3 barriers to business agility—and how to overcome them

New research offers a look at why. A global survey commissioned by Workday queried 988 C-suite executives and leaders, a third of whom have finance leadership roles, about organizational agility. The results show how businesses that recognize the importance of agility—and equip themselves to achieve it—do better than those that don’t.

There’s a lot of talk these days about business agility. Yet it’s much more than just a trendy new business term to throw around at a networking lunch. Ask any C-suite executive if their organization could be more agile, and they will likely answer yes. But what does agility mean, and why does it matter?

An agile company can respond quickly to change as it happens, opening the door to new opportunities and minimizing the risks of threats and challenges from competitors, changing market conditions, digital technology disruptions, etc. If your company can think fast, be nimble, and move first, it’s positioned to gain a significant competitive advantage in today’s data-driven, fast-paced world.

A problem is many companies over-plan and under-execute. To be competitive today, companies must embrace a “speed to results” culture. This does not mean a “ready-fire-aim” approach to decision-making and actions. But they must move fast with a constant sense of urgency.

“Any company designed for the 20th century is doomed to failure in the 21st,” says David Rose, CEO of Gust. In other words, agility is no longer a nice-to-have. It’s the cornerstone of modern business success. But achieving a responsive, dynamic organization is easier said than done.

Barriers to agility are often so entrenched that overcoming them can seem incredibly challenging, especially when compounded by static, manual planning. Relying on racked-and-stacked table reports is insufficient. Robust modeling software, enhanced with visualization features, is needed.

Ultimately, business agility is about having the right tools to efficiently manage and measure change quickly, accurately, and comprehensively. And most of that comes down to how you plan. What is needed can be referred to as “active planning.”

Here are the three primary barriers to business agility:

Barrier #1: Manual processes and ad hoc reporting

Most finance teams use Excel to create reports, track financial projections and budgets, and synthesize numbers across departments. And it’s no wonder. Excel is an effective tool for building custom formulas, scenarios, and look-ups. As a stand-alone budget and reporting tool, however, it has some significant drawbacks, including the slow, cumbersome processes Excel perpetuates. Using Excel’s columns-to-rows math is restrictive. Greater flexibility is needed with modeling software.

Relying on Excel to reconcile budget numbers and bring business unit projections into alignment with corporate forecasts is a herculean task—rife with errors, broken formulas, and missed deadlines. By the time finance gets the numbers to match, they’re usually out-of-date.

Then there are time-consuming ad hoc requests. Who hasn’t had a CFO request detailed reports about revenue fluctuations or variances of planned-to-actuals by region, or expense increases due to higher healthcare premiums? In fact, 60% of CFOs say ad hoc analysis can take up to five days. Ultimately, ad hoc reporting is used to fill a gap in a company’s reporting process—a gap that can be filled with automated planning and reporting.

Excel doesn’t need to be replaced, however. Excel can augment automated planning. Used in conjunction with a cloud planning solution, it becomes one piece of a continuous, comprehensive, and collaborative planning process.

Barrier #2: Lack of alignment and collaboration

World-class companies know that organizational alignment on KPIs is a predictor of business success. Tracking performance against goals, ideally with targets set for the KPIs, and then flagging under- or over-performing business units monopolizes finance team resources. Finance is so busy with low-value but time-consuming tasks like balancing spreadsheets, fixing broken formulas, and nudging managers to submit budget requests, that they’re usually too swamped to steer overall financial strategy, let alone help facilitate and build collaboration.

Manual tasks hold finance hostage to mundane (albeit critical) processes, keeping data siloed and business decision-makers in the dark. Lining up behind KPIs is extremely difficult under these circumstances. These pockets of disconnected information keep decision-makers from effectively planning for what’s next.

And alignment around KPIs or collaboration under these circumstances? Not likely.

It’s not surprising that a majority of CFOs report lack of time as the biggest barrier to collaboration. Continuous firefighting and pursuing short-term priorities get in the way. When business processes become more efficient, however, collaboration is achievable. Productivity increases. Without alignment with KPIs, the disconnects between sales and operations, or production and management, or marketing and sales, make true agility impossible.

Barrier #3: Disjointed planning

By their very nature, resource allocation decisions need to reflect current circumstances—not the supply and demand challenges from last year and not financial reports that are three months old. Whether or not to hire more people, alter supplier relationships, invest in skills training, or accelerate capital investment plans largely depend on whether an organization plans effectively and agilely. And to plan effectively requires far more than a series of budget meetings and annual reports. It gets worse when different departments have their own set of numbers, revealing the need for a single version of the truth.

Disjointed and static planning flows from ad hoc information, missing data, and siloed decision-making. Active planning, on the other hand, helps organizations predict and respond quickly to potential gaps in performance and course-correct swiftly and agilely to changing market conditions.

But to do that requires a comprehensive and collaborative approach to planning that incorporates the latest information in near real time. In short, it requires active planning.

A way forward

The sought-after capabilities of agility—to see change coming, rapidly adapt to it, and turn uncertainty into business opportunities—can only be achieved by changing fundamental processes. Automating reporting so that it flows from multiple coordinated systems (ERP, CRM, HCM, etc.), generating reports in real time, and giving managers access to self-service reporting are all critical to an active planning process. Equally critical is to avoid digitally cementing existing processes that need to be redesigned.

While static planning produces monolithic plans that aren’t a true reflection of the business environment, active planning is different. It’s about listening to what your data is telling you about your goals, resources, suppliers, customers, competitors, and the wider market. Where static planning is top-down, siloed, slow, and limited, active planning is collaborative, continuous, and comprehensive. In other words, active planning allows you to plan and forecast at the speed of modern business.

By deploying a modern planning solution that enables active planning, your company can streamline FP&A processes, gain insights more quickly, and make better decisions faster. And be able to respond to change as it happens.

Don’t get stuck in the back office reconciling numbers and fixing broken links. Become a strategic partner by giving decision-makers access to the information they need with easy-to-use self-service reports, up-to-date data, and strategic insights.

Barriers to agility? With active planning, they’re easy to overcome.

Read Plan to Win—Achieving business agility in the age of urgency, a new book commissioned by Adaptive Insights.

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