Automating planning and budgeting through FP&A Tableau dashboards

“One of the fastest-growing pharmaceutical companies in North America wanted to optimize their executive facing dashboards for their financial planning and analysis (FP&A) department,” says Nicholas Mann, Founder and President of Stratos Consulting. “With the goal of increasing efficiencies, they decided to implement Tableau as their analytics and visualization solution.”

Acquired by Salesforce.com in 2019, Tableau is a market-leading, intuitive visual analytics platform empowering people and organizations by transforming how they use data to achieve better business outcomes—and a good fit for the company. With data volumes increasing exponentially, the company needed to accelerate the extraction of critical insights from Oracle Hyperion Planning and Essbase cubes—an On-Line Analytic Processing (OLAP) technology consisting of a Multidimensional Database Management System (MDBMS).

“Originally developed to address the scalability issues associated with spreadsheets, Essbase is great for storing complex hierarchical relationships to reflect business structures accurately,” explains Mann. “And, as you might expect, users often analyze data from Essbase using Smart View—a Microsoft Excel plug-in. But when you have five Essbase cubes with over fifteen dimensions and varying degrees of data granularity, dimensionality, hierarchies, and measures, data modeling and analysis becomes a whole new beast.”

Leveraging an exclusive methodology to streamline financial planning and forecast

During the Tableau implementation, Stratos Consulting was invited to audit the project. Based on Stratos Consulting’s experience and exclusive methodology with built-in flexibility and continuous feedback and reiteration when necessary, the company engaged Stratos to provide enterprise-level dashboards to help streamline budget owners’ financial planning and forecast processes across all departments.

Stratos consultants immediately prioritized the tasks, separating them into three phases—data layer, visualization, and post-project support—for optimal results.

Phase 1 of the project focused on building a well-architected data layer to seamlessly support Tableau dashboards and provide additional ad-hoc capabilities for the broader implementation. This involved evaluating and cataloging the FP&A data metrics, analyzing current performance, and recommending a data model—along with high-level security requirements. It also required the creation of a master data management (MDM) application to maintain the company’s reporting hierarchies within the Financial Data Warehouse (FDW)—based on Essbase data sources—along with new hierarchies specific to FP&A’s reporting needs.

“Our team needed to leverage the client’s existing technology,” states Mann, “so we extended the master reporting hierarchies used in their enterprise performance management (EPM) planning application through to the Tableau data layer. We also created a data governance architecture and developed a solution to optimize the process used to import data into Tableau.”

Accelerating onboarding and adoption

Once the data layer was created, the next phase was to create an exceptional user experience, with the goal of Tableau ultimately becoming the go-to reporting solution for FP&A and their business partners. Leveraging the financial team’s planning and analysis metrics and drill paths as a basis, Stratos created rich visualizations within Tableau, thereby creating the framework for self-service analytical reporting.

“Once development was done,” says Mann, “we still needed to ensure all our hard work—and our client’s investment—didn’t go to waste. As part of our end-to-end services, we also provided the necessary training and onboarding.”

Delivering post-project enablement and support

Once the pilot project with a limited user pool was deemed a success, the next and final step was to roll Tableau out to the rest of the business. During this phase, Stratos worked closely with the client to create and execute a tailored business enablement plan, ensuring a smooth, companywide deployment—while still fulfilling enhancement requests.

“The Tableau deployment is a self-service environment,” says Mann, “but we provided the necessary post-project maintenance, training, and security support that allows the client to become completely self-sufficient over time.”

Accelerating data processing and coming in under budget

“During Phase 1,” explains Mann, “we cataloged 240 FP&A metrics, created 4 Tableau data marts, and defined 28 drill path levels, 81 Informatica objects, and 54 database objects. We normalized the data across FP&A’s five financial planning applications for Tableau consumption, and reduced data processing time by over 75%—from 5 hours to 40 minutes! During Phase 2, we created 4 Tableau data models, 25 dashboards, 230 visualizations (80 more than in project scope), and over 1,000 custom measures and calculations (700 more than planned)—and still came in 5% under budget.”

In addition to creating the Tableau data models, reports, and visualizations, Stratos Consulting developed state-of-the-art governance and security models, and provided training and support for FP&A employees and their business partners.

“The FP&A department was delighted to replace manual Excel data models with Tableau as their go-to reporting solution for monthly planning and budgeting,” states Mann. “When I look back at the project, it was unbelievable what we were able to accomplish in just six months.”