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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 steady march of technology’s ability to handle ever more complicated tasks has been a constant since the beginning of the information age in the 1950s. Initially, computers in business were used to automate simple clerical functions, but as systems have become more capable, information technology has been able to substitute for increasingly higher levels of human skill and experience. A turning point of sorts was reached in the 1990s when ERP, business intelligence and business process automation software reduced the need for middle managers. Increasingly, organizations used software to coordinate activities as well as communicate results and requirements up and down the organizational chart. Both were once the exclusive role of the middle manager. Consequently, almost every for-profit organization eliminated management layers so that today corporate structures are flatter than they once were. Technology automation also eliminated the need for administrative staff to perform routine reporting and analysis. Meanwhile, over the course of the 1990s, the cost of running the finance department measured as a percentage of sales was cut almost in half as a result of eliminating staff and because automation enabled companies to scale without adding headcount. During the last recession, companies in North America and Europe once again made deep reductions to their administrative staffs, relying on information technology to pick up the slack.
Given this history, the best career choice that an individual can make today is to stay ahead of the trend. Information technologies, especially cognitive computing, will continue to eliminate relatively high-paying white-collar jobs in corporate life, especially in the finance and accounting function. Executives and others working in tax departments in particular should recognize that a major shift is under way in their field. Automation will transform their work over the next five years, driving a fundamental change in what they do. To succeed (or even survive), they will have to embrace automation.
Spreadsheets are a major impediment to making the tax function more strategic for a company and more remunerative for those working in the department, as I have noted. Our Office of Finance benchmark research finds that half (52%) of tax departments use spreadsheets only for tax provisioning and another 38 percent mainly use spreadsheets; just one in 10 utilize a third-party tax application. One well-known issue with spreadsheets is that they are error-prone – not a risk that tax professionals can be comfortable with. To be certain that the tax provision and other tax-related calculations are correct, individuals must double- and even triple-check the numbers. This overlaps with a second major issue with spreadsheets: They are time-consuming. Our spreadsheet research finds that those working heavily with spreadsheets on average spend 18 hours a month (equivalent to more than two full workdays) just maintaining their most important spreadsheet. Spreadsheets as so time-consuming that they prevent individuals from doing more valuable work, in this case tax analysis and planning.
Another related issue is that using spreadsheets for the tax function diminishes visibility into a company’s tax provision in at least two respects. First, using them takes so long that executives get to the numbers late in the financial close process. This matters because of the impact that tax expense has on a company’s profits. Second, spreadsheets are black boxes: That is, they are difficult to control, and it’s difficult for anyone other than the spreadsheet’s owner to understand their construction. Often, assumptions are buried in formulas and therefore hard to uncover. If these formulas are inconsistent or wrong, it’s not easy to spot them. (This was an important factor behind J.P. Morgan’s multibillion dollar trading loss, which I discussed.) When a spreadsheet is constructed with a given formula repeated in multiple cells, each of these must be updated when circumstances change, and it’s difficult to be certain that all of the changes have been made. Even with advanced techniques designed to make updates consistent, it’s hard to be sure that some cell wasn’t overwritten with another number.
Some people who work intensively with spreadsheets still view them as a form of job security because of their opacity. They think they’re indispensable because they are the only one who understands how their spreadsheet works. This is one of several reasons why their use persists in functions where they constitute more of a problem than a solution. However, these spreadsheet jockeys should recognize that their tools’ inherent inefficiency, lack of visibility and proneness to error make them vulnerable to being replaced by better technology. The real value of tax professionals is not their ability to overcome spreadsheet limitations. It’s in their training in understanding income taxes. Once freed from the drudgery of performing computations, massaging data and checking (two or three times) for errors, tax professionals can turn their attention to performing analytical work aimed at optimizing a company’s tax spend – and thus ensuring their value as employees.
Midsize and larger organizations, especially those that operate in multiple direct (income) tax jurisdictions and that have an even moderately complex legal entity structure, must use dedicated software to automate their income tax provision and analysis functions. They must manage their tax-sensitized data using what I call a tax data warehouse of record. Tax departments must be able to tightly control the end-to-end process of taking numbers from source systems, constructing tax financial statements, calculating taxes owed and keeping track of cumulative amounts and other balance sheet items related to taxes. Transparency is the natural result of a having controlled process that uses a unified set of all relevant tax data. An authoritative data set makes tax department operations more efficient. As noted, reducing the time and effort to execute the tax department’s core functions frees up the time of tax professionals for more useful analysis. Having tax data and tax calculations that are immediately traceable, reproducible and permanently accessible provides company executives with greater certainty and reduces the risk of noncompliance and the attendant costs and reputation issues. Having an accurate and consistent tax data warehouse of record enables corporations and their tax departments to better execute tax planning, provisioning and compliance. Using dedicated software today rather than relying on spreadsheets helps the tax department, and those working in it, increase their strategic value today so they won’t be obsolete tomorrow.
Robert Kugel – SVP Research