From Host Analytics to Planful - CEO Grant Halloran on the Planful rebranding, and why continuous planning is a change worth pushing for

Profile picture for user jreed By Jon Reed January 24, 2020
Summary:
It's hard to get me to write an article about a rebranding, but Planful lured me in. Why? Because continuous planning is a conceptual jolt worth digging into. Planful's CEO shared the customer motivations driving these use cases.

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When Grant Halloran joined Planful (then Host Analytics) as CEO, I got him on the phone to talk about the future of cloud EPM (Enterprise Peformance Management).

In the fall, we discussed some provocative content Planful published on diginomica  - on why CFOs need to make better decisions, in all economic cycles.

I'll say this for Halloran: he knows how to keep things interesting. Just when I thought I had a handle on this phase of Host Analytics, it's now rebranded as Planful.

I'm not someone who puts a lot of stock in name changes. But this one intrigued me. Behind the name change, I see potent questions on how financial planning is changing. Time to get Halloran on the line again.

In his first diginomica piece for Planful, Widening the financial lens of your organization, Halloran brought up customers who are pursuing a new planning approach: so-called "continuous planning." I've talked to cloud ERP vendors about the potential of a real-time, "continuous close,"

Why shouldn't planning be continuous?

But in reality, most ERP customers are still working to streamline a quarterly and/or monthly close. But when it comes to continuous planning, Halloran's piece indicated that some customers are well on their way. Back it up for a sec: why continuous planning? Why is this concept compelling to customers? Halloran:

The way we look at it, modern planning needs to reflect modern business, right? There's always exogenous shocks coming and going, and a lot of unforeseeable events occurring. Business is continuous. So why shouldn't planning be continuous?

This isn't a futuristic planning concept. This is happening now:

The reality is that best in class companies actually do run this... Many of our customers are already on this journey.

Continuous planning might be best in class, but there are obstacles to overcome:

A lot of folks think about planning through what I'd call a narrow lens. They're thinking about historically just doing what we call, in our industry, corporate CBF: corporate planning, budgeting, forecasting as the classic structure and use case.

That sounds tedious.

It takes most companies four or five months to get through it. No one enjoys it. No one looks forward to it. But that's the lens. And again, this is a very narrow lens looking at it.

Digging into the continuous planning use cases

If customers are ready to change how they plan, the use cases are there. In his diginomica piece, Halloran cited customers like Planar Systems and Digital Realty. He told me that Workforce Planning is one area within Planful where many customers are pushing towards continuous. Given that head count and workforce costs are substantial, a more agile planning process pays off: 

You're trying to optimize those hiring plans on a very frequent basis throughout the whole company. Reacting to your performance. You might say, "You know what, I'm going to delay that hire a month, or I'm going to re-level some of these hires because we underestimated the skillset that we needed." Or: "The market's changed, and we're finding that it's now 15% higher in terms of the salary budgets that we need."

That's happening on a very frequent, almost daily basis across thousands of managers in a lot of these companies. So I think that's a really good example of continuous planning.

Another fruitful area for continuous planning? Tactical planning via daily sales actuals. Halloran cited a hospitality industry example:

We're talking about 30 to 40 properties. These properties and not only providing accommodations, but they're also providing recreational services to their guests.

In a seasonal, high-turnover industry, the need for continuous planning is clear:

Hotels and resorts have a lot of seasonality. They have to respond on a daily basis to what is happening, so they can guide their promotions - last minute offers and everything else. So that's another great example of that continuous feedback loop that they want on a 24/7 basis.

And what types of insights can they act on quickly?

They'll have a driver-based model, which will provide a kind of high-low prediction of the volume of sales across different services they're offering. So what they want to do is see what's happening on a daily basis to actual results. Like: are we getting the people into the resort? Are they actually spending the way that we anticipate them spending?

Given the insight, the actionability for that could be: we need to do a special weekend offer. We need to do a promotion at this particular location. We need to hit the Bay area with a very specific offer, to try and attract people to come to the resort on the weekend.

One question that comes up frequently: how is this different than analytics?

The difference is that in classic BI analytics tools, they are very backward-looking. They  are primarily about what happened in the past, maybe a little bit about what's happening right now or near-term. They don't tell you anything else. Now in our situation, we marry the best of that. We bring you what's just happened, and we bring that into dynamic planning models. And so the business is now able to run scenarios against it.

Hmm - the perception of "analytics" as backward-looking. I don't suppose that has anything do to with the corporate rebranding to Planful? Halloran didn't quite go there. He told me there were several reasons for the name change. One stood out:

I would say the primary driver was: we really wanted a name that resonated more with the personality of who we serve. And you know, finance and accounting people are very systematic. They're very methodical; they're very forward-looking. They're always asking, "Well, what would this mean? What's going to happen next?" That's who they are. If you look at the Oxford dictionary definition, they are Planful people.

And so when we really did that research about whom we serve, we just got super excited about being able to find a name that actually spoke to their character and personality.

My take - and the role of ML

The "continuous planning" theme resonates with me. I'm glad that Halloran didn't idealize this as a quick fix - you're not going to get there overnight. I like the hotel example, but I've stayed in enough hotels to know that industry is not typically fast on the insights. Promotions are mostly still email spray-and-pray.

Halloran and I talked about how getting specific is a big part of why continuous planning works. A promotion might work well for some hotels, but fail in others. Address that gap before you take a vacancy hit. You might see that one type of customer is more inclined to take you up on last minute offers. Send me the right offer at the right time - or make me a special, personalized offer before I even leave your property.

One looming question is the role of machine learning and AI. I expect we'll hear a lot more about this at Planful's next user events. But for now, Halloran said:

Where we're going in the future is bringing machine learning, so you can actually allow the machine to learn about the results from your predictive models. So it becomes much more accurate in terms of the predictability of what you might do around, for example, a promotion to attract more folks to the resort.

For now, it's about deepening the trust with planners and CFOs - and supporting them in their push to raise their companies' "financial IQ."

It's about creating capabilities through technology, data, and change management, so they can feed this out to the decision-makers. When you do that effectively, you have this vision of being able to elevate the financial IQ of the whole company.

When I talk with CFOs, they love this idea. They love that idea of being able to say, "We're about a capabilities lift. We're not about just being a service desk anymore.

You rebrand with a new name - ok by me. But now you have to live up to it. Let's see how Planful does.

Image credit - Hand picked wooden block with red arrow facing the opposite direction black arrows, by @MonsterZtudio, from Shutterstock.com

Disclosure - Planful is a diginomica premier partner.