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!

The case for continuous forecasting

Continuous Forecasting

Time for a confession. I really hated forecasting back in my old job. Here I was working with clients on improving their planning, budgeting & forecasting processes. Yet, I absolutely hated doing my own forecast. It just didn’t feel right. What was wrong? Well, I never really understood the template that our controller sent out. And it always took forever. Luckily, I had to do this only 2-4 times per year. But that was also part of the issue. Every time I received the forecasting template (a complex spreadsheet!) I had to collect and enter a ton of data. Also, I had to re-orient myself and figure out how the template worked this time. And then there was the reconciliation between my project plans and the prior forecast. To sum it up: The ramp-up time was simply too long. The result: I hated the forecast because the process took too long and it was too infrequent.

Fire-Drill

Indeed, the typical process for updating, distributing, collecting and aggregating forecasting templates can take up to a few weeks in most companies. It is critical to understand that the templates are typically unavailable to the user community during extended periods of time. Analysts are busy and need to take care of other tasks between forecasting cycles. As a result, forecasts are being conducted infrequently and the business owners feel like conducting a ‘fire-drill” when the templates are actually sent out.

The traditional spreadsheet-driven process

Forecasting Software

But there is a much better model that many of my clients have implemented. Modern planning & forecasting software allows us to keep our forecasting templates online nearly 24*7. We no longer have to collect our 100s of spreadsheets, fix formulas, manually load actuals, manually develop new calculations and the re-distribute the templates in long and manual cycles. Thanks to OLAP technology (sorry for the techie term), we can make model changes in one place only and they can automatically be pushed out to the different templates (e.g. cost centers, profit centers etc..). Automated interfaces between the ERP (for actuals) and the forecast models can be setup. We can automatically aggregate data in real-time and we can control the process flow. Overall maintenance is a lot easier and the templates are available pretty all the time and the users can work with their data around the clock and throughout the year.

Using this technology, Finance departments can allow the business users to work in their templates around the clock. A sales manager can update her data right after a critical customer meeting (e.g. change the sales quantity for a product). In other words, people can make quick incremental changes to their forecast data instead of performing time-consuming, infrequent larger data input exercises.

Continuous Forecasting

But the Finance department now has to carefully communicate with the business. They need to clearly communicate submission deadlines etc..

The continuous data collection process

But what is the advantage to the business users and the finance department? How would this technology have change my personal experience in the prior job?

Clients typically experience three main advantages:

  • The templates are available 99% of the time and users can work in them on a daily basis. As a result, users become a lot more familiar with the templates and their comfort levels rise.
  • The actual forecast process is a lot faster for the business users. They can make incremental changes which typically don’t take that much time. Contrast that to my case where I had to build a bottom-up forecast almost every quarter. The ramp up time can be considerable.
  • Forecasts tend to be more complete. In the case of an urgent ad-hoc forecast (imagine something critical happened), the business is able to compile a near complete forecast in very short time. This is where the incremental updates add serious value. Contrast that to the traditional spreadsheet process. People might be out on vacation or they are out traveling. The potential time-lag to get somewhat decent data can be quite long.

Let me clarify one last thing: A continuous process does NOT mean I can simply aggregate my data every night and obtain an updated forecast. No, I need to communicate to the business WHEN I need the data. But due to the 99% availability I can collect my data very quickly.

Let’s go continuous! Would love to hear your thoughts and experiences. Good or bad.