly engaged in the continuous design and analytics.
Sebby: For our company, reducing the time it takes for budgets to be updated has greatly improved attitudes! Also, we’ve been able to build out a lot of reporting in Adaptive Insights from our budget data. Since that is instantly updated once changes are made, our executive was very enthusiastic about that. That seemed to trickle down to our budget managers. It’s still not their favorite activity but making it easier on them has improved their thoughts on the process.
Robinson: A financial forecast is simply a roadmap for winning, and I try to make my peers understand that.
Watson: Having lower level inputs automatically roll up to the group result has a direct impact. End users know that any forecasting can be seen instantly.
The speed of innovation and time to action are a routine part of the narrative in today's business. If that's true for you, how do you see managing the pace of change in the context of ensuring that the budgeting and forecasting processes, in particular, are kept both manageable and on track?
Sebby: Our efforts these days are about working with our new users to ensure that they understand how to navigate and complete their budgets.
Sherwood: We know what constraints managers must operate within so we ask them to provide details within that context. This shortens the process. Too often speed is thought to be a trade-off with accuracy. With the right tools, no sacrifice is required.
Robinson: I’ve found that processes which made sense a year ago might not be as important as they once were. It is critical that Finance be ambassadors of change and not be afraid to change financial practices to ensure they remain relevant.
Again, collaboration is one of those expressions that seems to live on in the ongoing business narrative but what exactly does that expression mean to you and what tips would you offer those finance professionals who may not be so used to collaboration focused initiatives?
Shyer: Effective collaboration starts with knowing the process end-to-end – seeing it from a variety of perspectives – management stakeholders, cross-function partners – all with key roles. This year collaboration efforts were particularly successful in our HR/personnel budgeting where we introduced new tools and reports and enabled analyses that provided insight to variance drivers. Another example was the partnership with operations – where “Team Adaptive” this year included dedicated members from Finance and Ops. The advances we achieved were made possible due to a high level of openness to ideas across functions, and the engagement of the resources that would be needed to succeed.
Sebby: Adaptive Insights has allowed me to become more collaborative with my executive team members. Because I’m not bogged down with managing so many Excel spreadsheets, and we’ve automated so many parts of our budgeting and reporting. This allows me to more fully participate when new opportunities arise to our business and information is needed for decision making.
Robinson: To me, collaboration means getting involvement and participation in all functional areas of the organization. To get true collaboration, it is critical to have reports and dashboards that convey the financial story but in a way that is concise and easily understood by non-financial counterparts.
Sherwood: Collaboration does not mean capitulation. Every manager is focused on his team’s performance and fight for resource allocation. A forward-thinking CEO will use Finance as the grand arbitrator. Finance can help a manager understand how to optimally deploy company resources. Collaboration does not mean you need to agree; it does mean you need to understand. With the right tools and focused objectives, we help each other understand what is expected, what the constraints are and how best to execute.
If you undertake rolling forecasts, how do you ensure that LOB colleagues maintain enthusiasm for the forecasting process?
Sherwood: We can’t change the ground rules in the middle of a game if we expect execution. Managers need not be enthusiastic about their plans, but they must be bought into the concept of accountability and measurement.
Robinson: It comes back to collaboration; that's the key along with implementing a process that is automated, nimble, and as painless as possible.
Technology improvements in budgeting, planning, and forecasting have freed up finance professionals to do other things? Please give some examples of what those other things are for you in your role?
Sebby: I’ve become more a part of the executive discussions around new opportunities rather than just dealing with the “accounting end” of things once a proposal has been presented and accepted by our customers.
Shyer: In our first year of the Adaptive Insights implementation, we shortened our budget cycle significantly and created room for more finance involvement in business-oriented projects. We took on a project to look beyond pure financial results, but review the efficiency and impact of our programs. This is crucial in our effort to maximize the output for the children that we are trying to reach.
Sherwood: We can assist with M&A, benchmarking while making sure the books are accurate.
Watson: While we have chosen to spend extra time maintaining a rolling forecast, having a forecasting system has allowed us to spend time focusing on continuous improvement. This has included projects within finance to upgrade our ERP system, automate Transfer Pricing and Goodwill Impairment using Adaptive Insights, as well as acting as a better overall business partner to our LOB colleagues.
Robinson: I am now able to be a true business partner and are freed up to be more strategic. Specifically, I’m able to help determine investment opportunities, develop and implement growth strategies, go after investment and banking partners, and help determine lines of business we should enter or exit. This is much higher value work than what was possible in the past.
Software companies always like to tout the idea that they are a 'partner' to the prospect but too often, once the deal is done, they become just another customer. How have you avoided that problem in your dealings with Adaptive Insights?
Watson: We have an Adaptive Insights Customer Success manager assigned to us who covers the NZ/Australia region. We often see him at events and maintain contact throughout the year. This relationship has resulted in getting assistance from beyond the helpdesk to ensure our problems are resolved and that we have an effective budgeting tool.
Robinson: We are active participants in the Adaptive Insights community. We see ourselves as have a stake in the success of Adaptive Insights as they have a stake in our success. Today, for example, we are meeting with another software company in the process of installing Adaptive Insights so they can see how we have leveraged the product. That company’s success fuels additional investment by AdaptiveInsights in product enhancements. We are Adaptive Insights investors, if not with money, but in innovation.
Shyer: We formed a really effective relationship with Armanino. They focused a lot of attention on hitting our timeline and working within our budgets, but simultaneously they helped us to prioritize and set up a list of goals for a continuous Adaptive Insightsimprovement even beyond their service agreement. This indeed felt like a partnership.
Sebby: I have to say that the support team at AdaptiveInsights has been wonderful helping me with any issues that come up. When we’ve engaged them to make modifications to our instance, they really take the time to understand what our needs are and make appropriate suggestions for a solution.
The best software companies actively foster vibrant communities within their customer portfolio. To what extent do you find the AdaptiveInsights community delivers value to you? And, to what extent do you deliver value back to the community?
Sebby: I’ve enjoyed meeting other users at their annual conference. There have been several times where we've implemented changes to our instance based on conversations I’ve had with other users!
Robinson: AdaptiveInsights does it through the Torchbearers community. There are also a few Adaptive groups on LinkedIn. I try to deliver value back by participating as much as possible especially through Torchbearers. I’ve also participated in regional events sponsored by Adaptive.
If you see yourself as an active contributor to the community, please provide an example of how you helped that had a rewarding impact that resonated with other Adaptive Insights customers.
Robinson: I’ve been a reference for Adaptive Insights a number of times and enjoy doing so. One potential client in particular signed up with Adaptive and was appreciative of how I explained how I’m using the software. We have exchanged ideas, and I also had several conversations at Adaptive Live once colleagues saw that I was a presenter and a Torchie Award winner. I’m always happy to share with others who are just beginning their journey with Adaptive.
Sherwood: We work with new AdaptiveInsights customers presenting in webinars, cohort communities and even inviting new customers on site to share best practices
Adaptive Insights is making the budgeting, planning and forecasting process a lot easier but do you foresee (or perhaps already use) external, non-financial data sources to inform these processes? If so then please provide some examples of those data types.
Sebby: We’ve started adding non-financial data to Adaptive Insights. This year we’ve added labor hours by month for each of our seasonal labor departments. This is a very large expense type for our company. Our manager like this reporting metric as it helps them to better monitor this expense.
Robinson: I think we are very much in an experimental period. I’ve measured steel prices, net farm incomes, commodity prices, and business potential by state. It is constantly evolving, but I’m trying to determine the right external factors that are relevant to my business and build correlation to internal financial data and then visualize it through discovery.
What is the one thing you'd like to see coming from Adaptive Insights that is not there today?
Sherwood: Versioning and variance functionality. My most frequent and difficult question to answer is what changed and where? I envision more robust versioning control where we could easily determine what headcount changes occurred, for instance, or what accounts changed and by who. Some of this is available in the audit, but it is not easy. I see AI and machine learning as being able to anticipate changes in trend and recommend actions rather than us visually inspecting thousands of account and department intersections.
Sebby: I look forward to new improvements that the team is working on to their Dashboards.
Shyer: Really smart data visualization tool. Better systems integration with our GL. Improved excel interface – it's still important for us. A more cost-efficient way to achieve multiple views of the business model - multiple instances without driving costs too high.
Robinson: I’m really interested in predictive analytics and would like to have tools through Adaptive Insights that will help with predictive analytics.
It's not so long ago that the finance function was characterized as 'those bean counters.' That is no longer true although the buck will always stop at the CFOs door on topics of compliance and governance.
Brian Sommer and I believe that finance is changing regarding the extent of partnership with LOB leaders and as a strategic partner for decision taking. These examples clearly show how technology assists in that transition. Four things stand out to me from these answers:
- While diginomica classify these organizations as SMBs rather than large enterprise, complexity is a common problem, regardless of size. In FP&A, this manifests itself in spreadsheet sprawl, an artifact of a bygone age. These customers have solved that problem.
- Collaboration at the LOB level is now established as part of the finance psyche. The results speak for themselves.
- The extent to which community engagement features as a necessary part of FP&A progress is directly proportional to the degree to which the person has a sense of needing to learn and pass on what they learn. It is unclear whether the concept of 'paying forward' has fully been explored as a way of gaining an advantage. This often underused element needs promotion among ecosystem partners and users alike.
- Third party data source usage is not commonplace. It is still a time for experiments and discovery. My sense is that will change dramatically in 2018 as the required tools and technologies become commoditized. But then remember these are SMBs so resources will be constrained.