From the March 2008 issue of Treasury & Risk magazine

Dashboards for Everyone

Getting a dashboard with up-to-date snapshots of crucial metrics, with "drill down" features for more comprehensive views of underlying data was considered a sign of executive prowess, reserved for senior executives like CFOs who were privy to such real-time, not-yet-public results of a company. But at $4.4 billion specialty chemicals maker Dow Corning Corp. in Midland, Mich., dashboards were rolled out a year ago to dozens of dispute coordinators and managers in sales, customer service, and credit and collections in the U.S. and Canada as part of a companywide dispute management system. The new solution replaced a spreadsheet-based process that, among other things, took four hours to produce weekly updates, and was seen as lacking record control features. Now, when a dispute is created in which a payment doesn't match the invoice, an email is automatically sent to the relevant coordinator with a hyperlink to review the situation. "The dashboard allows for easy visibility by all management, so they can understand what the impact is to their business," says Ritch Cushway, global customer financial services manager at Dow Corning. "The dashboard really facilitates very quick answers, with high-level drop down menus to allow views by geographic region, customer industry and by individual."

Call it the democratization of the dashboard, but the movement of dashboards deeper into an organization to a wider number of users is bringing surprising new efficiencies. At Dow Corning, the amount of working capital tied up in payment disputes has been cut by 50% in the year since the new system was put in place, and the new system is being introduced into the company's European and other overseas operations this year.

Analytics on cycle times for each dispute are easy to access, as well as a Six Sigma overlay for monitoring the number of defects across all invoices. Other improvements include an 18% drop in the total number of overall disputes and a 10-day reduction in the average cycle time for issues to be resolved. "A good dashboard helps you cut through data overload and get to the metrics of relevance," says Shedan Malik, CEO of iDashboards Inc. "There's been a key paradigm shift, a transfer of power to the user, where the technology allows a business user to interact with it. This wasn't happening 10 years ago."

Dashboard technology is increasingly at the center of the many diverse database systems that feed into treasury and the broader finance department. With better integration between varied ERP, business intelligence and treasury workstation systems--thanks to increasing acquisitions by large vendors, including SAP, Oracle and IBM--a customized view into the essential financial underpinnings of a company is becoming easier to identify through dashboards. "Where dashboard technology is powerful is in its ability to provide visibility across multiple information sources, such as cash positions from banks or real time views of A/R are, or how many invoices are tied up in disputes as well as how long it is taking to resolve them," says Jim D'Addario, director of SAP's ERP financials marketing. "So as a user, I get a clear picture of avilable or incoming cash and can compare it against my payables to get an updated forecast."

The ability to have key working capital metrics at a CFOs or treasurer's fingertips, such as cash, capital expenditures, A/P and A/R movements on a global view. "Dashboards are giving people the visibility to manage by objective, by exception and give an early warning, as well as a control aspect." says Craig A. Jeffery, managing director at consultancy Strategic Treasurer. Today's dashboards don't contain all the answers Jeffery argues, but they are increasingly important in helping finance predict the impact from unexpected changes, such as a large change in a tax position or an acquisition. "Visibility helps create better knowledge for the management team and then they can go to other departments and educate them on the impact to working capital up and downstream," says Jeffery.

Others agree that the ultimate success of dashboards comes more in the ways processes are designed to make better use of key information as it becomes available. "We're building a new management view to show how many degrees of freedom a CFO has to steer a company back on course," says Doug Barton, vice president of product marketing at Cognos Corp., which was recently acquired by IBM Corp. "This is dynamic and can be used to change a budget authority or set a new goal or target. This goes far beyond simple speedometers and fuel gauges." Barton predicts that future dashboarding technology will focus more on the "steering system," how an executive can bring change to a situation or input not considered optimal, rather than merely showing what levels metrics are at.

Governance, risk and compliance functions are also benefiting from the "downstreaming" dashboard technology, where employees on the frontlines of internal processes and external party interactions can use dashboards to monitor events as they occur. "You don't want just the senior people worrying about risks," says Roger Bottum, vice president of marketing and product management at Axentis Corp. "One of the outcomes of the advanced years of SOX is that the SOX team used to have ownership of controls, but now that's been pushed out to the business owners, to the people doing the risk and compliance work." Some Axentis clients are using the company's dashboard functionality to monitor information and assess risks involving outside vendors, as gathered and monitored by business owners with the most direct contacts with those external parties. That dashboards are now being adapted to such specific uses shows how far the tools have come and that they have found an important home in the finance department.

But the complexity of these systems, as well as their increasing number at large companies, can create problems that even the best dashboards cannot overcome. "One of the biggest issues CFOs face right now is data integrity as the result of expansions and acquisitions and other changes," says Andy Gage, vice president of sales and marketing at FiREApps, a provider of on demand solutions for foreign exchange exposure analytics and management. This can be especially troubling for companies with multiple accounting systems, as well as several instances of ERP systems, that can give different readings to different users. FiREApps recently released Data FX, a new module that works alongside a dashboard to test and evaluate currency revaluations, clean multicurrency accounting data discrepancies and monitor issues as they arise. "You have to know the underlying data is good and what the weaknesses are, and that's not something a treasurer can do in isolation."

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