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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

“What’s next?” is the perennially insistent question in information technology. One common observation about the industry holds that cycles of innovation alternate between hardware and software. New types and forms of hardware enable innovations in software that utilize the power of that hardware. These innovations create new markets, alter consumer behavior and change how work is performed. This, in turn, sets the stage for new types and forms of hardware that complement these emerging product and service markets as well as the new ways of performing work, creating products and fashioning services that they engender. For example, the emerging collection of wearable computing devices seems likely to generate a new wave of software/hardware innovation, as my colleague Mark Smith has noted. This said, I think that the idea of alternating cycles no longer applies. It would be convenient if we could assign discrete time periods to hardware dominance and software dominance, but like echoes as they fade, the reverberations are no longer as neatly synchronized as they once were. Moreover, adoption and adaptation of technology by consumers reflected in the design of work, products and services always lags – and lags in different ways, further blurring the timing of cycles.

Adding to the messiness, technologies enter the market and evolve in ways that seem designed to embarrass pundits. In the 1990s, Bluetooth was supposed to be the next big thing for wireless connections; Wi-Fi wasn’t on most radar screens. Today, Bluetooth has an important role, but Wi-Fi is bigger. Some heralded technology breakthroughs sink without a trace. Sadly, that has been the case for multidimensional spreadsheets like Javelin and Lotus Improv. Other technologies appear, are used in trendy ways and then become mainstream. Instant messaging and chat immediately replaced passing paper notes in class for teenage girls. While somewhat passé in this role today, they have become an essential tool in the workplace. Of course the rate at which technology is incorporated into mainstream business use varies greatly. The Internet became central to business and commerce at an astonishingly fast pace while earlier inventions such as voice mail took about a decade to become universal.

vr_sparse_use_of_advanced_analyticsSoftware has dominated as a driver over the past two decades, but devices and business process changes have become increasingly important in amplifying the impact and producing knock-on effects that spur innovations of all sorts. Smartphones and other mobile devices might have become another Minitel except that there were programming tools and business models in place (including the absence of top-down control and regulation) that spurred ingenuity, substantially enhancing the value of these devices and making them highly adaptable to personal preferences and individual business needs. Rapid and broad adoption of mobile devices has been driving change in business software to enable companies to utilize the value of these devices. Yet there are plenty of examples of how organizations have failed to change how they conduct business. Our benchmark research finds that companies have been slow to adopt better methods facilitated by information technology for planning and budgeting, closing the books, managing the workforces or handling customer interactions. Software-driven change will come in these areas over the next decade, driven in part by a generational shift as baby boomers retire, and more attention will be paid to cognitive ergonomics and the resulting increased attention to the design of the user experience in business computing, such as gamification.

Innovation in business often takes longer to appear than futurists hope. One part of today’s answer to the “What’s next?” question includes all the things that software marketing departments have been promising over the past decade or so that haven’t come to pass yet. Usually, this is because there is some confusion on the part of vendors between “easier” and “easy.” Many innovations and enhancements in business software have made them easier to use but not easy enough for mainstream adoption or easy enough to spur process innovation or a change in management practices. One example is advanced analytics. There have been steady improvements making it possible for many kinds of users to employ them in business, but most users today require advanced degrees or specialized training (although I have some hope for new mass market tools on the horizon). Consequently, our research finds that two-thirds of companies make little or no use of advanced analytics.

vr_ibp_few_companies_have_interactive_reviewsAnother example is in business planning. For all the discussion about changing budgeting and planning, practices have remained pretty much the same over the past two decades. One way to make planning and budgeting more useful is to make reviewing results more actionable. This could be accomplished more easily if organizations could immediately drill down into the details of the results rather than having to wait for follow-up information or debate what the likely causes might have been. Yet only about one-fourth of participants in our business planning research are able to get to the numbers behind the numbers while the meeting is under way. Improved software technology is making this easier to do. For example, many ERP vendors have changed the basic architecture of their systems to make them capable of handling transaction processing and analytical tasks at the same time. But technology alone will not make a difference. It will take a change in management and demand that periodic reviews be highly interactive to make a difference.

Even with hidebound management techniques, it’s likely that new devices coming to the market will be major sources of innovation, either those that complement existing business practices and consumer demands (which are obvious candidates for rapid adoption) or as a speculative venture. The loudest buzz is around the Internet of Things. This is an amorphous concept at the moment, and there are considerable technology hurdles that must surmounted for it to become practical (notably the limited address capacity in the IPv4 standard). Still, the concept has a good deal of theoretical appeal when one extrapolates the value already realized by increasing the scope of people-to-machine connections (such as for monitoring processes or the health of devices) and the variety and number of machine-to-machine control and instrumentation (for example, automatically tracking physical assets and optimizing machine performance by monitoring conditions).

As I mentioned earlier, wearable computing is another emerging area of innovation. Thus far, it has had more allure than demand, but that was true also for the personal digital assistant, which had a few notable flops before catching on and becoming a mass-market device, eventually to be subsumed into the smartphone. Devices are already being worn for health, entertainment and augmented reality purposes. Bracelets, fobs and glasses have considerable scope for use in business settings, for consumer applications and for wellness. Glasses and wrist devices in particular have the ability to augment the utility of any computing device as sensors or for input/output. A computer screen is rather like a keyhole through which one “looks” into the computing device. Dual screens are now commonplace because this expands the breadth of view of the user. Glasses can broaden the scope of view considerably more, improving the ergonomics and expanding the utility of any computing device. Any of these devices could augment the capabilities of software applications. They will give software designers added scope to enhance the capabilities and usability of applications.

So the answer to “What’s next?” in business computing probably is “ A lot – and sooner rather than later.” There’s a tendency to view current technology in terms of the major advances of the past. If that is any guide, today’s information technology will soon appear pitifully primitive. Consumer use of technology has outstripped that of business, in part because multiple individual needs are generally less difficult to serve than that of an organization and the tasks the technology performs usually are far less complex: They’re apps, not applications. Yet business computing is on the cusp of a fundamental shift in which devices and software are powerful enough to adapt to the needs of users. In the past, business computing was defined by the limits of information technology and required that businesses adapt to those limitations. Everything from a richer and more enjoyable (or at least less painful) user experience to the transformation of accounting systems from paper-based analogs to a truly digital ledger has the power to change for the better how businesses operate.

Regards,

Robert Kugel – SVP Research

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