Budgeting and forecasting software rescues firm from 'spreadsheet hell'

Adaptive Planning's SaaS budgeting, planning and forecasting tools cater to NPD Group's global needs in a way that Excel couldn't.

It's a horror story that's all too familiar. Before implementing budgeting, planning and forecasting software from Software as a Service (SaaS) financial management software vendor Adaptive Planning, "We were living in spreadsheet hell," said Wendy Baum, executive vice president of finance at NPD Group, a market research firm based in Port Washington, N.Y. "Like a lot of people, we were using Excel to do our budgeting, and while we're not a huge company, we're a complex company," she said.

NPD Group has 180 departments spread throughout 20 countries, which meant 180 different templates when budgeting season rolled around. "Then you'd sit back and prayed that no one wanted to add a new account," Baum recalled.

Baum said one of the main reasons NPD Group signed on with Adaptive Planning in summer 2009 was because the budgeting and forecasting tools were cloud-based. "We thought that the cloud environment might hold the key for us," she said.

Now, after three years of use, Baum has only a few minor complaints about the software, none of which pertain to the fact that it's SaaS. In fact, she said SaaS budgeting and forecasting software might be a wise starting point for CFOs who are uneasy about the cloud.

"If you're trying to put your toe in the water, budgeting and forecasting is a good place to go," she said.

Flexibility and ease of use facilitates rapid implementation

Although many companies bump up against the shortcomings of Microsoft Excel, spreadsheets are still commonly used for budgeting and forecasting, according to Greg Schneider, vice president of marketing at Adaptive Planning, based in Mountain View, Calif. "Excel is error-prone and doesn't scale to many users," he said. "[But] midsized companies and a surprising amount of enterprise companies are still using Excel."

Because NPD Group lacked internal IT support, Baum said she was looking for a system that was easy to deploy. After evaluating products from several vendors -- some on-premises and some cloud-based -- she decided that SaaS made the most sense. "Some of them were way too big, some were too costly and some needed real IT database support, which we didn't have," she explained. She was lured in by Adaptive Planning's flexibility, affordability and similar feel to Excel, which she expected would lessen the learning curve.

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Baum pitched the idea of adopting Adaptive Planning's budgeting and forecasting tools to the company's executives, who readily gave their approval. "The presentation took longer than the discussion did -- it seemed like a no brainer," she said.

Baum intended to use the new software to kick off the 2010 budget season, which left only a few weeks for implementation. The short timespan turned out to be a nonissue: The vendor's implementation team helped to get the software set up to include all necessary currencies, and it was rolled out to the 100 users within three weeks. 

"We were able to tell them where we were in our current processes and they got the concepts very quickly translated into what their tool did," Baum said. "They developed the models and all we had to do was validate and do a little testing."

Baum hosted one optional online training session for the 100 users, which she said sparked excitement about the new software. "Because it feels so much like Excel, it was pretty intuitive," she said. "But it made people say, 'Yeah, give it to me.' And any time you're doing a rollout, it's much better to have a pull than a push."

Three years later, Baum was quick to express her enthusiasm for the budgeting and forecasting software. "I'm really happy with [Adaptive Planning]," she said. "It allowed the finance team to go back and drive the business rather than drive the process."

There are a few minor items on her wish list, the first pertaining to the workflow. "I think from within it would be nice to share things with each other and not have to go outside the system," she said. Baum would also like users to be able to have different access levels for different departments. Right now, the software only allows for each user to have one role across all departments, such as "full access" or "reporting only."

Finally, Baum said the vendor's openness can sometimes be a double-edged sword. Since Adaptive Planning publishes all user manuals on its website, she occasionally gets approached by users about why certain features haven't been implemented yet. 

"It puts pressure on us internally to keep up with all the good things that Adaptive Planning is doing," she said. "It behooves them to be that open, [but] we ask our people to work within certain parameters."

Adaptive Planning pursuing enterprise business

While approximately 50% of Adaptive Planning's customers are midsize companies, Schneider said enterprise customers are its fastest growing customer segment. He explained that new features are designed to make the CPM vendor an increasingly attractive option for enterprise and global businesses as well. Features in the Fall 2012 release include reporting enhancements that support Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) reporting and workflow updates targeted for companies containing multiple divisions. Schneider claimed more enterprises are, in fact, coming over from legacy systems and now represent approximately 25% of the company's customers.

Even though CFOs are warming to the idea of putting financial information in the cloud, Baum still has reservations. "I'm not living in the cloud with everything -- just with my budgeting and forecasting tools. When I'm done with planning, I'm pulling the results back into my ERP, so if for some reason the vendor wasn't there tomorrow, I have the information I need," she said. "There are some applications I would not be as quick to move into the cloud."

But the initial steps that NPD Group has taken towards cloud-based financials have been transformative. The company was named a finalist in Westport, Conn. consultant firm Saugatuck Technology's inaugural 2012 Beacon Awards for IT and business innovation. And with the software's automatic upgrades, Baum said even more innovation is on the horizon. "We're still getting better with it all the time," she said. "They're always one step ahead, which is great."

"Spreadsheet hell" is a thing of the past.

This was first published in November 2012

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