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Workiva offers Wdesk, a cloud-based productivity application for handling composite documents. I use the term “composite document” to refer to those in which text is created and edited collaboratively by multiple contributors and which incorporates tabular and numerical data from multiple sources in a controlled process. Composite documents often have formats defined by law, regulation or contract and must be created at periodic intervals. To comply with the requirement by the United States Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) that companies “tag” their financial filings using eXtensible Business Reporting Language (XBRL), many companies acquired software to automate the creation and tagging of these composite documents.
Workiva began as WebFilings and initially offered software to streamline the SEC document submission process. In 2013 it released Wdesk to address the larger market for composite document creation. The software has uses beyond SEC filings. They include a variety of documents or presentations for external or internal purposes that corporations routinely produce, including board presentations, management reports, audit management, disclosure documents and other regulatory or compliance filings. Using such software, companies (and especially finance departments) can cut preparation time, complete documents sooner and substantially reduce errors in them.
Software products for handling composite documents like Wdesk have capabilities similar to those of document management applications except that they are designed to be easily used by business people with limited or no involvement by technical specialists and at much lower cost of ownership. This is especially true for cloud-based software. As is the case in using document management software, the text portion of the composite document is produced and reviewed by many people in multiple departments for various purposes in a defined workflow that includes approvals. To facilitate reviews, Wdesk enables approvers to read, comment on and accept a document or any component of it on a mobile device. In the process of creating the document multiple versions are created and the software ensures that people work only with the current version. Permissions for creating, editing and approving the document can be granular (such as limited to a specific paragraph or table or even a single data point). Especially for internal documents (such as Sarbanes-Oxley Act attestations) Wdesk can connect substantiating documents directly to specific parts of a document.
The sections and basic form of a composite document may be highly structured, in which case the software automatically maintains this structure and all formatting. The format includes the order of the sections, the section headings, specific wording in boilerplate sections, paragraph styles and even the typeface, to name the most common requirements. If the document is a periodic filing, it must be consistent from one period to the next, keeping the format and structure of each individual section exactly the same. Wdesk also ensures that text and numbers that are reused across multiple documents and presentations are consistent.
In addition to consistency, another major advantage of using Wdesk to automate the document creation process is that it can significantly reduce the incidence of errors while reducing the time devoted to checking the document for them. For example, numbers referenced in the commentary must agree with those in the tables. These numbers often change over the course of the drafting period, sometimes frequently and on occasion late in the process when deadlines are short. A composite document application will always contain the most accurate and up-to-date numbers. This is important because in our benchmark research on the financial close research three out of five participants said that the consistency and quality of data in company reports is a significant or very significant problem.
As the numbers (such as financial and operational results) referenced in a table change, the numbers in the narrative associated with those numbers, as well as any associated percentage, change citations. For example, in the statement “advertising expense was $X, up Y%,” the numbers X and Y will always be in agreement with each other and any table containing them. Automation can also help because some types of regulatory documents and filings have particular requirements that must be enforced. For example, when financial data is presented in a shortened form (in thousands or millions of currency units, for example), the rounding often must adhere to a specific convention.
Using a software application designed to automate and support the process of creating filing documents can reduce the amount of time and effort necessary to produce the final result. It does so by establishing a repository of record for the text and data, automating the compilation of the document including the tabular data and individual text sections, using workflow to manage the process, and applying controls and audit features.
Using such software enables corporations to achieve substantially greater efficiency as well as tighter and more consistent control over this process. Process management capabilities can cut the administrative workload for people who “own” the filing document and reduce the possibility of delayed handoffs and missed deadlines. Document management features enable administrators to track the progress of the individual components, automate reminders to individuals as deadlines approach and generate alerts if they miss start or completion times. In contrast, when regulatory filings and similar composite documents are assembled using personal productivity software and orchestrated through email attachments and notifications, the process needlessly occupies the time and attention of highly trained, well-compensated people who have to spend hours performing dull, repetitive tasks that require their skills. Automation on the other hand leaves only the essential work to be done, allowing expert individuals to focus only on that and have more time to concentrate on their real jobs.
Using software to automate and control the creation of composite documents for external or internal users can substantially cut the risks of errors and missed deadlines. This software can be used broadly to address multiple regulatory and legal requirements in the finance, legal, internal audit and other departments. I recommend that companies – especially their finance and legal departments – that create composite documents automate their production and investigate whether Wdesk will address their requirements.
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The evolutionary pace of technologies that shape the design of ERP systems has been accelerating over the last couple of years. In addition to cloud computing there is the increasing availability of analytics and reporting integrated into transaction processing systems, which I have noted; support for mobile users; in-context collaboration; and more intuitive user interface (UI) design. Each of these features enhances productivity and the usefulness of ERP software in managing a business. The latest release of FinancialForce, a cloud-based ERP system, offers significant enhancements to its user interface and collaboration capabilities.
In regard to the UI, ERP vendors have been rethinking the design of their screens and workflows to improve the user experience. In legacy ERP systems, screen layouts are relics of technology limitations that no longer exist. Almost all ERP vendors are focusing on refining their UI. FinancialForce has a slightly different approach: Let each customer decide what works best. In its Spring 2016 release, the company has made its input forms fully configurable so that companies are able to create their own “personalized user forms” to fit the specific requirements of a given process. Input forms also can be optimized for mobile devices to facilitate their use by users in situations such as a manager or executive giving an approval or a mobile worker doing multipart matching in some process. This approach is an example of a more “consumerized” experience because the user organization can configure the forms to fit their preferences. Unlike almost all other ERP systems, FinancialForce does not require specialist skills or outside consultants. With minimal training, someone in the finance organization can start with the basic input screen templates and customize them by dragging and dropping elements to fit the requirements of processes executed by a specific department. No programming is necessary. The result is a data entry interface that can be faster to learn and simpler to use than older styles, and which can boost accounting department quality and productivity.
FinancialForce introduced its Action Views reporting engine last year to produce Excel-like reports directly from data stored in its cloud. Sources include ERP, human resources or any other data that is accessible to the user in the Salesforce Sales Cloud or Service Cloud (for example, to access customer records or to create a receivables aging analysis by sales agent). Action Views address the need companies have for easy access to ERP data and other enterprise data without having to set up a data warehouse. Action Views are designed to present actionable information to individuals so they can make informed decisions sooner. In our benchmark research, regardless of the size of the company or the age of the system, only half of users of ERP systems said it is easy or very easy to access the information in their ERP system.
The latest release offers a useful enhancement to Action Views called Related Content Panels (RCPs). These pop up to show tabs with account details and the account history, a task calendar for managing follow-ups such as a collection call and collaboration capabilities using Salesforce Chatter. As I’ve noted, collaboration is an essential aspect of the accounting function. Individuals often need input from others, for example to confirm or clarify some aspect of a report, track a specific transaction, find missing information or comment on or explain some piece of analysis or variance. RCPs enable the relevant group of people in a company (which could be anyone with access to Chatter) to have discussions about what is in a report. Our research shows that a majority of companies rely on email with spreadsheet attachments to facilitate collaboration, probably because once upon a time it was the only practical alternative. RCPs provide such an alternative. Rather than being scattered in multiple email threads, these discussions are readily accessible in the context of the report, and users can easily reference them later. Collaboration-in-context capabilities are a far more productive way for individuals to collaborate and interact. An in-context collaboration capability like RCPs provides direct contact with individuals while they perform a specific task. In-context collaboration will become an essential feature of ERP software because it increases productivity and provides easy access to historical records of conversations.
The Spring release of FinancialForce adds intercompany reconciliation and automated elimination entries, both of which can significantly reduce the amount of period-end accounting work and accelerate the financial close. Continuous accounting is the term we coined to describe a new approach to managing the finance and accounting function. Today’s financial software gives companies much more flexibility than paper-based systems or legacy software in how and when they perform their work. The monthly, quarterly and annual period-end bunching of tasks was a practical approach to dealing with the limitations of paper-based systems. Today it’s possible to use technology to spread workloads evenly across accounting periods. Reconciliations and eliminations can be done more frequently, reducing the end-of-period workloads, shortening the close, reducing the need for temporary hires and easing stress in the department. In the new release, FinancialForce Reconciliations enables companies to post a single record of an intercompany transaction in separate general ledgers simultaneously to eliminate potential discrepancies at their source. For entities using different functional currencies, a global exchange rate facility automates their translation at the time the record is posted.
FinancialForce’s software is designed to meets the needs of several types of companies. As a cloud-based application, it’s suited to the needs of corporations that have outgrown their small business accounting software packages and can benefit from having the ability to connect sales, marketing and customer service capabilities with their back-office functions. It can help midsize businesses – especially those selling business services – grow while minimizing the need to add administrative staff. Many companies with 50 to 500 employees still use basic accounting packages even though they have outgrown their process management, reporting and analytical capabilities because they hesitate to make a new investment in an on-premises accounting package and the resources necessary to support it. Maintaining an existing accounting package might appear the safe choice, but it foregoes the operational and management benefits that more capable software can deliver. Cloud-based software usually entails a smaller upfront commitment and does not require ongoing reliance on paid staff to support a system. FinancialForce also is well suited for larger companies that have a professional services group with 30 or more employees who bill their time and expenses, especially those who engage in discrete projects. Salesforce.com users of all sizes can find FinancialForce components useful in automatically connecting their salesforce.com processes with other enterprise systems in a managed and controlled fashion, without having to re-enter data. I recommend that all these organizations consider how this vendor’s products can help meet their needs.
Senior Vice President, Research