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Our recent Office of Finance benchmark research demonstrates the importance of using automation to execute finance department functions. Information technology systems do at least two things very well that make better use of people’s time, and both of them can substantially improve organizational performance. First, they eliminate the need for people to do repetitive tasks, which frees them to spend time on more valuable work that requires judgment and skill. IT systems also can be programmed to focus only on relevant information while eliminating the need to get immersed in detail. The latter capability supports a “management by exception” approach, which enables executives and managers to better allocate how and where they spend their time.
Our research shows that in finance operations many companies don’t take advantage of these capabilities. Only half of participating organizations have automated a significant percentage of their finance processes. In particular, just 11 percent have nearly or fully automated their financial close, while almost half (48%) apply some automation and 36 percent little or none. It also reveals automation’s positive impact on performance: 71 percent of companies that nearly or fully automate their close process are able to close their quarterly books in six or fewer business days whereas 43 percent those that have only partially automated are able to do so and just 23 percent that use little or no automation have this ability. Another example is the automation of reconciliation, which is an essential element of the close process. It’s a repetitive task that lends itself to automation, and affordable software for managing the task is mature. Yet just 37 percent of companies have applied automation to their reconciliation process. Automation of reconciliation also correlates with how quickly a company closes its books: 57 percent of companies that use software for this purpose close their quarters within six business days and 30 percent do it in four business days. By contrast, 73 percent of the companies that do not automate reconciliation take seven or more working days to close.
Spreadsheets are a valuable tool for many finance department tasks, but they are out of place when used for repetitive, collaborative enterprise-wide processes. Indeed, they are both a symptom and a cause of dysfunctional processes, systems and data. A symptom because they frequently become the default option to put a bandage over, for example, issues that arise because systems are not properly integrated or a process is not supported by the appropriate technology such as a dedicated application. But spreadsheets remain the tool of choice for a variety of finance department tasks. Almost all midsize and larger companies (those with 100 or more employees) use them for management accounting analysis and nine out of 10 use them to manage their long-range and strategic planning process and to do financial analysis. More than eight in 10 use spreadsheets for direct and indirect tax provisioning as well as treasury management. Spreadsheets have their place, but our research demonstrates that they are frequently misused.
The close is a useful process to benchmark because almost every company does it and there’s a measurable outcome: the number of days after the period’s end in which the company completes the process. To be sure, this metric does not represent the full amount of time companies spend on executing the close. Corporations that close their books the day after the period ends usually have already started parts of the process before the end of the period, and some of these processes are performed weekly or even daily in order to balance workloads over the month. Yet to focus on the total hours spent is to miss the point: Managing to a faster close is not just about efficiency, it’s also about getting the numbers to executives and managers so they can react quickly to issues and opportunities. The research demonstrates a close correlation between when the close is completed and the timeliness of communicating that information to the rest of the company.
Time is the critical ingredient that determines the overall performance of finance and accounting departments. Poorly performing organizations usually are mired in an endless cycle of fighting fires – for example, dealing with the impact of processes that are poorly designed or not properly executed. These departments are constantly contending with the impact of information sources that are unreliable, difficult to access or both. Poorly designed systems add to the problem, generating hours of work in the form of manual reconciliations done in spreadsheets. Think of a finance department that does not apply automation and that has poorly designed or executed processes and systems as a caged hamster running on a wheel. It expends a great deal of effort on repetitive manual processes that are only marginally productive.
Software automation by itself will not address all of the challenges of a finance and accounting organization. To optimize performance companies almost always must deal with an interrelated combination of people, process, technology and data issues in a holistic fashion. Yet confronted with the day-to-day struggle of meeting deadlines, many finance executives put off addressing their productivity and effectiveness issues. They shouldn’t, because a continuous improvement process involving a steady set of small advances can yield impressive results over time. Identifying the biggest time sinks that can be readily eliminated and then eliminating them can free up the resources needed to address the next set of significant problems. Even something as straightforward as uncovering unnecessary work or replacing the worst spreadsheets with better technology (for instance, implementing automated or self-service reporting) will be beneficial. For this to happen, though, senior finance and accounting executives must make automation a priority.
Robert Kugel – SVP Research
A company’s enterprise resource planning (ERP) system is one of the pillars of its record-keeping and process management architecture and is central to many of its critical functions. It is the heart of its accounting and financial record-keeping processes. In manufacturing and distribution, ERP manages inventory and some elements of logistics. Companies also may use it to handle core human resources record-keeping and to store product and customer master data. Often, companies bolt other functionality onto the core ERP system or extensively modify it to address limitations in the system. Because of the breadth of its functionality, those unfamiliar with the details of information technology may perceive ERP as a black box that controls just about everything. So it’s not surprising that when a company’s information technology becomes more of an issue than a solution, many assume that the ERP system needs replacing. This may or may not be true, so it’s important for a company to assess its existing ERP system in the context of its business requirements (as they are now and will be in the immediate future) and evaluate options for it.
A common scenario for a company to replace its ERP system is because the business has outgrown (or will soon outgrow) its capacity to handle transaction volumes. Replacement also becomes necessary when the system no long meets business requirements, as, for example, when it is too difficult to configure to specific requirements. This issue might have developed because the company’s business model has changed significantly since purchasing the system or because it had to adjust its go-to-market strategy, added a new product line, expanded geographically or made an acquisition. Another reason to change may be that for a company with an adequate on-premises ERP system migrating to the cloud can eliminate a substantial portion of work done by its IT staff, enabling the department to focus on more strategic efforts, reduce headcount or both. A shift to the cloud also may improve the performance of an ERP system, especially if it’s an on-premises system running on aging hardware and the organization does not have the resources to maintain the system well.
Then, too, there are less obvious reasons that necessitate replacement. ERP systems are inherently complex, as I have noted, because they cross multiple business functions in many types of business, each of which has its own requirements. Seemingly trivial elements, such as the particular sequencing of tasks in a process by an ERP system, may be irrelevant for many businesses but have a negative impact on some. For example, when customer orders are almost always infrequent, it doesn’t matter when in the sequencing of the sales order process the system records the use of credit to confirm that the order can go through. An order must be rejected if adding it to the customer’s outstanding balance will bring the account over its limit. However, if orders occur frequently, the ERP system must execute the credit check at the first step or customers routinely will exceed their credit limits. It’s easy to overlook a detail such as this in the software selection process and even in the initial implementation. If that happens, dealing with the credit limit may require software customization or a process workaround if the root cause is the application itself. However, replacing the existing ERP system often is necessary if there are multiple issues such as these and the overall impact of them is severe enough to be measured by a combination of monetary losses, wasted time, lax controls, an inability to measure performance or limited visibility of information and processes.
At the same time, replacing the ERP system may not be the most cost-effective solution to business issues. To gauge that aspect, an important first step is determining whether the process or data issues identified by users are the result of a poorly executed implementation. Midsize companies in particular don’t always get the most competent consultants to set up their software, especially if the consultant (or the individual running the project) is not familiar with the peculiarities of the company’s industry or its specific operating requirements. Checking in with user group members in a similar business is an easy way to confirm if the issue is systemic or simply a poor job of setting up the software. If, based on feedback from other users, the situation appears dire enough, it may be worthwhile to engage a new consultant to fix the mistakes of the first one.
In some instances a “bolt-on” application (that is, software designed for easy integration with another, specific application) may be the most cost-effective way of addressing existing shortcomings. This is especially true for companies using a cloud-based system. Most ERP systems have rich functionality for handling core tasks such as accounting, human resources and inventory management. Yet the package a company is using may not have sufficient functionality for a specific process needed to run the business. For example, companies (particularly growing midsize ones) may find that their human resources department needs software to automate recruiting and onboarding of employees and that these capabilities are absent or insufficient in their ERP package. In our benchmark research on workforce management almost half (45%) of companies said they need new applications to address the full range of their human resources management requirements. In other cases, functionality necessary to manage the business may be missing. Companies that have a recurring revenue or subscription business usually find that the ERP system falls short of their requirements for invoicing. Bolt-on applications usually replace spreadsheets, ensuring that data is captured and available in a single controlled system where it can be accessed in an extended process (such as order-to-cash). Replacing desktop spreadsheets can save considerable time by automating tasks and eliminating the need to re-enter data into one or more systems. Having accurate and controlled data makes reports and metrics more reliable. It saves the finance and accounting departments time by eliminating the need to perform periodic reconciliations to ensure the accuracy of the data. Of course, the challenge with any bolt-on is that it is one more piece of software that requires attention, and integration with the core ERP system can pose challenges, especially over the long run.
A company also may believe that it needs a new ERP system in order to consolidate data in a single system to facilitate analysis and reporting. In this instance, however, it may find that an operational data store, which integrates data from multiple sources for additional processing, will address all or most of its issues, especially if the company uses custom software or some niche application that supports its operations but is unavailable in an ERP system that otherwise meet its needs. A data store may prove to be a more practical choice because it’s much less costly and disruptive than replacing an otherwise well-functioning system. It also can provide flexibility in the longer term. As the company adds new applications, data from this new source can be fed into the operational data store. But be aware of challenges in setting up an operational data store or adding new system data feeds to it, using one usually requires an IT organization with the skills to maintain it over time.
Many companies are loath to replace an otherwise well-functioning ERP system because doing so is expensive and usually disruptive to operations. Also, implementing a new system almost always requires retraining and some adjustments in operating procedures. Our research on the Office of Finance finds that on average companies are keeping their ERP systems one year longer today than they did a decade ago. Deciding whether to replace an ERP system is not always straightforward. The process is made more difficult because today organizations have many more software and data options than they used to. Few companies have the expertise in-house that will enable them to decide the best course of action. There may even be vested interests within the organization that will prevent them from making the best choice. Finding a truly independent advisor that understands both information technology and the specific business requirements can be the best way to sort out the options and help make the difficult technology decisions.
Robert Kugel – SVP Research