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The steady march of technology’s ability to handle ever more complicated tasks has been a constant since the beginning of the information age in the 1950s. Initially, computers in business were used to automate simple clerical functions, but as systems have become more capable, information technology has been able to substitute for increasingly higher levels of human skill and experience. A turning point of sorts was reached in the 1990s when ERP, business intelligence and business process automation software reduced the need for middle managers. Increasingly, organizations used software to coordinate activities as well as communicate results and requirements up and down the organizational chart. Both were once the exclusive role of the middle manager. Consequently, almost every for-profit organization eliminated management layers so that today corporate structures are flatter than they once were. Technology automation also eliminated the need for administrative staff to perform routine reporting and analysis. Meanwhile, over the course of the 1990s, the cost of running the finance department measured as a percentage of sales was cut almost in half as a result of eliminating staff and because automation enabled companies to scale without adding headcount. During the last recession, companies in North America and Europe once again made deep reductions to their administrative staffs, relying on information technology to pick up the slack.
Given this history, the best career choice that an individual can make today is to stay ahead of the trend. Information technologies, especially cognitive computing, will continue to eliminate relatively high-paying white-collar jobs in corporate life, especially in the finance and accounting function. Executives and others working in tax departments in particular should recognize that a major shift is under way in their field. Automation will transform their work over the next five years, driving a fundamental change in what they do. To succeed (or even survive), they will have to embrace automation.
Spreadsheets are a major impediment to making the tax function more strategic for a company and more remunerative for those working in the department, as I have noted. Our Office of Finance benchmark research finds that half (52%) of tax departments use spreadsheets only for tax provisioning and another 38 percent mainly use spreadsheets; just one in 10 utilize a third-party tax application. One well-known issue with spreadsheets is that they are error-prone – not a risk that tax professionals can be comfortable with. To be certain that the tax provision and other tax-related calculations are correct, individuals must double- and even triple-check the numbers. This overlaps with a second major issue with spreadsheets: They are time-consuming. Our spreadsheet research finds that those working heavily with spreadsheets on average spend 18 hours a month (equivalent to more than two full workdays) just maintaining their most important spreadsheet. Spreadsheets as so time-consuming that they prevent individuals from doing more valuable work, in this case tax analysis and planning.
Another related issue is that using spreadsheets for the tax function diminishes visibility into a company’s tax provision in at least two respects. First, using them takes so long that executives get to the numbers late in the financial close process. This matters because of the impact that tax expense has on a company’s profits. Second, spreadsheets are black boxes: That is, they are difficult to control, and it’s difficult for anyone other than the spreadsheet’s owner to understand their construction. Often, assumptions are buried in formulas and therefore hard to uncover. If these formulas are inconsistent or wrong, it’s not easy to spot them. (This was an important factor behind J.P. Morgan’s multibillion dollar trading loss, which I discussed.) When a spreadsheet is constructed with a given formula repeated in multiple cells, each of these must be updated when circumstances change, and it’s difficult to be certain that all of the changes have been made. Even with advanced techniques designed to make updates consistent, it’s hard to be sure that some cell wasn’t overwritten with another number.
Some people who work intensively with spreadsheets still view them as a form of job security because of their opacity. They think they’re indispensable because they are the only one who understands how their spreadsheet works. This is one of several reasons why their use persists in functions where they constitute more of a problem than a solution. However, these spreadsheet jockeys should recognize that their tools’ inherent inefficiency, lack of visibility and proneness to error make them vulnerable to being replaced by better technology. The real value of tax professionals is not their ability to overcome spreadsheet limitations. It’s in their training in understanding income taxes. Once freed from the drudgery of performing computations, massaging data and checking (two or three times) for errors, tax professionals can turn their attention to performing analytical work aimed at optimizing a company’s tax spend – and thus ensuring their value as employees.
Midsize and larger organizations, especially those that operate in multiple direct (income) tax jurisdictions and that have an even moderately complex legal entity structure, must use dedicated software to automate their income tax provision and analysis functions. They must manage their tax-sensitized data using what I call a tax data warehouse of record. Tax departments must be able to tightly control the end-to-end process of taking numbers from source systems, constructing tax financial statements, calculating taxes owed and keeping track of cumulative amounts and other balance sheet items related to taxes. Transparency is the natural result of a having controlled process that uses a unified set of all relevant tax data. An authoritative data set makes tax department operations more efficient. As noted, reducing the time and effort to execute the tax department’s core functions frees up the time of tax professionals for more useful analysis. Having tax data and tax calculations that are immediately traceable, reproducible and permanently accessible provides company executives with greater certainty and reduces the risk of noncompliance and the attendant costs and reputation issues. Having an accurate and consistent tax data warehouse of record enables corporations and their tax departments to better execute tax planning, provisioning and compliance. Using dedicated software today rather than relying on spreadsheets helps the tax department, and those working in it, increase their strategic value today so they won’t be obsolete tomorrow.
Robert Kugel – SVP Research
In our benchmark research at least half of participants that use spreadsheets to support a business process routinely say that these tools make it difficult for them to do their job. Yet spreadsheets continue to dominate in a range of business functions and processes. For example, our recent next-generation business planning research finds that this is the most common software used for performing 11 of the most common types of planning. At the heart of the problem is a disconnect between what spreadsheets were originally designed to do and how they are actually used today in corporations. Desktop spreadsheets were intended to be a personal productivity tool used, for example, for prototyping models, creating ad hoc reports and performing one-off analyses using simple models and storing small amounts of data. They were not built for collaborative, repetitive enterprise-wide tasks, and this is the root cause of most of the issues that organizations encounter when they use them in such business processes. Software vendors and IT departments have been trying – mainly in vain – to get users to switch from spreadsheets to a variety of dedicated applications. They’ve failed to make much of a dent because, although these applications have substantial advantages over spreadsheets when used in repetitive collaborative enterprise tasks, these advantages are mainly realized after the model, process or report is put to use in the “production” phase (to borrow an IT term). To date most dedicated applications have been far more difficult than spreadsheets for the average business user to use in the design and test phases. To convince people to switch to their dedicated application, a vendor must offer an alternative that lets users model, create reports, collect data and create dedicated data stores as easily as they can do it in a desktop spreadsheet. Spreadsheets are seductive for most business users because, even with a minimum amount of training and experience, it’s possible to create a useful model, do analysis and create reports. Individuals can immediately translate what they know about their business or how to present their ideas into a form and format that makes sense to them. They can update and modify it whenever they wish, and the change will occur instantly. For these business users ease of use and control trump putting up with the issues that routinely occur when spreadsheets are used in collaborative enterprise processes. Moreover, it’s hard to persuade “spreadsheet jockeys” who have strong command of spreadsheet features and functions that they should start over and learn how to use a new application. Those who have spent their careers working with spreadsheets often find it difficult to work with formal applications because those applications work in ways that aren’t intuitive. Personally these diehards may resist because not having control over analyses and data would diminish their standing in the organization. Nevertheless, there are compelling reasons for vendors to keep trying to devise dedicated software that an average business user would find as easy and intuitive as a desktop spreadsheet in the design, test and update phases. Such an application would eliminate the single most important obstacle that keeps organizations from switching. The disadvantages of using spreadsheets are clear and measurable. One of the most significant is that spreadsheets can waste large amounts of time when used inappropriately. After more than a few people become involved and a file is used and reused, issues begin to mount such as errors in data or formulas, broken links and inconsistencies. Changes to even moderately complex models are time-consuming. Soon, much of the time spent with the file is devoted to finding the sources of errors and discrepancies and fixing the mistakes. Our research confirms this. When it comes to important spreadsheets that people use over and over again to collaborate with colleagues, on average people spend about 12 hours per month consolidating, modifying and correcting the spreadsheets. That’s about a day and a half per month – or five to 10 percent of their time – just maintaining these spreadsheets. Business applications vendors started to address business users’ reluctance to use their software more than a decade ago when they began to use Microsoft Excel as the user interface (UI). This provides a familiar environment for those who mainly need to enter data or want to do some “sandbox” modeling and analysis. Since the software behind the UI is a program that uses some sort of database, companies avoid the issues that almost arise when spreadsheets are used in enterprise applications. There also are products that address some of the inherent issues with such as the difficulty of consolidating data from multiple individual spreadsheets as well as keeping data consistent. Visualization software, a relatively new category, greatly simplifies the process of collecting data from one or more enterprise data sources and creating reports and dashboards. As the enterprise software applications business evolves to meet the needs of a new generation of users, as I mentioned recently, it’s imperative that vendors find a way to provide users with software that is a real alternative to desktop spreadsheets. By this I mean enterprise software that provides business users with the same ability to model, create reports and work with data the way they do in a desktop spreadsheet as well as update and modify these by themselves without any IT resources. At the same time, this software has to eliminate all of the problems that are inevitable when spreadsheets are used. Only at that point will a dedicated application become a real alternative to using a spreadsheet for a key business process. Regards, Robert Kugel – SVP Research