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The 1980s Called…They Want Their Planning Software Back

This post was last updated on March 21, 2022


Imagine going on a long road trip to a city you have never visited before. Would you plan your trip with paper maps? Gather cassette tapes to reduce the boredom of the highway miles? Call your significant other from a payphone when you have safely arrived?

I would think (hope?) that the answer is no to all of the above questions. Then why continue using Microsoft Excel to do business planning? Excel was released in 1985…yes, 1985. Sure, it has added functionality over the past 35 years and is an easy-to-use and familiar technology. But is it the best solution to help your business manage the COVID recovery and succeed in the “new normal”?

Why is Excel So Popular?

Across the board, most business planning is done with Excel. In CPG, it is used for many planning functions, from S&OP to FP&A to Sales Performance Management to Trade Promotion. For example, a 2020 Promotion Optimization Institute study found that 75% of respondents still used Excel as part of their technology stack to manage and drive trade promotion efficiency. It is a reasonable assumption that regardless of your organizational role, you will use an Excel spreadsheet today to do some aspect of your job because it is a familiar tool that feels easier and safer than other options.

Your organization probably also has specialized point solutions or ERP modules (e.g. TPM) yet Excel continues to dominate most planning activities because it is:

  • Easy to use and can be owned by the business. Doesn’t require a lot of involvement from IT

  • Extremely flexible and can be adapted to just about any planning need

  • Readily available; it is easy to install and get access to across Windows and Macs, PCs, Laptops, and mobile devices

Excel, while good, has three significant challenges

3 Significant Challenges of Excel

1. Security: Spreadsheets can be easily shared with others both inside and outside the organization leading to data security risks. Additionally, the data itself can be changed, and very quickly a “single version of the truth” is lost. In many organizations, there is a lack of consistency of measure and calculation definitions – for example, the definition of “incremental volume”. Without security and consistency around master data, there is a proliferation of versions and the movement away from a single version of the truth.

2. Scalability: Spreadsheets are not scalable to handle the volume of data to perform enterprise planning. A spreadsheet may be fine for smaller models, but when used to plan across multiple employees, brands, geographies, or businesses, the size of the spreadsheets can become unwieldy. Enterprise models also need to utilize data, often from multiple, disparate source systems. Scalability is again a challenge in this arena; it is difficult to create scalable, repeatable processes to manage the data cleansing and manipulation, and loading information into planning spreadsheets. Time spent integrating the data and then waiting for models to recalculate often becomes both frustrating and inefficient.

3. Auditability: The data and any changes made are not auditable. It becomes extremely difficult, if not impossible, to understand the data lineage of information or who has made what changes to the plan or various scenarios. This challenge is typically amplified in larger organizations as spreadsheets proliferate across departments and business units. In worst-case scenarios, the lack of auditability creates a lack of trust in the models and plans, which often leads to the creation of shadow planning activities that are created in parallel.

Point solutions Have Not Fixed the Issues and Come at a Cost

Many companies tried to address the issues of Excel through the use of point solutions such as SAP TPM. These point solutions solved many of Excel’s weaknesses outlined above.

For example, point solutions are very secure, with the ability to control access in very discrete ways. Most point solutions provide access control to viewing and editing down to the individual cell level. A single version of the truth can be maintained within these solutions.

Point solutions are scalable and not challenged with large planning models that encompass broad aspects of an enterprise. These solutions can easily plan across the geography, business unit, and brand hierarchies.

Possibly the most important aspect of point solutions is that they provide auditability of the information. Most also include embedded workflow so not only can changes be controlled but best practices can be leveraged across the organization.

However, these advantages come at a price – point solutions that are inflexible and require specialized skillsets, typically within the IT department; to install, make changes, and adapt to evolving marketplace conditions. Over the past decade, these point solutions migrated to the cloud, which created issues with functionality, performance, and usability.

Fast forward to today and most companies operate with a hybrid model of point solutions (both on-premise and cloud-based) combined with Excel. This hybrid model exists across all aspects of the company – supply chain, sales, marketing, finance, and HR. This hybrid model exists between the source systems/systems of records and the end-user interfaces of dashboards and BI. In this great webinar presentation, Victor Barnes from The Coca-Cola Company describes this hybrid model so vividly as the “Messy Middle”. The Messy Middle has become the norm at just about all enterprises – and it seems as though many have resigned themselves to this just being the way things need to be.

What is the Technology Stack for the New Normal?

Over the past few months, companies have found the need to act with speed, make rapid decisions, and collaborate with distributed, work-from-home teams—which has heightened the need and demand for new technology. We are using Slack to collaborate, share content, and broadcast information to colleagues and work associates both inside and outside our organizations. Need to make a sales call to a prospective client and do a product demo? No problem, you can have a Zoom meeting. Are you a CPG company that wants to set up a Direct to Consumer sales channel? The good news, there are a host of new technologies that can help get you started.

But what about Enterprise Planning?

Is slinging Excel spreadsheets to your colleagues via email really the best practice for 2020? (Sharing an Excel spreadsheet via Slack doesn’t count as a transformational improvement.)

What if there was a technology platform that was business owned, extremely flexible, easy to learn and manage, and readily available like a spreadsheet but also secure, scalable, and auditable like a point solution? This would be the best of both worlds and would provide differentiated value to your organization. This set of capabilities is exactly what Anaplan provides through its Connected Planning platform. Anaplan provides a simple, flexible solution similar to Excel that can be managed and owned by lines of business owners, unlike point solutions. But unlike Excel, Anaplan provides a secure environment and auditability down to individual cell levels. Now envision that your plans can be shared with others, both inside and outside your organization, to drive true “connected” planning. Think of how much more agile processes like Trade Promotion, S&OP, or Sales Performance Management would be?

Why Anaplan Beats Excel

I first learned about Anaplan late in 2019 and became quite excited about how it could solve many of the planning challenges that I had tried to solve over the years with other technologies. I had worked with IRI Express (later Oracle Express) in the 1990s to build advanced planning solutions, especially in the area of Trade Promotion Management. Express was a multi-dimensional database and programming environment, that was really good at solving complex planning problems. I think of Anaplan as being the direct descendant of Express: a born on the cloud, super scalable modern version of Express to solve the planning challenges of today’s enterprises.

A New Way of Planning

Why is this so important now as we look beyond the current economic climate and hopefully move to manage the recovery phase of the economy? For organizations to operate with the speed, flexibility, and agility required for success, it will require new ways of working. Simply put, you can’t afford to try to continue to conduct your planning activities with spreadsheets, just like you can’t conduct collaborative meetings with simple conference calls. The new normal requires a new way of planning…one that replaces the Messy Middle with a born-on-the-cloud, scalable platform.

Are you ready to break free from Excel-based planning?


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