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Our recently published Office of Finance benchmark research assesses a broad set of functions and capabilities of finance organizations. We asked research participants to identify the most important issues for a finance department to address 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. Among the key findings is this: Not using the most capable software is an underlying cause, often unrecognized, of process, analytics and data issues.
Process design, analytics use and data availability and quality were the three most frequently cited issues, each selected by slightly less than half of participants. Software was the least frequently named issue, chosen by just 24 percent. That software was the least cited factor either means that most companies have this aspect of their business nailed down or – more likely – that they are focused on the symptoms and do not recognize the root causes of many of their process, analytics and data issues.
The lack of concern about software in finance departments points to a problem we have observed in our research for a decade. There is a connection between the technology that a company uses to support its processes and the issues that arise when it uses ineffective technology. Persistence in using such tools to execute finance processes is an ongoing barrier to improving the performance of finance departments. For example, companies often handle the mundane chore of accounting reconciliations with desktop spreadsheets. When electronic spreadsheets were introduced decades ago they offered a major improvement in the time required to perform processes. Today, however, dedicated software can perform the process even faster and more cleanly. Our research shows that companies that use software designed to automate their reconciliations process can close faster than those that have manual, spreadsheet-driven processes: More than twice as many that use automation (57%) can close their books in six or fewer days as those that do not (27%). Other research we have done consistently points to reliance on desktop spreadsheets as a root cause of process, analytics and data issues.
Software can have a profound impact on how well a company carries out essential processes. We find that the best-performing finance organizations adopt a total quality management approach to finance and accounting. As in a manufacturing operation, the objective in any finance department process should be to design quality into the process (for example by addressing root causes of errors in calculations and classification) and to ensure consistent execution of that process. Yet spreadsheets often are a source of errors: More than one-third (35%) of research participants said they have found data errors in the most important spreadsheet they use. The inappropriate use of spreadsheets instead of a dedicated application is often the source of problems that result in unnecessary work for the finance organization to correct them. Such glitches also affect other departments, operations and even customer-facing roles such as billing and credit. Inconsistent execution can even nullify the benefits of a well-designed process, but software with built-in workflow can eliminate the root causes of issues that arise when processes are managed with spreadsheets and email.
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 appropriate software can be a critical factor. Desktop spreadsheets are fine for relatively simple ad hoc analyses. However, because they are two-dimensional grids, desktop spreadsheets have a limited ability to manipulate data in multiple dimensions such as by business unit, product family, currency, geography and time. Moreover, creating periodic reports in spreadsheets consumes valuable time that would be better spent focused on addressing other, more valuable tasks. Self-service reporting, which I have advocated, and using the reporting capabilities of enterprise software are two alternatives. Replacing desktop spreadsheets with more capable software can address analytics issues.
The results of our research show that many finance executives and managers are unaware of the negative impacts of using inadequate software, especially the misuse of desktop spreadsheets. People “know” that desktop spreadsheets are the wrong choice; there is overwhelming evidence of their shortcomings. Yet they continue to be the default choice to support many repetitive, enterprise-wide processes because their convenience and familiarity have trumped their shortcomings. Until recently the alternatives were not sufficiently better to convince people to change their habits. That is no longer the case.
There are many compelling reasons for finance and accounting departments to increase end-to-end process automation by substituting dedicated applications and controlled data flows for spreadsheets. Ultimately this is a management issue. Finance executives must periodically evaluate the applications they use and determine whether there are better alternatives. They should routinely triage the desktop spreadsheets commonly used and replace them with more efficient and fully capable automated systems.