Better Budgeting

By David F. Carr  |  Posted 2003-08-01 Print this article Print

Unrealistic financial forecasts nearly tanked telecom giant Qwest. Can better analysis make a difference?

Better Budgeting

The software also has proven its worth for near-term planning at Qwest, says Finance Director Ian Dickinson. "The important thing for an organization the size of Qwest is that there's a ton of input that needs to be provided to the system and a lot of organizations that have to have input into that forecast or budget," he says. Trying to handle that process by e-mailing out spreadsheets on desktop computers across the organization is unmanageable because there is no central control over the assumptions built into the plans that result, Dickinson says.

Now, instead of dealing with a barrage of spreadsheets, the finance department uses a Web-based data collection server, called Contributor, which is part of the Cognos planning package. The system gathers planning data from 40 to 50 divisional managers across the company and turns it into source data for companywide planning.

The Cognos models for near-term and long-term strategic planning are separate, but Tishkowski imports numbers from the near-term plan and is investigating the benefits of deeper integration.

John Bridges, regional practice manager at Cognos, says he and consultants from Accenture spent 10 to 12 weeks on the original implementation of the budget planning system at Qwest, starting in April 2001. Last year, he also advised Qwest on an update aimed at keeping out bad data—the part of Qwest's application that impresses him the most.

"You have to first put a tool in place, then change the behavior," Bridges says. "If you're just collecting info from those people the same way, and allowing them to input it into a Web site instead of a spreadsheet, it doesn't really make any difference."

To highlight anomalies, Qwest's system shows each division's forecast side-by-side with an analysis of the trends based on actual data. If a local phone business has been losing subscriber lines faster than it has been adding them, and that division's revenue projection is based on net customer growth, the division manager would have to present a credible plan for reversing the trend or the forecast would be rejected.

Still, there's no escaping that Qwest has dug itself a deep hole with fraudulent accounting, says University of Tennessee accounting professor Joseph Carcello. "Whether buying a software package would solve this problem I'm dubious, to be honest with you," he says.

David F. Carr David F. Carr is the Technology Editor for Baseline Magazine, a Ziff Davis publication focused on information technology and its management, with an emphasis on measurable, bottom-line results. He wrote two of Baseline's cover stories focused on the role of technology in disaster recovery, one focused on the response to the tsunami in Indonesia and another on the City of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.David has been the author or co-author of many Baseline Case Dissections on corporate technology successes and failures (such as the role of Kmart's inept supply chain implementation in its decline versus Wal-Mart or the successful use of technology to create new market opportunities for office furniture maker Herman Miller). He has also written about the FAA's halting attempts to modernize air traffic control, and in 2003 he traveled to Sierra Leone and Liberia to report on the role of technology in United Nations peacekeeping.David joined Baseline prior to the launch of the magazine in 2001 and helped define popular elements of the magazine such as Gotcha!, which offers cautionary tales about technology pitfalls and how to avoid them.

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