The chief financial officer of a midsize organization faces a different set of challenges than those in larger or smaller enterprises. These organizations have grown to the point of requiring capabilities similar to larger businesses, but typically lack the staff or financial resources afforded to bigger organizations. The past decade of IT innovation – especially the expansion of cloud computing – has brought substantial benefits to midsize finance and accounting operations. Rapidly growing midsize organizations in particular should make investments in information technology that allow the business to scale without having to increase administrative head count, and focus resources on areas that accelerate growth, such as sales, logistics, R&D or customer support.
Our Office of Finance Benchmark Research revealed a gap in finance and accounting group performance between midsize and larger organizations. For example, the research found that 59% of midsize organizations take more than six business days to complete the quarterly accounting close, compared to one-half of larger enterprises. It also found that 26% of midsize organizations have excellent analytic skills, compared to 38% of larger businesses.
CFOs in midsize organizations must recognize the importance of using technology to enhance the performance of their finance and accounting organization. Readily available and affordable technology has the potential to close skills and cost-benefit gaps between midsize and larger organizations, and this will accelerate as software vendors apply artificial intelligence using machine learning to offerings. For example, applications are incorporating common – and even some advanced – analytics capabilities that reduce the time needed to source and prepare data. As a result, business analysts have more time to spend on analysis to produce actionable insight. And software-as-a-service shifts application management to a third-party provider to manage software and hardware more efficiently, providing better performance and ensuring applications are fully up-to-date and running on the most current hardware.
A contributing factor to the performance gap is the more frequent use of spreadsheets by midsize organizations to manage core processes. The difference is greatest in areas such as sales tax provision (82% of midsize organizations use spreadsheets compared to 47% of larger businesses), management accounting (79% versus 46%) and post-consolidation close-to-report functions (73% versus 45%). The gap is least pronounced in areas such as budgeting and planning (64% versus 55%), dashboards and scorecards (63% versus 52%) and financial analysis (60% versus 47%).
To address this performance gap, Ventana Research recommends midsize CFOs focus their IT investments in three areas: Financial management (often referred to as enterprise resource planning), planning and budgeting as well as the close, consolidate and report portion of the accounting cycle.
Finance department executives should recognize that software rusts – not literally of course, but organizations are reluctant to replace ERP systems because the process is expensive, time-consuming and poses risks. Not surprisingly, our research found that the average age of these systems is seven years. Yet, executives must recognize that there is a risk to their operations from aging systems, and past a point they are foregoing useful capabilities not available in legacy systems. For those reasons, Ventana Research recommends that organizations conduct a thorough ERP system review, assessing its ability to support existing and future operations once the application has been in place for more than seven years.
When it is time to replace an aging ERP system, I recommend that the default choice be a cloud-based offering. The cloud has come to dominate many business software categories because cloud-based systems can be less costly to operate, perform better, be more secure and shift maintenance and update chores from the IT department to the vendor, freeing IT teams to concentrate on more strategic needs. I’ve commented on the benefits of moving an organization’s financial management or ERP system to the cloud, both for those focused on services and those whose operations are mainly manufacturing or product in nature.
The technology underpinnings of ERP systems have changed, increasing their business value, as organizations move these systems to the cloud from on premises. The ongoing evolution of the underlying technology will support major changes in how finance and accounting departments operate. In particular, artificial intelligence using machine learning will change the nature of staff work, reducing the amount of low-value chores, enabling departments to be more analytical and forward-looking and serve as a more consultative service to the rest of the organization. Technology will also enable executives who adopt a continuous accounting methodology to attract and retain the best talent by offering a more attractive work environment.
Ventana Research uses the term integrated business planning to describe an approach to managing planning and budgeting processes that enables individual units to plan business in a way that best suits the group’s needs yet also enables executives to work with an integrated plan. IBP uses a unified planning data environment, workflows and advanced analytic technologies for a more agile planning and budgeting processes. The purpose of planning is not planning but rather decision-making. IBP can increase the business value of budgeting by balancing financial and operational considerations in charting a course, and by making the process faster, more agile and more intelligent so that good managers can make better decisions more consistently. I recently published a book that provides a rationale for reimagining planning along with recommendations for implementing this approach.
Companies do a lot of planning in every department. Having all parts of the business use a single application that adapts to the specific needs of each department yet connects them to provide a single planning view increases the value of planning and budgeting. This enables financial planning and analysis groups to create a process that makes budgeting easier for the budget owner. By employing driver-based operational and financial models, predictive planning enables rapid updates to the consolidated plan. Changes in expected revenue are reflected immediately in forward financial forecasts. So, too, are changes in expected employee benefit costs, currency exchange rates, commodity prices and other factors.
Today, relatively few midsize organizations are able to plan in an integrated fashion. Our Benchmark Research on next-generation business planning finds that only 30% of businesses can link detailed planning information directly to budgets. Using a planning platform to integrate all planning data yields better results. Our research shows that two-thirds (66%) of organizations that have planning processes where planning information is directly linked said the processes work well or very well. By comparison, only 40% of businesses that copy data from individual plans said the same about the planning processes, as did only 25% that reported little or no connection.
Close, consolidate and report is one of six focus areas of the Office of Finance practice of Ventana Research, reflecting the evolution of technology that significantly expands support for this part of the department’s calendar. Ventana Research expects that the increasing investment in software to streamline these processes will, by 2026, result in two-thirds of finance and accounting departments improving use of readily available technology to close quarterly books within six business days, up from one-half that can do so today. Software for the close-to-report cycle also helps achieve objectives in digitally transforming how these processes are executed. Beyond efficiency gains, using automation enables organizations to have management and financial information sooner, provides more time for analysis and crafting performance narratives, achieves superior control of processes, and supports accurate accounting with less effort. It also enables departments to attract and retain the best talent because it minimizes time spent on tedious, repetitive tasks best left to computers. Accountants can then focus on more rewarding work that takes advantage of their skills, experience and expertise. Managing the accounting close using built-in workflows enables finance departments to automate repetitive tasks, run them automatically, monitor processes to ensure they’ve been performed and manage exceptions so that they’re attended to promptly. Workflow gives back valuable time to departmental staff and managers.
The generally accepted benchmark for closing a company’s books is one business week. However, our research found that 59% of midsize organizations said it takes longer to complete the quarterly close process. Since all companies do essentially the same process, the close is a useful benchmark for the overall competence of a finance and accounting group. Organizations that take more than one week can accelerate the close by making changes to the process, training and the technology used. Moreover, closing sooner provides executives and managers with information sooner so they can more quickly and effectively respond to opportunities and threats. Ventana Research expects that by 2026, one-half of midsize and larger organizations will use close-management software to speed the close and achieve greater control of the process.
Advanced financial consolidation and close software typically accelerates the process of consolidation of books for the close, provides greater control of calculations and automates what were once manual processes. Even midsize organizations with a single ERP or financial management application may find that existing software requires too many manual operations to close the books quickly, especially with even moderately complex legal entity structures or international operations. If so, organizations should look into the benefits of an application that can perform the period-end consolidation.
I strongly recommend that CFOs in midsize organizations invest in software that enables them to scale their business without having to increase administrative head count. They should find ways to reduce manual processes to accelerate reporting and analysis. And they should focus their staff on work that increases the value of the department as a strategic partner to the rest of the organization, such as bringing together financial and operational data to perform more operationally focused analysis that delivers deeper insight into their company’s performance. There are a wealth of software options available to CFOs and controllers of midsize organizations that are designed specifically to meet their requirements while respecting their limited financial and people resources.