The health of any multifaceted organization depends on multiple teams working in unison, with several sources of data in real-time. In this post, we’ll take a quick look at how the right technology can boost your team’s ability to collaborate quickly and accurately – all through the lens of higher ed budgeting and planning software.

There’s nothing simple about budgeting and planning in higher education. It’s a matrix. How, exactly? Well, simply put, there are just too many moving parts, too many external variables, and too many stakeholders for these two foundational activities to be linear. As today’s increasing pace of change places ever more pressure on Finance teams, many are taking steps to modernize their static budgeting and planning cycles.

Successful Planning and Budgeting Depends on Massive Collaboration

You’d be hard-pressed to find a regent, president, provost, dean, or any other higher-ed leader who didn’t list collaboration as a core value. Educational institutions have an inherent interdependence and must have all their organizational units in sync, working together, to accomplish large goals (see Figure 1). For that reason, access to and collaboration with quality data is imperative at every level of the organization.

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Figure 1: The Importance of Data Sharing and Collaboration Source: HBR Analytic Services, 2020

The collaboration gap in budgeting and planning often begins and ends with the segregated nature of internal systems and, more importantly, how those systems share data and edits. Any team emailing around versions of spreadsheets and documents with edits and notes knows this pain all too well.

If those teams are printing hard copies and editing with sticky notes – a practice that’s still surprisingly common – then that pain may even be worse. Essentially, working separately and consolidating along the way creates openings for errors and destroys any hope for a quick, accurate turnaround.

Manual Processes Producing Static Budgets and Plans Don’t Work Anymore

Spreadsheets aren’t equipped to handle the multiple layers of work happening within the flurry of activity known as budgeting and planning in higher ed.

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Figure 2: Problems Caused by Spreadsheet Collaboration Reach Far and Wide Source: MarketWatch, “88% of spreadsheets have errors

In fact, budgeting and planning teams are expected to turn edits, integrate new data and structures, keep up to date, and communicate more clearly than ever before. Here are just a few of the top challenges that bog down budgeting and planning efforts when they’re rooted in manual updates through spreadsheets:

  1. No Version Control. Have you ever been working on a big project where your teammates sent you multiple emails with an attachment that had the same name? Did you know which one you were supposed to use, without wasting time looking back through the entire chain of exchanges?
  2. No Audit Trail. When you’re exchanging files, how do you remember who changed what? Do you remember when they changed it?
  3. Too Many Errors. Have you been tasked with preparing the final output? While you were re-typing edits from the separate notes and spreadsheets into the final output (was that really the “final”… or “final2″…), did you accidentally mistype a number? We’ve all been there, and we’ve all spent hours scouring the source sheets to find the correct entry. Worse yet, what if you missed the error altogether, and the final output is incorrect when it’s delivered to leadership?
  4. Slow Turnaround. Everyone hates deadlines, but speed is important when you’re making strategic decisions. Have you ever pushed to deliver on time, finished your work, and only later learned that leadership was disappointed that the output you delivered was out of date compared to the information they just heard on the news or read about in a legislative update? If your knowledge and data can’t update in real-time to your outputs, how can you be sure you’re making good decisions?

The hidden costs of spreadsheets are created by duplication of effort, errors, and rework. All this wasted time moves your team’s focus away from the true value of analysis and communication that supports strong decision-making across the institution and keeps everyone stuck in busywork.

As the pace of change continues to increase, higher ed Finance teams need to shift focus away from data gathering, reconciling, and managing key integration points and into collaborating with decision-makers and providing better, faster insights.

Moving Forward with Confidence

At OneStream, we understand that complexity is the inevitable by-product of change, especially in higher ed. Accordingly, we believe that your success will not be realized by eliminating complexity but will instead be achieved by effectively steering your institution through it.

How do we do it? Our unified Intelligent Finance platform (see Figure 3) allows us to deliver our many capabilities within a single, extensible, cloud-based application built to scale along with your organization. That’s why hundreds of organizations, including many higher ed institutions, have chosen OneStream – and they’ve never looked back.

OneStream’s Intelligent Finance Platform
Figure 3: OneStream’s Intelligent Finance Platform

Why is unification important? Well, it eliminates openings for errors created by manual work and separate, connected financial reporting tools. If you re-type data or are dependent on technical connection points for updates, you have opened the door for potential problems.

What can a platform approach do for you and your team? Here are a few of the key benefits you get with OneStream’s budgeting and planning software:

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Need some proof? How about a great example from one of the nation’s top 10 public research universities? This case study details how OneStream has helped reduce the time needed to complete budgets and has detailed ROIs, including how a regular existing 3.5 hour-process was reduced to just 5 minutes.

Want to continue the discussion? Have any questions? Contact us, and one of our experts will reach out to you ASAP.

Download the Case Study

Budgeting, Accounting, and Finance teams in higher education, just like in other fields, must adapt and thrive in the face of rapid change.  In this blog series, we’ll uncover the key value drivers that modern budgeting and planning software has to offer higher-ed leaders.  We’ll also map out how these leaders can begin or accelerate the journey to conquering complexity and empowering their teams to lead at speed.

Speed and Agility Are More Important Than Ever

While accuracy, transparency, and consistency are the backbone of accounting and financial operations, adding speed and agility is what ultimately separates the institutions that deliver consistent value from those that struggle.

And as the two-year mark of the COVID-19 pandemic flies by, speed and agility have never been more important for leaders in higher education.

These leaders have been repeatedly forced to adjust daily operations.  But they now face another obstacle: reconciling visions, plans, and budgets with a historic disruption that has created dips in enrollment, leading to a critical loss in revenue (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: YOY Enrollment Changes by Institution Type

Chart: Natalie Schwartz/Higher Ed Drive, Source: National Student Clearinghouse Research Center

Those revenue losses naturally put pressure on the Finance team.  And while pressure is nothing new to financial leaders in higher ed, COVID-19 and its complexities have undermined many institutions to the point where they’re no longer trying to balance budgets through cuts and efficiencies.  Instead, schools must rethink and restructure their business models.

Board members, presidents, and deans – all of whom carry huge responsibilities – are thus demanding more consistent and timely data inform their decisions.

Accounting and Finance teams must therefore modernize to streamline processes, unify outputs and empower leadership with the information needed to not only make key decisions but also pivot when necessary.  After all, the total economic and operational impacts of the pandemic are not yet known, but one thing is certain: complexity and the rapid pace of change are the new normal.

What’s on the Way in This Blog Series

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be laying out why higher-ed leaders need a modern, platform-based approach to planning, budgeting, and forecasting. We’ll also cover how to speed reporting and analysis cycles – and we’ll lay out the roadmap to show you how to make that a reality.

Below is a breakdown of the topics and related challenges we’ll cover along the way:

  1. Budgeting- Does your annual budget process take too long due to manual data integration with core systems and an over-reliance on spreadsheets for modeling?  Even after all that effort, do you lack visibility into the funding sources across the organization?  If you’re relying on outdated systems and processes, it makes aligning financial plans to strategic goals difficult.  Why?  Well, focusing on institutional priorities requires precision – and precision is a key benefit that enterprise performance management software brings to the table.
  2. Long Range Planning/Forecasting Does your long-range planning process produce stagnant documents that are often out of date before the end of the first quarter? With so many moving pieces, state funding sources, research, endowments, ever-rising costs, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to keep your plan and your forecasts relevant. Predictive analytics and forecasting solve that dilemma.
  3. Reporting/Analysis (Signaling)– Traditionally, reporting has been used to monitor and communicate progress toward the goals and priorities outlined in plans and budgets – so reporting has historically only looked backward.  Moving forward, we want to enhance the reporting function.  To empower leaders to receive and quickly understand financial and operational positions.  To give leaders the data and insights needed to pivot when and where it’s necessary to course correct or take advantage of opportunities.  Financial signaling makes it all happen.

The Better Alternative – A Unified Platform

OneStream has empowered hundreds of organizations (including dozens in the public sector) to unleash the power of Accounting and Finance by unifying planning, budgeting, forecasting, reporting, and analytics through a single, extensible solution (see Figure 2).  This solution is delivered via a  cloud platform designed to evolve and scale with your institution.

Why should you care?  Well, here are just a few of the key benefits you get with OneStream’s budgeting and planning software:

Figure 2: OneStream’s Unified Intelligent Finance Platform

Let’s Connect and Continue the Discussion

While you may not yet be a customer, we appreciate your work in the public sector and value your opinion – and we’d love to explore opportunities where we can move forward together.  At OneStream, our mission is simple: “Every customer is a reference, one success at a time.”

For more information, download the Higher Education Solution Brief.  Want to continue the discussion?  Have any questions? Contact us, and one of our experts will reach out to you ASAP.

Download the Solution Brief

If government finance is about anything, it is about data. Often vast amounts of data. Data that is received (from source systems such as ERPs or other agencies), data that is processed (such as budget formulation, allocations, and projections), and data that goes out the door (data to other agencies and reports to the pubic).

In virtually any step of the financial data journey, we find ourselves in need of additional information about the number in front of us at a particular moment. If it is an aggregated value, what are the component parts? Where did the number come from? Was it imported from another system? Did someone enter the number? Was it calculated? Is this number tied to a specific fund, bureau, program, project, or strategic goal? Has this number changed? Who changed it? When did they change it? What was it before they changed it? Did it require approval to be changed? Who approved it, and when? What other numbers are impacted if this number changes?

This all comes down to what is possibly one of the most over-used, erroneously defined, and diversely understood terms in government finance: analysis. This is perhaps because the term is used outside of government finance in virtually every field imaginable. In fact, I recall in a music composition class in college, we analyzed Bach concertos. But, when it comes to government financial data analysis, it can be summed up as the process of uncovering the “back story” of numbers. How it got here and what it really represents. There are possibly as many ways to analyze financial data as there are to interpret the term. The following is a discussion of some of the most common methods of financial analysis in government today and some of the pros and cons of each:

1 – Call Someone

This is the most basic solution to the analysis problem. We need to know detailed information about a value so we phone/email the person we think may have the required information. This may be the correct person, or maybe not. The response may be swift, or maybe not. There is often no knowledge of the level of effort required from the responder to produce the information being requested. This method is most effective for executives or consumers of information who typically are just dealing with very high-level aggregations of data and infrequently have inquiries of this nature. The return on investment of their time to get access and training to use any other method may not be worth it to them or the agency.

Pros:

Cons:

2 – Use Spreadsheets

spreadsheets

This method is widely used. This is the method used by many of the people on the receiving end of the requests in method 1. This involves IT produced data extracts which then are mapped and uploaded into legacy data structures such as Essbase or TM1. Then the add-ins are used to connect to that data. The effectiveness of this method can vary greatly depending on the structure of the source data, the structure of the intermediary data storage area, and skill and availability of the IT team involved in extracting and maintaining the data. Many agencies continue using this method simply because they have done so for a very long time.

While there certainly is a high level of familiarity in this method, getting to the needed information can be very time consuming. The needed data often resides in more than one system. There may be financial transactional data in one system, budget data in another, workflow and approval tracking in another, account reconciliations in another, and audit information in yet another. This can make the process extremely complex, or depending on the requirements, impossible.

Pros:

Cons:

3 – Use Business Intelligence Tools

Many agencies have various business intelligence (BI) tools such as Tableau, Qlik, or Cognos. These are used to explore data, build dashboards, track key performance indicators, and produce reports. Many of them have fairly sophisticated ETL (extract, transform, load) capability to join tables and pull data from source systems while others rely on 3rd party ETL tools. In most cases they rely on utilizing data in a data universe, warehouse, data lake, or data mart.

While BI tools require specialized training, most agencies with these tools in house have experts on staff. However, these experts tend to reside in an IT (Information technology) group or other operational teams and may not have the financial acumen needed. Rarely does any type of audit or control information get moved from source systems to a data warehouse and the BI tools lack any audit capability on their own. BI tools also lack financial intelligence, so any financial treatment of data requires extensive configuration and/or programming.

Pros:

Cons:

4 – Use a Financial Management Platform with Analysis Included

Financial Analysis

A newer option to address this need is utilizing an intelligent finance platform that has financial analysis capability built in such as OneStream. Instead of pulling data from a budget system, a consolidation system, an account reconciliation system, a document management system, a reporting system, and a workflow system, this is all done in a single platform. Several forward-thinking agencies are currently using this new technology or in the process of rolling it out. But the majority of agencies still have multiple siloed systems to manage these various functions as this was the only technology available until fairly recently.

These older systems were state-of-the-art when implemented 15 to 20 years ago. The newer technology manages these functions in a single platform with all the analytic capability residing in the same platform. This allows a user to drill-down and analyze a data element from anywhere in the system with full audit and data control. This could be a budget formulation data entry screen, a KPI dashboard, a CARS reconciliation, or a section of a CBJ or AFR. When a user sees a number and has a question regarding that number or visibility into who made any changes, they can get the “back story” from wherever they are in the process in real time. This is possible since all the functionality is contained in a single platform.

Pros:

Cons:

Hopefully this was a helpful overview of some of the most common ways to get the underlying details of your numbers. All have their place and their pros and cons. And every agency has to decide what works best to understand the “back story” of their numbers.

To learn more visit the OneStream web site.

COVID-19 is impacting almost every individual and organization across the globe. And while we are several months into the pandemic, there are still so many unanswered questions. Will our largest population zones revert back to shelter-in-place restrictions? Should we really anticipate up to three-fold increases in remote work as Hackett’s Finance 2020 research suggests? And when will consumer demand and supply chain activity return to pre-COVID levels, if ever?

State and local government and education (SLED) and public higher education face the same questions as their private sector brethren. How so? Because existing annual or biennial budgets no longer reflect the economic environment under COVID. The impact and uncertainty from COVID are bringing many questions about these organizations’ funding sources considering the variability in macroeconomic conditions. Why? Because public higher education operating budgets receive anywhere from 15%-40% of their funding from state and federal funds. And with uncertainty permeating across federal, state and local agencies, the challenge for leaders within higher education to focus on structural classroom changes is becoming increasingly difficult. State and local governments face similar pressures too, as 50-60% of their tax receipts (e.g. sales and property tax) are typically generated from the retail and other tax generating industries which have been decimated throughout the pandemic.

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The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is one of two annual bills designed for Congress to oversee the budget for the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD). The authorization bill determines the agencies responsible for defense, establishes funding levels, and sets the policies for allocating budget dollars. And this year, the budgeting requirements create the perfect environment to deploy corporate performance management (CPM) solutions too.

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The Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program (FedRAMP) is a US government-wide program that provides a standardized approach to security assessment, authorization, and continuous monitoring for cloud products and services. It was designed to support the need for federal agencies to rapidly adapt from old, insecure legacy IT to mission-enabling, secure, and cost-effective cloud-based IT systems.

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Finance leaders must increasingly navigate the interconnected challenges of organizational complexity. To drive performance, they must execute critical processes with efficiency and support decision-making across the enterprise with timely access to financial and operating results.

And now, suddenly, Finance teams must also adapt and respond to the unprecedented increase in the demand for remote operation spurred by COVID-19. It’s now more critical than ever for them to drive efficiency in financial processes. But success in this complex environment hinges on having sophisticated collaboration and process management capabilities.

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For finance leaders in the public sector, the discussion around government off-the-shelf (GOTS) and commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) software has been around for a long time.  And like many of the great debates in government, odds are this debate isn’t going away anytime soon.  Why?  Well, with all the buzz on digital transformation taking place in comptroller and budget offices, finance leaders are taking matters into their own hands.  How?  They’re taking control of their future by choosing the right corporate performance management (CPM) solution to address the planning, programming and budgeting execution (PPBE) and financial close and reporting processes.

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Despite improved U.S. economic conditions, state and local agencies are continuing to grapple with uncertainty.  Want proof?  Consider the impact the lasting effect high debt burdens and pension shortfalls are having during the budgeting process.  And if that’s not enough, fluctuations in tax policies aren’t helping either, as the resulting impact to income receipts make cash flow planning murky at best.

The war for talent is also a challenge for state and local agencies, as qualified personnel resources are difficult to find.  And at a time when audit oversight and operational regulations are adding additional scrutiny to the budget formulation process – top talent is also difficult to retain.    

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OneStream recently received the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program (FedRAMP) Moderate authorization, an important qualification for federal agencies seeking cloud solutions that are secure and meet federal standards. In fact, OneStream is the first cloud CPM provider to achieve the FedRAMP Moderate authorization.

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