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See It Now

New budgeting-and-planning software offers increasingly sophisticated visual aids: dashboards and scorecards.

When Marc Krens joined John I. Haas Inc. 12 years ago, the privately held company was hardly a font of technological sophistication. The 10 businesses that constituted Haas, the world’s largest supplier of hops for brewing, all used different accounting and financial-reporting software. Worse, the programs didn’t talk to one another. As for the company’s inventory-management system, “the code was in German,” recalls CFO Krens, “and the guy who wrote it died.”

Today, Krens is busy updating the information systems of the 81-year-old company. Much of the effort is aimed squarely at strategic planning, which until recently involved an Excel spreadsheet and a homemade model that he devised. Three years ago, Krens and his team convinced senior management at $80 million (in revenues) Haas to purchase OFA, a financial-analysis program designed by Oracle Corp. More recently, the CFO has championed the deployment of an Oracle dashboard at the Washington, D.C.-based company.

When the rollout of the dashboard is finished (it is scheduled for May 2004), Haas managers and department heads will be able to track key performance indicators from a desktop portal. Krens himself plans to monitor a greatest-hits collection—metrics culled from the dashboards of other users. “Every day,” he says, “managers will be able to see how they’re doing on their benchmarks.”

This kind of approach has big appeal for finance managers—a fact not lost on makers of applications for finance managers. Over the past year or so, several marquee business-software vendors have acquired smaller budgeting-and-planning (B&P) outfits. Geac Computer bought Comshare, Lawson Software acquired Closedloop Solutions, and Hyperion Solutions acquired Brio Software. In the process, they’ve picked up considerable dashboard and scoreboard capabilities. Likewise, enterprise resource planning (ERP) vendors like Oracle and SAP AG have begun to beef up the dashboard features of their enterprise offerings.

The dashboards are selling, too. According to a June survey of 100 companies conducted by AMR Research, nearly 50 percent of respondents said they will (or plan to) roll out dashboards in the coming months. John Hagerty, a vice president at AMR Research, says that overall, sales for B&P software are up about 6 percent from the same period in 2002, and dashboards are helping fuel the increase. “Forecasting is very hot right now,” says Hagerty. “Most people need a forward-looking view.”

For many finance managers, the view from their existing budgeting tools—usually a patchwork of Excel spreadsheets—seems more like a glance through the rearview mirror. Often, managers must piece together budgets based on extremely historical data: last year’s results. And creating a strategic plan from Excel-based forecasts offered up by scores of operating units can be a real pain. “Planning is important,” says Colleen Johnston, managing director and CFO of Toronto-based Scotia Capital, which recently rolled out a planning system from INEA Corp. “But the work is disproportionate [to the reward].”

Web-enabled or portal-accessed performance dashboards, now part of robust B&P applications, offer some relief. At the very least, the technology can eliminate a lot of scut work. In many cases, dashboards sit on top of data warehouses or relational databases and are powered by superfast calculating engines within B&P software. The combination, consultants note, can make reforecasting a snap.

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