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One of the charitable causes to which I devote time puts on an annual vintage car show. The Concours d’Élegance dates back to 17th century France, when wealthy aristocrats gathered with judges on a field to determine who had the best carriages and the most beautiful horsepower. Our event serves as the centerpiece of a broader mission to raise money for several charitable organizations. One of my roles is to keep track of the cars entered in the show, and in that capacity I designed an online registration system. I’ve been struck by how my experiences with a simple IT system have been a microcosm of the issues that people encounter in designing, administering and using far more sophisticated ones. My most important take-away from this year’s event is the importance of self-service reporting. I suspect that most senior corporate executives – especially those in Finance – fail to appreciate the value of self-service reporting. It frees up the considerable resources organizations collectively waste on unproductive work, and it increases responsiveness and agility of the company as a whole.
Electronic reporting began as a solution to paper print-outs, reducing the resources required to transmit information needed by individuals and making it easier for them to find information. Over the past couple of decades, these enterprise reports also have become much easier for IT professionals to create and maintain, but they are still time-consuming and aren’t particularly flexible. Rather than have their IT department create another version of a report, people often copy an electronic report, paste it into a spreadsheet, reconfigure the information to suit their needs and distribute the modified spreadsheet to a group of people. For this and other reasons IT departments have found it difficult to get business people to stop using spreadsheets. Our benchmark research on spreadsheets finds this is the number-one impediment to change. Spreadsheet users value control and flexibility. This is precisely what self-service reporting delivers without the time-consuming hassle of manually creating and distributing spreadsheet reports.
It’s useful to think of self-service reporting as an attitude and approach to using information technology than as a specific software product or category. It starts with the basic assumption that individuals in organizations must be able to retrieve information they need from the systems they use. This does not replace periodic enterprise reporting, dashboards, scorecards and other such “push” communication methods. This is not the once-voguish concept of “democratizing business intelligence” either; that was still too complicated for the vast majority of users. It’s more like replacing telephone operators with a direct dial system. (Note to readers under 40 years old: Once upon a time it required human intervention to connect your phone to someone else’s.) The goal of self-service reporting is to make broad sets of data readily available and give people the ability to access it (subject to permissions) as well as easily organize and display it in the form and format that works best for them.
In the early days of business computing, simply collecting and having access to company data was a breakthrough. Over the past decades, corporations automated and instrumented a broad range of functions, and the challenge lay in collecting and managing the data. Although companies still face many issues in data management, devolving reporting to the individual is now a critical issue companies must address. Well-designed self-service reporting improves the productivity of individuals in both IT and the rest of the organization. The controller of a midsize company recently told me people had been spending one-and-a-half days per month creating reports for senior executives and operating managers after the monthly and quarterly accounting close. Talk about unproductive use of resources! This is an extreme example but emblematic of time routinely wasted on something individuals ought be able to do on their own. From the IT side, far too much time is devoted to creating and maintaining reports – it’s akin to still having switchboard operators on staff to route calls.
Self-service reporting exists both as a feature of enterprise applications and in stand-alone products designed to work with applications that lack this capability. In deciding whether to replace existing software and in any vendor selection process, it’s important to assess benefits of self-service reporting capabilities. This is especially true as mobility increasingly is built into enterprise business applications. Anytime, anywhere access to information is one of the most important reasons why companies invest in mobility and demand this capability in the software they buy. Being able to drill down and around in the data contained in such reports provides a powerful incentive to replace spreadsheets. But there are also stand-alone products that can provide self-service reporting capabilities within legacy systems.
For our service organization this past year I still created a limited number of spreadsheets for individuals and groups that are not on our system. The only data issues we had were created when someone copied and pasted information from our reports into another spreadsheet. Errors are inevitable, and even in our local event there are unfortunate consequences when they occur. For example, telling someone who has just spent hundreds of hours preparing his or her car that the vehicle is not eligible for an award because it was not on the list of judged cars (even though our system showed that it was supposed to be judged) provokes the same level of irate response one might expect when a CFO is informed that there’s a material error in the published financial statements.
Self-service reporting is fast becoming a standard capability within businesses. It’s part of a generational change that is redefining corporate computing. People beyond a certain age still expect information to be given to them. Younger people want to get the information they need themselves and expect to have the ability to do so. IT departments must identify opportunities to offer self-service reporting and implement it wherever possible. Business users – especially those in finance roles – should familiarize themselves with self-service reporting – especially stand-alone tools that they can use and administer – and implement it wherever it is feasible.
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