Budgeting is a highly necessary and mandated task for any business, with an extremely structured process in most cases. But as budgeting expands to include a broader scope within companies, how can we work towards a collaborative budget? Chris Howard, Vice President of Customer Experience, Centage, explains for Finance Monthly.

I’ve yet to speak to anyone involved in the budget modeling process who didn’t wish for an Excel feature that somehow made budget collaboration easier. And I speak to a lot of people.

The folks responsible for creating the ‘master’ budget models, often CFOs, don’t have an easy time of it. They need to gather input from numerous people within their organizations (most of whom have no background in corporate finance) and then validate the data they receive. All too often, they rely on managers to put together entire budgets based on higher level numbers, guidelines and goals they provide.

Once that’s done, they need to piece together a myriad of spreadsheets and apply complex formulas and macros to arrive at projections. This last bit typically occurs late into the night.

But here’s the thing: Excel was never meant to be a collaborative tool. It simply wasn’t designed to farm out files and to collect and manage the input of multiple users. That means even the most advanced power user can’t deliver the level of collaboration finance teams need.

Beyond input consolidation, the CFO’s I speak to say they have an urgent need for automated rigor in their budget models to ensure accuracy. It’s not uncommon for a CFO (or another budget contributor) to find that an error – such as a broken link or formula – which causes a costly displacement in the budget. The result is a lot of discomfort.

Given needs and constraints of budget modeling, what does a truly collaborative budget look like? How does it work? Based on what I’ve heard from CFOs in the mid-market, here’s what I think are the requirements of a collaborative budget model:

Bottom-Up vs. Top-Down Management

Although it’s the finance team’s responsibility to manage a budget, the budget itself belongs to every department within the organization. It’s the CMO who determines how to spend the marketing budget, and the CTO how to best manage IT investments. This means that budgets must be managed from the bottom up, rather than top down, and that buy-in is essential. But when a CFO is forced to control the budget model via a master spreadsheet, those models are, by definition, managed from the top down. This results in a disconnect between the model and the day-to-day activities of an organization. Monitoring performance vs. plan becomes impossible.

Role-Based Security

Budgets are filled with highly sensitive information, personnel data, salaries and the like. A collaborative budget should prevent the wrong users from accessing data that’s not directly related to their roles in the organization. For this reason, a collaborative budget model should have role-based security with an interface that’s customized to the user’s function. What the VP of Marketing sees should be very different from what the CFO sees. Needless to say, this is far outside the realm of Excel’s capabilities.

Financial Integrity Safeguards

In a true bottom-up collaborative budget, most of the contributors will have no background in corporate finance, and little understanding of the differences between a balance sheet, cash flow or P&L statement. How do you ensure that input from these contributors is correctly tied to the right outputs, and is fully compliant with US GAAP accounting rules?

Collaborative budgets need some kind of built-in rigor that protects the financial integrity of the outputs, allowing non-finance team members to enter data without breaking things. In other words, data entered by facilities management is automatically tied to the correct outputs without that user even realizing it.

Self-Serve Reporting

Finally, a collaborative budget must promote self-sufficiency, especially when it comes to reporting. Every CFO I speak to tells me his or her goal is to create reports once – with financial rigor firmly in place to ensure integrity – and then hand over the reins to the CEO or Board. This is the only way a CEO is free to monitor performance vs. plan, cash flow or P&L on a monthly or even a weekly basis on their own, and without the CFO’s constant involvement.

In order to turn over the reins, the entire budget needs access to the data in real-time, otherwise the CFO will be forced to update the reports manually (hardly the level of self-sufficiency they’re looking for).

Why a Truly Collaborative Budget is Worth Working Towards

A truly collaborative budget model will, by definition, require finance departments to jettison their budgeting spreadsheets – a painful exercise given that most of them have been working with Excel since their pre-college days. But the payoff will be huge.

A budget model that combines historical information with real-time data is the only way to spot trends, threats and business opportunities. And it will be “board ready,” meaning it will allow teams to respond with accuracy to the Board of Directors when they ask about ramifications of any number of business changes on the P&L, balance sheet and cash flow statement.

Put another way, it’s time to say goodbye to that monster spreadsheet your team just finished creating. Instead, implement a budget that lets you combine data from multiple sources to present a single version of the truth. You’ll get a living, evolving document that significantly improves the quality of information you deliver throughout the year.