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A core objective of my research practice and agenda is to help the Office of Finance improve its performance by better utilizing information technology. As we kick off 2014, I see five initiatives that CFOs and controllers should adopt to improve their execution of core finance functions and free up time to concentrate on increasing their department’s strategic value. Finance organizations – especially those that need to improve performance – usually find it difficult to find the resources to invest in increasing their strategic value. However, any of the first three initiatives mentioned below will enable them to operate more efficiently as well as improve performance. These initiatives have been central to my focus for the past decade. The final two are relatively new and reflect the evolution of technology to enable finance departments to deliver better results. Every finance organization should adopt at least one of these five as a priority this year.
Close faster. Because the process of closing the books is similar for all corporations, it should be seen as a universal performance benchmark. Our research finds that only 38 percent of all companies with more than 100 employees complete their quarterly or half-yearly close within five to six days of the end of the quarter (which is the generally accepted performance standard), while the remaining majority take longer. And for all the discussion over the years about the need to close faster, our most recent benchmark research on the close discovered that companies on average are taking a half-day longer to complete the process than they did five years earlier. For the most part, much of this increase appears to have been among companies that were already taking more than a business week to close. I’ve written that the close is a good litmus test for the overall effectiveness of a finance department.
Our research into how companies close shows that its common for two companies with exactly the same characteristics (the same size, in the same industry, located in the same country) to demonstrate big differences in how quickly they complete their accounting cycle: Company A does it in two days while company B needs nine days to get the job done. The difference is likely to be due to some interplay of people, process, information and technology. Common issues are poor process design, overuse of spreadsheets in the process, consolidation software that no longer meets current business requirements and too little automation of repetitive tasks. Our research shows the correlation between increased automation, for example, and achieving a faster close. We found that, on average, companies that have automated the process completely close in 5.7 days compared with 9.1 days for those that have automated little or none of the process. Shortening the close is important because it enables finance organizations to provide management and financial accounting information to the rest of the company sooner, reduces overtime and frees up resources that can be put to better use. Addressing such issues in a concerted program with measurable objectives is the best way to achieve progress. Moreover, in the process of shortening the close, broader issues can be addressed at their source, improving the performance of the Office of Finance. Focusing on the root causes behind too long a close process can uncover hidden issues common to many finance processes, including poor data availability and quality, poor communications and training, and too much complexity.
Even if your company is closing its books within a business week, chances are there’s still room for improvement that can come from automating existing manual tasks. For instance, reconciliations are an activity where companies with as few as 250 employees are likely to find savings of time and money using technology to automate the process and enhance accuracy and auditability.
Master Excel. Our research shows that spreadsheets are a problem when used in any repetitive collaborative enterprise-wide task (for example, planning, forecasting, closing and managing sales operations). At the same time, spreadsheets are an essential tool in business and cannot always be replaced by other software and systems. For this reason, it’s important for finance executives to ensure that the people who are designing and using spreadsheets know what they are doing. One of the root causes of spreadsheet problems is lack of competence by those designing models and analyses. Spreadsheets’ lack of transparency easily masks poor design. Typically, people are self-trained. Although they can complete assignments, the resulting spreadsheet may be inefficient, difficult to audit and brittle (difficult to change without making major modifications) and have so many vulnerabilities to mistakes and tampering that they are disasters waiting to happen. It’s common, for example, for people to create dense and complex nested logic expressions because they don’t know how to use lookup tables. Our research found that almost half (45%) of companies provide no training and just 8 percent provide regular Excel training sessions, with the rest providing only initial training or leaving it to the individual to take the initiative. Just as armies march on their stomachs, finance organizations operate in a world of spreadsheets. It makes sense to invest in the productivity of those responsible for creating spreadsheets because that investment is likely to promote productivity as well as reduce errors and the resulting rework and other costs that go with them. Along with training, testing is useful to ensure that people have the necessary skills to create spreadsheets, but almost all companies (87%) do not test their users.
Plan – don’t just budget. I have asserted that annual budgeting should evolve into a process that’s more focused on planning the business. Many people speak of planning and budgeting as if they were the same thing, but they’re not. Budgeting is essential for control, but budgets are focused on money, not things. So while they’re good for finance departments, budgets don’t deliver much value to the rest of the company. Business planning as practiced today is a relic, a process hemmed in by obsolete conceptions of what it should be. Individual business units make plans, but they are narrowly focused and not well integrated. Our business planning research found that companywide planning efforts are not as coordinated as they could be: Just 22 percent of the participants said they can accurately measure the impact of their plan on other parts of the business. While today’s budgeting and operational planning efforts are loosely connected, the next generation of business planning closely integrates unit-level operational plans with financial planning. At the corporate level, it shifts the emphasis from financial budgeting to business planning and performance reviews that integrate both operational and financial measures. This new approach uses available information technology to enable businesses to plan faster with less effort while achieving greater accuracy and agility. The approach addresses a deep-seated issue: Our research shows that in most companies the budget is not collaborative on an ongoing basis and therefore hinders coordination as companies adapt to changing circumstances. It doesn’t enable managers to anticipate how best to adapt to those changing circumstances, so when things change, as they always do, companies lack the sort of coordination they need to make changes quickly and maximize their performance. The data from our research shows that traditional budgeting does not promote strategic and operational alignment, which winds up hurting performance. And because companies take too long to review their results and in these reviews aren’t able to immediately determine the source of variances between their plan and actual results, they do not react quickly to seize opportunities and address issues.
Adopt price optimization and profitability management. For companies that close within a week, have mastered Excel and focus more on planning than budgeting, price optimization presents a new frontier on which to improve company performance. Price and revenue optimization (PRO) is a business discipline used to create demand-based pricing; it applies market segmentation techniques to achieve strategic objectives such as increasing profitability or market share. PRO first came into wide use in the airline and hospitality industries in the 1980s as a way of maximizing returns from less flexible travelers (such as people on business trips) while minimizing unsold inventory by selling incremental seats on flights or hotel room nights at discounted prices to more discretionary buyers (typically vacationers). Today, PRO is a well-developed part of any business strategy in the travel industry and is increasingly used in others. Optimization is not maximization, since the objective of the former is to achieve the best trade-off between sometimes mutually exclusive goals and their constraints. Focusing solely on profit maximization may result in wider margins but lower sales and profits, for example. Optimizing price means using analytics to gain a better understanding of customers’ price sensitivity in order to achieve the best mix of price and volume consistent with the company’s strategy. This allows businesses to achieve the highest possible margins consistent with their volume and mix objectives. Analytical software is available that enables companies to implement and manage a PRO strategy, which I covered in an earlier perspective.
Manage taxes more effectively. Corporations’ largest tax outlays fall into two main categories, indirect and direct. Indirect taxes are those collected by an intermediary such as a retailer or wholesaler and then paid to government entities. This includes sales and use tax (in the United States), goods and services tax (in Canada) and value-added tax (in Europe and other regions). A large percentage of midsize and larger corporations in North America use software to manage their indirect taxes. In the U.S., such indirect taxes are difficult to handle because of the complex and overlapping tax jurisdictions, changes in rates as well as the definitions of what’s taxable at which rates. The issue is not just calculating the amounts at the time of the transaction, but also being able to mount an audit defense as inexpensively as possible at some point in the future. If your company is not using a third party to manage its indirect tax calculations, 2014 would be a great year to start, especially if your business operates in areas where the tax authorities are most aggressive. Direct – or income – taxes are another matter. Because of their size and complexity, many midsize and almost all larger organizations need to automate more of their tax provisioning process using dedicated software rather than spreadsheets. Corporations that operate in multiple income tax jurisdictions with only moderate complexity in their corporate structure can save considerable amounts of time, have better insight into their tax positions and improve their audit defense posture by switching from spreadsheets.
Senior finance executives often spend time fighting fires rather than addressing their root causes to prevent new ones. Companies that take more than one business week to close must determine why it’s taking them so long and address those issues. The same causes behind a longer-than-necessary close are likely to be at work in all or most finance processes. Further, providing employees with Excel training and testing will improve their productivity and the quality of work they perform. And if nothing else, taking a fresh look at planning and budgeting can identify ways to streamline the process, freeing up time to invest in efforts that will improve the department’s performance. Finally, finance departments that already operate efficiently should focus on ways to play a more strategic role in their company’s business, particularly by managing pricing analytics and improving their tax provisioning acumen.
Robert Kugel – SVP Research
Senior finance executives and finance organizations that want to improve their performance must recognize that technology is a key tool for doing high-quality work. To test this premise, imagine how smoothly your company would operate if all of its finance and administrative software and hardware were 25 years old. In almost all cases the company wouldn’t be able to compete at all or would be at a substantial disadvantage. Having the latest technology isn’t always necessary, but even though software doesn’t wear out in a physical sense, it has a useful life span, at the end of which it needs replacement. As an example, late in 2013 a major U.K. bank experienced two system-wide failures in rapid succession caused by its decades-old mainframe systems; these breakdowns followed a similarly costly failure in 2012. For years the cost and risk of replacing these legacy systems kept management from taking the plunge. What they didn’t consider were the cost and risk associated with keeping the existing systems going. Our new research agenda for the Office of Finance attempts to find a balance between the leading edge and the mainstream that will help businesses find practical solutions.
The example above suggests why it’s important for executives to understand how technology affects a finance organization’s ability to improve its overall effectiveness and strategic contribution to the rest of the company. Finance must use technology to support improvements to processes and enable its people to focus on work that provides the most value to the operating results of the company. For example, analytics can enhance understanding and visibility, giving executives the ability to make better decisions more consistently. The role of technology will become even more important for finance organizations over the next several years as the pace of change in business computing accelerates. This change will be driven by the cumulative impact of a decade’s worth of technology evolution and the increasing demographic shift from executives and managers of the baby boom generation to those who grew up with computer technology. These demographic shifts will drive demand for a new generation of software, one that emphasizes mobility and agility.
In this context it’s important that CFOs and financial executives monitor the evolution of technology and understand what’s possible. We recommend a rigorous annual technology audit for this purpose.
With this in mind, our research focus for the Office of Finance in 2014 will cover three main areas.
First, to address its basic requirements, we’ll look at the application of financial performance management (FPM) to help achieve consistently better results. Ventana Research defines FPM as the process of addressing the often overlapping issues that affect how well finance organizations support the activities and strategic objectives of their companies and manage their own operations. FPM deals with the full cycle of the finance department’s functions, including corporate and strategic finance, planning, forecasting, analysis, closing and reporting. It involves a combination of people, processes, information and technology. We see information technology as a particular focus of FPM because we find that most finance organizations are not using IT assets as fully as they could. In particular, they often focus only on efficiency and neglect opportunities to use IT to enhance their effectiveness, which can make a difference in their overall results.
Similarly, ERP systems are a core technology that supports finance operations. Finance executives must take into consideration more than just the difficulty and cost of implementing and modifying these systems. As for the British bank that has experienced multiple major failures, reluctance to make timely changes to ERP systems poses cost and risk issues of its own. Organizations that are reluctant to use cloud-based ERP also should re-examine their assumptions for not doing so. In particular, midsize companies that are transitioning from entry-level accounting software to something more sophisticated often will discover that a cloud-based deployment is a more sensible alternative to persisting with their existing software or buying an on-premises system. As well, larger companies and those that have geographically dispersed operations may find that cloud alternatives for their second-tier ERP systems offer better value than staying with on-premises systems.
To strengthen the core capabilities of the Office of Finance, there are several technologies that will be particularly important. One is in-memory computing. Because of its ability to rapidly process computation of even complex models with large data sets, in-memory computing can change the nature of planning, budgeting, forecasting and reviews. It enables organizations to run more simulations to understand trade-offs and the consequences of specific events, as well as change the focus of reviews from what-just-happened to what-do-we-do-next. For these reasons, in-memory computing also may encourage more companies to replace desktop spreadsheets (which have practical limits to the size, complexity and adaptability of the models that are created in them) with dedicated planning applications that can harness the power of in-memory computing. Our recent planning benchmark research reveals that a majority of midsize and larger companies continue to use spreadsheets for planning, forecasting and budgeting – and these companies continue to suffer the consequences, such as an inability to do effective contingency planning or drill down into underlying data to have true visibility into root causes of opportunities or issues.
Predictive analytics is another technique that companies can utilize to achieve better results. It can be used to create more accurate or nuanced projections of future outcomes and is especially useful in quickly finding divergences from expectations to create more timely alerts. For instance, rather than having to wait until the end of a month to look at actual results and then initiate a course of action, early in the month a corporation could use predictive analytics to spot and address a probable revenue shortfall in a specific product line, or to change production rates or shipments to avoid a likely regional stock-out caused by demand that is stronger than expected.
The second area where technology will play an expanding role in business computing is enabling the finance organization to play a more active role in improving performance in the company’s operations. Finance has the necessary analytical talent as well as the ability to be a neutral party in cases where issues cross business unit or geographic boundaries. For example, software that helps manage pricing and profitability is spreading from hospitality, transportation, retailing and consumer financial services to other areas, especially business-to-business industries. Used properly, this type of software enables a company to tailor its control of individual decisions regarding pricing, discounts and other terms to achieve results that are best suited to its strategy. It can continuously make adjustments consistent with longer-term objectives in response to market conditions. Similarly companies increasingly use expense management systems to gain greater control over aggregate spending and vendor selection. These sorts of systems can provide controllers and treasurers with greater forward visibility into future outlays, ensure volume discounts are utilized and honored, and help streamline the accounts payable process to earn early-pay discounts.
Another operational area, taxation, is one of a company’s biggest expenses, yet direct (income) tax management is still in its infancy. Here also, most organizations use desktop spreadsheets to manage their direct tax analytics and provisioning, a time-consuming process that fails to deliver transparency or the ability to manage tax risk exposure effectively. They would do better with technology more conducive to a strategic approach to managing income taxes. There is a growing list of software available to make the tax provisioning process faster and more visible, enabling companies to make better decisions about the timing and aggressiveness of their tax positions. In addition, all larger and even some midsize corporations can benefit from a dedicated tax data warehouse to support the automation of tax planning and provisioning.
The third area where technology can help senior executives achieve better results is in implementing fundamental changes in business management. For example, our 2013 benchmark research on long-range planning demonstrates that better management of technology and information can improve alignment between strategy and execution. As well, far from simply being a technology concern, cloud computing enables corporations to cut costs and gain access to more sophisticated technology than they could feasibly support in an on-premises deployment. Using the right technology can boost performance. The improper use of spreadsheets as seen in our research continues be an unseen killer of corporate productivity because they have inherent defects that significantly reduce users’ efficiency in these tasks. Increasingly companies have inexpensive options that are easier to use and enable them to do more advanced, reliable modeling, analysis and reporting. Finance organizations are usually involved in developing scorecards to assess performance. In developing and applying balanced scorecards, companies must incorporate operational risks to the mix of measures. Managing operational risk outside of financial services is still hit and miss, as our recent governance, risk and compliance benchmark research shows. Nonfinancial businesses rarely manage risk well, usually because they do not measure risk explicitly and therefore do not formally consider it as a trade-off in making decisions.
In the new year we will explore these issues through several approaches. Our benchmark research rigorously investigates how business and technology issues intersect. In 2014 our Office of Finance benchmark research will examine how well finance organizations utilize technology to address a growing need for greater efficiency and to play a more strategic role in the company’s management and operations. Also, as noted, developments in information technology are making it feasible to transform business planning to become more interconnected, collaborative, mobile and interactive. Our next-generation business planning benchmark research will investigate these factors as we assess the current state of business planning, the issues that prevent organizations from planning, forecasting and budgeting effectively, and the ways in which information technology affects their ability to plan.
From another perspective, Ventana Research Value Indexes are detailed evaluations of vendor software offerings in specific categories. We carefully assess an exhaustive list of product functionality and its suitability to task, product architecture and the effectiveness of vendor support for the buying process and customer assurance. Each Value Index represents the value a vendor offers and relevant aspects of its products and services for users. In 2014 we will once again assess financial performance management suites and introduce a new Value Index for Business Planning software to complement our benchmark research.
Overall, finance departments and lines of business still focus on improving the efficiency of the mechanics of day-to-day operations, and they often fail to use available technology to support more effective approaches. Executives in finance and business must look at their existing IT systems with an eye to making better use of them to automate repetitive tasks and speed execution of cross-departmental functions. Doing that can free up time and money better spent on activities that return value, such as more insightful and actionable analyses or more accurate forecasting and planning.
Information technology is an essential element of business management. Yet many senior executives and managers have too narrow and too limited an understanding of IT’s full potential, much as those managing corporate information technology usually don’t appreciate business issues and how IT can address them. The business/IT divide is a barrier that prevents many companies from achieving their performance potential. The divide is not necessary. Business executives need not be able to write Java code or master the intricacies of an ERP or sales compensation application. However, CEOs and executives should master the basics of IT just as they must understand the fundamentals of corporate finance, the production process and – at least at a high level – the technologies that support that process. My research agenda for 2014 continues to focus on the major issues that confront businesses where technology plays a key role in addressing those issues.
Robert Kugel – SVP Research