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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

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.

vr_Office_of_Finance_12_companies_need_skilled_analystsThe 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.

vr_Office_of_Finance_13_finance_lacks_advanced_analyticsHaving 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.

vr_Office_of_Finance_06_information_isnt_timely_enoughSenior 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.

Regards,

Robert Kugel – SVP Research

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