Benchmarking is a popular way for companies to measure their performance, and technology is expediting the practice. For example, the Hackett Group now offers a dashboard that automatically pulls data out of a company’s ERP system to track processes that a company is working to improve.
The tool, the Hackett Performance Exchange, addresses one of the basic challenges of benchmarking, “the level of time and effort it takes to get the information,” said Jeffrey Rosengard, a principal and global finance advisory practice leader at Hackett, a Miami-based strategic advisory and operations improvement consulting firm.
Performance Exchange connects to companies’ Oracle and SAP systems to extract data on costs, cycle times, and error rates, as well as information around working capital management, like order-to-cash and purchase-to-pay. “This is a very efficient and effective way our clients are able to extract their own information and then also do comparisons against Hackett’s broad database,” Rosengard said.
The information is pulled every month, much more frequently than a company would perform a traditional benchmark, he added. “This way you can track not only how you’re performing but the progress you’re making, in a very live manner,” Rosengard said.
Bain & Co.’s annual survey of the popularity of various management tools showed benchmarking tied with strategic planning for second place among North American executives this year, with employee engagement surveys taking first place. Eighty percent of the executives surveyed said they planned to benchmark in 2013, while 40% said they benchmarked last year.
“Companies are always comparing themselves, it’s just how they can do it in the easiest fashion,” Rosengard said. “How can I go through the data collection effort, and not make it as intrusive and time-consuming as it has been in the past?”
Similarly, companies are beginning to use their XBRL-tagged financial data as a way to do quick comparisons of their financials with those of their peers. And executives at Citi say they’ve seen great interest in Citi Treasury Diagnostics, which provides online benchmarking of treasury processes.
“We’ve got literally hundreds of clients that access this database and use it continually,” said Michael Fossaceca, managing director and North America region head corporates for Citi Treasury and Trade Solutions. “It’s a self-assessment tool online.”
The diagnostics platform includes metrics on payments, technology, governance and risk, Fossaceca said. And the online nature of the tool means a treasurer at a multinational company can reach out to co-workers around the world and ask them to input certain information. “As soon as it goes in the system, we can begin to generate those reports with lots of analytics,” he said. “We can turn that around within a week.
However, Dennis Gannon, an executive advisor at CEB, an Arlington, Va.-based advisory company, said that benchmarking treasury processes isn’t likely to be expedited by technology because of all the judgment that’s involved. “You have to find good comparisons, peers that are like you in the right way, similar challenges and processes,” Gannon said. “The technological evolution, it’s just inherently more difficult to apply to something that’s more talent-based and influence-based.”
Rosengard linked the corporate interest in an easier benchmarking process with the results of Hackett’s recently released finance benchmarking survey, which showed finance teams remain under pressure to become more productive.
While companies expect “fairly positive” growth in revenue this year, “the expectation is that costs will go down in [general and administrative] areas as well as staffing levels,” he said. “This is putting increased pressure on companies to increase their productivity. It’s not about doing more with less, it’s about how can I truly increase my efficiency.”
CEB's Gannon also sees treasuries “driven by an expanding mandate combined with a constrained set of resources.
“We haven’t seen treasury budgets increase substantially post-crisis,” Rosengard said. “The median increase has been modest, in the 1% to 2% range annually.”
While the recession generated considerable interest in cost-related benchmarking, treasury departments had more urgent tasks to attend to in the wake of the financial crisis, Gannon said. But he has seen corporate treasuries’ interest in benchmarking revived in the last year or so, with concerns varying from company to company.
“For quite a few folks, there’s an interest in learning more about cash visibility and cash mobilization as their companies expand into new markets,” he said. “For others, there’s an increased interest in risk management, as they’re looking to protect earnings and protect tight margins. Others are focused on systems, on forecasting.”