“Go back?" he thought. "No good at all! Go sideways? Impossible! Go forward? Only thing to do! On we go!"  - J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

Five years ago, I would have staunchly claimed that you could not successfully sell a software solution to a finance organization unless you have a robust Excel interface. It's just too comfortable for finance people, so you're better off embracing it. Five years later, my perspective has completely changed.

I had the opportunity to participate in the session on business planning last week at the Ventana Research Leadership Summit. As I was flipping through the conference book, another session caught my eye: "Eliminate Spreadsheet Hell". I had a strong sense of deja-vu, having seen countless sessions on this same topic over the years, and it got me thinking about the fact that the fundamental technology challenge faced by most finance organizations continues to be the spreadsheet. The recent post from Proformative certainly supports this fact.

Over the past decade, the Enterprise Performance Management space has been crowded with legacy and first generation cloud vendors trying to appease the need for a spreadsheet by delivering a user experience that is as close as possible to the spreadsheet paradigm. The promise is tantalizing: you don't have to think about things differently, you are just eliminating the parts of Excel that are cumbersome. To an over busy FP&A director, it's music to her ears. Who has time to think about a different way of doing things when there is so much work to do? But this false belief in the spreadsheet as the user experience has significantly hampered innovation. It has also handcuffed Finance and their business partners in Operations. A good tool in the hands of the few is useless for the many.

I've had more than one Director of FP&A tell me when they first looked at Tidemark, they saw something that was very different from what they were used to, and it made them uncomfortable. And yet, these same people are now among the biggest advocates of our innovative, radically different approach. Why? Because it's transformational.

Think about it this way: What is the cost to your organization if you don't start transforming your FP&A team to become a more strategic thought partner to the business?

On that topic, I had the pleasure of facilitating a session at this week's CFO CPM West conference in San Francisco with one of our customers, ServiceSource. Entitled "Empowering Business Partners to Facilitate Transformation," the session was inspired by ServiceSource's vision of transforming FP&A to become thought partners instead of reporters of the data - one of the key reasons they partnered with Tidemark.

One of the most interesting parts of the discussion was on the effort of extending analysis to business leaders so they could draw their own insights. One CFO challenged whether that aspiration was truly feasible, having tried it many times before and finding that even when business leaders are interested they just don't have enough time to learn how to properly understand the data, particularly if there is complexity in the business. ServiceSource's response was telling: While our business leaders may not all equally embrace direct access to the information, if we give it to them in a way that they can understand without requiring them to be experts, then we have significantly improved our organization. When they need help, FP&A can collaborate with them right in the context of what they're doing - with the full conversation captured in the context of the process.

You just can't do that with a spreadsheet.

At the heart of this objection is fundamentally a technology problem. If you try to empower people with applications that still require an expert level understanding of the data model, then it is true that you will be disappointed with your results. The technology landscape has changed. Enterprise vendors are emerging that deliver usability that rivals consumer applications. In an era where grandma can FaceTime with her grandchildren, why shouldn't business leaders outside FP&A be capable of understanding the performance of their business?

ServiceSource is one of the pioneers of a radically different and better approach. They understood that to facilitate the kind of transformation they envisioned, they would have to do things differently. A half step to a more modern technology that still operated like a spreadsheet wasn't going get them where they wanted to go. They needed something that leapfrogged the spreadsheet paradigm and brought a completely different experience that business leaders could intuitively understand and use.  Their primary goal wasn't to give FP&A more modeling capability (though it certainly was a secondary goal) - it was to empower their business leaders with information and analysis with its full context.

In your own assessment of your organization, it's worth investing some time in thinking about where you want to go. If you are looking to keep things as they are, with some improvement for your FP&A team, there are a lot of options that can help you do that. If you are looking for meaningful transformation, then you will find a much shorter list of options to consider.

How you are leapfrogging the spreadsheet? We'd love to hear your ideas and stories on how to make this leap.