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“What’s next?” is the perennially insistent question in information technology. One common observation about the industry holds that cycles of innovation alternate between hardware and software. New types and forms of hardware enable innovations in software that utilize the power of that hardware. These innovations create new markets, alter consumer behavior and change how work is performed. This, in turn, sets the stage for new types and forms of hardware that complement these emerging product and service markets as well as the new ways of performing work, creating products and fashioning services that they engender. For example, the emerging collection of wearable computing devices seems likely to generate a new wave of software/hardware innovation, as my colleague Mark Smith has noted. This said, I think that the idea of alternating cycles no longer applies. It would be convenient if we could assign discrete time periods to hardware dominance and software dominance, but like echoes as they fade, the reverberations are no longer as neatly synchronized as they once were. Moreover, adoption and adaptation of technology by consumers reflected in the design of work, products and services always lags – and lags in different ways, further blurring the timing of cycles.
Adding to the messiness, technologies enter the market and evolve in ways that seem designed to embarrass pundits. In the 1990s, Bluetooth was supposed to be the next big thing for wireless connections; Wi-Fi wasn’t on most radar screens. Today, Bluetooth has an important role, but Wi-Fi is bigger. Some heralded technology breakthroughs sink without a trace. Sadly, that has been the case for multidimensional spreadsheets like Javelin and Lotus Improv. Other technologies appear, are used in trendy ways and then become mainstream. Instant messaging and chat immediately replaced passing paper notes in class for teenage girls. While somewhat passé in this role today, they have become an essential tool in the workplace. Of course the rate at which technology is incorporated into mainstream business use varies greatly. The Internet became central to business and commerce at an astonishingly fast pace while earlier inventions such as voice mail took about a decade to become universal.
Software has dominated as a driver over the past two decades, but devices and business process changes have become increasingly important in amplifying the impact and producing knock-on effects that spur innovations of all sorts. Smartphones and other mobile devices might have become another Minitel except that there were programming tools and business models in place (including the absence of top-down control and regulation) that spurred ingenuity, substantially enhancing the value of these devices and making them highly adaptable to personal preferences and individual business needs. Rapid and broad adoption of mobile devices has been driving change in business software to enable companies to utilize the value of these devices. Yet there are plenty of examples of how organizations have failed to change how they conduct business. Our benchmark research finds that companies have been slow to adopt better methods facilitated by information technology for planning and budgeting, closing the books, managing the workforces or handling customer interactions. Software-driven change will come in these areas over the next decade, driven in part by a generational shift as baby boomers retire, and more attention will be paid to cognitive ergonomics and the resulting increased attention to the design of the user experience in business computing, such as gamification.
Innovation in business often takes longer to appear than futurists hope. One part of today’s answer to the “What’s next?” question includes all the things that software marketing departments have been promising over the past decade or so that haven’t come to pass yet. Usually, this is because there is some confusion on the part of vendors between “easier” and “easy.” Many innovations and enhancements in business software have made them easier to use but not easy enough for mainstream adoption or easy enough to spur process innovation or a change in management practices. One example is advanced analytics. There have been steady improvements making it possible for many kinds of users to employ them in business, but most users today require advanced degrees or specialized training (although I have some hope for new mass market tools on the horizon). Consequently, our research finds that two-thirds of companies make little or no use of advanced analytics.
Another example is in business planning. For all the discussion about changing budgeting and planning, practices have remained pretty much the same over the past two decades. One way to make planning and budgeting more useful is to make reviewing results more actionable. This could be accomplished more easily if organizations could immediately drill down into the details of the results rather than having to wait for follow-up information or debate what the likely causes might have been. Yet only about one-fourth of participants in our business planning research are able to get to the numbers behind the numbers while the meeting is under way. Improved software technology is making this easier to do. For example, many ERP vendors have changed the basic architecture of their systems to make them capable of handling transaction processing and analytical tasks at the same time. But technology alone will not make a difference. It will take a change in management and demand that periodic reviews be highly interactive to make a difference.
Even with hidebound management techniques, it’s likely that new devices coming to the market will be major sources of innovation, either those that complement existing business practices and consumer demands (which are obvious candidates for rapid adoption) or as a speculative venture. The loudest buzz is around the Internet of Things. This is an amorphous concept at the moment, and there are considerable technology hurdles that must surmounted for it to become practical (notably the limited address capacity in the IPv4 standard). Still, the concept has a good deal of theoretical appeal when one extrapolates the value already realized by increasing the scope of people-to-machine connections (such as for monitoring processes or the health of devices) and the variety and number of machine-to-machine control and instrumentation (for example, automatically tracking physical assets and optimizing machine performance by monitoring conditions).
As I mentioned earlier, wearable computing is another emerging area of innovation. Thus far, it has had more allure than demand, but that was true also for the personal digital assistant, which had a few notable flops before catching on and becoming a mass-market device, eventually to be subsumed into the smartphone. Devices are already being worn for health, entertainment and augmented reality purposes. Bracelets, fobs and glasses have considerable scope for use in business settings, for consumer applications and for wellness. Glasses and wrist devices in particular have the ability to augment the utility of any computing device as sensors or for input/output. A computer screen is rather like a keyhole through which one “looks” into the computing device. Dual screens are now commonplace because this expands the breadth of view of the user. Glasses can broaden the scope of view considerably more, improving the ergonomics and expanding the utility of any computing device. Any of these devices could augment the capabilities of software applications. They will give software designers added scope to enhance the capabilities and usability of applications.
So the answer to “What’s next?” in business computing probably is “ A lot – and sooner rather than later.” There’s a tendency to view current technology in terms of the major advances of the past. If that is any guide, today’s information technology will soon appear pitifully primitive. Consumer use of technology has outstripped that of business, in part because multiple individual needs are generally less difficult to serve than that of an organization and the tasks the technology performs usually are far less complex: They’re apps, not applications. Yet business computing is on the cusp of a fundamental shift in which devices and software are powerful enough to adapt to the needs of users. In the past, business computing was defined by the limits of information technology and required that businesses adapt to those limitations. Everything from a richer and more enjoyable (or at least less painful) user experience to the transformation of accounting systems from paper-based analogs to a truly digital ledger has the power to change for the better how businesses operate.
Robert Kugel – SVP Research
Tagetik provides financial performance management software. One particularly useful aspect of its suite is the Collaborative Disclosure Management (CDM). CDM addresses an important need in finance departments, which routinely generate highly formatted documents that combine words and numbers. Often these documents are assembled by contributors outside of the finance department; human resources, facilities, legal and corporate groups are the most common. The data used in these reports almost always come from multiple sources – not just enterprise systems such as ERP and financial consolidation software but also individual spreadsheets and databases that collect and store nonfinancial data (such as information about leased facilities, executive compensation, fixed assets, acquisitions and corporate actions). Until recently, these reports were almost always cobbled together manually – a painstaking process made even more time-consuming by the need to double-check the documents for accuracy and consistency. The adoption of a more automated approach was driven by the requirement imposed several years ago by United States Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) that companies tag their required periodic disclosure filings using eXtensible Business Reporting Language (XBRL), which I have written about. This mandate created a tipping point in the workload, making the manual approach infeasible for a large number of companies and motivating them to adopt tools to automate the process. Although disclosure filings were the initial impetus to acquire collaborative disclosure management software, companies have found it useful for generating a range of formatted periodic reports that combine text and data, including board books (internal documents for senior executives and members of the board of directors), highly formatted periodic internal reports and filings with nonfinancial regulators or lien holders.
Tagetik’s Collaborative Disclosure Management automates the document creation process, eliminating many repetitive, mechanical functions and reducing the time needed to administer the process and ensure accuracy. Automation can shorten finance processes significantly. For example, our benchmark research on trends in developing the fast, clean close finds that companies that use little or no automation in their accounting close take almost twice as long to complete the process as those that fully automate it (9.1 days vs. 5.7 days). Manually assembling the narrative text from perhaps dozens of contributors and combining it with data used in tables and elsewhere in the document is a time-consuming chore. Regulatory filings are legal documents that must be completely accurate and conform to mandated presentation styles. They require careful review to ensure accuracy and completeness. Complicating this effort recently are increasingly stringent deadlines, especially in the U.S. Anyone who has been a party to these efforts knows that there can be frequent changes in the narratives and presentation of the numbers as they are reviewed by different parties, and those responsible need to ensure that any change to a number that occurs is automatically reflected everywhere that amount is cited in the document; to use the depreciation and amortization figure as an example, that would include the statement of cash flows, income statement, the text of the management discussion and analysis and the text or tables of one or more footnotes. Moreover, automated systems afford greater control over the data used. They make it possible to answer the common question of where a number came from quickly and with complete assurance. While inaccuracies in other types of financial documents may not have legal consequences, mistakes can have reputational or financial consequences.
Those managing the process also spend a great deal of energy simply checking the document to ensure that the various sections include the latest wording, that the numbers are consistent in the tables and text, that amounts have been rounded properly (which can be really complicated) and that the right people have signed off on every part of the filing. Automation obviates the need for much of these tasks. Tagetik’s CDM workflow-enables the process, so handoffs are automated, participants get alerts if they haven’t completed their steps in timely fashion, and administrators can keep track of where everyone is in the process. Workflow also promotes consistent execution of the process, and the workflows can be easily modified as needed.
In designing Collaborative Disclosure Management, Tagetik took advantage of users’ widespread familiarity with Microsoft Excel and Word to reduce the amount of training required to use its product. CDM’s workflow design makes it relatively easy for business users to define and modify business process automation. Typically, individuals or small groups work on different sections of the document. CDM enables multiple contributors from finance, accounting, legal, corporate and other functions to work with their part of the document without being concerned about other contributors’ versions. Work can proceed smoothly, and those administering the process can see at any time which components have been completed, are in progress or have not even started. Tagetik’s software can cut the time required to prepare any periodic document, since once a company has configured its system to create what is in effect a template, it’s relatively easy to generate these documents on monthly, quarterly or annual bases. The numbers relevant to the current period are updated from the specified controlled sources, and references to tabular data within the text are automatically adjusted to tie back to these new figures. Often a large percentage of the narrative text is boilerplate that either must not be updated or requires only limited editing to reflect new information. Starting with the previous edition of the report, contributors can quickly mark up a revised version, and reviewers can focus only on what has changed. Other important automation features are data validation, which reduces errors and revisions, and the system’s ability to round numbers using the appropriate statutory methodology.
CDM also handles XBRL tagging, which is essential for all SEC documents and necessary for an increasing number of regulatory filings around the world. The software specifically handles tagging for the two main European prudential regulatory filings for banks and other credit extending institutions, COREP (Common Reporting related to capital) and FINREP (Financial Reporting performed in a consistent fashion across multiple countries).
Companies can gain several key benefits by automating the production of their periodic regulatory filings and internal or external financial reports that combine text and data. One of the most important is time. Automation can substantially reduce the time that highly trained and well-compensated people spend on mechanical tasks (freeing them to do more productive things), and the process can be completed sooner. Having the basic work completed sooner gives senior executives and outside directors more time to review the document before it must be filed or made public. Time that can be devoted to considering how best to polish the narratives or if necessary lengthen upstream deadlines to handle last-minute developments and consider options for how best to treat accounting events. Automation can also reduce the chance of errors, since the numbers tie directly back to the source systems and (if properly configured) ensure that references in the narratives and footnotes to items in tables and the numbers in those table agree completely. Restatements of financial reports caused by errors are relatively rare but when they occur are exceptionally costly for public companies’ reputations.
Disclosure management systems are an essential component for any financial performance management (FPM) system. All midsize and larger corporations should be using this software to automate the production of their periodic mandated filings and other documents that combine text and data. They will find that they are useful in cutting the time and effort required to produce these documents, provide senior executives and directors more time to review and craft the final versions, and reduce the chance of errors in the process. Companies that are using older FPM software should investigate replacing it with an FPM suite to gain the additional capabilities – including disclosure management – that newer suites offer. Tagetik’s should be among the financial systems evaluated for office of finance.
Robert Kugel – SVP Research