The only thing right about a forecast is that it’s wrong. This unavoidable truth is particularly evident in business today. Businesses are grappling with high levels of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.
Increasing regulation, competition, geopolitical tensions, ever changing consumer preferences and a shift in economic powers are making it difficult for finance teams to predict business performance with certainty.
Although no forecast is 100% certain, forecasting is not a futile process. Today’s complex and fast paced environment demands agility, flexibility and confident decision making. Making use of dynamic forecasts to support key operational and strategic decisions can help businesses overcome these challenges.
Single Point Destination
Budgeting, planning and forecasting must evolve into something more relevant to today’s operating environment.
Many organizations prepare budgets to estimate single-point future outcomes and allocate resources required to meet specific goals. Although this works well in a stable environment, this is far from true in today’s unstable world.
Emerging risks and opportunities are forcing the business to regularly re-examine its value proposition model and adapt its strategy. At the same time, the resources required to deliver superior performance are highly volatile and unpredictable.
As a result, goals are often becoming moving targets requiring regular monitoring and adjustments.
This raises the need to adopt modern FP&A processes that empower the business to evaluate performance beyond a specific point in time and swiftly respond to external and internal fluctuations.
The annual budget fails to make the business become forward-looking and plan beyond the 12 month period. On the contrary, continuous rolling forecasts help decision makers to:
- Focus more on the future rather than on the past
- Model future scenarios based on current business drivers
- Get insights in terms of where the organization is heading
- Highlight significant gaps between expected performance and defined budget targets
- Make informed decisions that are reflective of the business operational environment
Basing future decisions on a single point of view in today’s constantly evolving environment is not ideal. Decision makers should consider a range of potential outcomes, to better represent and understand possible scenarios.
Link Risks and Opportunities
Many budgets that companies are using are prepared from a numbers perspective only.
The norm here is to pull out past financial results, add or deduct a percentage amount to the chart of accounts line items. In most cases the numbers are dependent on inflation, interest, foreign exchange and GDP statistics.
Other performance drivers specific to the business such as category growth, market share, consumer behaviour, supply chain risk, website traffic, conversion rates and production capacity are often not considered.
Take for example the impact of social media today. Social media is increasingly empowering consumers granting them more buying power. Brand and user experiences are shared 24/7 on these platforms.
Brands that are able to align their value delivery models with consumer expectations stand to benefit above peers in terms of reputation and financial rewards.
As social media continues to provide a communication platform for consumers, it is vital that companies factor in social media risks and opportunities into their financial planning and analysis models.
Building new capabilities capable of integrating and interpreting multiple sources of data and business drivers is the first step towards progress.
Complex Spreadsheets Standing in the Way of Progress
To succeed in a hyper-competitive environment, the business must be able to make informed decisions and move on with speed. This requires the company to incorporate a flexible budgeting and forecasting framework that helps it to instantly develop and analyze different scenarios.
A lot of companies are incapable of producing this analysis quickly, mainly because the majority of systems in place are not essentially fit for purpose. Complex spreadsheets only the creator understand are dominant.
Challenges arise when individuals attempt to add additional budget and forecast line items or change formulas and are unable to do so. The file is sent back to the creator for amendments.
This review-revise-redistribute cycle increases data latency and slows down decision making.
Finance should replace complex spreadsheets with new collaborative technologies. This will help streamline and standardize FP&A. Cloud solutions improve collaboration and response times between users, enhance governance and control by reducing version control problems. Also, the likelihood of input errors getting unnoticed is reduced.
Centralizing budgeting and forecasting across the business ensures that inputs to the process follow common standards and classifications. This reduces the need for people to add additional budget and forecast line items, helps track progress across all business areas and enable easy re-forecasting without changing the entire model.
Given this current world of advanced analytics and IoT, machines keep on getting smarter. Leveraging improved computing power, they are now able to aggregate large data sets, identify patterns and correlations and inform predictions within shorter time frames.
Although adoption of emerging technologies is not yet mainstream, the potential for companies to augment human and machine capabilities and shift from reactive to anticipatory driver-based planning is massive.
Budgeting and forecasting transformation is not achievable overnight. Learn from past failures and understand why a prediction went wrong. The idea is not to seek certainty, but rather to influence the future.
Instead of setting the organization on a particular path, Finance should focus on identifying a range of potential outcomes and help decision makers make rational strategic decisions based on the most plausible set of scenarios.