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Host Analytics Perform 2019 - customers push beyond planning into the transformation of finance

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed May 21, 2019
Host Analytics Perform 2019 day one opened with a look into spreadsheets past - and the continuous close of the future. Here's what I've learned so far, including views on the transformation of finance from American Express Global Business Travel.

Simon Reed American Express
Amex GBT presenting at Perform 2019.

Host Analytics' annual user conference, Perform 2019, opened with some important changes on and off the keynote stage. This was new CEO Ron Baden's first time on stage as CEO. Behind the scenes, it was the first Perform 2019 since Vector Capital acquired Host Analytics in December 2019.

1,000+ attendees - Host Analytics' largest-ever attendance - were on hand to learn about Host Analytics' cloud EPM plans. They were also treated to an '80s-retro "Back to the Future" keynote tribute to the birth of spreadsheets (and brilliant/terrible music, depending on your point of view; I lean towards brilliant).

Then we fast-forwarded in Doc's DeLorean to the EPM of the future. For Host Analytics, this is the evolution of EPM headed to cloud, mobile, and collaborative analysis. And with 90 percent of companies not yet using a cloud EPM solution, the future is open.

But for customers, the EPM (enterprise performance management) market brings plenty of changes they need to anticipate - not in the future, but amidst the pressures in the present. That includes the management of "hybrid" cloud data, finessing the IT-finance relationship, and proving relevance beyond reporting.

Though the keynote had a whimsical touch, it was refreshingly clear of fanciful tech talk, e.g. blockchain and quantum computing. Even AI was put in a careful context - something Host Analytics recently covered on diginomica.

Host Analytics customers - from FP&A to financial transformation

Perform 2019 day one also featured a Host Analytics news announcement - and recruiting coup - with the appointment of former Adaptive Insights CEO John Herr to the Host Analytics board of directors. But for me, day one was about taking the pulse of customers. You can't easily generalize about Host Analytics customers. Most are well-versed in using Host Analytics for some aspect of Financial Planning and Analysis (FP&A).

Others are pushing into broader EPM pursuits, such as Host Analytics' Workforce Planning. Customers spoke about the impact of Host Analytics' single source of planning/forecasting truth, and how it solves the downside of spreadsheets (e.g. version control), thus avoiding the futile need to banish them. But what I'm seeing so far is that Host Analytics customers also have a ways to go with their finance transformation.

That makes sense. A true financial transformation with rolling closes, predictive analytics, and strategic use of data is a big ambition. I found one customer session, "Our Journey Through the Transformation of Finance," particularly revealing. During that talk, Simon Reed, VP Corporate Planning at American Express Global Business Travel, shared their journey so far. Reed was open that their transformation is far from complete:

This is a work in progress; we are certainly not through the journey. We're not even entirely sure where it's going to end, but with the help of our colleagues and friends at Host, it is certainly progressing.

But if Reed's team is still working towards this goal, their roadmap has some clarity. This slide on their planned phases of change laid it out:

Our Journey Through the Transformation of Finance slide by American Express Global Business Travel, sourced via Host Analytics Perform conference
(Host Analytics)

In case the slide isn't clear, the four key phases were: the Excel phase, the BI consolidation phase, and then today's Host Analytics phase, with an emphasis on planning and reporting. Still ahead? The "world class" phase, still running Host Analytics, but now moving into rolling forecasts, driver-based forecasting, and predictive analytics.

Finance change - from transactional procecessing to value-add roles

Reed became involved with Amex GBT as of September 2018, when his prior employer, Hogg Robinson Group (HRG) was acquired by Amex GBT. Since then, he's been heavily involved in this transformation push. One lesson from Reed: align the finance team's mission with corporate direction. Ergo, Amex GBT's finance mantra, "We Made the Journey Possible," lines up with travel management as well. But it's also a people mission: your finance project is nowhere if you can't bring internal teams along with you.

But finance teams can't play that role if they are bogged down in spreadsheets and report preparation. As Reed told us:

That's where this finance transformation really comes in. It's not about the old spreadsheets and the old ways of consolidating and all of that. We want to find ways to extract the team from transactional processing and reconciliation and give them more chance to go to the value-added processes.

Reed says their journey began in a familiar way: with individual Excel files, consolidation issues, and consistency problems. Next? A BI tool. The BI tool solved some problems, but not all:

At least it gave us a single source of truth. It was the main piece of information that could be relied on, but we still had the same collaboration issues, and problems with trying to get the information in.

The move to Host Analytics was another advance:

So we move on to Host, which is where we are now, with the planning, reporting - those are the areas that we've used it for, which helps to solve the access, the workflow problems, consistency and ownership, which is key for us.

Reed spoke to the next phase they are pushing for:

Our aim is to be world class in terms of FP&A reporting. So this is about breaking down the silos that can exist in businesses, providing better business insight, and extracting the teams away from transactional driving, and more into adding that value.

Amex GBT just went live on Host Analytics three weeks ago; their Q2 forecast in June 2019 will be the first one though the planning cycle in Host. But even at this point, Reed can see that Host Analytics lines up with where finance is trying to go:

So all those key things that Host is able to provide and help us with; they're providing the leverage to help us deliver on this vision.

The wrap - "We've got to find a way to roll forward"

Reed emphasized you can't get to these advanced phases without getting the numbers right - and the data plumbing underneath them. That's no easy task when you're integrating business units, and working across U.S. and UK teams. Looking ahead, Reed spoke to the potential of rolling forecasts:

We currently forecast to the wall, to December. And it gets closer and closer and closer, and then bang, we're into another 12 months. Clearly that's not the way businesses work; they don't stop on December 31st and start again on the first. We've got to find a way to roll forward, and Host helps deliver that. Clearly, there's a lot of cultural learnings and changes in the business to get there, but that's where we're going.

Then there is the potential of predictive analytics, presenting scenarios for business leadership to consider - informed by trusted numbers. As Reed said, these changes aren't optional: the travel business is moving too fast to tolerate static reports and Excel versioning headaches.

I wouldn't say every customer I spoke with feels this same imperative to change - nor do they all embrace the transformation of finance that Reed laid out. But talking with the Host team, more and more of their new customers seem to have this type of global/transformative view. And: just about every Host Analytics customer told me they are just scratching the surface of what they can do with the product.

This is where implementation partners like Bakerfield Solutions can be an asset. Talking to the Bakerfield team, they told me that half of their projects are new Host Analytics customers. The other half are all about helping customers get more out of their existing systems.

That's plenty from day one - I'm looking to dig further into customers' results in day two. A deeper look at product direction is also on deck.

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