And now something completely different….

Happy Holidays! Hope you will have time for a break to recharge the batteries.

A few weeks ago, I started reading a great book by Garr Reynolds: The Naked Presenter. The author turned my attention to a wonderful speech by John Cleese. Yes, the famous comedian. And this is not a speech about comedy but about creativity. One of the key thoughts that really struck me is the following:

“We don’t know where we get our ideas from. We do know that we do not get them from our laptops.” John Cleese

A simple but very powerful thought. Think about how much time we spend on our gadgets. We tweet, we blog, we chat, we email, we SMS. But do we truly spend enough time offline to spark our creativity?

John Cleese makes some additional excellent points:

  • We need to set time aside for uninterrupted thinking
  • We need to set ourselves boundaries: time & space
  • We need to be self-reflective

Folks, I highly recommend this short video! It has really made me think and I honestly found that I am not doing all too well with this stuff. There are periods when I get it right. Other times I just get lost in busy work (because it’s easy!).

Well, I have decided to take John’s advice and will take a break from technology over the holidays.

Wishing you a great start into the new year. Speak soon!

5 things we can learn from professional athletes

Here we are again. It’s that time of the year. We sit down and review our accomplishments for the year. And we are also starting to plan ahead for the next year. We craft plans and we get excited. Excited about improving our performance and the performance of our teams (apart from personal goals). Many of us typically focus on specific items that we can check off (attend a class, get my CPE credits, travel to Dubai, etc.). While these type of goals are great, we rarely focus on continuous improvements. And that’s a bummer. Research has shown that short-term initiatives typically don’t necessarily bring about lasting change (think about the infamous diet schemes). It is changes to our behavior that typically have a lasting effect.

Last weekend, I was watching winter sports on TV. Biathlon was on. The TV showed pictures of guys floating through the snow-covered landscape, they showed athletes trying to get their heart-rates down to steady their rifles. Pretty impressive stuff. And one of the commentators talked about the summer program for a certain athlete. Amazingly impressive stuff. The guy he was talking about (sorry….forgot the name…) is highly professional and scientific with his approach to achieving excellence in his sport. That made me think. We all admire professional athletes. And most of us have dreamed about being a professional athlete at some point in our lives. So we want to be like them, but are we really as professional in our jobs as these guys are? I honestly have to say: not always and I could certainly do better sometimes. Having had the opportunity to work with a few professional cycling & running coaches in the past, I pulled together a short list of things professional athletes do. Take a look and ask yourself how you rate in each one of these items:

  • Continuous improvement: Athletes cannot afford to stagnate or to stand still. The competition is intense. They are extremely focused on improving their skills. Day after day, week after week. These guys set themselves challenging & objective goals and they go after them with a club. Ask yourself: Are you really working on improving your skills, or are you just getting work done. It is worth taking a moment and reflecting on where and how we have improved. How can we make sure that we stay competitive? Coasting is not an option. Set some ambitious developmental goals and work on those every day.
  • The author demonstrating discipline - WOW this REALLY sucked!

    Discipline: Athletes are extremely disciplined. There is no partying on the day before an important competition. There is no casual approach to eating & drinking. If achieving the individual training goals requires riding a bike in freezing rain for six hours, they will do it. But they let go (within limits) and relax when they know they can. Ask yourself: Am I 100% disciplined when it comes to my profession? Am I 100% prepared for meetings or am I taking the ‘let’s wing it approach’? Review some situations where a more disciplined approach could have improved your performance. Work on your discipline.


  • Coaching: All professional athletes work with coaches. Coaches help us identify strengths and weaknesses. They help us develop improvement plans. And they provide feedback which we can use to increase our performance. We are sometimes too lazy or too afraid to ask for feedback. Ask yourself: Have you actively solicited feedback from your manager, spouse, friends? Who could act as your coach? At a minimum, plan to take some time to review your performance once in a while.
  • Innovation: Athletes typically have the latest and greatest material. Whether it is a super-light carbon bike or a stiff ski, athletes know how to use innovation to their advantage. They probe, they test and they demand the best. And it is not just about materials. There are also training methods. Lance Armstrong always pulled together a team of experts from different disciplines to craft new training methods. They pushed the envelope. In our jobs we often get too busy to look for ways to innovate? We are afraid to test new tools to deliver a superior performance (example: there are plenty of managers that are still afraid of social media). Make innovation a core value. Develop a healthy level of curiosity. Take some risks. Try something new. Adopt new technology. And keep an open mind.
  • Rest Periods: Athletes know that they can’t run one marathon after another. Our capacity is limited, unfortunately. Rest periods allow our bodies to replenish resources and to heal. Athletes therefore schedule frequent rest. During these times, they let go (think: less discipline), they relax and they step back from their demanding jobs. Soccer players stop chasing a ball, cyclists put their bike in the garage, etc.. Many people are afraid that rest will set them back. But as a matter of fact, we typically return in much better form. So, take a good look at your schedule. Are you engaged in a never-ending race? Schedule active rest periods (vacation, etc..) and don’t feel guilty about it. Plan on doing something completely different and leave your Blackberry at home.

Good luck with your annual planning! This is one of the most exciting times of the year. Implementing all this stuff is damn hard. It sometimes really sucks but it can also be a lot of fun. Nothing feels better than getting a lot of stuff done and to realize how much progress we are making.

As always, I’d like to hear from you to learn about your own experiences. That’s it for now…I gotta prepare for a long run out in the freezing cold snow…hmm…maybe…;-)

Cool software? The Connected Business – Part 3

Yeah, those spreadsheets. Welcome to part 3 of this series of posts. An interesting special section in the Financial Times prompted me to post a quick summary with interesting quotes. But the report did not necessarily provide some specific details about why spreadsheets make our lives difficult. Part 2 then focused on the particular pain points we all experience in our daily business lives.

THE PROBLEM & ANSWER

But how exactly does Business Analytics software help and how can we replace spreadsheets? I get very frustrated when I read white papers that talk about ‘gaining efficiencies and critical insights with the push of a button’. There is so much BS talk out there. And as a result, I find that there are many managers out there that still don’t understand what technology can do for them. It’s time for clarity, isn’t it?

A FAIRY TALE?

Let’s take a look at one of my clients. When we first met, the new CFO was extremely frustrated with the tedious annual budgeting process. A team of six well paid finance professionals spent almost seven months pulling the annual budget together. The entire process was run through spreadsheets. The team spent an awful lot of time managing the 250 something workbooks for the different cost and profit centers. Complex formulas had to be fixed, data had to be copied & pasted from SAP R3, files had to be distributed and collected, reports had to be manually compiled and reconciled. In other words: it was painful and the team of six had very little time to do something fun. Their workload was extremely close to the picture we discussed in part 2 of this post.

HERE COMES THE SOFTWARE

The CFO decided to do something and selected Cognos to help automate the budgeting process. It was actually a rather short project with only 35 business days for the expense budget. Cognos replaced the entire spreadsheet jungle. But why and how did it help exactly. Here are some basic examples:

  • Centralized model maintenance: One of the key issues with spreadsheets is formula maintenance across different workbooks and files. Instead of copying and pasting, BA software allows me to maintain my formulas in a central repository. One change in one place only. That saves a ton of time and also ensures data integrity. How is that?
  • Automated interfaces: Why should we have to manually load actuals or other data from transactional systems into spreadsheets? There is a lot of risk (apart from the boring manual labor). BA software allows you to run automated interfaces. Just like in our transactional systems. Nothing fancy. It just works. And it saves a ton of time and frustration.
  • GPS: One of the other frustrations with spreadsheets comes from the inability to track progress. A simple question like: “Has Ted started his budget?” can be extremely difficult to answer. The file is not on the central server anymore as Ted is out on a business trip (and then he deletes his file by mistake..). BA software allows us to keep track of progress and it stores all the data in a central repository. Again…a very simple thing. But extremely effective. Imagine a spreadsheet with a powerful GPS on the roof!
  • Cool interface: Working with a spreadsheet template can be very frustrating. Either the templates are completely locked down or they are so flexible that I can break them. Modern software provides us with easy-to-use interfaces (web-based). They are actually fun to use and I can customize the layout to my personal needs – all that without breaking the model. This is a great way to engage managers that are not so technology-savy.
  • Automated aggregations: Getting a snapshot of your budget can be a bit tedious with spreadsheets. We need to make sure all files are accounted for so that we can link our master spreadsheet to them and aggregate the numbers. BA software takes care of that….in real time. All the data is stored in a central repository. You need a snapshot? Give me a minute. Here you go!
  • Easy analysis: Performing detailed analysis on a spreadsheet budget can be extremely difficult. Management decides to make some top-down changes and finance then has to figure out how to push this into the different organizational units. Asking some what-if questions can turn into a tedious exercise. BA software allows us to perform analysis in real-time. It’s that simple. We make change somewhere, and we can report on that right away. Cool!

Ok…I admit it. This is probably a bit ‘salesy’. But that’s the way it is. By the way, this particular client is now able to turn the entire budget around in less than 1.5 months. They actually like the budget process (scary thought?) now. It’s nice to talk about this but it’s better to see this in action. Why don’t you come and join one of our global workshops?

Spreadsheets Confidential – The Connected Business – Part 2

The other day I wrote about the special section of the Financial Times called ‘The connected business’. One of the key take aways from this section was the fact that way too many finance departments are putting their faith into spreadsheets.

A few years ago, my team started conducting some surveys amongst finance professionals. For this purpose we teamed up with David Axson (co-founder of the Hackett Group, book author). We specifically went after professionals that were not using Performance Management software, yet. One of the key things we were interested in was the type of work finance professionals do. It quickly crystalized that there were five major categories of work. The results looked like this:

Cognos Finance Survey 2008

The majority of the time is apparently spent on manual tasks such as collecting data (loading data from systems into spreadsheets, copying & pasting, manually entering budgeting numbers, etc..), maintaining spreadsheets (development, fixing formulas, aggregating spreadsheet data, Visual Basic programming etc.) and then also developing reports & presentations (creating spreadsheet reports, graphs, Powerpoints etc.). Only about 20% of the overall time is apparently spent on the high-value tasks such as performing in-depth analysis, running what-if scenarios, personal development etc.. A shocking but not a surprising picture. When we present the results to finance professionals we get a lot of head-nods. But I often sense a certain level of resignation as well (“Oh yeah….I know….that’s just the way it is.”).

Statistics are always a bit dry. So we took the data and applied the percentage distribution to a work week. The picture now looks quite interesting. What do you think?

Cognos Finance Survey 2008 - part 2

How does this feel? Same numbers. Just a different perspective. Two key questions come to mind: Can we live with that situation? Would we want to live with this situation? I doubt it. I have been there and didn’t necessarily like this. Sure, it’s nice to play around with spreadsheets knowing that you are indispensable. But is that what we want to get out of our professional lives? Is that why we went to business school? Is that why we spent so many hours studying for the CPA, CMA, CFA exams?

Technology helps shift this picture around tremendously. We can literally reverse this. I will write about that in the next few weeks. For now, I will leave you with this picture. Take a look at your own work environment. How do you get things done? How do your clients operate? Is there room for improvement? Would love to hear your thoughts and about your own experiences.

The connected business?

The Financial Times from December 8th 2010 included an interesting special report called “The Connected Business”. A bunch of great articles about technology in the office of the CFO. One thing that caught my attention was the fact that the entire section highlighted the problems caused by the use of spreadsheets.

For people who work in the field of Business Analytics it has long been clear that while spreadsheets are useful, they are not the right tool to manage your company. People like us sometimes take that knowledge for granted. Here are some interesting pieces I picked up in the section.

Nigel Rayner from Gartner is quoted as saying: “But when I talk to them [CFOs] about management reporting, understanding the drivers of profitability, forecasting or planning, all they know are spreadsheets because they have always done it that way. They are not aware of how the technology market has developed.” Andrew Meade from Accenture confirms this notion in another article: “Most companies bemoan the fact that they have a spreadsheet jungle.”

Mr Giles Thomas from Revolver system highlights some of the inherent risks: “Businesses that start using spreadsheets for a specific purpose can get grabbed and they never escape. When you have a spreadsheet with thousands of rows in it, things can get quite nasty.” He highlights this problem with the case of an unnamed investment company: “For several months, they had been running the business on numbers that were meaningless. When people copy and paste, they often forget to incorporate the changes they have made.” The FT then highlights some of the other associated risks like proliferation, tracking, version control etc..

One article raises the question of whether the massive use of spreadsheets is likely to change in the near future. But the somber conclusion is: “He (Mr. John Van Decker – Gartner) and other business analysts do not see this situation changing quickly, because they say most business and finance education does not address these issues“. Mr Rayner adds “It is a cultural issue, because finance folks tend to be very conservative. They are comfortable with what they know, which is spreadsheets, and having an army of spreadsheet jokeys.

The point about education is an excellent one. I used to be an active  member of the Institute of Management accountants (IMA). The organization itself is great and I highly recommend their professional degree CMA (Certified Management Accountant). But they consistently frustrate me with their singular focus on spreadsheets. Hundreds of articles in their publications teach people how to leverage spreadsheets. They offer courses for managing a complex budgeting process with spreadsheets. Time to wake up, from my perspective.

The conclusion? Well, the section does offer some nice examples of how technology helps and I will continue to write more blog posts in the near future about that. But the key finding for me here is the astonishing fact that there is a serious opportunity for all of us. As a CFO I have the ability to gain a serious competitive advantage (or: to avoid disaster) and as a Business Analytics professional I can make a serious contribution to the success of many businesses. Let’s use this opportunity.

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Behind the scenes – Middle East Cognos 10 launch

Snow. Massive amounts of snow. And it’s really cold. Hmm…Do I really want to leave here? Greetings from Dubai airport. My colleague and I are stuck here right now. Most flights to Europe are delayed due to winter weather. Oh well….the joys of traveling. But this trip was really worth it. We just finished a three-country tour through the Middle East for the Cognos 10 launch. Three days, three cities. Three amazing launch events in Dubai, Qatar and Kuwait. Some of the customers I talked to were wondering what it was like to execute such an event series. Well, here is a little peak behind the scenes.

The amount of work that goes into these large customer events is crazy. Our great marketing teams spend a lot of time arranging locations, speakers, food, drinks and inviting customers etc.. Luckily, I hardly ever get involved in these activities. But let me say that much: I admire my colleagues for consistently doing an amazing job. It really makes a difference. I get to focus on the content and the presentation delivery.

For this particular event series, we had to leave Munich on Saturday evening to get to Dubai in time. The first event started on Monday. Getting up in a new time-zone always hurts on the first day. And so day after day we rush out to the event location early in the morning to setup the room, prepare the laptop, make sure that all the demos are working, check the microphones, upload additional presentations from other speakers etc.. I am always amazed at how much can go wrong with these type of events: The demo that worked in the morning suddenly stops working. The laptop shuts down without notice. The beamer does not receive a signal. Murphy’s Law?

The event in Dubai was a success but I am tired after delivering three presentations. Right after lunch, our team of close to ten people rushed to break down all the banners, pack up brochures, badges, lists etc.. Then off to the airport with a ton of extra luggage in hand. A few hours later, we sit down in Qatar for a quick debrief and discussion of the next event. There is always some tweaking that needs or should happen. Every country is different. Cultures are different. Audiences are different. There is no one-size fits all. Each and every presentation needs to be customized.

The next morning looks similar. Setup at the hotel around 8am, preparations and then another round of three presentations with a few breaks between. Before heading off to the airport with all our extra luggage, a journalist from the Qatar Tribune comes over for a quick interview about the launch. We finally arrive at our hotel in Kuwait around 9pm. Quick shower than out for a quick team dinner at a local place. Back at the hotel I can’t remember my room number and head back down to the reception. Long day.

The 7am wake up call feels like a scene from the movie Groundhog Day. Shower, pack, quick breakfast, taxi to event location, setup the laptop, discussions with the local team and a quick cup of java. As much as most of this is really busy routine work, I always get excited when the event finally starts. Presenting our products and talking to customers is a privilege and it is a lot of fun. Luckily, the Kuwait event was very special again. The audiences in all three countries were great. Unfortunately, I had to leave for Dubai right after the final presentation. On the way to the airport, my colleague noticed that the cab driver was falling asleep. So we engaged him in a discussion even though he did not speak a word of English. The surprises never end. Check-in at the Air Kuwait counter and then a quick snooze on the plane.

Waiting for the flight

8pm…I am checking into my hotel room in Dubai. 8:01pm….I am checking out my mind but I am very grateful for four special days with amazing colleagues & customers. But everything seems like a blur now. Too many impressions to process at this point. But it feels good.

Some final statistics:
Days: 4.5
Total travel time: 32h
Presentations: 8
Tired: Yes!

Collaboration and BI?

One of the first things we learn from our parents and teachers is that we are stronger when we act as a team. 1+1=3 or something like. And it is true! I have had some of my best learning experiences in a team environment. Every once in a while, we forget just how powerful teamwork and collaboration can be. We get stuck trying to solve a problem by ourselves and we loose a lot of time. Okay. Everybody knows that.

But what about Business Intelligence and Business Analytics? Are we really collaborating with that team idea in mind? Even more important: even if we wanted to collaborate, would we be able to do so in an effective and efficient manner?

What does collaboration for BI and PM look like. Think about the following common situation. It is early Monday morning and you conduct some analysis in your BI portal. You quickly realize that there is a big problem. And you have no idea what to do about it. The first question that comes to mind is whether anybody else has come across this issue. But what do you do? It’s early in the morning. Nobody is in the office.

Social media are changing the way we communicate with each other. Email did that for us 15-20 years ago. Today we are at the start of a new revolution again. Twitter, Facebook, Flickr etc allow us to collaborate in an unprecedented way. We can leverage the wisdom of large crowds of people. People we don’t even know. The other day, I had a problem with my camera. I sent out a tweet with a question about it. 20 minutes later I had the problem solved with the help of other photographers out there on this planet. And this new way of collaborating is now entering the corporate world.

Back to our little Monday morning problem. We still have no idea what to do. Imagine we could quickly identify whether another colleague had reviewed this dashboard and come across this problem? What if you could see what steps they have taken to identify a solution? Wouldn’t it be nice to search for similar problems and find out how colleagues fixed this in the past? How about we could help other team members by contributing to their questions?

The time is right. We should be able to collaborate in our corporate world just like we collaborate in our private lifes. Cognos 10 allows us to just that. We can comment on dashboards, reports, cells, graphs. We can share activities, we can assign tasks. We can discuss, review and share. Just like we do on Facebook and Twitter. Within our own company. I have had to opportunity to test this functionality and I love it! But most importantly, the many customers I have shown this to love it just as much. When I return from travels through Europe and the Middle East I will share some additional thoughts and reactions about this. What do YOU think about this?

The Speed of the Dragon

The other day I met a good friend of mine. We hadn’t seen each other in a few weeks. But it felt a lot longer than that. A ton of stuff had happened. A sign of the times? The speed of business and our personal life seems to increase steadily. The economy already feels like a freight train racing through the night. But I believe that we are about to ditch that train and replace it with a high-speed bullet train.

ENTER THE DRAGON

At the end of August, I had the opportunity to run a bunch of performance management workshops for finance professionals in China. I do have to admit that I was blown away by what I saw and experienced. Hustling & buzzing cities, shiny buildings, fancy airports, giant construction sites and many ambitious people. Many, many ambitious people. People that are starving for success.

Early morning traffic & smog in Beijing

THE SPEED OF CHINA

Time seems to run faster in China. Construction sites are open 24*7. Co-workers from that region told me stories about areas of large cities changing within just a few weeks or months. Changes that would take years in the US or Europe. And that was evident everywhere we looked. Our hotel had just opened a few weeks before.

THE STRADDLING BUS

But there was one story that really told the story of Dragon Speed. Right about when I left for this 14 day trip, some newspapers reported that Chinese engineers had developed a futuristic concept for a straddling bus. This bus literally straddles the road. Passengers sit in a cabin high up over the street allowing cars to travel underneath it. Well, that was a concept. We didn’t think much of it at first. But I almost could not believe my eyes when I read the paper in the Air China lounge on the way back to Europe: The city of Beijing had reviewed and approved the concept. And not only that: they were expecting to have a working prototype with the next 6-9 months. Wow.

THE ECONOMIST

In 2007, the Economist had predicted that China would overtake Japan as the 2nd largest economy in the world within the next ten years. It only took three years. What’s next?

Western governments & businesses will hardly be able to ignore this trend. We will all have to pick up speed and it will affect businesses across the globe. It will be ever more important to make sound decisions quickly. Performance Management plays a crucial role in this.

Unleash my talent?

Greetings from the IBM Cognos Business Analytics Forum. IBM just released the latest version of Cognos: Cognos 10. The general theme around this new product is: Intelligence Unleashed.

The theme is quite powerful and it made me think about how most of us conduct our work. I have met many clients that are still struggling to gain control over all their spreadsheets. They struggle to reconcile data between different systems. As a result, many professionals spend way more time on mundane and non-value added tasks than on inspirational and high-value tasks. As a matter of fact, a survey that we conducted a few years ago revealed that finance professionals spend over 70% of their time on administrative things. Many people that I talk to feel that they are not using their talents appropriately. A customer recently joked: “The CPA credentials that I have worked really hard for stand for Copy & Paste”. That’s a tribute to the enormous amount of manual labor conducted by her and her team.

Isn’t it time to take things seriously? Is this the way we want to work? Shouldn’t we start spending a lot more time on the exciting and analytical tasks? Technology like Cognos 10 allows us to automate processes and to seriously increase our analytical capabilities. Just imagine if we could spend time on all the cool and exciting things that we learned about in business school. The tools are there to help. Let’s start unleashing our very own talent!

Spreadsheets, spreadsheets everywhere

Everybody loves spreadsheets. But pretty much everybody acknowledges that spreadsheets are not the right tool for managing critical aspects of a business.

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of hosting a seminar with the ‘father of data warehousing’ Bill Inmon. He presented his ideas about the architecture of the next generation data warehouse. To our surprise, Bill spent a good amount of time discussing the dangers of spreadsheets. That’s surprising as hardly anybody suspected this topic to appear in that type of presentation. But Bill felt that it was relevant to highlight the dangers. That’s yet another sign that the proliferation of spreadsheets is indeed a huge problem.

At the DW 2.0 workshop

Bill told the story of the CFO of a large oil company. This CFO is apparently very frustrated about the use of Excel within his organisation. He sarcastically states that ‘spreadsheets are the best decision-making tools’: If you want to make a certain decision, you can use a spreadsheet to create and provide the supporting information for that decision. Spreadsheets are ideal to not only manipulate data but to also make serious mistakes with the data acquisition and preparation. And of course, somebody else will be able to produce yet another spreadsheet that provides information that speaks against this decision. Big discussions and data comparison exercises are the result. Trust in data goes down the drain.

True: Spreadsheets are risky. It starts with the data load (where did the data come from, how was it acquired, when was it loaded). And then there is the omnipresent danger of breaking links and formulas. To add insult to injury, spreadsheets are also fragmented – not part of a common data repository.

In summary, spreadsheets are so flexible and fragmented that we can use them to influence our information to a degree that is dangerous. Controlling data integrity is virtually impossible. Bill Inmon clearly stressed the dangers associated with liberal spreadsheet usage. And we should listen to those warnings. The answer: a solid data warehouse along with the proper reporting tools?