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When it comes to making a business case for software investments, many people fail to recognize that the case itself is just one part of what amounts to an internal sales and marketing effort that they must perform well to be successful. Focusing only on the numbers and assumptions in a spreadsheet is not enough. Making a successful business case requires an understanding of the audience’s perspective and motivations. Since the individuals who will review the business case may not be sufficiently aware of the issues that are behind it and their seriousness, it may be necessary to begin an awareness-building program before presenting the business case. And because the benefits of software investments can be difficult to quantify, executive sponsors are useful in achieving acceptance of these calculations. Unfortunately, many business cases founder because proponents do not realize the importance of taking a sales and marketing approach.

We usually ask participants in our benchmark research what softwarevr_NG_Finance_Analytics_16_barriers_to_investing_in_finance_analytics they use to manage or support a process and whether their company recently considered replacing it. Typically, two-thirds of companies have within the past year or two evaluated an alternative to the software they’ve been using for the subject of the research. However, only 15 to 20 percent actually acquire and deploy new software. The remaining number is divided between those that decided not to replace their software and those that are still considering it. Those that have opted not to replace the software typically give as the main reasons a lack of resources (47%), of budget (45%), and of awareness of the problem (40%), as well as no executive sponsorship or support; they also often say the existing software works well enough and the business case wasn’t strong enough. We get much the same responses from those that are still considering replacement, as well as that they’re still in the evaluation process. Of course it may be true that there was no budget or sufficient resources, or that the existing software works well enough, but we think it’s more often the case that the business case wasn’t strong enough and so the investment was deemed a low priority.

One common mistake of advocates for new software is failing to consider how the proposed investment will meet the needs and motivations of all of the people who will be evaluating the project. Their needs might be different, or they may have different priorities. For instance, the advocate may want to make some process more efficient so that he or she won’t have to work so many nights and weekends, but this is likely to be of little concern to those who have to approve the investment. For those decision-makers, the ability to get information sooner, gain deeper insight or reduce their risk exposure may be the key benefits. In some instances, those evaluating a project may not be aware of what’s possible. Awareness-building may be a step that has to precede by weeks or months the formal presentation of a business case. For example, executives may not understand that they can get information in real time or the following day rather than having to wait a week, and that the competition is already able to do that. They probably haven’t given it any thought.

Another pitfall for advocates is failing to secure executive sponsorship before proposing an investment; lacking that substantially reduces the chance of success. This can be tricky because today’s software investments are rarely made for direct cost savings alone. In the early days of business computing, IT investments were made to eliminate the need for clerks and bookkeepers, so there was a direct, measurable savings involved. Today, these sorts of benefits represent a fraction of the value of software investments. Instead, the benefits include, for instance, getting information sooner or shortening the end-to-end length of a process. The end result may be improved customer service and, therefore, customer satisfaction – benefits that executives understand. When the business case presents an answer to the question, “What’s it worth to this company to cut cycle times from two months to one week?” It’s important that someone with sufficient stature in the decision-making process will vouch for the answer in the business case as well as reiterate the urgency for making that particular investment right away. It’s even more important to have the right sponsorship when the impact of the investment spans business units or functions; this should be either an individual with sufficient seniority or multiple sponsors from within these groups.

vr_NG_Finance_Analytics_15_business_considerations_for_investmentsProbably for those reasons, participants asked to identify the most important considerations that lead to the successful presentation of a business plan  most frequently cited executive sponsorship (67%) and an understanding of the potential value (that is, those making the decision were aware of the problem and the value of addressing it). Being able to demonstrate increased efficiency, reduced risk and enhanced effectiveness (such as by being able to meet audit or compliance needs) are also important.

Independent information technology research from a reputable source can help software advocates make their case more effectively. It can illustrate the common issues that companies face and quantify the impact of addressing them. At Ventana Research we design our benchmark research to be able to assess how well companies perform in executing core business requirements. Research is constructed to measure the connections between the people, process, information and technology components used and the results organizations achieve. Since software investments are rarely made solely on efficiency gains, our research measures effectiveness as well. That includes a range of topic-specific aims, such as customer satisfaction, cycle time reduction, deeper understanding of root causes, increased visibility, greater agility and improved coordination in responding to change, to name just a sample. This type of research can be helpful in making a business case as well as in creating awareness within an organization of the need for change, generating interest in implementing change, and justifying the investment in technology that enables information improvements to achieve the organization’s objectives.

I’ll repeat that building a better business case for buying software involves more than just putting numbers on a page. It’s a sales and marketing effort that begins with understanding the full range of objectives that the investment can achieve. It’s essential that the proponents understand the aims of all the decision-makers and influencers in the company, not just in their own department. They must be able to clearly communicate how the investment will address the needs of all concerned. Identifying others’ objectives should make it easier to gain the necessary executive sponsors while failing to secure sponsorship diminishes the chance that the investment will be funded. Moreover, having credibility at each stage in the process of making the business case is also essential. Please investigate some of our benchmark research that bears upon your work and business issues, and let us know how we can help.

Regards,

Robert Kugel – SVP Research

One trend in business software that’s still in its early stages but gathering momentum is the availability of modeling tools that fill the gap between desktop spreadsheets and enterprise systems. Granted this “early stage” has been under way for quite some time, but the technology has finally progressed to the point where I expect it to get increasing market traction.

The temptation for business modelers and analysts is that it is very easy to create models using spreadsheets like Microsoft Excel. Tens of millions of people worldwide are trained in using spreadsheets, so it’s often a default choice. Desktop spreadsheets are handy because they make it simple for anyone to translate their concepts into a computer model. As someone who has done this for more than 30 years, I can attest that analysts skilled in using spreadsheets mentally frame business issues and relationships in a grid structure. It’s relatively easy, for instance, to create a dynamic integrated income statement, balance sheet and cash-flow model in a spreadsheet; it’s a laborious process to construct one using a relational or multidimensional database. Yet especially where complex calculations are used or where the models involve more than a few dimensions (more on this below), models created this way are error-prone and “brittle,” which means that they break quickly when someone tries to make a change to the original construction.

In contrast, more sophisticated business intelligence tools or dedicated enterprise planning applications, which can produce more powerful and flexible models, have required formal training. Although some individuals and/or companies have been willing to make the investment in such training, the majority have not, opting to keep using spreadsheets. I suspect the main reason is that the amount of training required and the frustration that most spreadsheet jockeys encounter when changing to a new tool have been too great. As well, there is a network effect in reverse: In any organization where many or even just several people share a model, all must be trained in using a tool or its usefulness is substantially diminished.

To be sure, the problem – and solutions to address it – is not new. For example, Essbase was developed in the 1980s partly to address the above issues. However, Essbase has been lightly adopted by purely business or financial analysts because of the training it requires. More recently, Microsoft has offered an Excel Server that can address some – but not all – of the shortcomings of shared desktop spreadsheets. (Note that for many companies this will require purchasing new versions of Microsoft Office and Microsoft SQL Server.) And the rise of model-building alternatives is part of a broader adoption of more powerful but easier-to-use alternatives that fit between Excel and enterprise systems. For example, BizNet Software offers what I would call an enterprise spreadsheet for more sophisticated reporting on other business applications using its in-memory computing technology.

So what is it that makes me see the barriers to going beyond spreadsheets for modeling beginning to fall?

One reason is that organizations increasingly want more value from modeling and analyses. Spreadsheets are easy to set up, but as well as being error-prone and producing brittle models, they have other inherent flaws that limit their overall effectiveness when they are used to support repetitive and collaborative business functions. For example, they lack referential integrity, which means that adding rows and columns creates issues when multiple spreadsheets must be collated. Another is that they can readily handle two or three “dimensions” but grow exponentially harder to work with as modelers try to add more. Dimensions include time, corporate structure (divisions and business units), organizational structure (functions and roles), product lines, customers and currency, to name some of the more common ones, which obviously can overlap. Businesses are inherently multidimensional, so to be truly useful for assessing outcomes, choosing between options and making plans, models and analyses must be structured to reflect the various dimensions. Nor do spreadsheets compare well to in-memory computing, an increasingly popular technology that allows for more interactive interplay with models. This means, for example, being able to do detailed what-if analyses rapidly while in a business review meeting in order to determine what to do next about some opportunity or issue. Desktop spreadsheets seldom can do this interactively at a detailed level.

To get more value from modeling and analyses requires changing the balance of the work that business analysts do. Today, analysts spend too much time on the mechanics of analytics and modeling and not enough on analyses and their implications for the business, as our analytics research shows. A main reason for this waste of time is the limitations of spreadsheets.

The other reason I expect the barriers to change to fall is that the alternatives to spreadsheets are increasingly easier to learn and use. One example is Quantrix, which has been around for a decade and therefore was early to a market that has been slow to develop. It is one in the latest round of new tools that attempts to fill the gap between spreadsheets and enterprise BI and analytic applications. Quantrix requires training, but in my judgment, it’s not hard to pick up and not difficult for business analysts to adapt their spreadsheet skills to building models in this tool. Another example is Anaplan, which my colleague Mark Smith commented on. It is designed to replace spreadsheets in operational planning functions (such as sales operations or demand planning, to name just two) as well as in financial planning and budgeting. It, too, offers modeling capabilities that are more powerful and more flexible than spreadsheets yet not difficult for business analysts to learn.

I believe a lack of awareness of what’s possible is a major barrier to analysts adopting more capable tools for modeling, forecasting and reviewing. As the number of products that address the inherent limitations of desktop spreadsheets increases, marketing efforts in this area are going to gain attention. Companies are going to realize that they can achieve greater awareness and better decision-making if they have a more effective approach to modeling and analysis. There will always be a need for desktop spreadsheets, which serve the needs of tens of millions of users daily. But these tools no longer need be a barrier to modelers and analysts being able to do a better job of doing what they are hired to do: model and analyze.

Regards,

Robert Kugel CFA – SVP of Research

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