Perform 2021 - How Specialized took workforce planning from an uphill climb to a level sprint

Profile picture for user pwainewright By Phil Wainewright September 15, 2021 Audio mode
Speaking at Perform 21, the finance team at top cycling brand Specialized describes how they used Planful to streamline global workforce planning

Specialized workforce - screengrab from Perform 2021 presentation
Workforce outside Specialized HQ (screengrab from Perform 2021)

One of the industries that has seen an unexpected boom as a result of the pandemic lockdowns has been cycling. Founded in 1974 in Morgan Hill, just south of San Jose, California, Specialized Bicycle Components has become a leading producer of high-end cycles and accessories used by, among others, Mark Cavendish, who tied the all-time record for the most stage wins by an individual during this year's Tour de France. Barbara Schroeck, the company's Finance Manager, took to the stage yesterday at the Planful Perform virtual conference to talk about its work to automate workforce planning to help support the business as it scales to meet the surge in demand. As she explains:

The pandemic has actually brought about a cycling boom. We have riders from every corner of the globe seeking safe physical exercise, whether it be for fun — it's just a cool activity to do outside with family and friends; for commuting — people don't want to get on buses and trains anymore; or for exercise — people are hesitant to get back into gyms. All of this has fueled unprecedented demand in our industry, especially for our products and services. We call this the 'Golden Age of the Bicycle.'

Specialized currently has around 1,800 employees worldwide and operates in 29 countries and 23 different currencies. It first implemented Planful to consolidate global financial planning and analysis (FP&A) in December 2017, but did not roll out workforce planning in full at the time. Instead, it opted for a phased approach, starting with the 700 or so employees who are based in the US, where the company operates Workday payroll as well as HCM. Over the following two years several Asian countries were added, along with Germany and Switzerland within Europe. But other European countries were hesitant to move forward. Schroeck explains:

They weren't anxious to do so, due to complexities, such as various country payroll regulations, and complex calculations — multiple currencies and converting those currencies — and just general concerns over security and confidentiality.

Let the tool do the work for you

But during last year's budget cycle, FP&A colleagues in Europe were following their usual manual process of entering data into Planful when they noticed that the salary data for Germany and Switzerland was already uploaded. They immediately had a change of heart, as Schroeck recounts:

They saw that all of the salary data for corporate teammates in Germany and Switzerland was already there. So they asked how this happened. We explained to them that we had already worked with the teams in Germany and Switzerland to preload the data into workforce planning.

After the rigorous process that they had just been through with their offline headcount planning, and loading the summary data to the expense templates, they were more than anxious to get workforce planning implemented for our next planning cycle in 2021 ...

This was the 'lightbulb moment' for our European team — let the tool do the work for you.

The old planning cycle in Europe, where Specialized has about a quarter of its global workforce spread across 20 different countries, had been laborious. The first step was to gather data from around 10 different language markets. The FP&A team would then scrub the data for inconsistencies and consolidate it into one master spreadsheet. Here, they would build in complex calculations, such as various compensation items for each country, along with currency conversions to both euro and US dollars. They would build in the security, and then take that master spreadsheet and split it back out into 10 spreadsheets, which they would send back to the various markets for updates. Once those updates came back, they would once again scrub the data and consolidate it back into the master spreadsheet. At the end of this entire process, they would enter just the summary level data into Planful. It was fraught with inefficiencies. Schroeck sums up:

The FP&A team across the Europe region probably spent over one and a half months on this process for every planning cycle that we did. There were data irregularities and inconsistencies, and the markets were unable to make dynamic changes. For us in corporate, we didn't have any visibility into their detailed planning. We just saw the summary data. Clearly [it was] time for a change.

Setting up the data cleansing and mapping

Her colleague Shawn Ivey, Finance Systems Administrator, worked with FP&A colleagues in Europe to set up workforce planning in Planful. Part of the groundwork included setting up the data classifications in Planful that will operate on the data being imported from the HCM system — Workday in this case. These include employee types, which group employees sharing the same payroll taxes, vacation allowance and insurance. For Specialized, these vary by country, and each country typically has two to three employee types. There are also compensation items, which are rules that govern specific calculations, and which can also be nested and reference each other. Finally, there are workforce attributes for criteria such as location, which Specialized uses to automatically split expenses for each office across the employees in that office. All of this had to be tested in a sandbox environment to ensure it all worked correctly when the data was imported. Ivey says:

Stakeholders should be involved in this process, testing the calculations on employees and seeing if their data shows up the way they expect within the templates and reporting. We met on a weekly basis with Europe to gather requirements for myself to work on throughout the week. Once you understand the business needs, you can work on implementing it. For Specialized, the process of testing and implementing in Europe took about two months.

The next step was to create a process to automate the data cleansing and mapping process which will prepare the data coming from the HCM system and any other sources into Planful. This can be done using an API, but due to a lack of available IT resource, Ivey instead chose to use Tableau Prep for this purpose, setting up rules to automatically map the data across. Planful's customer success team were available to offer help setting up the integrations to pull in source data. Once the data is ready in Tableau Prep, it is uploaded to Planful. The final consideration to take into account was data security. Access and approval rules can be set up at scale across the business. Ivey recommends business partners carry out an audit at least once a year to ensure these remain up to date.

Putting all of this in place has freed up FP&A resources to be able to do more value-add activities in support of the business, says Schroeck. But the biggest benefit has been greater transparency, with the ability to drill down into the story beneath the headline numbers. One area where that's had a noticeable impact is in being able to see planned recruitment. She explains:

In the past, we didn't have any visibility to the new roles that the international markets were planning within their market. They would just load one line that said salaries. Now they have to go into Workday, open up a req, and then that req gets loaded into Planful. And so we have full visibility within the budget for all of the positions that they're planning on hiring for the next year.

My take

The story here is all too common — fear of taking on a tricky project deters a team from automating a process that's taking up far too much time. All of our working lives have plenty of examples like this — a repetitive, time-consuing and sometimes error-prone task that we keep on doing because we never grasp the nettle of working out how to automate it. In my experience, taking that step always repays the effort, usually with interest on top because once the process is automated, there are further benefits that were never evident before. The moral is clear. Take time to automate, it'll save time in the long run - and bring unexpected rewards, too.