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In our benchmark research at least half of participants that use spreadsheets to support a business process routinely say that these tools make it difficult for them to do their job. Yet spreadsheets continue to dominate in a range of business functions and processes. For example, our recent next-generation business planning research finds that this is the most common software used for performing 11 of the most common types of planning. At the heart of the problem is a disconnect between what spreadsheets were originally designed to do and how they are actually used today in corporations. Desktop spreadsheets were intended to be a personal productivity tool used, for example, for prototyping models, creating ad hoc reports and performing one-off analyses using simple models and storing small amounts of data. They were not built for collaborative, repetitive enterprise-wide tasks, and this is the root cause of most of the issues that organizations encounter when they use them in such business processes. Software vendors and IT departments have been trying – mainly in vain – to get users to switch from spreadsheets to a variety of dedicated applications. They’ve failed to make much of a dent because, although these applications have substantial advantages over spreadsheets when used in repetitive collaborative enterprise tasks, these advantages are mainly realized after the model, process or report is put to use in the “production” phase (to borrow an IT term). To date most dedicated applications have been far more difficult than spreadsheets for the average business user to use in the design and test phases. To convince people to switch to their dedicated application, a vendor must offer an alternative that lets users model, create reports, collect data and create dedicated data stores as easily as they can do it in a desktop spreadsheet. Spreadsheets are seductive for most business users because, even with a minimum amount of training and experience, it’s possible to create a useful model, do analysis and create reports. Individuals can immediately translate what they know about their business or how to present their ideas into a form and format that makes sense to them. They can update and modify it whenever they wish, and the change will occur instantly. For these business users ease of use and control trump putting up with the issues that routinely occur when spreadsheets are used in collaborative enterprise processes. Moreover, it’s hard to persuade “spreadsheet jockeys” who have strong command of spreadsheet features and functions that they should start over and learn how to use a new application. Those who have spent their careers working with spreadsheets often find it difficult to work with formal applications because those applications work in ways that aren’t intuitive. Personally these diehards may resist because not having control over analyses and data would diminish their standing in the organization. Nevertheless, there are compelling reasons for vendors to keep trying to devise dedicated software that an average business user would find as easy and intuitive as a desktop spreadsheet in the design, test and update phases. Such an application would eliminate the single most important obstacle that keeps organizations from switching. The disadvantages of using spreadsheets are clear and measurable. One of the most significant is that spreadsheets can waste large amounts of time when used inappropriately. After more than a few people become involved and a file is used and reused, issues begin to mount such as errors in data or formulas, broken links and inconsistencies. Changes to even moderately complex models are time-consuming. Soon, much of the time spent with the file is devoted to finding the sources of errors and discrepancies and fixing the mistakes. Our research confirms this. When it comes to important spreadsheets that people use over and over again to collaborate with colleagues, on average people spend about 12 hours per month consolidating, modifying and correcting the spreadsheets. That’s about a day and a half per month – or five to 10 percent of their time – just maintaining these spreadsheets. Business applications vendors started to address business users’ reluctance to use their software more than a decade ago when they began to use Microsoft Excel as the user interface (UI). This provides a familiar environment for those who mainly need to enter data or want to do some “sandbox” modeling and analysis. Since the software behind the UI is a program that uses some sort of database, companies avoid the issues that almost arise when spreadsheets are used in enterprise applications. There also are products that address some of the inherent issues with such as the difficulty of consolidating data from multiple individual spreadsheets as well as keeping data consistent. Visualization software, a relatively new category, greatly simplifies the process of collecting data from one or more enterprise data sources and creating reports and dashboards. As the enterprise software applications business evolves to meet the needs of a new generation of users, as I mentioned recently, it’s imperative that vendors find a way to provide users with software that is a real alternative to desktop spreadsheets. By this I mean enterprise software that provides business users with the same ability to model, create reports and work with data the way they do in a desktop spreadsheet as well as update and modify these by themselves without any IT resources. At the same time, this software has to eliminate all of the problems that are inevitable when spreadsheets are used. Only at that point will a dedicated application become a real alternative to using a spreadsheet for a key business process. Regards, Robert Kugel – SVP Research
One of the issues in handling the tax function in business, especially where it involves direct (income) taxes, is the technical expertise required. At the more senior levels, practitioners must be knowledgeable about accounting and tax law. In multinational corporations, understanding differences between accounting and legal structures in various localities and their effects on tax liabilities requires more knowledge. Yet when I began to study the structures of corporate tax departments, I was struck by the scarcity of senior-level titles in them. This may reflect the low profile of the department in most companies and the tactical nature of the work it has performed. Advances in information technology have the potential to automate most of the manual tasks tax professionals perform. This increase in efficiency will enable tax departments to fill a more strategic, important role in the companies they serve.
In the past (and still in many organizations today) there was a sharp pyramid of value-added work in the tax function, with tax attorneys at the top, corporate counsel in the middle and tax practitioners at the bottom. The tax attorney, versed in the intricacies of laws and their applications – especially in cross-border situations – typically has had the greatest ability to minimize tax expenditures. The role requires a combination of inspiration and art to see the underlying logic of tax laws and legal structures to be able to apply creative interpretations to black-letter statutes and has been rewarded accordingly. Senior corporate counsel has weighty responsibilities and therefore merited elevated titles. But the role of tax preparation has been oriented toward functional execution. It typically is done hard-working experts who have limited impact on policy and decision-making. Because the workings of this group are particularly sensitive, it also has a culture that attracts people who tend to be tight-lipped and not given to self-promotion. This hierarchy has helped to keep tax matters outside of the mainstream activities of the corporation, as I have discussed.
Today, information technology can flatten the value-added pyramid by automating routine work. Doing this can give skilled practitioners in the tax department more time to spend on value-adding analysis and contingency planning because they spend less time on data gathering, data transformation and calculations. Increased productivity creates more time to find tax or cash flow savings, as well as to provide better-informed guidance on alternative strategies. To accomplish this, corporations must automate their tax provisioning process; most will benefit from having a tax data warehouse, which I have written about. However, our recent Office of Finance research finds that this is not widely done. Instead almost all midsize and larger companies (90%) use spreadsheets exclusively or mainly to manage their tax provisioning process, including calculations and analysis, and this demands manual effort.
Desktop spreadsheets are not well suited to any repetitive collaborative enterprise task or as a corporate data store. They are a poor choice for managing taxes because they are error-prone, lack transparency, are difficult to use for data aggregation, lack controls and have a limited ability to handle more than a few dimensions at a time. Data from corporate sources, such as ERP systems, may have to be adjusted and transformed to put this information into its proper tax context, such as performing allocations or transforming the data so that it reflects the tax-relevant legal entity structure rather than corporate management structure. Moreover, in desktop spreadsheets it is difficult to parse even moderately complex nested formulas or spot errors and inconsistencies. Pivot tables have only a limited ability to manage key dimensions (such as time, location, business unit and legal entity) in performing analyses and reporting. As a data store, spreadsheets may be inaccessible to others in the organization if they are kept on an individual’s hard drive. Spreadsheets are rarely documented well, so it is difficult for anyone other than the creator to understand their structure and formulas or their underlying assumptions. The provenance of the data in the spreadsheets may be unclear, making it difficult to understand the source of discrepancies between individual spreadsheets as well as making audits difficult. Companies are able to deal with spreadsheets’ inherent shortcomings only by spending more time than they should assembling data, making calculations, checking for errors and creating reports.
On the other hand, a tax data warehouse addresses spreadsheet issues. It is a central, dedicated repository of all of the data used in the tax provisioning process, including the minutiae of adjustments, reconciliations and true-ups. As the authoritative source, it ensures that data and formulas used for provisioning are consistent and easily audited. Since it preserves all of the data, formulas and legal entity structures exactly as they were in the tax period, it’s far easier to handle a subsequent tax audit, even several years later. In this respect a dedicated tax data warehouse has an advantage over corporate or finance department data warehouses, which are designed for general use and often are modified from one year to the next as a result of divestitures or reorganizations.
Another benefit of automating provisioning and having a tax data warehouse is that this approach provides greater visibility and transparency (at least internally) into tax-related decisions. This gives senior executives greater certainty about and control over tax matters and allows them to engage more in tax-related decisions. In companies where executives are more engaged in tax, the tax department gains visibility. Also, because automation enables better process and data control, external auditors spend less time examining the process and tax-related calculations in financial filings, and it cuts the time the tax department might need to spend in audit defense with tax authorities. Process automation enables tax departments to increase their efficiency and give members more time to apply their tax expertise to increase the business value of their work, thereby flattening the value-added pyramid.
The scope of the value that tax practitioners can add is broadening because having greater visibility into the methods used in direct tax provisioning will be increasingly important. I have noted that companies that have significant operations in multiple tax jurisdictions are likely to face a more challenging future. While I’m skeptical that there will be a massive change in how tax authorities manage cross-border tax information soon (which is more a reflection of the competence of the taxing authorities than their motivation), it’s worth assuming that it will grow at least gradually and therefore companies must be prepared to deal with increasingly better-informed tax officials. Transparency also fosters consistency in tax treatments and the ability to manage the degree of risk that CEOs, CFOs and their board are willing to take on in weighing how conservative or aggressive a corporation would like to be in how it handles taxes. This is another way for tax practitioners to increase their value and visibility in their corporation.
Forward-looking companies have been making the transition to automating their direct tax provisioning process, redefining their approach to managing taxes and giving their tax departments greater visibility. It’s unlikely that these companies are using desktop spreadsheets to any meaningful degree. It’s not clear when the mainstreaming of the tax department will be common, but it’s probably at least several years away. Evidence that a fundamental shift has occurred in how corporations manage their income tax exposure will exist when a majority of midsize and larger companies use dedicated software rather than spreadsheets for this function. That’s also likely to be when Senior Vice President – Tax becomes a common title. This promotion won’t be the result of title inflation. It will happen because the tax department’s role will be important, making a bigger, more visible contribution to the company as practitioners focus more on analyses that optimize tax decisions and far less on the calculations and other repetitive mechanical processes that consume time but produce little value.
I recommend that every CFO of a company operating in multiple tax jurisdictions with even a slightly complex legal structure consider automating tax provisioning and deploying a third-party (rather than a custom-built) tax data warehouse.
Robert Kugel – SVP Research