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Finance and accounting departments are staffed with numbers-oriented, naturally analytical people. Strong analytic skills are essential if a finance department is to deliver deep insights into performance and visibility into emerging opportunities and challenges. The conclusions of analyses enable fast, fully informed business decisions by executives and managers. Conversely, flawed analyses undermine the performance of a company. So it was good news that in our Office of Finance benchmark research 62 percent of participants rated the analytical skills of their finance organization as above average or excellent.
The research finds that having strong analytical skills is associated with good analytic practices. It’s important to have an effective process for creating analyses that enable effective management of a corporation. Having strong analytical skills is a key ingredient of being able to manage that process. Having skills and having an effective process are linked. Almost all (89%) companies with excellent analytic skills have a process for creating finance analytics that works well or very well, compared to half of organizations in which skills are average and none in those where they are below average. Furthermore, almost all (92%) companies with excellent or above-average finance analytic skills have been able to use analytics and performance indicators to improve individual or business performance. By comparison, fewer than one-third (30%) of those with average or below average skills were able to do so.
Having these skills is good, but the research suggests that most finance departments don’t use them to full potential. When we dug into some of the underlying data, a less rosy picture of the state of analytics in finance departments emerged, including somewhat pedestrian use of analytics. Most companies are good at handling the basics, such as financial statement analyses, and in creating and assessing models used in forecasting and planning. However, very few (just 12%) of those that have above-average or excellent skills use predictive analytics; only one-fifth of them apply relevant economic and market indicators or price optimization techniques; and just one-third apply profitability analysis to products and customers on a regular basis. Staying above average or better in applying analytics in today’s environment means going beyond well-established financial analyses. Corporations today have vast amounts of business data that demand the application of advanced techniques. Predictive analytics is a valuable tool that can harness this big data to create more nuanced and more accurate forecasts as well as alert executives and managers to threats and opportunities earlier than ever. In addition greater availability and accessibility of external information enables organizations to produce better insights into how economic, market and financial markets affect their performance.
Another issue that can hinder a finance department’s efforts in delivering valuable analytics is the timeliness with which they provide it. Only one-third (31%) are able to provide information on a timely basis. Just over half (56%) said that the information they provide is somewhat timely, which in practice can mean a day late and a dollar short when key decisions have to be made immediately. Two related reasons why information may not be timely are a lack of automation and overreliance on desktop spreadsheets for reporting. Spreadsheets are indispensable for personal productivity and ad hoc analysis and reporting. However, they are almost always the wrong choice for routine business analysis and periodic reporting because using them can be very time-consuming. Because it takes so long to prepare the analysis and generate a report distributed through email, information is less timely and often less valuable.
Senior finance executives need better understanding of advanced analytics and how these techniques can be employed to improve the performance of the finance organization and serve the needs of the rest of the company. Desktop spreadsheets are an overused technology that wastes time when applied to collaborative or repetitive enterprise-wide analytics. In practice, they are incapable of delivering the forward-looking analytics listed above. They are not difficult to replace if there is a will to do so. Advanced analytic software is becoming increasingly more affordable and more accessible to business analysts. Often they use a Microsoft Excel interface because of its familiarity and therefore require less training to get users to a reasonable level of proficiency.
What constitutes excellent and above-average analytical skills is evolving daily as new tools and techniques become mainstream. Senior finance department executives must remain current on what’s possible and push their department to keep up. To make this possible, as I have written, they must set their sights higher and find ways to eliminate time-wasting manual processes so there’s time for their analysts to extend their highly valued skills.
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