Although the digital transformation of the finance department was a topic of discussion before 2020, it became a front-and-center issue as organizations locked down and in-office interactions became impossible. Finance and accounting departments were immediately confronted with a challenge because of their limited adoption of technology that would support a virtual working environment. As our 2019 Office of Finance Benchmark Research found, they are technological laggards: 45% are at the tactical or lowest level of competence in using technology across multiple processes and functions, while only 12% are at the highest. In my experience, many finance and accounting professionals and those running the department do not necessarily think that such competence is necessary, but this thinking is outdated because, increasingly, technology is the only practical way to address the department’s responsibilities (for example, the new revenue recognition for contracts accounting standards). To gain full advantage of technology, finance and accounting organizations must become “fast followers,” avoiding the bleeding edge but breaking the habit of waiting until the last possible moment before adopting proven advances.
Since its inception 20 years ago, Ventana Research has advocated for a shorter accounting close because it can improve the performance of the entire organization, not just finance and accounting. An important benefit of a shorter close is increased staff time for analysis and the preparation of reports and narratives that improve communications with the board and outside investors. Similarly, the department can provide those in operating roles the financial and managerial accounting results to highlight opportunities and issues they must address.
We conducted our recent Smart Close Dynamic Insights Research in part to assess to what extent the substantial disruptions of the pandemic have impacted the accounting close. When office lockdowns began in the first quarter of 2020, many finance departments were challenged by having to do their quarterly close remotely without their normal face-to-face interactions. In the United States, the Securities and Exchange Commission was so concerned that corporations would be unable to meet their filing deadlines that they gave registrants carte blanche to extend their filing if necessary. As it turned out, only a relative handful did, and all but one of those was based in China; but for many, that first calendar close required a heroic effort. Since then, organizations have made concerted efforts to adopt and use technology to enable them to operate resiliently under any conditions. Our research finds that while organizations have to some extent adapted to operating a more remote working environment, progress toward a faster close has been elusive. The research also confirms that organizations that use technology effectively to automate processes are better able to complete their close sooner.
OneStream offers a platform designed to serve the needs of accounting and financial planning and analysis organizations. The software handles financial close and consolidation, planning and budgeting, analysis and reporting. For me, the most significant announcement at the company’s recent user conference was the unveiling of its Sensible ML (Machine Learning) offering, which is in limited general release. I’ve commented on the importance of artificial intelligence in business applications, and Sensible ML is a promising and important step in that direction.
A few years ago – somewhat tongue in cheek – I began using the term “data pantry” to describe a type of data store that’s part of a business application platform, created for a specific set of users and use cases. It’s a data pantry because, unlike a general-purpose data store such as a data warehouse, everything the user needs is readily available and easily accessible, with labels that are immediately recognized and understood.