Finance: Budgeting for the future

The task of budgeting, usually seen in a negative light, can benefit from more effective software which emphasises the need for analysis of future trends.
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The Independent Culture
In most organisations, "budget" is a dirty word. Widely perceived as a means for headquarters staff to control costs, the whole process of budgeting in a company inevitably tends to be seen in a negative light by managers who insist that they are given insufficient funds to do what they are trying to do.

But Hyperion Solutions, one of the key providers of business analysis software, is adamant that this does not have to be the case. Indeed, it believes that it can help add value to a much derided activity.

The company - created last summer by the merger of Hyperion and Arbor - recently carried out research in conjunction with Financial Director magazine and found that many companies were not gaining full advantage from the budgeting process.

This failure was attributed to "procedural inefficiencies and a dearth of specialist IT systems capable of harnessing the potential of information contained in the budgeting process".

Hyperion feels it can help solve both problems. The means is "Pillar 4", the latest version of its well known software package for budgeting, planning and forecasting.

The product is, it says, "designed to deal with these problems enabling finance departments to use the budgeting process to improve efficiency and increase competitive advantage in the organisation, while reducing the time spent budgeting".

Tony Speakman, UK marketing director for Hyperion, sees giving managers "tools that are sharp enough to do the job" as a way of getting them to look upon budgeting more positively. If people at divisional level are able to "own" the modelling process, they are more likely to spend time on it, he says.

Moreover, increasing involvement in this way is also likely to reduce the mistakes that have traditionally blighted the credibility of budgeting exercises. The Pillar software has been available for a while, but this latest version should enable managers to see more clearly how their businesses fit within the overall corporation.

As Mr Speakman points out, the package has a "spreadsheet front end" to make it familiar to users. But "the value is in what underlies it". In short, Hyperion makes it easier for companies to carry out such tasks as remuneration planning, sales forecasting and manufacturing budgeting, as well as allowing for more sophisticated analysis of existing business and likely trends.

The company describes how such organisations as the financial services group the Halifax has used the system to reduce the time spent on collecting spreadsheets from a few days to as little as three-quarters of an hour, while Avon Cosmetics has seen it as a method of rationalising the budgeting and planning process.

But the real value of the enhancements goes beyond specific enhancements, argues Mr Speakman. Andrew Sawers, editor of Financial Director, explains that "the research drew a worrying picture of dissatisfaction with the budgeting process, and a lack of ability to utilise it properly into the business planning process".

In particular, it was found that more than half the time spent by a finance department on the budget is in the mechanics of putting it together, with only 27 per cent of the time spent on analysis and other means of adding value. If budgeting manages to shake off that onerous aspect and become a genuine way of looking at the prospects for the business - and the best means of serving them - it could shed its poor image. And if, by using Hyperion's packages and other technological developments, it becomes more attractive, it can be used to expand the business rather than just as a means of reducing costs.

"We're helping complex businesses use technology to develop the business, rather than fight the numbers," says Mr Speakman.