This blog is the seventh in a series developed from research underwritten by SAP, which explores how new technologies such as cloud computing, mobility, and in-memory processing of Big Data are expanding planning, budgeting and forecasting best practices.

When economic conditions are volatile (as they have been since mid-2008), finance leaders rely on their financial planning and analysis teams to help guide the organization through the turbulent waters. Smart teams can harness in-memory processing to harvest fields of Big Data. Even smarter ones are reaching beyond to access ready stores of insights made available by others.

Perhaps the most useful advice I have heard given to planners comes from the management expert Peter Drucker. He advised, "Be aware of the future that has already happened." I find many people focus on uncertainty. They often become paralyzed by what they don't know. A better approach is to start with an inventory of what you do know based on what has already happened. Let's focus on a few of those things:

• Demographic data from the census data provides tremendous detail on the population including age, birth and death rates, family status, income levels, etc. The US Census Bureau was recently recognized for its efforts to make the government information more easily accessible to the public. This includes making the information available on mobile applications.

• Market segment data can be readily tracked. Business Finance's sister publication, IndustryWeek makes economic forecasts available from the Institute for Trend Research (ITR). It provides monthly market information on the state of the US economy and eight foreign countries covering over 48 market segments.

• Competitive benchmarking information can be accessed leveraging eXtensible Business Reporting Language (XBRL), which is becoming the language of business and financial data around the world. This is being driven by SEC rules adopted in 2009 to require tagging on financial statements under US GAAP and IFRS. These filings are made readily accessible by OPEX Engine, which provides prebuilt dashboards and custom benchmarking. These can be used to create competitive league tables.

• Leading economic indicators are tracked and made available by Prevedére Inc. (the name is Italian for foresight). They claim to "convert Big Data into the ‘Right Data' for your organization by analyzing over 40,000 data series with millions of records to only the ones that actually affect your profitability." They do this using a cloud-based server providing reporting and analysis of economic indicators. They also provide custom alerts notifying you of changing conditions. If you are a fan of Joseph H. Ellis' book "Ahead of the Curve" (Harvard Business School Press, 2005) you will like this approach as Ellis serves on Prevedére's Advisory Board.

These are just a few examples of what's already available.

A good way to understand how all these data sources are transforming planning is to take a look at a typical hospital in the US healthcare environment. With the implementation of electronic medical records, the velocity of patient information is exploding (and so is the corresponding volume). In-memory computing can be deployed to analyze the underlying acuity (i.e., how sick each patient is) of the population of patients and this can be compared to the census data of the total populations of lives that the hospital has contracted to cover.

Economic indicator data accessed from outside sources provide inputs into how the population of the geographic area being served is changing. Is it growing or shrinking? Is it getting younger or older or both? I include both because new technologies facilitate deeper analysis and segmentations where in the past planners were forced to use averages.

Market trends and competitor information feed strategic analysis of what new services or equipment has the highest potential for return. Big Data's variety shows when the hospital taps into the social media networks to give planners insights into how patients feel about the hospital's reputation, their own experiences and their likely future preferences.

Even more Big Data is coming as the unlocked human genome is opening the doors to personalized medical treatments where single individuals carry billions of data points each.

And that is just beginning to scratch the surface of one industry. In-memory computing has given financial planning departments a huge tool set for harvesting Big Data. SAP customers are talking about benefits that range from performing simulations and creating business forecasts in seconds rather than days to getting clear and immediate insight into current liquidity and cash flow information, and improving data reliability to optimize the business.

Let me know what information you are using to see what is ahead. What information are you still looking for? We would also like to ask your feedback on Financial Planning & Analysis Technology. Please click on this link to complete a short survey. We appreciate your feedback.

While Big Data/in-memory computing is a topic I am sure I will come back to visit, next week we'll shift gears to look at mobile's impact on finance and finance-related applications. We'll examine "Going mobile with planning and analysis: Will it help finance go faster and reach further?"

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