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.

An interview about Performance Management

IBM Switzerland conducted an interview with me a while ago. For some reason, a friend of mine stumbled upon this last week. The interview was conducted in German, but I have attached the English transcript produced by IBM. The Podcast appeared on the Swiss IBM website.

Welcome to the podcast on the subject of optimized performance management. In the discussion is Christoph Papenfuss, director of the IBM Cognos Innovation Center. The interview was conducted by Christian Achermann.

Christian Achermann: „Mr Papenfuss, could you provide us with some information about yourself and your function at IBM?“

Christoph Papenfuss: „Gladly. My name is Christoph Papenfuss. I have been at IBM Cognos for six years. I began my career at Cognos in the USA, in San Francisco, where I managed the consultancy business for our customers on the West coast for many years. In this function, I worked actively together with the customers to implement performance management solutions. Two years ago I returned to Europe with my family to set up the Cognos Innovation Center.”

Christian Achermann: „With which difficulties are finance managers currently primarily confronted?”

Christoph Papenfuss: „We are certainly living in turbulent times, there’s no doubt about that. With the collapse of Lehmann Brothers on 15th September 2008 our world changed, and our finance departments were thrown into turmoil. The year 2009 is of central importance with regard to the finance department. If you look around at how companies are reacting to the crisis, you very often see cost management, active cost management, focus on cash-flow management, profitability of various products etc. and of course risk management. When examining the various areas in which companies are currently active, the finance department emerges as the expert in these sectors.“

Christian Achermann: „At the moment, access to the capital market is rather limited. Despite this, financial resources are urgently required. Which demands does a company need to fulfil to acquire financial resources in such uncertain times?“

Christoph Papenfuss: „It is in fact true, that at the moment, it is extremely difficult for certain companies to obtain new capital. A few months ago, I had the opportunity to meet with the CFOs of large German banks. The general tone at this event was that, in the future, banks want to receive completely reliable and sound information from the companies in which they are considering investing. This information must be provided rapidly, and the banks want to be sure that they are investing in a company that is being capably managed. As I said before, companies today must be in a position to provide the figures very quickly in order to fulfil this requirement. The figures must be available for various scenarios, and the investors of course want the figures to be reliable, i.e. so that as far as possible, there are no surprises. This requires very sound reporting and analysis processes; however, the forecasting processes are also highly important, and it is precisely here that performance management is applied.“

Christian Achermann: „A volatile market environment on the one hand conceals risks which need to be identified and managed, and on the other hand also hides chances which should be exploited. In addition, finance and business managers are under great pressure to take better decisions faster. Isn’t there a contradiction here? How do performance management solutions support the creation of well-founded decision principles and the measures defined on this basis?“

Christoph Papenfuss: „The volatile environment does hide risks, but as has been said, it also hides chances. This fact is unfortunately sometimes forgotten. Let’s take the example of options. The greater the volatility, the more valuable they are. It is precisely this current volatile environment that offers very many opportunities to companies. They can strengthen their position in the branch and generally position themselves better, i.e. implement new measures to strengthen the company in the long term. Let’s take a look at the effect of performance management. At IBM Cognos, we assume that the performance management focuses on three critical questions. What do we accomplish and how are we currently doing? Second question: Why is this so? And the third question is: what should we be doing? Should we stay on the same track or should we change something?“

Christian Achermann: „The IBM Cognos software serves to automate and reorganize financial and operational performance management processes. Could you explain this statement by means of an example?“

Christoph Papenfuss: „One of our very good customers approached us. He was confronted with a succession of negative events, and felt compelled to issue a forecast relatively quickly. The process took the following course. The event was registered. The management team developed a forecast: a global forecast for all finance data. This involved the creation of 150 Excel templates, the manual input of current data from the ERP system into the templates, the processing and sending of these 150 templates to the various business units. The finance departments had to sit down together with all the 150 departments and explain to them how these templates worked. Errors in formulae occurred relatively frequently. The 150 templates therefore had to be collected again to correct the errors, and then be resent. Only then did the actual process begin: the time-consuming collection of data as well as the consolidation of the spreadsheets. This can last hours, or even days. Moreover, specific parameters had to be changed as „what-if analyses“ were necessary. The process is extremely time-consuming. With performance management processes, this is a whole new ball game. Here I can manage my models and templates centrally, i.e. I need only change a formula in one place and I can send it automatically and selectively to specific business units. The business units can then process the templates further, and we as the finance department, support them. The data is then automatically consolidated. In this way I can create my analyses very quickly, or examine scenarios etc.; and all this in real time.“

Christian Achermann: „Which innovative solutions can be expected in the future in the area of performance management?“

Christoph Papenfuss: „Generally, I think we will see a significantly greater focus on the end user. It is a fact: today’s end users are highly qualified. They want and need to create analyses and reports very quickly. Today it is neither possible nor desirable to wait days or weeks for the IT department or other departments to create certain reports, carry out analyses for us or develop databases for us. This means, as an end user, I now need to be in a position to create my analyses personally, independently and fast. For this reason, the focus will increasingly be to provide the end user with an increasing number of and more efficient tools in order to fulfill this need. Naturally, you don’t have to look far for the integration of new technologies such as Web 2.0, mobile technologies and others. Over the coming years, many changes are in the offing.“

The new normal?

Over the last 24 months I had the honor of meeting with 100s of customers in over 35 different countries. Many of our discussions evolved around the economic crisis. No matter which country, companies across the globe felt or are still feeling the crisis. Granted: you can’t really compare the Ukraine that was forecast to post a 20% GDP contraction for 2009 with say a Qatar that even during the crisis still managed to grow at over 8 %.  The interesting thing, however, is the fact that almost all companies are struggling with the same basic issues.  And these issues have started building up over the past ten or so years:

  • Increased speed: The speed of business has increased tremendously. Customers require ever more innovation at a faster pace. The Internet has opened up new channels and we need to keep our business open almost 24*7. There is no quiet period anymore.
  • Increased volatility: With speed typically comes volatility. Indeed, reports show that global market volatility has increased tremendously. Just look at the oil price! Further there seem to be a great number of major events that impact certain economies (e.g. SARS, Tsunamis, Swine Flu, Lehman crisis).
  • Increased risk & opportunity: Anybody who is familiar with options pricing understands that volatility creates tremendous risk & opportunity. Companies often come and go these days.

A recent example reminded me of this: The GPS market. Since the early 2000s innovative companies like Garmin, TomTom etc. have grown to multi billion USD businesses within just a few years. One could debate whether these businesses could have grown that quickly 20-30 years ago. In mid-October of 2009 Google announced the availability of GPS like services on their Android-powered smartphones. Indeed, the demos Google revealed showed that consumers can indeed potentially drop their separate GPS unit and rely on their mobile in the future. The effect on the stock price of the GPS manufacturers was dramatic: An average drop of 20% during that particular week. Investors were worried that more and more customers will rely on their smartphones in the future. Speed, volatility – risk, opportunity.

The implications for companies are clear: faster and smarter decision making is required. No longer can we afford to wait for a few weeks to get our sales numbers or to close our books. 6-months planning cycles will leave you behind the competition. 4-6 week forecast cycles will not allow you to react quickly enough to mitigate that risk or to seize that unique opportunity.

Time to upgrade our Performance Management processes & systems!