Estimated reading time: 7 minutes, 20 seconds

The importance of agile planning, and the tools and techniques required to keep your business on the move is something we can't write about enough. Limiting planning to an annual exercise adds risk, because there's simply no way to anticipate and accommodate the wild market peaks and valleys businesses face today. But the need to embrace agile planning doesn't invalidate the need for an annual plan. If anything, the annual plan takes on more importance. It remains the fundamental strategy for the year, establishing the mission, goals, desired outcomes, measurement benchmarks, and specific actions for components of the organization.
Most important, the annual plan is a catalyst for innovation-something that often falls by the wayside when economic forces motivate management to focus on cost-cutting and preserving profit. That's a mistake, because in a weak economy, innovation can be the difference between dying, surviving, and thriving.

History reveals that some of the world's most successful companies used bad times to create good times by fostering innovation and by investing in innovative processes. One CEO we spoke with said she looks forward to annual business planning every fall season, because it's the only time her teams stop to examine the business through a different lens. In addition to setting the structure for operational success in the coming year, she says it's also a time to collect broader information, and use that to interpret trends across the business and the economy. Her managers then have the information and the focus to make visionary decisions that drive innovation.

Planning Data Exposes Pain Points and Opportunities
According to a recent story in the Economist, the amount of digital information increases tenfold every five years, a trend now known as "Big Data.' Here lies an innovation opportunity for any business today: If you have the have the tools and processes to harness Big Data, then you can gain visibility into your business that fuels competitive advantage.

A great example of capitalizing on Big Data is told in "Moneyball," a new Hollywood movie starring Brad Pitt about the 2002 Oakland Athletics, a cash-strapped Major League Baseball team with one losing season after another. Management harnessed Big Data - huge volumes of player statistics collected over several decades - to identify the most undervalued players in the league. They used these insights to remake the team into a low-cost, high-performing dynamo that broke baseball records with 20 straight wins, and made the playoffs five times running.

And they did it with a meager $41 million player salary base, compared to the New York Yankees' $100 million budget. This innovation, later dubbed "moneyball,' had never been done before. Big Data analysis changed baseball forever. It's now de rigueur at many teams, including the Boston Red Sox, which used it to clinch the 2004 World Series.

Sometimes all that's needed to create new opportunities and motivate your teams to outperform is a fresh perspective, and the technology that makes it possible to look at data in ways you couldn't before.

Finding Your Moneyball Strategy
When companies achieve better ways to harness Big Data into their planning process, they respond better to changing conditions, and foster innovation. And today, there are more ways than ever to take advantage of Big Data. Do it before your competition does.Think for a moment about the burgeoning, untapped sources of data available to your company. They are practically infinite. Here are some ideas about where to look, and the discovery questions that might help you decide if there are new business opportunities hiding in the Big Data sets waiting to be mined.

The external business environment. It wasn't long ago that the  No. 1 challenge facing executives was lack of access and timeliness of data. Today we have the opposite problem. We're swimming in data, but lack the tools to turn that into action. Consequently, integrated, high-output business systems are required to take market information and turn it into insights and plans.

Discovery questions:
What external sources of core data are we using to plan?
What new data and information is available today that wasn't available five years ago that could help us become more competitive?
What sources are peer companies using?
Are we actively monitoring social media networks for market sentiment, customer feedback, and competitive information?
What state is our business-critical data in today?
What tools and processes will it take to make faster transformations of our data into information?
Do we have automated tools to alert us about mission-critical events in the enterprise?

The internal business environment. New opportunities in internal operations data are largely coming from business management systems that centralize company information, and provide users with the ability to access the reports and analytics they need to do their job. But here again, companies typically have more data than they realize, are actually visualizing, and are acting upon. They need new business processes and better analytical capabilities to take full advantage.

Discovery questions:
What new or untapped internal information has become available in our company today?
Do we have silos of legacy information left untapped that could be integrated into our current environment?
Do we have the proper analytics technology to utilize these data sources?
Do we have cross-functional planning teams responsible for analyzing data in our enterprise?
Where are the pain points in the current information systems that limit our ability to complete tasks and satisfy customers?
Are we employing industry-best practices in terms of inventory management, service delivery, and customer relations?

Enterprise mobility. Great information and great planning are useless if not monitored and measured against benchmarks. And today, constant monitoring demands that you put data in the hands of employees wherever they're located. SAP Sybase Unwired and SAP Business One are examples of the end-to-end mobility solutions companies need to provide information on-demand to staff beyond the walls of the corporate office.

Discovery questions:
Can our field teams get the information they need to get their jobs done?
Do top executives have ready mobile access to information and reports they need to monitor their domains and make quick decisions that affect long-term outcomes?
What key processes and reports are not available to remote employees today?
If we had the ability to put new types of information and processes in the hands of external staff, what would that be, and what business value would it deliver?

Consumerization of IT is also an important trend. At the turn of the century, nearly all technology workers used came from their employers. Today, numerous studies find over 70 percent of employees use a personal device to get work done. That could be a laptop, a smart phone, a tablet or social software. Some companies are fighting this trend. Some are ignoring it. But the smart money is on those who are capitalizing on it to lower IT costs and boost productivity. IT costs can go down when employees pay for their own preferred devices. And they often find new, more efficient ways of getting things done. Most important, consumerization raises the consumer IQ of the business, often leading to better user experiences for customers and partners. And that can benefit the bottom line, too.

Discovery questions:
What devices do employees, customers, and partners prefer to use?
Given the latest options, how would customers prefer to interact with us?
How much could be saved by allowing employees to use their own devices?
How are company employees doing things differently with the devices and software they bring into the work environment?
Does our IT policy support consumerization or hinder it?
Have workers discovered new ways of completing tasks or conducting customer service that could benefit the broader company?
Are there competitive, security, or privacy threats we need to consider with consumerization?
What technology innovations are bottled up in departments that could benefit the larger organization?

Great annual planning never goes out of fashion.

Gary Feldman

A pioneer in the ASP market, Gary Feldman formed I-Business Network in 1999 as an outsourced application hosting service focusing on mid-market ERP systems. He achieved the first ASP agreement with Sage Software (State of the Art), Advanced Software Development Company and SAP Americas (for SAP Business One). Feldman also helped I-BN to innovate ERP deployment through the use of pre-configured databases with rapid deployment and subscription/fixed fee pricing.

I-BN was one of the first ASPs in this space to provide virtualized services and cloud computing to the mid-marketl. It is currently developing tools and techniques for automation of both technical and ERP provisioning for SAP Business One and Sage MAS EES to reduce total cost of ownership through application hosting.

Feldman was formerly an executive with Accenture and was a CIO for a mid-market company. He began his career as a CPA specializing in audit and accounting information systems with BDO Seidman and founded a consulting practice with a regional CPA firm.

Last modified on Sunday, 02 June 2013
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