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From Time-Sharing to Prime Time – Comshare's

  • March 01 2002, 1:00am EST

Dennis Ganster, president, chairman and CEO of Comshare Incorporated, proudly speaks of a recent customer application of its management planning and control software, Comshare MPC. "The Port Authority of San Diego is a customer of ours. It comprises the combined land, sea and air assets on San Diego Bay and serves as the gateway to millions of visitors each year. Following the September 11 terrorist attack, 'The Port' was required to rebudget and replan and was faced with evaluating different scenarios quickly because legislation to split the airport from the physical ports is pending in California. One day, we received an unexpected e-mail from the Port Authority informing us that our management planning and control software, Comshare MPC, enabled them to refigure their budget working through three separate scenarios in just two days. The budget administrator, who handles a quarter-million dollar budget, revealed that he had not given this refiguring much hope – and he noted that without our product, he wouldn't even have made an attempt. That kind of success story makes me feel really good about coming to work. We can help companies accomplish things they're afraid are impossible."

Says Ganster, "We focus on managerial effectiveness – and we have for a long time. We're not really focused on back-office issues; we are concerned with efficiency improvements. What we actually do is provide software solutions that help management teams bridge the gap between strategy and execution. A lot has been written about the dissatisfaction that management teams have with the strategic planning process. They put a lot of time and effort into producing a strategic plan, but many organizations find that their strategies are never implemented. There's the strategic planning process on one hand and the operational execution set of processes on the other. Comshare MPC links these two processes."

Comshare MPC is a single Web-based application that provides a comprehensive management planning and control solution. It has all the functionality of the most advanced budgeting software, fully integrated with modules for planning, forecasting, financial consolidation, and management reporting and analysis. The entire application sits on a central database, so information is continually cycled throughout the enterprise in a closed-loop process that provides ongoing feedback and promotes collaborative decision making.

The MPC odyssey spans several years. Recounts Ganster, "Comshare's first life was that of a time-sharing company. Our second life was that of a decision-support company with our System W product first released on a mainframe," explains Ganster. "Commander EIS, which responded to executive information system needs of our customers, was the product of our third life. It was released at approximately the same time that the PC began to emerge."

Candidly, Ganster admits, "Then, to be perfectly honest, we missed a technological shift. The market went from mainframes to a period where PCs were interesting and LANs were interesting, but what emerged from that was the client/server platform – and we missed the change from mainframes to client/server. Suddenly, no one wanted to buy mainframe technology anymore – they were only interested in client/server technology. I took over as CEO in 1997 – and set to work developing a new company strategy."

Fortunately, having been with the company for 33 of its 42 years, Ganster was well equipped to handle the change. Recounting his tenure at Comshare, Ganster states, "I started in an entry-level sales support position in Pittsburgh, and I've risen through the ranks. I've held positions in sales support, sales, sales management, marketing and product management in addition to running the development organization for approximately four years. I think I've held every position here except finance and accounting."

To complement his history with the company, the constitution of the company also contributed to the formation of Ganster's strategy. "One of the hallmarks of this company," notes Ganster, "is that we have the ability to reinvent ourselves. While many time- sharing companies dropped from the face of the earth when the packaged software industry emerged, we reengineered ourselves and consequently survived. I'm in my fifth year now as CEO, and although I wasn't CEO through the first reinvention process, I attribute Comshare's reinvention ability to the fact that our company culture is very innovative in terms of our product development. I'm really proud of our product development group – I think that the group is as good as any there is."

The fact that Comshare has been in business since 1966 provided Ganster with a solid foundation upon which to build. "Being in the business for as long as we have been," observes Ganster, "has engendered us with a very deep set of skills and experiences that provide value to our customers. Even through the reinvention, the kinds of things we do for companies have remained the same. We've always been in the decision-support or business intelligence area of the market; consequently, we're experts in this field." The combination of these factors solidified Ganster's development of Comshare's current MPC focus.

"The architecture of MPC is very different from that of our competitors," explains Ganster. "We saw the Web gaining momentum, and we took a risk – we were an early adopter of the Web for our kind of application. We thought the Web would replace the client/server platform as the platform of choice. For this reason, we engineered an entirely new product line around the Web and relational database technology on the back end. As a result, we have a very robust architecture for our management planning and control application. We took the front-end technology and built it into the architecture. Everything about our applications is accessible through a browser, so it's a very familiar and comfortable environment for our users," says Ganster.

"We have integrated many of the front-office functions such as budgeting, planning, forecasting, management reporting and data analysis into one product, taking advantage of the shift from the client/server to the Web. The depth of our product is in the integration of all of those functions. As for the breadth of our product, we credit our analytics as being a differentiator. When the industry influencers examine what we have, they're always impressed by the analytical capabilities. Our product includes advanced data visualization techniques that highlight the kind of analytics that we do, making it easier for users to get their minds around these very large databases. If you only present a user with a way to browse a database, he or she can spend a great deal of time finding nothing. Our product is proactive in finding issues in the data and presenting them to the users as the starting point for their analysis."

Ganster remains deeply committed to the MPC strategy. "Without a doubt, our biggest challenge now is to get the larger part of the market to hear us, to understand our message, and to realize that Comshare has a unique value proposition – the management planning and control of information that helps guide decision-makers." Ganster knows and appreciates the value of the system. He indicates, "At Comshare, we've implemented our own product and use it as a showcase. I use the system every day for performance measurement." For that reason, Ganster is extremely comfortable taking MPC to the field. "When I sit across the desk from a CFO, I first want to talk about the business processes and determine just what he or she is thinking with regard to the integration of tactical and strategic planning. Many CFOs do see a need for this integration, but they don't know how to go about accomplishing it. It seems intuitive that these two processes would be linked; however, they're not in a lot of organizations," attests Ganster.

"Our software enables an organization to track its strategies and direction and measure performance against them. It gives a clear line of sight from the strategic direction of the organization down to as granular a level as you'd like to take it, which might be down to an employee level in a smaller organization or to a departmental level in a larger organization. It's innovative. I haven't seen anybody else provide that sort of thing, and we're excited about that."

Ganster elaborates, "You begin with your strategic planning process to set the direction of the organization. Once that direction is set and the board of directors approves the funding for a three- year outlook, a budgeting process should naturally follow to allocate the firm's resources to support those objectives. Most budgeting processes have lives of their own. Typically, budgets don't allocate the firm's resources with the objective of achieving the company's strategic direction in mind. That's where the linkage breaks down. In the best scenario, once a budget is prepared and agreed upon by the board of directors, management should be able to tie that budget to tactical plans and performance so that when the actual results begin to roll in, decision-makers can adapt their strategies to respond to changing conditions. Comshare MPC enables companies to compare actual performance against the strategic plan and act on that information in a proactive way."

He continues, "When you compare your actual performance to your original plan, you'll find variances. That's where analytics and business intelligence are used to determine what the variances are and what impact these variances have on the organization. Following that, the organization needs to make decisions to get back on track or, conversely, exploit the variance that has an impact on strategy. Organizations must decide whether to highlight strategies that are succeeding more than originally anticipated or eliminate strategies that are not helping. Additionally, organizations may need to add new strategies based on real-world events. That's where the loop closes. Getting companies to recognize that these business processes are related and that Comshare has a unique technological solution for this integration is a big step forward for our company. I get up in the morning because that opportunity exists, and I want to take advantage of it," says Ganster.

When asked to describe the culture at Comshare, Ganster is at ease with the company's customer-oriented mind-set. "Although Comshare was one of the first companies to go global – we were global in Europe in 1967 – we have Midwestern values. If you do business with Comshare, we're going to take good care of you. Our reputation is well-known. We've got a strong help line, for example. It gets great reviews from our customers. If a customer is ever overwhelmed with a problem, we'll send developers to a customer's site – not a lot of companies will do that."

Philanthropically, Comshare is equally admirable. "Comshare and its employees contributed more than $20,000 to the relief fund for the victims of the September 11 terrorist attack. We conduct a United Way campaign every year and have been one of the bigger contributors for the area. We also do a 'Day of Sharing,' an outreach program for all companies in the area that enables volunteers to spend the day helping others," says Ganster. "Every year, our Comshare social action committee manages Operation Good Cheer through which we support local underprivileged children's Christmas wishes. Finally, Comshare sponsors blood drives in association with the American Red Cross every quarter."

However, it is the strategic value of MPC that puts Comshare in the spotlight. It's the reason that the company is going prime time. This product is not just another trendy sitcom – it's "Must-See MPC."

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