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NorthStar considers non-finance users in budgeting software selection

Ease of use was a key consideration for NorthStar in its search for new budgeting software -- for operations managers, not finance users.

When finance managers evaluate new budgeting, planning and forecasting (BP&F) technology, the last person they should be thinking about is themselves, according to Andrew Rosenberg, financial analyst at NorthStar Financial Services Group LLC.

"First and foremost, think about your users outside of finance," Rosenberg said. "Within finance, it's easy to say, 'It looks great, we understand it and we have all the time in the world to use it,' but budget users aren't going to have that kind of time."

Looking at systems from the perspective of non-finance users played a large role in NorthStar's decision to adopt data visualization and budgeting software from Adaptive Planning. Rosenberg's advice is in line with that of experts who encourage finance leaders to involve operations managers in the financial planning process.

And having technology that users without finance backgrounds can easily understand is an important component of fostering participation. "If you're going to look at a new system, make sure it's simple enough that you can train users to buy into it within an hour," Rosenberg said. A full day of training will frustrate operations employees worried about their other duties, he pointed out.

While Rosenberg named a few improvements that he'd like to see added to Adaptive Planning, the budgeting software, and Adaptive Discovery, the data visualization and business intelligence (BI) product, he affirmed that the systems have helped increase visibility of financial information for NorthStar's budget managers and board members.

Budgeting software choice based on ease of use

The Omaha, Neb.-based company started looking into new budgeting software two years ago to move away from Microsoft Forecaster. Because NorthStar is too small for enterprise systems like Oracle Hyperion and IBM Cognos, Rosenberg narrowed the options to leading vendors for small to midsize businesses: Host Analytics, Adaptive Planning and Prophix.

The deciding team consisted of Rosenberg, NorthStar's accounting manager and the chief financial officer. Although the team weighed functional requirements and cost-benefit analyses, Rosenberg said ease of use for the company's approximately 20 budget managers was a primary reason the team selected Adaptive Planning. "I thought the user interface was better, the ease of use was there and it fit all the needs we had," he said. The implementation was completed in eight weeks and involved minimal vendor consultation.

About a year later, the company also adopted Adaptive Discovery after participating in a trial group for the new product.

"We were doing some KPI [key performance indicator] display via Excel spreadsheets. It was a process that didn't necessarily take a lot of time, but we had a lot of different sources of information," Rosenberg said. "So we [thought] it might be easier to set up some dashboards through [Adaptive Discovery] based on the financial information we already had in Planning."

And when considering Discovery, Rosenberg again kept users outside the finance department in mind. This time, he thought about the potential benefits for NorthStar's executive board.

"We were able to put together six or seven dashboards that [update] automatically when we upload our actuals into Adaptive's system," Rosenberg said. "So instead of having the spreadsheet that gets emailed or displayed to our board maybe on the third week, they can go in as soon as we have actuals and see some of the KPI performance."

The majority of the design work involved with the Discovery rollout -- creating charts and deciding how to display them -- was performed by Rosenberg himself. "We didn't really need any help from IT," he said.

Budgeting software simplifies processes and boosts data visibility

Considering the time and attention of NorthStar's budget managers, the company decided to cut down the vendor's training materials. "Adaptive has a budget user guide that is more pared down than the administrator training guides, but it's still about 90 pages," Rosenberg said, so his team put together a consolidated 10-page guide using screenshots and vendor materials.

Training sessions were an hour long and covered only relevant processes and features for budget users. The implementation took place toward the end of 2011, which allowed budget managers to run a quarterly reforecast through the system before doing a full annual budget at the start of 2012.

Rosenberg attested to time-saving benefits for both operational and finance users.

"Before, we generated spreadsheets that displayed what our actuals were by division. So if you were a budget manager and wanted to see the last 24 months of [your] actuals, we had to display that in an Excel spreadsheet [and] email it," Rosenberg said. From there, budget managers would look at the spreadsheet side by side with Microsoft Forecaster. "It wasn't real time, [and] nothing consolidated -- we had eight different instances of Forecaster."

Today, budget users have an easier time accessing information in a single application and don't have to rely on finance to email spreadsheets. "The interface is very easy to use. It's designed to look and feel similar to Excel but it's simple to add detail into certain accounts, or notes," Rosenberg said. "It's really been an improvement from the past." Headcount planning processes have also been streamlined.

The fact that Adaptive Planning is Software as a Service (SaaS) budgeting software is an added benefit as users can access it while traveling, Rosenberg said. Although NorthStar is a financial institution, he said security issues weren't a big concern. "We're a financial institution but we're not a bank, so maybe the hurdles are more [difficult] for other institutions to get over." He added that NorthStar is a private company, so financials are not publicly disclosed.

At a certain point, trusting a SaaS vendor's security is more or less a leap of faith, Rosenberg said. But he also identified another point that could be a sticking point for cloud.

"I think the security issue isn't as big as the performance issue -- some people might look at cloud and say, 'Are there outages?'" Rosenberg said this has not been a significant problem at NorthStar.

Adaptive Planning configuration lacking with Apple products

The first item on Rosenberg's wish list is better compatibility with Apple products. The fact that the software uses Java to display data sometimes causes problems for MacBook users, he said.

Also, Rosenberg said Adaptive Planning's mobile capabilities are not yet optimally configured for Apple products. "An iPad and iPhone app that's a little more robust with what it displays would be great down the road."

In addition, it's tricky to get custom reports to print well in PDF format. "One thing on my wish list would be if we're going to build a report and print it that it looks a little better," Rosenberg said.

Besides keeping non-finance users in mind, Rosenberg also advised finance leaders going through an implementation to learn the software before doing significant design work. "If you start putting a lot of time and effort into maybe structuring how your HR personnel sheet looks without having gone through enough training, there might be shortcuts you didn't think about," he said.

And for finance managers currently relying solely on Excel for BP&F processes, Rosenberg encouraged them to examine the true cost of doing so.

"How clean is your data? If you're linking a bunch of spreadsheets, you might have broken links," Rosenberg said. "It's also time savings that you want to look at. I can tell you with people going straight from using Excel without any other budget tool to [dedicated budgeting software] -- whether it's SaaS or on-premises -- they have a lot of time savings."

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

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