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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 companiesvr_Office_of_Finance_11_automation_speeds_the_financial_close 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, vr_Office_of_Finance_04_spreadsheets_are_the_tool_of_choiceissues 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 overallvr_Office_of_Finance_09_fast_closers_have_more_timely_information 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.

Regards,

Robert Kugel – SVP Research

vr_Office_of_Finance_05_finance_should_take_strategic_roleFinance transformation” refers to a longstanding objective: shifting the focus of CFOs and finance departments from transaction processing to more strategic, higher-value functions. Our upcoming Office of Finance benchmark research confirms that most of organizations want their finance department to take a more strategic role in management of the company: nine in 10 participants said that it’s important or very important. (We are using “finance” in its broadest sense, including, for example, accounting, corporate finance, financial planning and analysis, treasury and tax functions.) Finance departments have the ability and at least an implicit mandate to improve business performance and enable a corporation to execute strategy more effectively. Yet the research shows that becoming strategic is a work in progress. Most departments handle the basics well, but half fall short in areas that can contribute significantly to the performance of their company. More than three-fourths of participants said they perform accounting, external financial reporting, financial analysis, budgeting and management accounting well or very well. But only half said that about their ability to do product and customer profitability management, strategic and long-range planning and business development.

We asked research participants to identify the three most important issues finance departments confront in a dozen functional areas: accounting, budgeting, cost accounting, customer profitability management, external financial reporting, financial analysis, financial governance and internal audit, management accounting, product profitability management, strategic and long-range planning, tax management and treasury and cash management. We gave as choices for issues analytics, data availability and quality, management effectiveness, process design, software and training. As a whole, participants did not point to a single overarching issue. On average, none of the six issues was selected by more than half of participants, and the difference in frequency between the top three issues – process, analytics and data – were statistically insignificant. The identification of these top three as important issues confronting Finance is consistent with other research we have done. On the other hand, software was the issue least frequently named, chosen by just 24 percent. Yet failure to use highly capable software and reliance on spreadsheets often are root causes of process, analytics and data issues. The inability to recognize the importance of technology in supporting finance processes is an ongoing barrier to improving the performance of finance departments. The research provides several examples.

UntitledWe find that the best-performing finance organizations adopt a total quality management approach to finance and accounting. As with manufacturing operations, the objective in any finance department process should be to design quality into the process (for example, addressing root causes that drive errors in calculations and accounting classifications) and ensuring consistent execution of that process. A poorly designed process is often the heart of a problem that results in unnecessary work in the finance organization or in its impact on customer-facing roles or other aspects of company operations. Yet inconsistent execution can offset the benefits of a well-designed process, which is why software with built-in workflow addresses the root causes of issues that arise when processes are managed with spreadsheets and email.

The research also points to a good deal of skepticism (or ignorance) on the part of executives generally and finance professionals in particular about the role that technology can play in making the finance organization a more effective, strategic organization. While two-thirds said that business analytics will significantly influence their future performance, only half that many asserted that mobile technology and big data will be influential. Only half said that cloud computing can affect their performance, and just 15 percent said that about technology that promotes collaboration. (I have written that collaboration is an essential aspect of how work is performed in finance departments.)

One possible reason why technology fails to impress finance departments is that software companies have done a poor job of marketing to them. There is a lasting memory of the Y2K fizzle and the stoking of misplaced fears of the impact of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. For the most part, new technology is promoted as new and better with little regard to the tangible, practical benefits that address finance departments’ needs. This omission fails to engage a departmental culture that is resistant to change and averse to being “sold” anything.

One of the most important roles that a finance department has is providing the rest of the company with analysis and perspective on business results to enable them to understand “the why behind the what.” Here, too, using the right software can be a critical factor. Desktop spreadsheets are indispensable, but they are not always the right choice for analysis. Because they are two-dimensional grids, spreadsheets have a limited ability to manipulate data in multiple dimensions such as by business unit, product family, currency, geography and time (to name several of the most common). Pivot tables can be helpful, but they offer a limited ability to manage dimensions and are time-consuming. Replacing desktop spreadsheets with the right software usually is necessary to address analytics issues.

Data quality and availability are common issues in all of our benchmark research and usually stem from a variety of sources. Here, too, the inappropriate use of desktop spreadsheets is a factor that often goes unrecognized. When data is extracted from enterprise systems and then subjected to further analysis and reporting using spreadsheets, errors and inconsistencies inevitably follow.

vr_Office_of_Finance_03_dedicated_finance_it_groups_are_commonCreating a high-performing finance organization requires attention to the full range of people issues (such as leadership and communications) as well as process design and management (especially in designing in consistency in execution and designing out opportunities for mistakes and other process defects). Along with these, technology competence is essential to an effective finance organization. Companies with 500 or more employees benefit from having a dedicated group that understands the requirements of the finance function and how information technology can best address those needs. (Those with fewer than 500 employees would also benefit, but it’s usually not a practical option.) The good news is that almost half of companies (44%) have such as group, but, of course, a majority do not. The research also shows that having such a finance IT group reduces the likelihood that the department will experience issues with the software the department uses or the analytics they employ in a range of processes and functions. Twice as many of those in the research that lack a finance IT function reported issues with the software they use for managing a range of finance and analytical functions, and two-thirds (68%) more often they reported issues with the analytics they use than those that have a finance IT group.

Over the past several decades finance executives have done an excellent job of making the Office of Finance far more efficient through the use of technology. ERP and financial performance management systems have enabled companies to grow without having to add finance department head count. However, the Office of Finance now must focus on using technology to improve its effectiveness and the value it provides the rest of the company. Faster closing, increasing financial data timeliness, using advanced analytics and automating repetitive departmental tasks are all ways that information technology can enhance the performance of the finance department. Changes in the technology underpinnings of finance-focused applications will support efforts by CFOs and senior finance executives to forge more a strategic partnership role with the rest of the organization and reshape the mission of their department. They will put the CFO and the Office of Finance in position to enhance the potential and performance of business.

Regards,

Robert Kugel – SVP Research

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