For some companies, the only reason to engage in the planning process is to produce a budget, which in turn helps determine the financial stability of the company. While few companies still use the term "planning" and "budgeting" interchangeably, there has traditionally been confusion over these roles in the management of an organization. Planning is a process that defines a set of coordinated actions aimed at achieving specific objectives; budgeting is a process that develops the means of fiscal control to match outlays to expenditures. Plans are about things, while budgets are about money.
Like what you see? Click here to sign up for Accounting Today's daily newsletter to get the latest news and behind the scenes commentary you won't find anywhere else.
Likewise, this confusion has traditionally locked accountants into the role of managing the money rather than the plan. That's no longer the case.
Today, budgeting software is tightly integrated with corporate performance management, a process that encompasses planning, scenario development, forecasting, budgeting in multiple dimensions, reforecasting and strategic and tactical plan implementation. And that means the days of creating budgets in a spreadsheet are over-well, should be. Spreadsheets simply are not flexible enough to meet the demands of the task.
Not that the spreadsheet interface is dead. Of the seven major budgeting software packages reviewed for 2007, nearly half retained a strong spreadsheet look and feel. But under the hood, it's a whole new industry. The good news for mid-range and enterprise companies is that the packages are robust, capable and reasonably easy to use.
The news is less good for small businesses and the low end of the mid-range, which need the help of a good CPM/budgeting process but can't afford the high-end tools of the enterprise. Nonetheless, there are some very capable but economical packages on the market, and these are included in our roundup for 2007 as well.
Adaptive Planning offers three levels of planning solutions optimized for companies that have outgrown Excel but lack the personnel, time or capital required to deploy complex and costly enterprise-level planning and business intelligence applications.
The company's Express Edition is a free, open-source version delivering entry-level budgeting capabilities for departments and teams. The Corporate Edition is a licensed BPM application for midsize companies and departments of corporations that includes all of the Express features plus enhancements for end-users in reporting, analysis, dashboards, budgeting and forecasting and administration.
The Enterprise Edition is Adaptive Planning's most comprehensive licensed BPM systems, designed for companies with more complex requirements or greater operational scale. This version includes all of the Corporate Edition features, plus additional capabilities to support workflow, multiple currencies and advanced administration.
All editions can either be accessed as an on-demand, Web-based service or deployed on site in a company's data center. Of special note for 2007 is the positioning of the Adaptive Planning Express Edition On Demand, a free online budgeting application that can be installed with a single click, accessed instantaneously and allows smaller companies up to 50 free users.
Though the free edition is useful for quick budgeting chores, accountants will likely want to look toward the more powerful Corporate and Enterprise editions, which offer models with pre-defined metrics with preset, key performance indicators such as customer profitability, order-to-cash timing, and billings, bookings, and backlog, that immediately deliver the information most often needed to manage a business reporting and dashboards, integration with general ledger and other back-office systems, additional budgeting and planning sheets and enhanced administrative features.
The budgeting and forecasting worksheets include capabilities such as annotations, workflow and wizard-driven interfaces.
Version 3.5, introduced in February, was enhanced with a new "Get Started" wizard that simplifies setup and use for new users; new capabilities for adding graphical dashboards and charts; and other refinements to the underlying platform which address multidimensional data modeling, usability, importing and management.
Version 4.0, scheduled for introduction last month, was to feature a graphical drag-and-drop Report Builder capability to put sophisticated reporting and analysis in the hands of business users throughout a company.
Fast, flexible and optimized for collaboration, Adaptive Planning's suite of applications offer a strong step up from spreadsheet-level planning. The company's commitment to open-source and a more recent revision of pricing will make their software an attractive option for 2007.
Mountain View, Calif.
Price: Express Edition is free. Corporate Edition implementation price is $3,500 per year plus $500 per user per year, with discounts for multiple seats. Enterprise Edition implementation price is $5,000 per year plus $750 per user per year, with discounts for multiple seats.
Alight Planning, a multi-user system for executives, financial staff, and line managers who collaborate in developing financial plans and reviewing financial and operating results, is designed to replace traditional budgets and plans with a faster, more usable interface that cuts plan creation time in half.
Alight has abandoned even the look and feel of a spreadsheet, offering instead a graphical interface that combines data tables with input and assumption panels in an easily navigated and updated format. Plans are built using stage-based planning, creation of a bottom-up "base" model tied to a company's financial goals, with alternate stages to reach those goals. These are then converted to time periods for planning and budgeting and evaluated using the software's analytical tools.
Alight Planning features integrated, GAAP-formatted financials, unlimited line item detail, object based linking, stage and scenario planning and a range of analysis and reporting tools. Each plan can accommodate up to 1,000 unique stages, and up to 100 different scenarios may be evaluated with up to 84 time periods for each. Analytical tools include systems for sensitivity analysis; "goal seeking" adjustments to assumptions; the ability to change inputs across the board (e.g., for changes in product pricing); and a full range of default and customizable graphs.
Introduced in 2003 by Rand Heer, the originator of the Pilar budgeting software, Alight has focused on planning systems that use object-based rather than cell-based linking, with strong audit trails to track complex budget models and data relationships. This focus places its greatest emphasis on the planning side of the system, though Alight's budgeting and forecasting capabilities are more than sufficient to meet the needs of accountants and the vast majority of their clients.
Diamond Springs, Calif.
Price: $6,000 for an Alight Planning Master module. Additional users $1,500 each for 1 to 5. Annual service, 20 percent of software cost.
Budget Maestro, a SQL Server database application that retains tight integration with Microsoft Excel, combines the familiarity of traditional budgeting with the advanced modeling and reporting capabilities of a more sophisticated solution for mid-range companies.
The application is offered in three versions. The Desktop edition, a single-user license, is well-suited for the accountant who does all the work to prepare the company's budget. The Small Business and Enterprise editions add multi-level security, multi-user support, unlimited scenarios, and user definable revenue recognition and asset depreciation scheduling (for enterprise budgeting and planning). In addition, all editions are Web-enabled, permitting collaboration with clients over the Internet.
As a database application, Budget Maestro draws data from the General Ledger and applies its own internal systems for business insight and analysis, using data from any number of sources without formulas or cells common to spreadsheet budgeting.
This also allows for sophisticated scenario-building on the fly. Its built-in business and financial logic automatically calculates the transactions needed to build P&L, Balance Sheet and Cash Flow statements as the budget is built, and to automatically compare and update actual versus budget versus forecast performance.
New for 2007 is a Dashboard Kit, a $1,995 add-on that provides an at-a-glance view of financial, operational and project-specific key performance indicators. The most significant development since last year, however, is the introduction of a new Link Maestro product that provides faster and more effective transfers of General Ledger data from popular accounting systems. Link Maestro applications now provide support for QuickBooks, Sage MAS 90, MAS 200 and Sage Accpac ERP products.
Entering its 11th year, Budget Maestro shows strong growth in the medical, healthcare and nonprofit sectors with the company saying it has doubled the number of customers in those segments in the past year, while retaining its growth in the software/high-tech, manufacturing, wholesale/distribution, construction and media industries.
An economical package with strong budgeting features, Budget Maestro is a strong and logical choice for mid-market companies and their accountants.
Price: Desktop Edition (single user) $3,995; Small Business Edition (one to five users) $9,995; Enterprise Edition (multi-user, multi-location) $15,995.
Clarity 6, a Web-based budgeting and CPM tool with the look and feel of Excel, has the needs of an enterprise organization at heart. Built on an open and scalable platform, its core is a unique OLAP-Relational hybrid database technology.
The budgeting process is familiar to Excel users. Users create the format of the data entry form or report in Excel and then use the Clarity Template Builder to publish it to the Web. Clarity 6 automatically inherits all of the Excel formatting and formulas into the Web form.