According to Wikipedia, prescriptive analysis is – after descriptive and predictive analysis -the third and final stage of business analytics. Gartner plots prescriptive analysis as the final and most difficult stage of data analytics. This article will draw an analogy with the mapping and car industry to suggest that prescriptive analysis as an opportunity to support Integrated Business Planning (IBP) and business optimization, is not a final stage, but just at the beginning of a new planning era.
Where descriptive analysis answers the question; ‘what happened and why’, predictive analysis answers the question; ‘what will happen’, prescriptive analysis will also suggest actions that benefit from the predictions and show the implication of each option. Or, as Anne Robinson, a past president of INFORMS, a society for analytics and operations research professionals tells us; “Prescriptive tells you the best way to get to where you want to be”.
Integrated Business Planning as GPS
Companies like River Logic, model financial and operational business constraints and use prescriptive analysis to optimize a business objective. The business objective can be to maximize an asset, maximize throughput or minimize capital use and cost. Or all of the above at once. In combination with Integrated Business Planning to provide visibility and manage change in model assumptions and constraints, this creates a powerful and holistic scenario and decision making capability for executives.
Integrated Business Planning is like a GPS for a business
Robinson’s definition sounds pretty much like using a GPS system in your car. It will tell you the best way to get where you want to be. Integrated Business Planning is like a GPS for a business. IBP done well will provide a company with a valid and reliable periodic rolling forecast and strategy status. This, in turn, provides executives visibility on gaps versus budget and strategic intent, so they can steer the company to ‘where they want it to be’.
The evolution of map technology
If we take this analogy a little bit further, Integrated Business Planning and prescriptive analysis can learn from GPS and the evolution of the underlying map technology. Only 15 years ago we still used paper maps in our car. The first commercial GPS systems were launched in the 80’s. TomTom, a Dutch mapmaker and traffic company launched their first portable GPS system in 2002. In December 2015, TomTom launched the world’s first commercially available near real-time updated map. Let’s have a look how they got there and what is next. Let’s open our minds and have a look at trends in the mapping, traffic and the car industry and see what prescriptive analysis and IBP can learn from it.
Dynamic data input
Map making and maintaining used to be an expensive exercise, where you needed to drive lots of cars around every street over and over again. TomTom made deals with tech giants like Apple and Uber to provide automated data input to their maps. Millions of iPhone users and Uber drivers continuously send information to the TomTom database, which is used for mapping, traffic and route analysis to update a standard maps almost real time.
We can easily imagine a prescriptive analytics phase where the optimization model is automatically updated with macro assumptions and constraints like GDP, consumer spend, oil prices and total market capacity. Dynamic micro assumptions like capacity, downtime, material availability can come directly from intelligent machines. This creates dynamic constraints in the optimization model.
Alerts and interventions assistance
Advanced Driver Assistant Systems (ADAS) are already capable to warn drivers for upcoming traffic jams and many middle class cars already operate with automatic break control in city traffic. Some cars like the Mercedes E-class, can take this further and automatically take over the steering wheel when a driver loses control of the car.
With dynamic data input in the optimization model, prescriptive analysis can create alerts and intervene before a certain threshold of a critical resource or constraint is reached. An asset can be almost at capacity or underused, cash can dry up, or throughput can reach unsustainable limits.
TomTom has presented a 3D map of Germany and Michigan, in support of the German and US car industry. It has 3D maps in Silicon Valley in support of US tech companies and is partnering with Bosch - a world leading German electronics provider to the car industry - to make rapid progress to 3D map other parts of the world. 3D maps provide a 360 view of the road so a car knows where important landmarks, every lane, traffic sign, building or traffic light is and includes road geometry like curves and slopes. 3D maps are required for highly automated driving (HAD) and in combination with sensors on the car for autonomous driving (AD).
Optimizing our own business with prescriptive analysis is like a 2D map. Now add to that the impact competitors, suppliers and customers have on your business within your industry. Now imagine the impact of other industries, countries, the weather and geopolitics. In our connected, interdependent global world, similar to a 3D map, we will require multidimensional network prescription and optimizing.
Cars like the Mercedes e-class and Tesla S model already can change lanes autonomous and park the car without the driver being in the car. Audi will launch a HAD version of its flagship A8 in 2017. Elon Musk recently told analyst that Tesla is two years away from self-driving cars. Google has accumulated a millions kilometres of autonomous driving. McKinsey recently predicted that 15 percent of new cars sold in 2030, could be fully autonomous. Soon humans don’t have to touch a steering wheel.
We already know based on research that humans better not touch a short term forecast as we are riddled with bias and emotions. We already let demand sensing take over short term forecasting and replenishment decisions. It is not hard to imagine prescriptive algorithms take over tactical and strategic decisions in a distant future. This will create prescriptive execution.
Self-sustaining prescriptive algorithms
In some existing self-driving cars, the driver has to touch the steering wheel every now and then to let the car know he is still there and awake. In the future this will not be needed anymore. Cars are idle for over 90%. All this wasted capacity will once be used by intelligent systems. Every car will be connected. In cities, less people will own cars. Public ride shares and taxi bots will rule the cities and take you where you need, drop you off and go to their next ride. This requires artificial intelligence (AI) and deep machine learning.
Google’s AI team has beaten a top human player in the game of Go, a 2,500-year-old game that is exponentially more complex than chess. IBM’s self-learning machine Watson, capable of beating world chess masters and the average joe at jeopardy, is available commercially for any business. It might be a small step for an AI algorithm to not only prescribe the best solution and take the decision to implement it, but also prescribe changes to the optimization algorithm afterwards to incorporate learnings and newly detected circumstances. The prescriptive algorithm will become self-learning and self-sustaining.
Collaboration to reach the holy grail
Only 15 years ago we were using a paper map to find our way around in our car. Due to a common vision for the holy grail in the car industry – the autonomous car - map makers, tech companies, the car industry and suppliers to the car industry all joined forces. There is also urgency due to healthy competition, as the car industry itself feels threatened by the tech giants’ entry into their industry. Due to this collaboration, competition and urgency, commercially available self-driving cars will become a reality in the next five years. Who would have imagined that 15 years ago?
Prescriptive analysis and execution might just be the holy grail of integrated business planning and business optimization. Maybe the biggest learning from the mapping and car industry is what can be achieved if powerful coalitions are made to chase a holy grail.
The future of IBP and prescriptive analysis
To produce a rolling forecast and strategy status update, an IBP process periodically needs to review its plans and resources and update its underlying assumptions and business constraints. An IBP process can provide these same inputs periodically as boundaries in to a prescriptive algorithm and in return get suggested decisions for an optimized rolling forecast.
My on-line research indicates that over the last three years collaborative planning with customer and suppliers have increased, but most businesses still use IBP within the boundaries of their own company walls. And although more than half of my survey participants indicate they integrate financial planning & budgeting as a key task in their IBP process, it is likely that this is supported by slightly dis joined predictive analysis. Therefore, most companies will operate in the bottom left corner of below figure.
In terms of understanding constraints, risks and opportunities, the future of IBP will be to plan across the whole value chain, rather than within the company walls. A final step in IBP scope will be to understand and incorporate constraints from interdependent value chains, commodities and countries to create a global view.
Progress from predictive to prescriptive analysis creates the opportunity for a business to develop a periodic optimized plan within its IBP scope. Once resources and constraint data can be dynamically input in a prescriptive algorithm, near real-time optimized plans with global constraints can be achieved. At that point, IBP can still govern the choices of data input and decisions the prescriptive algorithm makes.
This will end, when artificial intelligent and self-learning systems tune the optimization algorithm and govern and change the constraints and assumptions it uses automatically. Similar to the driver in a highly autonomous driving car, who has to touch the steering wheel to let the software know he is still awake, executives might have to let the AI algorithm know they’re watching the integrated business planning decisions and numbers it produces.
We have a long way to go before we’re at that stage, but if we use our imagination, we can see how prescriptive analysis is only the start of a new IBP era.
On one point, there is no argument: You will be considered a great FP&A professional only if you can communicate clearly, effectively, and eloquently.
Regardless of what you’re communicating, your audience will form opinions about the content of your information – and about you personally – from what you present, how you present it, and how you behave while you’re presenting. They’ll form opinions about your intelligence, your professionalism, your grasp of the subject matter, your respect for your audience, your work ethic, your integrity, and your honesty. And those opinions are intertwined: the credibility of your content affects your credibility as a professional, and vice versa.
The fact that you’re communicating numbers doesn’t change anything – in fact, you face even more presentation choices than you do when presenting words. The most basic of those choices is whether a use a table or a graph. To make that choice intelligently, it’s critical that you answer each of these four questions, and in the following order:
- Which is the most effective way to impart your key information – a table or a graph?
- What is the best way to present the information graphically?
- What changes and additions to the graph will help your audience understand its central messages quickly and accurately? Will visual effects that “beautify” the graph help or hurt that objective?
- Is there anything about your graph that might cause your audience to question your agenda or even your honesty?
- Graphs can only make one or two points at a time. Graphs take up much more space than a well-laid-out table does to present the same number of data points, and in a less visually coherent way than a table. Don’t try to cram too much information into a single graph. Yes, a picture is worth a thousand words, but two pictures superimposed on each other won’t create something worth two thousand words – it’ll just be a jumbled mess. And dozens of little graphs, in an array that looks like the cockpit of a 747, are just as intimidating and hard to follow as a large table.
- Don’t let audience preferences drive your choice. We’ve all heard statements like, “I’m a visual person – just give me some graphs,” or “I love waterfall charts.” Yes, there are differences in cognitive abilities from one person to another, but those differences aren’t nearly as dramatic as you might think. Make presentation choices based on the most effective way to get your point across, not on what people in your audience think they want.
- There are alternatives to graphs. Graphs aren’t the only impactful way to get your point across. Key indicators – ratios that identify critical drivers, and that add meaning and context to the raw numbers – presented in a table can be just as effective. And “data visualization” can apply to tables as well: use text effects (e.g., boldface, italics, font size) and artwork (e.g., cell borders, changes to row height and column width, and Inserted Shapes) to emphasize the most important data. Or use Conditional Formatting to emphasize particularly large, small, or otherwise noteworthy numbers. And lastly, how about leaving space on your tables for some clarifying words?
The bottom line: If you’re an FP&A professional responsible for producing a regular periodic reporting package – such as monthly, quarterly, or yearly – consider using tables for the basic information that everyone is expecting. Use graphs sparingly, to make your most important points, and only when those points lend themselves to a visual presentation.
Obviously, the most important goal of almost all numbers presentations is to inform your audience. But every good FP&A professional should have another, more selfish goal: to showcase your critical thinking skills. If you keep both goals in mind, achieving each will make the other more likely.
The article was first published in prevero Blog
The survey found that the rapidly changing landscape has forced change at the C-suite in FP&A. To be successful and keep up with the rate of change, they need their FP&A teams to step out of the data collection and validation and play a larger more strategic, customer facing role.
This is the conclusion of the recent FP&A Empowerment Survey (Nov 2017). I’m honored to have been part of this watershed in-depth research project conducted by some of the current thought leaders in FP&A. The team included Ernie Humphrey and Larysa Melnychuk. The survey gained insight into why FP&A teams are struggling to make a real business impact. The solution requires reassignment and a refocus to strategic vs. being overloaded with data and outdated tools.
Fact Confirmed: FP&A teams are not optimized as they are spending too much time on low-value activities.
Fact Confirmed: FP&A as a function is underinvested in technology and repetitive processes are not automated.
Discovery: The value of FP&A is not fully understood by many Top Executives making the investment in solutions difficult.
We had an overwhelming response to our survey and had a total of 311 respondents with a good mix across geographical, company size and position segments. What was interesting is that these discoveries hold true across all of these dimensions
1. FP&A Teams Aspire to spend more time on strategic activities
On average FP&A professional spend 21% of their time on high-value activities. We defined high-value activities as: Business partnering; strategic support; customer-facing activities and driving actions. For me this is in line with what I expected – the number one frustration of FP&A professions is by the time they’ve pulled the data together, there is never enough time to provide insight. What was a surprise is how far away we are from where we think we should be: the answer back is we should be spending 48% (Fig 1) of our time on high-value activities. In other words, we need to be spending more than double the amount of time on high-value activities and in the case of more senior roles, this was almost triple the amount of time.
FP&A in my mind should be seen as a consulting function – a function that should be helping the business with data driven decision making. So what is the solution to reducing low-value activities and freeing up the time to be more strategic?
2. The need for Technology investment
Seventy-nine percent (79%) of companies report an upgrade in FP&A technology would empower FP&A to deliver better results.
From my experience this does not come as a surprise – The solution is very simple: free up time by replacing repetitive tasks of data collection and validation (which together account for 51.5% of analytics time) by technology that can automate all of this. In practice this is never that simple - business and data in finance is a little bit more complicated. Before investing blindly in technology, you will also need to look at the problem more holistically – what is the problem that needs to be solved and what are the impacts on People, Process and Technology. This is why investment in FP&A costs so much – there needs to be a lot of upfront work in not only bringing in the right technology solutions, but also investment in time to improve the process and manage the change. This is why you often hear of ERP implementations failing, the promise is they will halve your workload, but by the end you find its doubled.
So investment in FP&A is expensive, so how do we get the support we need to make these investments?
Fig 2. Driving transformation required investment in Technology, Process and People
3. The value of FP&A is not clearly perceived or understood by top executives
The value of FP&A is not clearly perceived or understood by top executives
A staggering twenty-seven percent (27%) of respondents conveyed that their companies do not view FP&A as an area of strategic investment. Even more surprising was fifty-six percent (56%) of respondents conveyed that their companies don’t think that FP&A has an impact to the bottom line
So to frame the problem: To free up time for FP&A to be more Strategic, we need investment in Technology, People and Processes, but if the perception of FP&A is low then investment will be difficult to come by.
When asked what is the biggest barrier to investment thirty-eight percent (38%) of companies reported it was difficult to justify the ROI of investing in FP&A against shorter-term investments in sales or marketing.
To be successful, the C-suite needs to commit to reform, investment and respect for FP&A. The information age is forcing the office of the CFO into a more data driven, strategic role away from the back-office accounting role of the past. For CFO’s to be successful, they need their FP&A teams to step out of the data collection and validation and play a larger more strategic, customer facing role. To enable this transition there needs to be the investment in tools and solution, but more importantly there CFO’s and FP&A teams as a whole need to be able to sell the value they are generating!
In my role as a technology advisor for CPM- Corporate Performance Management Solutions over several years, I have met hundreds if not thousands of CFO’s from startups to mid-size to large enterprises. Some CFO’s have a more traditional approach of preserving the assets of the organization by minimizing risk and getting the books right while some CFO’s cannot sit still, come to office in plaid sleeve shirts and talk about strategy, vision, market share etc. There are no rights and wrongs between conservative and aggressive approach but there are some common mindsets and traits that the new age CFO have:
Jack of all Trades, Master of Some
Modern CFO takes care of everything and takes on issues from all departments be it Sales, IT, HR or Finance. In an August 2016 Oracle survey of finance leaders in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, 52% of respondents said their role is now predominantly focused on advising the business on how it can achieve growth goals, and 56% said they’re working with lines of business more closely than ever before. They strive to help their customers to make money and not just care for their own bottom line.
The Tech Savvy and “SAAS”y CFO
The forward-looking CFO now wants to take ownership of the IT department. He is an expert in cost management, organizational efficiency and fluent in cybersecurity, fraud prevention, business continuity planning and digitization as he “gets” the role of technology in business advantage. Also, a lot of new roles are techno-functional, “IT-Finance” being the new department being created. The modern CFO believes in investing in integrated decision support systems to “peak around the corners” and “see beyond the horizon”.
The 2020 CFO’s make the technology decisions today and do not simply watch and wait. “Playing it safe” is no longer equivalent to “playing it smart.” The status quo itself is a risk. A visionary CFO’s agree that the future of finance is in the cloud. They believe that their teams deserve the flexibility, configurability, and world-class security of running the business in the cloud. They don’t ask questions around security, local country data centers or data confidentiality. They probe us around speed, agility, interoperability, innovation and cloud analytics. They understand that cloud is more than just a delivery method or a cost saver. The tech-savvy CFO knows that cloud unleashes new levels of automation, collaboration and visibility.
Distributed Finance Function
The modern CFO does not believe in centralized finance function. He places highly capable finance managers with the functional teams. We see that CFO’s today are stressing upon Finance as a Centre of Excellence emulating operational best practices.
High Performance Team across Finance and Operations
The Modern CFO builds a terrific team who are not only capable accountants but great communicators, with superb analytical skills and superior EQ. They are go-getters by nature and like to mix up with other teams rather than cubbyhole themselves churning out spreadsheets. He makes it critical for his team to understand business and sales, what matters the most for the organization and how to adapt to changing strategy.
Delivering faster and smarter outcomes requires the skill sets of a vast range of talented people from across the organization. The fact is, the business of the future is not well served by outdated silos and independent specialization. Beyond “traditional accounting or transactional environments that are finance-focused, the modern CFOs are thinking about how to form cross-functional teams that link sales, distribution, marketing, finance, customer service, and other critical areas together in very flexible and adaptable way.
Continuous and inclusive Financial Planning
Reality is chaotic. Annual Planning is ordered and logical. They two don’t get well. Disruptive change is now a norm and the modern CFO sees planning as a continuous ever evolving function that is driven by market events like launch of a new product, competitor marketing campaign and pricing cuts and ever emerging information. They don’t believe in mundane Annual Operating Plan. In fact, I met a CFO of a FMCG MNC who was not happy with daily forecast and wanted “minutes old” forecast. 2020 CFO, doesn’t plan, he forecasts continuously and constantly, steering his organization based on current market conditions.
Eliminates Redundant Processes
Traditionally, CFO’s outsourced payroll, tax filings, internal audit and collections. As CFO’s are seeking economies of scale and creating human capital with the varied skill set, they are considering a wider array of potential outsourcing arrangements like Core Accounting, Financial Reporting, Accounts Receivable and Accounts Payable. Their “ask” from their team is analysis of numbers, the “hows” and “whys” and “what better” instead of “what” and “how much”.
Per a PricewaterhouseCoopers report, millennials already form 25 percent of the workforce in the US. By 2020, they will account for 50 percent of the global workforce. The 2020 CFO believes in millennials and sees them as future leaders.
For Oracle CEO Mark Hurd, this huge demographic change presents a huge opportunity. Hurd said that the new direction is to hire recent college graduates rather than recruiting employees which other companies don't even try to retain. It is so motivational for Oracle to have these kids come into the company. “There is so much excitement in our company, new talent, new skills, and a different view of the world. And I think it's very good for us. It changes everything.” said Hurd in a conference.
The 2020 CFO sees this as a huge opportunity, they want Millenials to come in and change the way they think. Many of the modern CFO’s communicate with their teams on WhatsApp groups They believe in personal branding and are getting more active on Linked-in and other professional networks driving thought leadership and encouraging “outside in” approach. They invest in smart tools that employees can use on their smartphones from just about anywhere on the planet.
In conclusion, we see that the CFO’s are now moving from accounting to accountability and not just for financial performance, but also for customer centricity, cutting-edge technology, workforce excellence and fostering a high- performance culture. They are the number wizard, the generalist, the performance leader, and the growth champion. They use their talents, experience, and insights to guide major operational and strategic decisions within the company, playing a role even as the external face of the organization.
This article is Part 2 of the ‘FP&A and the three-headed serpent’ series. This blog series is inspired by the research ‘Defining the Evolution of FP&A: Benchmarks, Challenges and Opportunities‘ that was carried out by FP&A Thought leaders and sponsored by Prophix.
There are three main challenges that FP&A currently dealing with. These are data, business planning methodologies, and techniques and tooling. Data is the first component and is the blood of the whole process. Nowadays, everyone is talking about being ‘data-driven’. What lies beneath this idea, is the wish to make the decision-making process easier and more effective. But in general, it means delivering the required data of acceptable quality to the relevant decision makers when and where they need it.
FP&A concerns about being ‘data-driven’
In the FP&A paper, the authors mentioned concerns of FP&A top professionals. The following two insights I found the most striking:
Insight 1: Companies are immature relative to FP&A analytics.
Only 41 % of companies report that most decisions are based on data.
Insight 4. Companies face a shortage of the right data.
The key function of effective FP&A is delivering a culture of data driven decision-making across the enterprise. It shows that being data driven came to the agenda of the FP&A tasks
FPA& professionals want to make their function ‘data-driven’
FP&A focuses on delivering information to the main decision-makers. The information includes an analysis of historical data that is used for evaluation of the company’s performance on one hand, and on the other, the forecast analysis that predicts the company’s future. How does the data-driven concept change this current situation?
Becoming ‘data driven’ might mean:
- Giving FP&A professionals and business decision makers access and ability to use data they need and when and where they need;
- Moving from a set of few reports on daily or weekly basis to assist business decision makers in data analysis;
- Letting FP&A professionals ask questions and receive answers that are based on data before the decision are made.
What you gain from working in ‘data-driven’ environment:
As an FP&A professional, you will benefit a great deal from working in a ‘data-driven’ environment as you will:
- move from ‘production of information and reports’ function to assisting in the analysis of the data;
- become a real business partner;
- get a better strategic position in the decision-making process.
FP&A’s motivation for becoming ‘data-driven’
Data is a shared asset in every company. Various stakeholders in the company have their own concerns when it comes to data. Managing the data has to become a common effort of all the parties involved. The position of FPA& and other financial professionals is unique in this case. On one hand, you use a lot of data produced within the company and data received from outside sources. On the other hand, you analyze the data and produce a lot of information which is used for decision-making at different levels of organization. From my experience, 80% of data circulating within a company can be recognized as ‘finance-related’. FP&A is in the center of this data marathon and is one of the most important stakeholders.
Ensuring access to the right data and an ability to get the right information to the right person at the right time is an accountability of other stakeholders as data management and IT and technologies.
To motivate your company to become data-driven, you need to create an awareness of the subject at the top management level and become one of the sponsors of the idea.
At some point in time, the idea will find multiple sponsors and supporters and there will be real business drivers to start the realization. The next question is: how to become ‘data-driven’. In my next blog, you will find some tips on this subject.