This article discusses budgeting and forecasting solutions for Professional Services teams, zooming in on the top feature and functionalities for Dynamics AX users.

Budgeting can be challenging, regardless of your industry, but fortunately, it is getting more dynamic and user friendly with today’s solutions to upgrade your Microsoft Dynamics AX tasks.  For Professional Services organizations, planning is just as important, but is unique to the nature of the sector – and this is true for most industries, regarding particular budgeting demands.  Plenty of companies are still utilizing Excel for homegrown budget processes, but today’s budgeting demands are more sophisticated than what the spreadsheet application can deliver.  If you’re seeking an independent software vendor (ISV) budgeting tool that enables you to pull historical data from Dynamics AX, as well as payroll and other company- or industry-specific data sources for an aggregated financial plan that is the result of collaboration, this article is a must-read.

Budgeting usually consists of multiple professionals reviewing historical actuals and projecting numbers, based on research, to design a plan for the upcoming fiscal year.  Internationally, Excel has been the go-to application for finance and accounting teams for decades, but manually linking spreadsheets together can be logistically messy, particularly in terms of security.  Most finance teams are relying on Excel, so an ISV tool would be an additional investment that perhaps you perceive as avoidable.  However, there are a number of benefits that expand your Dynamics AX planning processes, maybe especially for Professional Services organizations.
Third party software offerings have increasingly become more prevalent due to their business user friendliness, accessibility, and focus on collaboration.  Excel add-ins are popular because they build on the momentum of the program’s familiarity and accelerate the output with dynamic power through a ribbon addition to the top of the Excel window, allowing users to move away from manually built, disparate spreadsheets.  The top ISV tools come equipped with accounting logic, automation, and reusable templates, so Professional Services teams can more flexibly manage information.
The business world has been rightfully concerned about the security and logistics that a budgeting solution is offering because you’re investing your time, money, and energy.  Nowadays, access rights and passwords allow collaboration to be a secure, streamlined experience where supervisors can shape the budget that they have to meet throughout the year.  You can move away from lengthy, attachment-hefty email threads.  Budget managers can oversee an inclusive and complete budgeting process with a team that represents all areas of the organizations.  Considering the potential return on your investment, it’s also not too good to be true either.
What should be you considering in regard to feature and functionality offerings in shopping for a solution that can improve your Professional Services planning tasks?  Aspects to think about include platform options, budgeting functionality, integration types, and stand-alone versus a full suite of BI software, and web-based planning solutions.
We’ve already discussed Excel’s popularity, which does make it simple for most finance end users, but Excel add-in solutions provide familiarity and power, translating to a substantially more dynamic tool.  With added features and functions, including database-driven procedures, secure collaboration, and reusable templates, planning becomes modern.  That said, proprietary tools are also pretty prevalent in the marketplace.
Some ISVs posit that Excel is a pain in regard to budgeting, almost always because they are bringing a proprietary tool to market, functioning on a non-Excel platform.  Because this technology is powered by a proprietary platform, the learning curve for budget design will probably take longer for your end users because of the non-Excel formulas, rules, and formatting.  Translation: additional training and/or consulting costs, but web budgeting is an option.
Browser-based BI tools are definitely gaining traction on the market, and budgeting has more recently followed the trend.  A web platform delivers flexible access for when you’re on the go because all you need is an internet connection.  Most budgeting tools, whether they’re browser-based or on-premises, have to depend on a BI data store, but some, like Solver’s BI360, are hybrids, providing direct write-back to select ERP systems – and are powered by Excel on the web.  You have to make sure that whatever product you choose aligns with your particular goals.

Let’s talk about planning abilities and processes for Professional Services companies.  You should implement one of today’s planning tools because it empowers your historical actuals with projected numbers side by side, easily adds multiple line items for your accounts, distributes totals across a year, designs reusable templates, shows authorship, produces roll-ups, and utilizes parameters like Department, Division, and Entity.  You should also be able to produce what-if scenario analyses to evaluate which different paths you can take.
For Professional Services teams using Dynamics AX, you typically do not have control over new customer revenue, so you have to depend on estimates for your front line (like the sales and consulting teams).  For recurring revenue, you can choose to put together rough estimates, or you can estimate by client or project if you have a smaller client base.  If you’re looking at staffing, you can allocate your client services by team member, based on how experienced they are, and calculate estimates on billable hours by employee, then add personnel if short – or as necessary.  Basically, you can budget top-down for overall strategy for your professional services, then analyze bottom-up to see where your holes are in terms of staff.
I’ve written about online analytical processing (OLAP) cube versus data warehouse integrations – and identifying what you require to accomplish your goals in terms of a BI data store versus a live integration, but ease of use for business end users should be the top priority.  Do you have OLAP-experienced or –skilled staff to manage a cube?  How many types of data do you have?  Do you have other BI tasks?
Some ISVs produce comprehensive, fully integrated suites of BI tools.  If your performance management strategy includes an upgrade to financial reporting, dashboards, and/or data storage, you should shop for a tool positioned within a BI suite.  With a suite, you can work with just one team of sales, consulting, and support team members.  Completely integrated suites deliver similar interfaces, so your end users can easily learn and move between tools.  Solver produces an Excel-powered budgeting stand-alone tool, with web budgeting front-end options, as part of the comprehensive suite of BI modules and would be happy to answer questions and generally review BI360’s easy-to-use Planning solution for collaborative, streamlined decision-making capabilities for Professional Services organizations with Microsoft Dynamics AX.