Athabasca University (AU), Canada’s Open University, is dedicated to removing barriers that restrict access and success within university-level study and increasing equality of educational opportunities for adult learners worldwide.
To support their mission, AU defined their “Imagine” Strategy, which was a five-year plan outlining strategic priority outcomes for the institution. Underpinning the execution and ensuring alignment with their objectives required a collaborative integrated planning process. The challenge was that the annual planning and subsequent forecasting processes were a major obstacle due to access and permission issues to relevant timely information for decision-making, resulting in a lack of collaboration. To fix this, Long Huynh, Director of Decision Support, was brought on board to work with the team to fulfill two objectives:
Roll out a Finance Business Partner (FBP) Program, which focused on building a team of finance folks who could collaborate with faculty members and department heads on financial/business plans, transforming finance into advisors to the business as opposed to compilers and producers of reports.
Streamline the integrated planning and forecasting process, making it easy for users to access information, track variances in spend and initiatives and enable faculty members to re-forecast and ultimately own their numbers.
To assist with this transformation, AU began working with us at ActionKPI—a Performance Management Consultancy specializing in integrated resource planning—to help define a roadmap and phased approach to re-architecting their planning processes and systems. The result was increased buy-in and collaboration from all faculties and departments while increasing the speed and agility of the financial reporting, budgeting and forecasting processes.
Access issues and confusion: The data for financial reporting was nested within different platforms with different levels of access. Budget owners struggled to understand their budgets and had difficulty accessing relevant information, understanding variances throughout the month and leading up to the quarter.
Manual and siloed budgeting: The budgeting process relied on an outdated system that was not user-friendly and disconnected from the main ERP system. Budgets had to be manually uploaded, making it challenging to integrate actuals and forecasts.
Limited access to data: Some data—such as HR and payroll—was difficult to access, hindering financial analysis and decision-making. They were not able to get insights into labour costs and make accurate budgets and forecasts on one of their major cost centres.
Before implementing the solution, the financial data was scattered across different platforms with varying levels of access. Budget owners couldn’t easily access their budget information, which caused them to rely on specific individuals to explain reports due to siloed data and complex nuances.
Additionally, Athabasca University’s budgeting process was hindered by an unintuitive system that operated independently from their ERP system, Banner. Manual uploads and a lack of integration between their old system and Banner added to the complexity and time-consuming nature of the budgeting process.
The journey begins: Improved budget visibility
After initial discussions with ActionKPI, Long Huynh and the finance team saw the opportunity to demonstrate the power of integrated resource planning through IBM Planning Analytics (PA).
The focus at the start was on developing a variance and forecasting model within PA that combined budget and actual data from source systems in a user-friendly solution accessible to various stakeholders across the university. Unlike their old system, PA enabled daily automatic uploads from their ERP and provided timely access to different reporting hierarchies and variances, and it gave the ability to drill down on transactional data. Budget owners could log in and view their budgets at any time, clearly understanding their financial position and empowering them to actively participate in the budgeting process and take corrective action to meet targets. This improvement significantly enhanced transparency, trust and accountability among their various budget owners.
“It was such a foundational change to how we looked at the budgets—from a manual upload of data that is a month old or even a quarter old to every night. It changed the speed at which we can make decisions and see what is happening.” — Long Huynh
The second phase: Workforce and HR integration
Once the initial model was built and data from Banner was integrated directly with IBM Planning Analytics (PA), the focus turned to HR (specifically workforce) to better understand one of the university’s major cost centres.
Previously, HR tightly guarded payroll information due to privacy requirements, resulting in limited access and insufficient granularity.
To overcome this challenge, AU and ActionKPI developed a workforce variance model within PA that encompassed the FTEs and positions at the university, as opposed to employees. Actual faculty payroll data by position was incorporated into the model, providing visibility into labour costs, vacancy cost savings and headcount, while still maintaining data security and privacy.
Having this workforce detail allowed faculty members and departments to revise their FTE plans and subsequent labour costs, creating a rolling forecast. This not only improved the forecast accuracy but enabled AU to become more agile within the decision-making process.
“Payroll is the biggest piece of the expense pie, and a thorough and accurate understanding of it is required for an accurate forecast. Now, we can forecast by each position and see the impact in-month and into the future.” — Long Huynh
To address privacy and data security concerns, the finance team collaborated with HR to determine the appropriate salary detail each budget owner could access. Each manager can only see salary details for employees within their hierarchy and only position numbers are shown rather than names. This allows managers the transparency and detail required to make informed decisions while maintaining adequate security and privacy.
Integrated resource planning: A holistic approach
The journey continued with a focus on integrated resource planning. The university aimed to transition from closed-door decision-making to inclusive, integrated resource planning that involved stakeholders from across the organization.
Prior to this initiative, resource plans and proposed budget changes were submitted as separate Excel files, leading to collaboration challenges, version control issues and manual data entry.
ActionKPI integrated the budget and resource planning processes into IBM Planning Analytics (PA), allowing for a streamlined approach. This also enabled a democratized process where budget owners collaborate with their Finance Business Partners to update their budget entries. This supported greater ownership and eliminated the process of budget owners sending numbers to finance and finance doing the entry.
Previously, inconsistent finance knowledge across different faculties and departments led to poor or inaccurate forecasting and budgeting practices.
The rollout of the Finance Business Partner Program contributed to the success of the integrated resource planning process by providing personalized finance support and advisory to each department. It was the financial acumen, passion for customer service and data-driven decision-making skills of the FBP team—combined with the streamlined planning processes and systems—that made it possible.
“Before, a lot of decisions were made behind closed doors. Now, the university has moved to integrated planning, so it is very inclusive. Almost every budget holder is involved in the process versus just finance.” — Long Huynh
Finance Business Partners, assigned to each department, worked closely with budget owners to demonstrate how PA could be utilized to enter, track and visualize budget changes over time.
This integration fostered collaboration, transparency and informed financial decision-making throughout the university.
Through this model, Athabasca University achieved improved forecasting consistency and quality. The FBP model would not have been successful without the implementation of PA, as it provided the necessary infrastructure for effective collaboration and support between finance and budget owners.
The journey to enhance transparency and trust within the university’s financial processes resulted in significant improvements.
By implementing IBM Planning Analytics and integrating budgets, actuals and resource planning, the university achieved better visibility, streamlined processes and increased stakeholder involvement.
The initiatives undertaken by Long and his team not only transformed financial decision-making but also contributed to a cultural shift towards data-driven decision-making and collaboration.