Budgeting and Forecasting Solutions for Microsoft Dynamics AX

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This article explores your modern options for budgeting and forecasting software that works with your Microsoft Dynamics AX system to give you stronger planning abilities.

When budgeting, forecasting, or modeling for your company, you’re inevitably going to require projections and actual historical financials in order to craft a data-driven plan for managing organizational activities in the coming year.  There are quite a few software solutions for Microsoft Dynamics AX customers that can improve your budgeting process, whether you build one yourself, rely on native Dynamics AX functionality, or a third party solution.  This article will round up some of your best options for modern budgeting and forecasting functionality for Microsoft Dynamics AX.

Let’s start by outlining some essential criteria for shopping for the right tool.  Maybe it goes without saying, but first of all, ease of use needs to be a priority.  Even if it seems like commonsense, there are several tools on the market that don’t actually make planning processes easier or more manageable.  Considering how often I hear how frustrating budgeting is to professionals, a planning solution should provide accounting logic, budget templates you can reuse, and a simplified process.  Streamlining your planning tasks is really helpful when you think about the teamwork required for a complete budget or forecast.
Budgeting will always require multiple contributors, whether or not the budget is managed by one person or put together by a team.  Diverse company information translates to collaboration as a major priority when looking for the best planning software.  Over the years, we’ve been used to back-and-forth e-mail threads, with sometimes hefty spreadsheet attachments, and someone has to merge these into one comprehensive budget, but times have changed.  Today’s premier solutions securely offer platforms that allow multiple players to contribute to a budget without a manual piecing together of spreadsheets from your network server.  Security naturally becomes an element to consider, especially in the context of collaborating on a budget.
Because budgeting and forecasting entails looking at actuals and projections, often including salary information, security is essential to protect sensitive content.  Department supervisors also do not typically need access to other departmental budgets.  That said, you should be seeking to implement software that empowers you and your co-contributors to access a budget or forecast without data getting in front of the wrong eyes.  With adequate security in place, budget managers can bring contributing players into the budgeting process without worry, meaning that managers are sculpting the departmental budgets they are aiming to meet through the year.  Now, let’s use these three essential criteria to compare the following budgeting tools that could be used for Microsoft Dynamics AX: manual Excel budgeting, Microsoft’s Forecaster, IBM’s Cognos, Oracle’s Hyperion, and Solver’s BI360.
This list wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the seemingly ever-popular spreadsheet application, Microsoft Excel. Around 90% of all organizations still depend on Excel for homemade budgeting models.  The program is business user friendly because of how ubiquitous it has been for decades, but Excel budgets do not have a database or security built right in that paves the way for easy collaboration.  Because Excel offers static input templates, several problems can potentially surface when you go to link spreadsheets for an aggregated budget.  However, Microsoft produces a tool specifically for budgeting, named Forecaster.
Over the years, 2,000+ companies have deployed Forecaster for their budgeting and forecasting, likely due to Microsoft’s brand recognition and related consumer loyalty.  However, the software is in maintenance mode when it comes to development because it has reached the end of its life cycle.  While it is a part of the Microsoft family, Forecaster is a proprietary interface that does not work with or in Excel, so customers have to adapt to a disparate set of features, functionalities, and formatting.  In terms of ease of use, your staff’s learning curve for the non-Excel Forecaster might be lengthier, costing you more dollars to train.  Additionally, Forecaster might be a little too simple for modern budgeting demands, particularly compared to independent software vendor (ISV) offerings, and it is a known fact that most Forecaster customers do part of their budget process outside of Forecaster in manual spreadsheets in order to accomplish the layouts and calculations they need for processes like complex payroll or revenue budgets.
Two “classic” products are IBM’s Cognos, and Oracle’s Hyperion solutions. Both software heavy hitters came on the scene in the early 1990’s.  Still relevant, they are often deployed by upper-market customers, where there is a strong following for both IBM and Oracle’s other products.  Given their age, they are powerful, albeit fairly complex in a technical context for the same maturity reason and thus, often requires several dedicated internal resources to manage the models.  There is some Excel add-in, as well as web front end functionality for greatly distributed companies or those that don’t care for Excel software, but for the rest of us, with these products, we’re stuck learning proprietary formulas and coding and OLAP cubes that are additionally proprietary (TM1 and Essbase) for budgeting and consolidations, rules, and information storage.  You could easily point to the decades of development for the complexity.  However, both are parts of complete suites of Business Intelligence (BI) tools.
A comprehensive BI suite means organic ease of ownership because it translates to one group of sales, support, and consulting professionals, especially convenient if you’re able to incrementally implement new BI tools for Microsoft Dynamics AX.  Regrettably, Cognos and Hyperion suites tend to be pricey and not as fully integrated as you would expect.  This problem of diverse business logic and security features from tool to tool is because of acquisitions over the years from different vendors in order to build their BI suites.
Solver’s BI360 is also a complete BI suite, but fully integrated.  BI360 offers modern Excel add-in functionality, but is a hybrid in that it also offers the future of planning with web-based budgeting.  Customers are able to easily and securely build reusable templates with collaboration as a focus, either in Excel or on the web and BI360 can also be hosted in the cloud with AX at numerous cloud providers like Concerto, Data Resolution, SaaS Plaza, Rose ASP and others.  When it comes to the learning curve of implementation, Excel powers both the add-in and the web-based platform to streamline your planning processes.  BI360 is only five years old and equipped with capabilities like multi-year budgeting and rolling forecasts, amongst other modern functionalities like a web portal, which are direct responses to consumer suggestions for business user friendliness, collaboration, and configurable security.   Finally, it is affordable for the mid-market, and cost can fill up an article all its own.
As you get deeper into shopping for the right budgeting tool for your company, you will likely have questions, but hopefully, this article gives you the head start considering how easy the product is for your team to implement, to collaborate, and to securely contribute for more widespread ownership of the budget.  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 AX customers.