Budgeting and Forecasting for Microsoft Dynamics

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This article will explore your options for budgeting and forecasting solutions to accelerate your Microsoft Dynamics AX, NAV, SL and GP experience with heightened planning capabilities.

Budgeting and/or forecasting within any company involves multiple players contributing research and actual financials to put together an informed plan for how the company expects to manage their money in the next (or the rest of the) fiscal year.  For Microsoft Dynamics users, there are plenty of solutions to boost your organizational budgeting, whether you go with a process you build yourself, a native functionality within Dynamics, or a third party product.  This article will discuss modern budgeting and forecasting functionalities in the context of your options for Microsoft Dynamics.

Firstly, it is helpful to start with some overarching guidelines for seeking helpful tools.  I always start with – and perhaps it is commonsense – the business user friendliness factor.  It has to be stated even if it seems like a given because there are plenty of solutions that don’t necessarily make the generally frustrating process of budgeting simpler for professionals.  For everyone involved in budgeting, especially the budget manager, a planning tool should offer accounting and business logic, reusable budget templates, and a streamlined process.  Simplifying the budgeting routine is especially impactful when you consider how many employees contribute to the budget or forecast.
Regardless of whether your company relies on one person or a whole team to manage the budget, there are always multiple players contributing to the final product.  Because company data is involved, collaboration also has to be a major priority when implementing a planning solution.  Traditionally, collaboration on a budget or forecast entails long e-mail threads, with spreadsheets attached, and someone has to piece these together to make one overall budget, but it doesn’t have to be like that today.   There are modern solutions to the security problem of contributing to an organization-wide budget that do not involve piecing together manual spreadsheet files from a network server.  With collaboration, security becomes an important feature for your budgeting process.
Budgeting and forecasting involves comparing actual figures and projected numbers, including salaries, which is sensitive content, so security is vital.  Additionally, department managers generally do not need to access other departmental budgets for the year.  Thus, you should consider seeking a solution that allows you and other contributors to get into a budget without sensitive data getting into the wrong hands.  Furthermore, if security is adequately in place, budget managers can invite contributors into the process, worry-free, so that supervisors are helping to shape the departmental budgets they have to manage.  This article will use these three overarching guidelines as a context to compare and contrast the following budgeting options for Microsoft Dynamics: budgeting in Excel, Microsoft’s Forecaster, Hyperion, Cognos, and Solver’s BI360.
Let’s start with the nearly ubiquitous spreadsheet program, Microsoft Excel. It can be implemented as a tool for company-wide budgeting.  Nearly 90% of all corporations still rely on Excel for homegrown budget models.  The ease of use is there because of how familiar the popular product is, but these budgets don’t have a database or built-in security that allows for streamlined collaboration.  They function on static input templates, with several potential problems when you are linking spreadsheets for a consolidated budget.  Meanwhile, Microsoft does offer a budgeting-specific upgrade, called Forecaster.
More than 2,000 corporations are utilizing Forecaster for planning, perhaps proving Microsoft’s power and/or brand loyalty.  Unfortunately, the product is in maintenance mode, in terms of development, because it is at the end of its product life cycle.  Forecaster is also a proprietary platform and considering that it is under the Microsoft umbrella, ironically does not work with/in Excel, so users have to learn a different set of features, formatting, and coding.  In the context of business user friendliness, the learning curve for your staff with this proprietary interface might be an obstacle – and might cost you more in terms of training.  Also, this product might seem a little too simple for today’s budgeting needs, especially in comparison to third party software.
Hyperion is made by Oracle, and Cognos is produced by IBM.  Both of these solutions arrived on the market in the early 1990’s.  Still around, they are frequently implemented by the upper end of the market, relatedly where strong followings exist for Oracle and IBM.  Given their maturity, they are quite powerful.  However, they are also technically complex because of their age.  Although some Excel add-in and web front end functionality is available for companies that are greatly distributed and/or are not interested in Excel software, you and your team will have to learn proprietary interface formatting and coding, including OLAP cubes that are also proprietary (Essbase and TM1) for aggregations, rules, and data storage.  Decades of development could be to blame, but both are positioned within complete Business Intelligence (BI) suites.
When it comes to business user friendliness, a comprehensive BI suite translates to only one team for sales, support, and consulting, should you choose to add another solution to your BI toolbox for Microsoft Dynamics.  Unfortunately, suites from Hyperion and Cognos can be expensive and are not as seamlessly integrated as you might expect.  More specifically, the business logic abilities and security features are differing from tool to tool, due to acquisitions from a variety of vendors over the years for the end result of a BI suite.
Solver also produces a full BI suite, called BI360.  It is a modern Excel add-in, which means that the solution just accelerates the familiar spreadsheet program.  Users can build secure, reusable templates that are made with budget collaborations in mind – without ever having to get out of Excel.  In terms of learning, the only new features and functionalities to acclimate to are those that streamline your budgeting and forecasting processes.  BI360 is five years old and equipped with functionalities like multi-year budgeting and rolling forecasts, and a web front end release is scheduled for later this year (2014), all of which are responses to consumer ideas for increased ease of use, collaboration, and security.   Finally, it is priced for the mid-market, which brings up a conversation of cost, which deserves its own blog entry.
As you get further into the shopping process for a budgeting tool, you might have more questions, but for now, a true head start involves your consideration of how easy the product is to use, your ability to streamline a naturally collaborative process for increased ownership, and a secure way to get the job done.  Solver would be happy to answer questions and generally review BI360’s easy-to-use Planning solution for collaborative, streamlined decision-making capabilities for Microsoft Dynamics users.