Tarka Duhalde, Vice President, Financial Controller, IRIS Software Group
Volatility and uncertainty are still looming large. In late March the Bank of England raised interest rates from 4% to 4.25%. While many think interest rates will peak at 4.5% in Summer 2023, no one knows for sure. Likewise, no one knows what the price of fuel or the price of energy will be in six months, despite the UK not falling into a recession, as announced by the Chancellor in his Spring Budget.
Nevertheless, the high level of uncertainty will not disappear overnight, making the tasks of budgeting and forecasting even more difficult than they normally are, as there are simply so many unknown quantities at play. However, senior business leadership are continuously looking to their finance team for clarity – often asking them to generate accurate forecasts at a faster pace. In many ways, this request makes sense. After all, in a climate of uncertainty, who doesn’t want visibility?
However, generating multiple forecasts can put a lot of pressure on already-overworked finance teams. What’s more, when it comes to budgeting and forecasting, speed and accuracy can be at odds with each other. Too often, finance teams feel they have to choose between turning around an accurate forecast at a slower pace or a less accurate forecast at a quicker pace. Obviously, neither option is ideal.
That said, hope is not lost. If the right tools are in place, it is possible to turn around accurate forecasts at a rapid pace.
Eliminate guesswork and assumptions
Businesses and finance teams should want their forecasts to be as close to reality as possible. Yes, forecasts are about predicting the future, but they’re not magic, they’re science.
There are many ways to generate an accurate forecast, but the first step should always include cutting out wishful thinking, guesswork, and assumptions. If this isn’t done, businesses run the risk of inaccuracies. The ‘single truth’ is the goal and a wildly conservative forecast is just as incorrect as a wildly optimistic forecast.
Instead of relying on wishful thinking, guesswork, and assumptions, finance teams and businesses should base their forecasting on robust quantitative and qualitative techniques, including strong research, reliable data, and facts. As well as assessing the accuracy of previous budgets and forecasts, looking at the business’ historical data, checking the latest industry analysis, and seeing how the competition is doing. All of this will help get forecasts as close to reality as possible.
Embrace artificial intelligence
In addition, businesses should consider investing in automation, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning as the right tools will be less error-prone than humans. On top of this, they can help with eliminating conscious and unconscious bias and will spot data patterns finance teams cannot. They can also vastly reduce cycle times – freeing up team members’ time to focus on adding strategic value.
It is crucial to remember, the aim is not to replace employees with AI tools, rather the ultimate goal is for AI to work with people – helping to optimise the budgeting and forecasting process.
What’s more, the tools are only going to get more sophisticated as time goes on. Businesses and finance teams should seriously consider getting ahead of the curve and adopt these technologies sooner rather than later.
Adopt rolling forecasts
Instead of finance teams just generating a yearly static budget, they should also look to adopt rolling forecasts – ideally revisiting and reforecasting on a quarterly or even monthly basis. This will maximise visibility, giving leaders the crucial insight into how the business is performing in real time or near-real time, allowing more informed business decisions to be made. Especially in more uncertain times, it’s important to stay agile and rolling forecasts can facilitate this.
Whilst static budgets have their place, they cannot adapt to change. For example, if shortly after generating a budget, the business loses a major client or the wider economy takes a turn for the worse, the budget will already be out of date. However, rolling forecasts can adapt to change. In this way, they are more accurate and, by extension, more useful than static budgets.
Once a business is up and running, rolling forecasts can be highly efficient. What’s more, if AI and automation have already been embraced, there won’t be a need to sacrifice accuracy for speed.
If businesses and finance teams want to generate accurate budgets and forecasts during these uncertain times, they will need the right tools, the right strategy, and the right mindset. For maximum visibility, casting aside assumptions, embracing automation, and adopting rolling forecasts are three great places to start.