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Reconciling accounts at the end of a period is one of those mundane finance department tasks that are ripe for automation. Reconciliation is the process of comparing account data (at the balance or item level) that exists either in two accounting systems or in an accounting system and somewhere else (such as in a spreadsheet or on paper). The purpose of the reconciling process is to identify things that don’t match (as they must in double-entry bookkeeping systems) and then assess the nature and causes of the variances. This is followed by making adjustments or corrections to ensure that the information in a company’s books is accurate. Most of the time, reconciliation is a matter of good housekeeping. The process identifies errors and omissions in the accounting process, including invalid journal postings and duplicate accounting entries, so they can be corrected. Reconciliation also is an important line of defense against fraud, since inconsistencies may be a sign of such activity.
But let’s be frank: The reconciliation process is tedious. As for all tedious processes in modern corporations, it makes sense to let machines do this work. Reconciliation is a part of the accounting close process, and one of the main benefits of automation here is that it can accelerate the process. This is important because our benchmark research on closing finds that it’s actually taking longer for companies to close their books than it used to. The research also shows a correlation between the degree of automation in the close process and the time it takes to complete it.
Back in the days of quill pens and blotters it might have been manageable to meticulously comb through accounting entries. Today, however, volumes of data are too great to make this realistically feasible, and technology provides accountants with faster and more effective means of spotting patterns and familiarizing them with the peculiarities of the company’s books. For CFOs and controllers who are trying to determine how to begin the process of transforming their department to make it a more strategic player in their company, here is a way to free finance staff to do more productive tasks.
There are three important virtues associated with automating reconciliation. The first is consistency: Business rules, policies and procedures are applied consistently in ways that are in line with accounting policies that external and internal auditors accept. Machines are more reliably consistent than humans in such tasks. The second virtue is elegance: Automated systems simplify the process while making it faster and more accurate. They enable auditors to focus their time and attention on the most important issues that arise from the process. The ability of automated systems to highlight exceptions eliminates the need for random sampling, which both consumes time and poses the risk that something important will go unnoticed. The third virtue is efficiency: Automated systems enable a company to substantially reduce the amount of time needed to complete the reconciliation of accounts because the system performs the purely mechanical tasks and skips the accounts in which there has been no activity or in which the amounts to be reconciled are too small to be material. These systems also reduce the time internal and external auditors need to check reconciliations because all of the work is centralized in a single system and because the system and its configuration functions as a higher level of control in the reconciliation process that’s easy to test and monitor.
Despite these obvious virtues, most companies don’t use such capable automation. The majority manage reconciliations in spreadsheets shared through email. Electronic spreadsheets were a major advance decades ago. Today, however, they are not the best choice because the information they contain is fragmented, difficult to consolidate, hard to share and prone to error. Running this process with spreadsheets and email is more difficult and time-consuming to manage and control than using a dedicated reconciliation application. A well-designed dedicated application assigns ownership of every task to individuals and provides real-time visibility into which parts are on schedule, which are behind and which may be in danger of falling behind schedule. These systems employ templates that are centrally controlled to ensure consistency and quality. The templates can be updated as needed. A spreadsheet may start as a template, but it’s difficult to control them, even with protections built in.
Documentation is another weak spot in spreadsheets shared through email. Although there are objective aspects to the reconciliation process, those performing it ultimately must use their judgment. These judgments must be supported by narratives and calculations that clearly and completely explain the decisions each person made and by citing supporting documents wherever necessary. A related aspect is approvals, since good governance and control of accounting systems requires that someone inspect and approve the work of others when their actions (or lack of action) can have a material impact on the quality and accuracy of financial statements. So another important element that a dedicated reconciliation system can provide are approval workflows to ensure that the work has been completed before the books can be closed.
Automating reconciliation can be a first step in creating a virtuous cycle. Many executives in finance organizations would like to improve the performance of their department but face the challenge of finding the time to devote to such efforts. The staff time that can be saved through automation can be reinvested in finding the root causes of other issues that bog down the department and fixing them. Automating reconciliation can accelerate the financial close, improve productivity, reduce errors and the related possibility (albeit limited) of financial misstatements, enhance control and diminish the risk of financial fraud. These are reasons enough why all midsize and larger corporations should investigate the benefits of dedicated reconciliation software.
Robert Kugel – SVP Research
Host Analytics has introduced AirliftXL, a new feature of its cloud-based financial performance management (FPM) suite that enables its software to translate users’ spreadsheets into the Host Analytics format. I find it significant in three respects. First, it can substantially reduce the time and resources it takes for a company to go live in adopting the Host Analytics suite, lowering the cost of implementation and accelerating time to value. Second, it enables Host Analytics users who have the appropriate permissions to create and modify models and templates that they use in planning, budgeting, consolidation and reporting. This can enhance the value of the system by making it easier to maintain. Third, it can make it far easier to routinely collect and connect planning and analytical models used by all departments and business users as it has outlined in its planning cloud offering. Although it has limitations in its initial release, AirliftXL gives corporations a workable alternative to stand-alone spreadsheets and has the potential to substantially increase productivity and effectiveness of an organization in the full range of budgeting, planning, consolidation and reporting functions.
AirliftXL addresses a fundamental issue that diminishes the productivity of companies, especially finance departments. I’ve noted in the past that desktop spreadsheets are indispensable tools for individual tasks and ad-hoc analysis and reporting, but they are poorly suited to repetitive collaborative enterprise-wide functions such as planning, budgeting, consolidation and reporting. Spreadsheets are seductive because so many people are well trained in using them that they can translate their ideas into even complex models, do analysis and create reports. However, the productivity that spreadsheets afford in authoring is more than offset when they are used over time. Desktop spreadsheets have fundamental technological shortcomings that make them unwieldy for any repetitive, collaborative task. After more than a few people become involved and a file is used and reused, cracks begin to appear. Very quickly, a large percentage of the time spent with the file is devoted to maintaining and updating them, as our spreadsheet research has shown with up to 18.1 hours per month in maintenance that I have analyzed. Spreadsheets are notoriously error-prone. In addition to monetary losses, some of which have been spectactular, there is a drag on productivity as users try to locate the source of errors and discrepancies that routinely occur in spreadsheets and then fix those mistakes.
AirliftXL enables ordinary users to create spreadsheet models and reports in Microsoft Excel and then quickly convert these to the Host Analytics enterprise system. Those that “own” a model, analysis, report or process can control these in Host Analytics. This speeds the process of setting up Host Analytics because there’s no need for someone to “translate” the company’s current set of spreadsheet models, analyses and reports. This cuts the time (and therefore the cost) of setting up the new system.
It also means that whenever changes need to be made, those responsible can make the changes themselves. Allocations and analytical models used in planning and consolidations can become part of a company’s system almost immediately. These alterations can be effected by “exporting” the Host Analytics object to a spreadsheet, modifying it and uploading back to the system. As well, users can create new models, analytics and reports in Excel and import them into the Host Analytics system. There’s no need for resident expertise or consulting time to make such changes. AirliftXL provides an organization with the best of both worlds: first, the up-front productivity that comes from enabling the author, a subject-matter expert, to quickly translate his or her ideas into a spreadsheet and, second, the ongoing productivity that is achieved when the plan, analytic model or report is kept in a centralized, easily accessible and controlled environment. These same authors can update and expand their analytical models or reports. Host Analytics can render models back into an Excel spreadsheet and the owner – not a consultant or trained IT person – can make the necessary changes and then upload them back into the system. This is an important capability because change is a constant in businesses and these changes must be reflected in financial performance management systems.
Organizations have hundreds, sometimes thousands, of spreadsheets circulating that support a multitude of processes and users in every department and business unit. AirliftXL can help incorporate them into a controlled enterprise software environment. Information that today is kept in one part of an organization can be viewed and used by others. Budgets and integrated business plans can quickly incorporate the most up-to-date information. Complex models now held in spreadsheets can be more controllable, consistent and safely accessible to a wider group of users. Creating links across individual spreadsheets (say, sales forecasts prepared by the sales organization and a company income statement forecast prepared by Finance) is straightforward, although linking to external data sources (say from a spreadsheet to a relational data store) is a little trickier. As well, Excel’s built-in financial, statistical and logical functions are all maintained in Host Analytics.
AirliftXL has the potential to be an important differentiator for the company. IBM Cognos has had something like this in Cognos Insight but from my analysis it is not as easy to use as the Host Analytics feature. Some corporations have finance IT professionals with deep subject-matter expertise as well as IT systems skills, but even their presence does not address the root cause of the misuse of spreadsheets. Most people who understand the needs of the business lack the IT skills necessary to use their company’s systems. They default to using spreadsheets because it is more expedient than trying to transfer their knowledge to someone who understands IT systems.
While AirliftXL is an important first step in taming the spreadsheet problem, it has limitations. For one, it’s not possible at this point to create a dynamic model such as an integrated income statement, balance sheet and statement of cash flows. This is a snap in a two-dimensional spreadsheet grid but much harder when working with a relational or multidimensional database. Moreover, there’s no guarantee that the spreadsheets imported into Host Analytics will be free of formulaic errors or even if it is well constructed. Thus, companies will need to put quality control processes in place, especially if a spreadsheet can have a material impact on the accuracy of financial statements or could defeat controls for fraud. It also would be handy if some vendor would create a product that could automate the digestion of masses of spreadsheets floating around companies as described in this patent for extracting semantics from data.
Despite these reservations Host Analytics’ AirliftXL provides an important capability that can cut costs of deploying and maintaining its software and increase its value to a company. This advancement builds on top of its recent rating as a Hot Vendor in the 2013 Value Index on Financial Performance Management. I recommend that corporations looking to change or upgrade all or some of their financial performance management suite consider Host Analytics and how AirliftXL helps transition the use of spreadsheets to a dedicated application approach.
Robert Kugel – SVP Research