The Planful Perform 2022 review - time for finance collaboration to move beyond finance teams

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed May 26, 2022 Audio mode
Summary:
Are we in a "golden age" of CFO tech? Is AI ready to make a difference to overworked finance teams? Is finance collaboration a tools problem, or a culture problem? These were some of the questions I dug into at Planful Perform 2022 Las Vegas - here's my review.

Planful CEO Grant Halloran at Perform 2022
(CEO Grant Halloran - Planful Perform 2022)

If there's an overriding theme of Planful Perform 2022, it's the need for finance teams to move collaboration out of the finance silo.

We all know the underlying stressors: supply chain disruptions, economic adversity, and the need to  over-achieve with less. During his Planful Perform keynote, Planful CEO Grant Halloran juxtaposed those challenges with a happier silver lining.

The context is in Halloran's piece on diginomica, Four steps CFOs can take to build business clarity. As I posted:

Whether or not it's a golden era for CFO tech, modern finance/planning solutions are a huge leap from manage-by-spreadsheet (though the best cloud finance tools incorporate Excel; Planful does this via its Spotlight Excel integration). But we need proof points. One proof point: Planful's own growth stats. Halloran cited a 95% increase in new customer acquisitions year-over-year as of 2021, which was also the best year in the history of Planful:

Planful 22 - growth stats
Planful Perform 2022 - growth stats (via Planful Perform '22 keynote)

Another driver of Planful's growth: enabling partners. Halloran cited a 3x increase in the partner channel, with a 400% bump in channel subscriptions growth. The scope of the overall market? Halloran's next slide featured an estimated $15 billion spent on finance and accounting software in 2022 - with $12 billion invested in Financial Capital Management cloud software in the last three years (note: Planful issued a press release on May 17 documenting Q1 2022 momentum).

Perform 22 news - focus on Predict (AI) and UX (business user engagement)

At every event, there are the published news stories, and the hidden news stories. By "hidden" I mean those stories I manage to dig into by making a nuisance of myself, talking to all the customers, partners, and show floor wanderers I can find (even a virtual event advocate like myself must admit: it's far easier to dig through the news layers on the ground).

For Planful Perform '22 official news, headline items are consolidated into a day two press release: Planful Announces Availability of Predict: Projections and Enhancements to the Business User Experience, Extending Its Planning and Budgeting Innovations. Highlights include:

  • Predict: Projections, the next part of the Planful Predict suite, is now Generally Available (see my prior roundups on Projections and Predict: Signals, the first Predict offering).
  • Planful's UX makeover, aka the "new business user experience," is shipping to customers later this month for sandboxing and activation. This news fits into that big theme of extending collaboration beyond finance teams. To do that, you will need an intuitive UX, or, as Halloran ambitiously put it, "zero-training software." As per the press release: "Planful's new business user experience brings together finance and non-finance users in a collaborative, one-stop experience."

I believe these two announcements reveal Planful's intentions: free finance users up for more collaborative approaches, rather than stiff budget and reporting cycles.

How does Planful intend to free up that time? With the potential aid of AI tooling. As I see Planful, they are not shooting for a science fiction finance future. They know customers are trying to do more with lean finance teams. Planful sees AI as a way to make that happen - hopefully with less errors (Signals) and more forecasting accuracy (Projections). 

The hidden news stories - an opinionated roundup

Now for the fun stuff - the "hidden" news stories - though attendees who didn't party too hard definitely picked up on some of these.

1. Planful isn't a fan of product categories, but if you must label them, call them FPM - I can't stand enterprise product categories. I think product categories are propelled by a handful of oversized analyst and online review firms. Customers have problems - and need solutions - that transcend labels. From what I can gather, Planful's executives strongly agree. They want to talk to their customers in the language of customers, so you'll rarely see Planful using product acronyms in their customer messaging.

That said, if you must give Planful a label, amidst the finance software acronym soup of EPM, CPM, FPA, xPA and more, Planful is now positioning as FPM - financial performance management. Planful prefers this category, as it goes beyond the planning function of FPA, encompassing other aspects customers rely on (more than half of Planful's customers use Planful's consolidation functions; the Trintech partnership that bolsters Planful's close management capabilities is gaining customer traction).

2. Planful believes an ERP-centric approach to FPM won't fly in the long run. I don't know about you, but these days, every ERP vendor seems to offer a complete, fully robust FPA solution. Now, customers must sort out which of these solutions are up to snuff, and which are half-product, half-PowerPoint. I've talked to Halloran about this before; he is confident in Planful's future up against whatever finance tools ERP vendors roll out. He sees ERP-centric FPA as limited: 'customers don't want a homogenized ERP approach" is not far from his view. Halloran believes customers don't necessarily want their go-to analysis/planning/reporting environment tied up in a single ERP system.

If you catch Halloran at an event reception, you might hear him say something like 'the one platform, one vendor thing is a joke.'  He doesn't believe ERP vendors will ever catch up with best-of-breed FPM software. Halloran acknowledges that ERP vendors are going to get their piece of this market; but as per his "15 billion spent on finance software" slide, the market is big enough for co-existence.

3. Planful built their own AI engine. Why? Third-party AI tools couldn't deliver for finance data. Planful considered third-party AI solutions before ultimately building their own. As Halloran explained, operational AI tools didn't work for the nuances of financial data. Add this from my meeting with the Planful Predictive team: Planful says they figured out how to derive insights/better forecasts from smaller data sets.

This is significant because: 1. Many finance operations don't have the massive data sets that AI engines typically consume; 2. The ability to power effective AI from smaller data sets remains an industry-wide challenge/opportunity, so any advancements Planful has made here would be notable. To strengthen Planful Predict data sets, Planful figured out creative approaches, such as drawing on additional data sources customers haven't used for this purpose before (like deeper historical activity from an acquisition).

My take - collaboration is a culture game

I try to poke a few holes into every software vendor I cover. Planful makes that difficult. That includes their exceptional approach to dealing with external comms, including a pesky media/analyst hybrid like me. I do have questions I want to explore around Planful Predict, but I have a conversation booked with Planful's CTO next week (he was unable to make this show).

I know Planful looks hard at what makes their customers successful, and how their highest-achieving customers go beyond core reporting/planning into more advanced capabilities. One of the last sessions of the event, "How Golden State Foods Modeled its Business Down to the SKU," was extremely well attended, despite the party on deck and Vegas beckoning (that session included Planful's Dynamic Planning capabilities, to add dimensions not available in this organization's general ledger).

Planful's customers enter from a variety of points; I intend to learn more on how the high achievers advance with Planful, and how much of that maturity model is made public. After all, that's one of my underrated keys to customer success.

In addition to my own forays, Planful put a ton of customers in front of me. Improved finance collaboration definitely resonates with the customers I talked to, but there's a caveat. They aren't always sure how to engage their budget holders, beyond what those departments are currently habituated to. That's an interesting challenge for those customers, and for Planful. To me, it implies that the obstacles are no longer the technology. A new "business user experience" can only help, but culture change puts everyone to the test.

There may be creative ways of getting around the roadblocks. I spoke with a couple customers looking at how to reach new business users via visual data storytelling, likely via Planful's dashboarding. I break down the finance collaboration opportunity in two main ways:

  • Can budget owners across the company move beyond their traditional routines, which I perceive as silos?
  • Can teams agree on a collaboration system of record, and find a way to tie conversations about numbers to the numbers themselves?

Several customers spoke highly of Planful's dynamic commenting features. I see the ability to embed conversations directly into the numbers as an underrated Planful strength, but customers need to figure out when and how to make that happen, given that users have a way of clinging to the familiar, whether it's email inboxes, or, thanks to the pandemic, Slack of Microsoft Teams (external messaging integration is another topic on my Planful follow-up list).

All the customers and partners I talked to welcomed the idea of getting involved with Predict. They see it not as a job-killing threat, but as a potentially valuable asset to data accuracy, forecasting, and planning workloads. Many customers seemed to have other "must-do" Planful projects on the horizon first. One customer said his goal is to give every executive a mobile drill-down view of their relevant areas; he's evaluating options now.

While it's early days for Planful Predict adoption, the customer interest in adding Predict to their Planful footprint seems to be high. I hope to write about a live customer before too long, but I did speak to a customer that is sandboxing Predict: Signals. That will be my next Planful Perform writeup.

End note: I also did a Planful Perform live video show with the incredibly smart Hyoun Park of Amalgam Insights, who is an even better person (I explain one of the reasons why in the video). This was my first time out with this revamped live video stream, and the sound still needs tweaking, but our conversation hit on Planful Perform and also broader AI challenges, e.g. explainability and bias. I'll leave you with this tweet, as this is a topic on my preach-until-converted list:

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