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Finance departments don’t immediately come to mind in conversations about social collaboration technology. Most of the software used for social collaboration that I’ve seen demonstrated focuses on the vr_bti_br_technology_innovation_prioritiessales process or for broader employee engagement. The Facebook-style interface may cause finance department managers and executives to roll their eyes, especially if they’re over 40 years old. Yet business and social collaboration is an important set of capabilities that has been taking hold in business. Our benchmark research shows it ranking second behind analytics as a technology innovation priority. It will gain adoption over the next several years as software transitions from the rigid constructs established in the client/server days, which force users to adapt to the limitations of the software, to fluid and dynamic designs that mold themselves around the needs of the user. Perhaps because most of the attention so far on the benefits of collaboration has focused on front-office roles, there’s less awareness of the potential in back-office and administrative functions. Indeed, the same research reveals that those in front-office roles five times more often than those in accounting and finance roles (21% vs. a mere 4%) said that business and social collaboration are very important to their organization. However, I assert it’s just a matter of time before the finance group understands that social collaboration has substantial potential to improve its performance.

In examining why this change will occur, let’s start with some background. “Doing business” is all about collaboration, on which my colleague Mark Smith commented in an earlier perspective. Before communication technologies began to eliminate the constraints of time and space, people relied mainly face-to-face collaboration. (Postal letters were another option but they were very slow and limited interaction.) Voice mail was the first breakthrough in enabling people to collaborate quickly across time and space. Busy individuals could conduct conversations through a series of voice messages, discussing an issue in some depth and agreeing on an approach without speaking in real time. Much of business investment in information technology over the past two decades has been aimed at enabling good communications among different elements located in separate buildings, cities and even countries. The same is true for finance.

We all know that the eruption of social media – in both group settings like Facebook and one-to-many channels such as Twitter – has changed the dynamics of how people – especially those under the age of 40 – communicate. A couple of years ago, a group of teenage girls became trapped in a sewer under Adelaide, Australia. It took several hours to rescue them because the one with a phone used it to post their plight on her Facebook page rather than call someone. This example may be extreme, but it illustrates intergenerational differences in expectations of how one communicates. As with IM, software companies that build business applications are beginning to include Facebook- and Twitter-like capabilities to support collaboration. Examples include application platforms such as Salesforce.com’s ChatterIBM’s Connections and stand-alone software that can be integrated with another vendor’s offering such as Socialtext that is now owned by Peoplefluent. Software that fosters collaboration can improve efficiency, for example, by resolving issues faster or finding easier or less expensive alternatives to addressing a need. It can improve effectiveness by improving customer satisfaction or enabling more informed decisions sooner. It can foster better alignment across business units as well across and within departments by enabling closer communications among their people.

Social collaboration is off to an encouraging start, but it’s easy to see where improvements are needed, especially to be useful to the finance function. Ideally, collaboration software will be able to understand the context of the work at hand, the role of the individual participant and the relationships the individual has with others in that context. A technology like Google Glass has the potential to enable a manager, while reviewing a report, to see that there have been comments posted related to specific numbers, text or charts and then select and read these just by moving his or her eyes.

As well, software imbued with social collaboration capabilities should understand and automatically manage the various types of relationships among individuals. For example, people in a company typically have a general role (“I’m in Finance”) and one or more task-specific ones (“I’m the director of financial planning and analysis”). Some relationships are persistent while others begin and end with a project. Issues that arise may be open to all or confined to specific groups, subsets of groups or a private dialogue. Queries or comments may be general, specific or somewhere in between. Some conversations, especially in finance and tax departments, must be tightly controlled. Software that understands the context of the work performed and automates the process of managing the who, what and when of the communications will support more effective collaboration, faster completion of tasks, greater situational awareness with the organization and as a result better decision-making.

Which brings me back to the relevance of social collaboration for finance professionals. There are many use cases for comprehensive collaboration capabilities in ERP or accounting and financial performance management software. A good deal (maybe too much) of what goes on operationally in finance departments involves checking details and correcting errors – activities that require direct communications. Resolving billing issues could be streamlined if receivables and sales or payables and purchasing were connected to the appropriate collaborative network in the context of executing business processes. For example, end-of-period reconciliations could proceed faster if communications among the right people in the departments involved less effort. The financial close has multiple steps where time saved by resolving snags or clearing up ambiguities consistently can have a meaningful impact on shortening the process. Likewise, planning and review involve a great deal of collaboration, especially in understanding assumptions and expectations or providing perspectives on causal factors behind better or worse than expected results.

Unlike those in sales and marketing, the stereotypical accountant and finance specialist is not thought of as “social.” And at the moment, few people working in finance departments say that social collaboration capabilities are very important to their jobs. An important aspect of my research agenda for this year points to the need to address the demographic shift from executives and managers from the baby-boom generation to those who grew up with computer technology. These shifts will drive demand for a new generation of software, one that emphasizes IT-enabled collaboration, mobility and agility. Social collaboration used in business applications should be more than a Facebook metaphor. It addresses a key drawback of instant messaging systems: the fact that in business, individuals have multiple roles and multiple networks of people with whom they interact. When tightly integrated into business software of all kinds, social collaboration will become an essential capability by enabling people to resolve issues faster and with less effort than other means of communication. Vendors that focus on the finance function should ignore today’s lack of enthusiasm for social but more practical collaborative capabilities and ensure that their software is designed for the next generation of financial software users.

Regards,

Robert Kugel – SVP Research

In some parts of the world, bribing government officials is still considered a normal cost of doing business. Elsewhere there has been a growing trend over the past 40 years to make it illegal for a corporation to pay bribes. In the United States, Congress passed the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) in 1977 in the wake of a succession of revelations of companies paying off government officials to secure arms deals or favorable tax treatment. More recently other governments have implemented anticorruption statutes. The U.K., for instance, enacted the strict Bribery Act in 2010 to replace increasingly ineffective statutes dating back to 1879. The purpose of these actions is to enable ethical and law-abiding companies to compete on a level playing field with those that are neither. A cynic might wonder about the real, functional difference between, say, Wal-Mart’s recent payments to officials in Mexico to accelerate approval of building permits and the practice in New York City of having to engage expediters to ensure timely sign-offs on construction approval documents. No matter – the latter is legal (it’s a domestic issue, after all) while the former is not.

Moreover, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) have increased their oversight of bribery. At the beginning of 2013 they jointly issued the Resource Guide to the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. For its part, the SEC has stepped up enforcement using its own resources. Recently, it charged a group of bond traders with enabling a Venezuelan finance official to embezzle millions of dollars by disguising the money as fees paid to the broker/dealer to handle apparently legitimate transactions. Tellingly, though, there was another relatively recent bribery issue that involved Morgan Stanley where the SEC declined to include that company in an enforcement action because it had demonstrated diligence to prevent it.

Before anticorruption laws, it was expedient for corporations to pay government officials to close business, get preferred status or prevent punishment. Once the laws were established, that stopped being the case. However, from a management standpoint, compliance with the law became complicated because of the dual nature of the corporation, which is both an entity and a group of individuals. In the case of the latter, when an individual breaks the law, is that person at fault, is the corporation or are both? Regardless of how a case is decided, there can be severe reputational damage to a company found violating the law, and that will have repercussions for corporate boards and executives.

This question leads to the agency dilemma, an important consideration in enterprise risk management. Economists long ago recognized the agency dilemma when the modern corporation separated the roles of its principals (that is, the shareholders) from its management. The agency issue exists where the best interests of the principals are either not aligned or in conflict with the interests of the agents (the professional managers running the corporation). But agency issues also extend to the company’s executives and may be rife in any large-scale business. Within the management group, authority to act independently is delegated down through the hierarchy, and the interests of the lower-level managers may be in conflict with those of senior executives, the board of directors and shareholders. For example, suppose that a local manager believes his performance evaluation, compensation and prospects for promotion hinge on the timely opening of a new facility. Confronted with a culture of payoffs for permits, that manager may try to find a way to pay officials for expedited consideration, especially if he is local to the area. From that individual’s perspective, corrupt activity may be the norm, and he may believe himself to be clever enough to violate company policy without detection.

It was once acceptable for a company to claim that it had a stated vr_grc_operational_risk_effectivenesspolicy prohibiting bribery and that executives were ignorant of an employee’s actions. Absent proof to the contrary, that often was enough. However, the FCPA changed this norm, imposing the need for diligence and affirmative actions on the part of companies to prevent employees from breaking the law as well as to detect and report any such violations that do occur (which is how the Wal-Mart situation came to light). Public standards, too, have changed since the 1970s. Despite its self-disclosure after the fact and the steps it took to address the corrupt behavior, Wal-Mart suffered severe reputational damage. Yet even with the likelihood potential consequences, our benchmark research reveals that just 6 percent of companies have effective controls for managing reputational risk.

We assert that the most effective control is to prevent illegal activity from taking place at all. Short of that, companies that can demonstrate that they have taken all reasonable steps to prevent a violation of the law are in a better position to claim that the individual, not the company, is at fault.

An organization should have clearly articulated and documented antibribery and corruption policies and procedures, institute mandatory training of and signed acknowledgements of having taken it by executives and managers, and put in place incentives and disciplinary measures. However, these required measures are increasingly insufficient to demonstrate diligence in preventing corrupt activities. Companies also must have a software-supported internal control system that flags suspicious activity immediately and triggers a rigorous remediation process that analyzes, investigates and documents the disposition of each incident. Incidents that are detected long after their commission are more difficult to cope with and pose much higher legal, financial and reputational risk.

vr_oi_information_sources_for_operational_intelligenceSoftware is available that helps detect activities that violate anticorruption laws and regulations as they occur or shortly thereafter; this is far more effective than waiting for internal audits or (worse still) whistleblowers to uncover malfeasance. To prevent violations of the FCPA and other antibribery statues, corporations must be able to monitor their financial and other systems for warning signs. These applications take advantage of operational intelligence, a class of analytical capabilities built on event-focused information-gathering that can uncover suspicious actions as they occur. Our research on innovating with operational intelligence shows that companies use an array of systems (led by IT systems management and major enterprise applications such as ERP and CRM) to track events, analyze them, report results and create alerts when conditions warrant them, as detailed in the related chart. The research also shows that about half (53%) use 11  or more information sources in implementing their operational intelligence efforts. In the future, effective FCPA software increasingly will need to look at a wider range of internal data as well as information from external sources and social media to determine, for example, whether a consulting company that just received a finder’s fee is run by or employs a relative of a government official. Today, companies can utilize software from large vendors such as IBMOracle and SAP, as well as vendors with FCPA-specific software such as Compliancy and Oversight Systems.

Bribery and corruption are unlikely to disappear entirely. Regardless of anyone’s best intentions, corporate boards and executives can find themselves enmeshed in a scandal not of their own devising. The best defense in such cases is plain evidence that the organization has done everything reasonable to prevent its occurrence and has discovered and dealt with it promptly if it does. Policies and training are vital components, but software can be the extra component necessary to improve the effectiveness of monitoring and auditing to support anticorruption efforts.

Regards,

Robert Kugel – SVP Research

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