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?

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 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.

Business Analytics and the art of cycling

Road biking is a big passion of mine. The other day I was out on a long training ride with a good friend. One of the nice things about biking is that you can talk a lot on those rides. Since we were talking about different aspects of our work, my friend finally wanted to know what was so special about this “Business Analytics stuff”. How do you best explain that to somebody who is only remotely connected to IT, Finance and management? Luckily, I had a great story to tell him. And it’s not just a regular story. It is actually my personal success story in cycling.

HIGH TECH

About a decade ago, modern technology entered the world of professional cycling. Smart technology became available to measure not only the typical parameters of cycling like speed, distance etc.. This new piece of technology was called a “Powermeter”. This high-tech gadget allowed cyclists to measure advanced data such as power output, pedal torque, cadence etc.. Today some of these devices even measure aerodynamic drag.  Powermeters help athletes like myself to learn about themselves and to perform better. Needless to say, I invested in this technology about five years ago. It is a CycleOps Powertap with Bluetooth technology.

THE ERP OF CYCLING

Ok. But what does that have to do with Business Analytics. Very easy. The Powermeter is my transactional system. It records my ‘business’ on the bike. Second by second. Mile by mile. While I am riding, I can check my speed, power output, cadence and many other things. Just like a good solid ERP system. The gadget allows me to manage the operational aspects of my ‘cycling business’, i.e. I can lower my power output, increase cadence etc..

ENTER ANALYTICS

After each ride, I can then download the ride data. There is an extremely awesome piece of software called WKO+. It was created by two smart cycling professionals that have conducted ground-breaking research. This application helps athletes analyze their ride data. The objective is to become smarter (think knowledge about your own body) and to make better decisions about your training. This is basically Business Analytics for cyclists. Let’s take a look at how this works.

THE DASHBOARD

After each ride, I can analyze a Dashboard. This dashboard provides me with an overview of my most important metrics such as power output, mileage, cadence, time in training zones, etc.. There is a daily and a monthly dashboard. This helps me identify potential issues and to check my overall performance and progress. In Business Analytics, we implement dashboards for our executives and managers. The only difference is that they look at different metrics like sales, margins, profits.

WKO+ dashboard
The cycling dashboard from WKO+

ANALYSIS

If I spot something curious, e.g. an unexpected poor performance on a ride, I can immediately drill down to analyze the detailed data from my ride. This analysis contains a detailed report of some metrics and I can visually analyze the ride second by second. Going through the data, I can spot interesting things like power spikes, rest periods etc.. This helps me put the overall picture together of why I performed in a certain way. The analysis also helps me learn more about myself: what are my boundaries, what are my strengths etc.. The same thing is true for Business Analytics. If we spot some problems or opportunities, we perform analysis using our rich transactional data. This helps us identify critical business insight.

WKO+ detailed ride analysis
The detailed analysis of the ride: power, altitude and more

LOOKING AHEAD

Now that I have understood how and why I performed on my bike I can start using this information to plan and adjust my upcoming training plan. There are some smart algorithms in the software that help predict future performance based on past power-output and training load. Using this inside, I can then fine-tune my training plan and hopefully scare my riding friends by outperforming. Many companies leverage Predictive Analytics to make sense of data and to look ahead. They want to identify customers that might be more profitable in the future. They might want to spot opportunities for cost savings. And they use the insights to formulate and update their business plans.

Planning ahead

THE ROI

My friend now understands clearly what Business Analytics is all about. Since I was able to seriously drop him on a climb he was curious about the ROI of this. Well, the technology has enabled me to learn a ton about myself. I know my boundaries and I am able to push myself much further than I ever have. I was able to survive a grueling 7 day stage race across the Alps and all that with a minimum of preparation. All that by being smart about my racing tactics and most importantly about my training approaches. The same thing is true for businesses. I have worked with companies that have literally transformed the way they do business using the insights offered by modern Business Analytics software. This software now represents the central nervous system of these organizations. Why don’t you try that yourself?

If you are interested in learning more about how I use a powermeter during training, please read my personal blog: