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Reconciling accounts at the end of a period is one of those mundane finance department tasks that are ripe for automation. Reconciliation is the process of comparing account data (at the balance or item level) that exists either in two accounting systems or in an accounting system and somewhere else (such as in a spreadsheet or on paper). The purpose of the reconciling process is to identify things that don’t match (as they must in double-entry bookkeeping systems) and then assess the nature and causes of the variances. This is followed by making adjustments or corrections to ensure that the information in a company’s books is accurate. Most of the time, reconciliation is a matter of good housekeeping. The process identifies errors and omissions in the accounting process, including invalid journal postings and duplicate accounting entries, so they can be corrected. Reconciliation also is an important line of defense against fraud, since inconsistencies may be a sign of such activity.

But let’s be frank: The reconciliation process is tedious. As for all tedious processes in modern corporations, it makes sense to let machines do this work. Reconciliation is a part of the accounting close process, and one of the main benefits of automation here is that it can accelerate the process. This is important because our benchmark research on closing finds that it’s actually taking longer for companies to close their books than it used to. The research also shows a correlation between the degree of automation in the close process and the time it takes to complete it.

vr_fcc_financial_close_and_automation_updatedBack in the days of quill pens and blotters it might have been manageable to meticulously comb through accounting entries. Today, however, volumes of data are too great to make this realistically feasible, and technology provides accountants with faster and more effective means of spotting patterns and familiarizing them with the peculiarities of the company’s books. For CFOs and controllers who are trying to determine how to begin the process of transforming their department to make it a more strategic player in their company, here is a way to free finance staff to do more productive tasks.

There are three important virtues associated with automating reconciliation. The first is consistency: Business rules, policies and procedures are applied consistently in ways that are in line with accounting policies that external and internal auditors accept. Machines are more reliably consistent than humans in such tasks. The second virtue is elegance: Automated systems simplify the process while making it faster and more accurate. They enable auditors to focus their time and attention on the most important issues that arise from the process. The ability of automated systems to highlight exceptions eliminates the need for random sampling, which both consumes time and poses the risk that something important will go unnoticed. The third virtue is efficiency: Automated systems enable a company to substantially reduce the amount of time needed to complete the reconciliation of accounts because the system performs the purely mechanical tasks and skips the accounts in which there has been no activity or in which the amounts to be reconciled are too small to be material. These systems also reduce the time internal and external auditors need to check reconciliations because all of the work is centralized in a single system and because the system and its configuration functions as a higher level of control in the reconciliation process that’s easy to test and monitor.

Despite these obvious virtues, most companies don’t use such capable automation. The majority manage reconciliations in spreadsheets shared through email. Electronic spreadsheets were a major advance decades ago. Today, however, they are not the best choice because the information they contain is fragmented, difficult to consolidate, hard to share and prone to error. Running this process with spreadsheets and email is more difficult and time-consuming to manage and control than using a dedicated reconciliation application. A well-designed dedicated application assigns ownership of every task to individuals and provides real-time visibility into which parts are on schedule, which are behind and which may be in danger of falling behind schedule. These systems employ templates that are centrally controlled to ensure consistency and quality. The templates can be updated as needed. A spreadsheet may start as a template, but it’s difficult to control them, even with protections built in.

Documentation is another weak spot in spreadsheets shared through email. Although there are objective aspects to the reconciliation process, those performing it ultimately must use their judgment. These judgments must be supported by narratives and calculations that clearly and completely explain the decisions each person made and by citing supporting documents wherever necessary. A related aspect is approvals, since good governance and control of accounting systems requires that someone inspect and approve the work of others when their actions (or lack of action) can have a material impact on the quality and accuracy of financial statements. So another important element that a dedicated reconciliation system can provide are approval workflows to ensure that the work has been completed before the books can be closed.

Automating reconciliation can be a first step in creating a virtuous cycle. Many executives in finance organizations would like to improve the performance of their department but face the challenge of finding the time to devote to such efforts. The staff time that can be saved through automation can be reinvested in finding the root causes of other issues that bog down the department and fixing them. Automating reconciliation can accelerate the financial close, improve productivity, reduce errors and the related possibility (albeit limited) of financial misstatements, enhance control and diminish the risk of financial fraud. These are reasons enough why all midsize and larger corporations should investigate the benefits of dedicated reconciliation software.

Regards,

Robert Kugel – SVP Research

Oracle continues to enrich the capabilities of its Hyperion suite of applications that support the finance function, but I wonder if that will be enough to sustain its market share and new generation of expectations.VI_Financialmanagement At the recent Oracle OpenWorld these new features were on display, and spokespeople described how the company will be transitioning its software to cloud deployment. Our 2013 Financial Performance Management Value (FPM) Index rates Oracle Hyperion a Warm vendor in my analysis, ranking eighth out of nine vendors. Our Value Index is informed by more than a decade of analysis of technology suppliers and their products and how well they satisfy specific business and IT needs. We perform a detailed evaluation of product functionality and suitability-to-task as well as the effectiveness of vendor support for the buying process and customer assurance. Our assessment reflects two disparate sets of factors. On one hand, the Hyperion FPM suite offers a broad set of software that automates, streamlines and supports a range of finance department functions. It includes sophisticated analytical applications. Used to full effect, Hyperion can eliminate many manual steps and speed execution of routine work. It also can enhance accuracy, ensure tasks are completed on a timely basis, foster coordination between Finance and the rest of the organization and generate insights into corporate performance. For this, the software gets high marks.

Unfortunately, this FPM suite remains more difficult to deploy and maintain than other vendors’ suites, and its user experience is becoming dated. As well, social collaboration is increasingly important in business, especially to fit specific requirements of the finance function, as I recently noted. Oracle understands that it must address changing user experience requirements as the baby boomers retire and are replaced by people who have fundamentally different expectations of how software is supposed to work. While there was plenty of evidence at OpenWorld that Oracle is taking steps to remedy this at a corporate level, it’s up to individual units to implement changes to their software portfolio, and it’s not clear that this is a priority for the Hyperion group. But in other areas, Oracle is busy addressing gaps in its FPM offerings. It is adding mobile enablement to Hyperion Financial Management and Planning, starting with an executive approval application to ensure that necessary signoffs can occur anywhere to speed the completion of routine work. To address the growing popularity of its cloud-based rivals, Oracle’s long-awaited Planning and Budgeting Cloud Service should be available by the end of 2013, providing budgeting, planning, collaborative forecasting and reporting as services to companies. And the company is offering financial and management and reporting in the cloud to streamline production and delivery of reports.

Hyperion still has the strongest franchise in the finance function, the legacy of achieving early market dominance in software for vr_fcc_financial_close_and_automationconsolidation, reporting, planning and budgeting. It succeeded because it gave the finance department autonomy from IT with applications designed by people who understood their needs. Hyperion offers a rich set of capabilities to automate the extended close cycle – all of the activities that start with the preclosing functions and continue through completion of external reporting. Our recent benchmark research on the financial close found a correlation between the time it takes a company to close and the degree of automation that it applies to the process. On average, those with a high degree of automation are able to close their books in 5.7 days, compared to 9.1 days for those that apply little or no automation. Oracle’s Financial Close Suite of applications is designed to enable companies to execute their period-end close faster and more accurately while requiring fewer resources. This is important because managing their close well is an issue for more than half of companies. Our research found that 61 percent of corporations take more than six business days to complete their quarterly or semiannual close (the consensus best practice is closing within six business days). Rather than achieving a faster close, which 83 percent of companies said is important or very important, the research found that on average it takes a day longer for companies to close than it took them five years earlier. In conjunction with better process design, using software to automate manual processes, manage all phases of process execution and limit the use of desktop spreadsheets is an effective way to shorten a company’s close cycle. Oracle’s Financial Management Analytics allows finance executives to closely monitor this extended close cycle.

One recent addition to Oracle Hyperion’s Financial Close Suite is Tax Provision. Accurately calculating and reporting direct (income) taxes is a time-consuming, labor-intensive process for almost all midsize and larger companies. I’ve written about the importance of using technology to bring the tax function into mainstream finance. There are two necessary IT elements to managing this process. One is ensuring that all of the data needed for provisioning and any subsequent audit is readily available. An option here is a tax data warehouse for companies that have a large number of legal entities and/or operate in multiple tax jurisdictions. Hyperion doesn’t have this capability. However, for companies that have less complex requirements or just want to simplify and centralize the gathering of tax data, it provides the second necessary element: an environment that manages tax data collection, improves the accuracy of the data and the calculations (by substantially reducing the need for desktop spreadsheets and rekeying of data from source systems) and automates data movement through configurable wizards. Especially in the quarterly and year-end accounting closes, numerous adjustments may take place that can affect the tax provision or changes in tax calculations that can have an impact on reported results. A tax provision application can speed up the back-and-forth adjustments, helping to shorten the accounting close cycle. It also can enhance the effectiveness of the tax function because those professionals will have more time to spend on analysis and optimizing a company’s tax position rather than wrestling with spreadsheets.

Oracle has added important new capabilities to its FPM suite since acquiring Hyperion. Expanding the suite has helped the company sustain its franchise in the face of determined competition from large to smaller sized software vendors such as IBMInfor and SAP, as well as smaller ones including Adaptive PlanningAnaplanHost AnalyticsLongview and Tagetik. The generational change that’s under way in corporations poses a serious competitive threat to Oracle. For finance professionals, word of mouth and brand loyalty count far more than “enchanted boxes” or “undulations”: That’s how Hyperion came to dominate the market. But times change, and Oracle is vulnerable because of the time and cost of deployment, ease of use and maintenance and user experience of its FPM suite. These were reflected in our 2013 Financial Performance Management Value Index. This year’s OpenWorld demonstrated that Oracle can pivot – albeit slowly – to address a rapidly evolving applications software market. With Hyperion it needs to focus more on addressing core competitive issues if it expects to sustain a leading market position.

Regards,

Robert Kugel – SVP Research

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