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Bringing more users onto financial planning software smart but costly

While there are several benefits of giving business users access to financial planning software, technology pricing models might block the way.

Activision facilitates virtual brawls among its customers, but the financial planning process in one of its departments is all about teamwork.

Headquartered in Santa Monica, Calif., Activision Publishing Inc. is one of the largest video game publishers in the world and is behind such virtual entertainment staples as World of Warcraft and Call of Duty. The company has been in business since 1979 -- the dawn of the video game movement -- and has offices and employees around the world.

With so many players in the game, so to speak, it's important to get business users involved in financial planning, according to Patrick O'Brien, senior finance manager of Activision's trade marketing finance team. O'Brien's group implemented financial planning software from vendor Anaplan Inc. in late 2013 as a way to achieve better collaboration in planning between sales and marketing business users and the finance team.

"I think the fewer middlemen you have, the better," O'Brien said. If business users "can use the system and communicate directly through that, it creates efficiency [and] gives you confidence that what's in there is accurate."

But while the benefits of bringing business users into the financial planning process might sound enticing, Paul Hamerman, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass., raised a potential stumbling block: pricing models of planning software.

"Planning systems tend not to be rolled out to as many people as they need to be, [and] part of that is the way the systems are priced," he said.

Customizing financial planning software for business users

Business users in O'Brien's division were already participating in financial planning and budgeting prior to implementing Anaplan, but the system that preceded Anaplan had started to show its age, which prompted the change.

"It was kind of an inflexible product that was built off '90s technology," O'Brien said. "We ended up with Anaplan [because] it was a very customizable solution, and it worked well with [Microsoft] Excel, which our team is very familiar with."

After an implementation that lasted approximately three months, the new financial planning software went live in September of last year. Besides three users within the finance department, O'Brien said there are approximately 40 business users who perform budgeting, forecasting and sales activity tracking in the system. He praised the software's ability to cater to both types of users' needs.

"Sales guys are always on the go, and they need a system that is flexible [and] allows them to use it remotely [and] to update things quickly but that is also robust and reliable enough that we can rely on it to report accurate financials," he said. "The Anaplan system allows for that."

O'Brien's finance team provided training for business users -- an hour-long phone call that was supplemented with a reference guide -- and said most caught on quickly. But rather than pinning this fast uptake on the training, he attributed it to the software's customization.

"We designed it so that people would know how to use it right out of the box," he said. "We mimicked the processes we already had in place."

And this was a primary piece of advice O'Brien offered for getting users outside the finance department comfortable with new financial planning software. "I think you have to design the tool for [your] audience -- make it straightforward, simple and applicable to what they know," he said. "During the discovery process, make sure you understand how each user uses the tool and create something that's just what they need. No more, no less."

As users get even more familiar with the system, O'Brien said he would like to expand its use by rolling out dashboards for business users and possibly extending the ability for them to create their own.

Collaborative planning processes and pricing models

According to Forrester's Hamerman, the more collaborative the financial planning process, the better.

"If you want to drive better planning and forecasting processes, you need to have more frequent involvement of more people. It shouldn't be something that's done internally in finance on an annual basis," Hamerman said. "I think the ultimate goal is continuous, collaborative planning."

But financial planning software pricing models can discourage finance leaders from attempting this aim. "There's a relatively high cost per user, which inhibits companies rolling out collaborative planning [systems] out to more users," he said.

Since finance managers require access to the system, the people who get crossed off the list are often business users. Excel spreadsheets are then used to bridge the technology gap, Hamerman said, which takes a toll on efficiency.

However, as collaborative processes gain momentum both within finance departments and among technology vendors, Hamerman predicted pricing models will be adjusted accordingly.

"Software vendors are now embedding collaborative technologies into their solutions, and by doing that they have to have a more collaborative pricing model," he said. "In other words, they need to be able to get the system in front of many, many more users at a price point that works."

Even with pricing concerns aside, extending access to more users is only half the equation. How can finance leaders get nonfinance users to effectively use financial planning software? Similar to O'Brien's tactic, Hamerman recommended choosing technology with ease of use in mind.

"The trend in these applications is to make them much simpler to use by adopting consumer-based technology paradigms," he said. "The advice here would be to adopt software that can be rolled out to large numbers of infrequent users with [an] essentially zero training standard."

Emma Snider is the associate editor for SearchFinancialApplications. Follow her on Twitter @emmajs24 and the site @SearchFinApps.

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