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The imperative to transform the finance department to function in a more strategic, forward-looking and action-oriented fashion has been a consistent theme of practitioners, consultants and business journalists for two decades. In all that time, however, most finance and accounting departments have not changed much. In our benchmark research on the Office of Finance, nine out of 10 participants said that it’s important or very important for finance departments tovr_Office_of_Finance_05_finance_should_take_strategic_roletake a strategic role in running their company. The research also shows a significant gap between this objective and how well most departments perform. A large majority (83%) said they perform the core finance functions of accounting, fiscal control, transaction management, financial reporting and internal auditing, but only 41 percent said they play an active role in their company’s management. Even fewer (25%) have implemented a high degree of automation in their core finance functions and actively promote process and analytical excellence.

Despite these findings, we believe that today finance transformation is both necessary and achievable. Practical, affordable technology is available to enhance productivity in order to de-emphasize the department’s “bean counting” role and promote its ability to enhance the performance of the entire corporation. Technology enables Finance to be more proactive and more strategic in providing analyses and methods that enhance its capabilities and improve the performance of the entire corporation. Of course, technology by itself will not transform a finance organization, but most of the longstanding issues that it must address to improve performance can be fixed using information technology to address interrelated people, process and data issues in a comprehensive fashion.

Our Office of Finance research agenda for 2016 emphasizes three broad technology-related themes serving the goal of finance transformation:

  • Applying a continuous accounting approach to promote greater departmental efficiency and effectiveness
  • Adopting technology that promotes action-oriented continuous planning, using rapid, short planning cycles to promote agility, coordination and accountability
  • Using software and other information technologies to achieve continuous optimization to promote ongoing organizational alignment across departments and business units.

Continuous Accounting

We introduced the term “continuous accounting” last year to identify the three areas where our research consistently finds tactical roadblocks to achieving a more strategic finance organization. By focusing on these three areas, finance executives can achieve steady gains in effectiveness.

vr_Office_of_Finance_11_automation_speeds_the_financial_closeThe first area concerns how the organization uses technology and manages information. To enhance effectiveness, finance departments must use software to automate all mechanical, repetitive accounting processes in a continuous, end-to-end fashion. Automation improves efficiency by eliminating the need to have people perform repetitive tasks. For example, we find that most (71%) companies that automate substantially all of their financial close complete it within six business days of the end of the quarter, compared to 43 percent that automate some of the process and just 23 percent that have automated little or none of it. Using software enables the department to manage the flow of data through its processes in a continuous, end-to-end fashion. This ensures data integrity, which in turn eliminates the need for checks and reconciliations that can consume time that could be spent more productively. Data integrity is undermined every time data is re-entered manually or when a spreadsheet is used in a process: for example, when data from one system is manually transferred to another; when the same information is entered twice in two different systems; or when a spreadsheet is used to perform an allocation or a set of calculations.

The second aspect of continuous accounting involves optimizing scheduling of tasks. Continuous accounting incorporates a process management approach that, wherever possible, distributes workloads continuously to flatten spikes of activities, whether in the month, quarter, half-year or year. This approach eliminates bottlenecks and optimizes when tasks are executed. It reduces stress on the department and can eliminate the need for temporary help and its associated expense. Much of the traditional accounting cycle and related departmental practices are artifacts of paper-based bookkeeping systems. These methods dictated the need to wait until the end the month, quarter or year to take accountants off line to perform aggregations, allocations, checks and reconciliations; that rhythm represented the best trade-off of efficiency and control in such antiquated approaches. Today’s systems offer far more flexibility that enables departments to spread workloads more evenly over time and complete them more expeditiously.

The third aspect of continuous accounting is the need to instill continuous improvement in the departmental culture. This steps counters tendency of any organization – but especially finance – to embrace a “we’ve always done it this way” mindset that resists needed change.  Continuous improvement acts as a mission statement that sets increasingly rigorous objectives. To achieve those objectives it’s necessary to have regular reviews of performance toward those objectives and make addressing shortcomings a priority. For departmental executives, communicating the need for continuous improvement is an essential element to achieving finance transformation.

Used as an organizing principle for the department, continuous accounting frees up time and therefore the resources needed to implement changes that result in performance improvements in a sustained and steady fashion. Adopting a continuous accounting approach enables CFOs and finance executives to reduce the amount of time spent “fighting fires,” many of which are the result of not using capable technology.

The Transformation of ERP

In most companies, ERP systems are the backbone of the accounting function, and this software category will continue to be an important focus of our research in 2016. The ERP software market is set to undergo a significant transformation over the next five years. At the heart of this transformation is the decade-long evolution of a set of technologies that enable a major shift in the design of these systems – and it amounts to the most significant change since the introduction of client/server technology in the 1990s. Vendors are seizing on technologies such as in-memory computing, improving the user interface and user experience, adding more in-context collaboration and extending the use of mobility to differentiate their applications from rivals. Those with software-as-a-service (SaaS) subscription offerings are investing to make their software suitable for a broader variety of users in multitenant clouds. These and other topics will be addressed in the results of our next-generation ERP benchmark research, which we will release in 2016.

We’ll also continue to look at the application of financial vr_NG_Finance_Analytics_01_finance_analytics_users_dissatisfiedperformance management (FPM) to improve results. Ventana Research defines FPM as the process of addressing the often overlapping issues that affect how well finance organizations support the activities and strategic objectives of their companies and manage their own operations. FPM deals with the full cycle of the finance department’s functions, including corporate and strategic finance, planning, budgeting, forecasting, analysis, closing reporting and statutory filing. In each of these areas, using inappropriate technology has a negative impact on how well a company performs. We will continue to highlight the importance of improving the creation and use of analytics. For example, our Office of Finance research finds that on average, companies that are heavy users of spreadsheets in their closing process take longer to close their books than those that limit them or don’t use them at all. Elsewhere, our next-generation finance analytics research finds a high degree of dissatisfaction with finance analytics in the company: 58 percent said that significant or major changes are necessary while just 7 percent stated no improvements are necessary. The research also shows that heavy use of spreadsheets for all forms of analysis is at the heart of this dissatisfaction. In 2016 also we’ll publish the next installment of our Financial Performance Management Value Index, which assesses vendors and products in this software market.

Financial Performance Management

As noted above, we recommend that finance organizations that want to play a more strategic role in the management of their corporation should adopt a continuous planning methodology for their financial planning and analysis function. A continuous planning approach uses frequent, short planning cycles to promote agility, coordination and accountability in operations. It includes establishing an ongoing dialogue among finance and line-of-business managers and executives to track current conditions as well as changes in objectives and priorities driven by markets and the business climate. To manage planning in such a comprehensive way requires dedicated software that enables members of the FP&A organization to focus more of their time on analysis and modeling. Technology also enhances the quality of plans, forecasts and budgets. In particular, in-memory computing makes it feasible to rapidly process computation of even complex models with large data sets. Consequently, it can expand the range of planning, budgeting, forecasting and reviewing performed in rapid cycles. It enables organizations to run more simulations to understand trade-offs and the consequences of specific events, as well as change the focus of reviews from what just happened to what to do next. For these reasons, in-memory computing also may encourage more companies to replace spreadsheets (which have practical limits to the size, complexity and adaptability of the models that are created in them) with dedicated planning applications that can harness the power of in-memory processing.

Sales and Operations Planning for Finance

Companies that deal in physical goods that are manufactured or sourced and then sold direct or into distribution channels often benefit from using sales and operations planning (S&OP). The process of orchestrating the flow of parts and materials through the production process to meet expected customer demand involves many functional units, each of which make plans, as well as the finance organization, which assesses the financial impact. Sales and operations planning is a discipline aimed at aligning and optimizing the plans of several business units. There are sales plans, product plans, demand plans and supply chain plans. Within a corporation, the performance of each of the functional units that produce these plans is assessed using different, often conflicting metrics. Information technology enables corporations to manage their inventories more skillfully and  minimize their working capital investment while maximizing their ability to fulfill demand. S&OP is designed to align a company strategically so that it can execute tactically in more effective fashion. The ultimate goal is to determine how best to manage company resources, especially inventory and cash, to be able to profitably satisfy customer demand with the lowest incidence of stock-outs. The output of an S&OP group is a SKU-level demand forecast that is used to create a detailed inventory plan. This quantitative plan is a major driver of a process that guides the purchasing an optimal amount of inventory (the one that best balances desired fulfillment rates while minimizing the investment in inventory) from the best set of suppliers (balancing a range of considerations including goods availability, pricing, discounts, economic order quantities and supply chain constraints). To enhance their strategic value, the financial planning and analysis group should play an integral role in the sales and operations planning process.

Advanced Analytics

We also will monitor the ongoing development of advanced analytics for business users. Using technology to make better use of data through advanced analytics can provide companies with breakthrough results. Often that’s because using capable information technology can provide insights and visibility that are unavailable by eyeballing data or using spreadsheets. Advanced techniques such as predictive analytics provide companies with more nuanced forecasts as well as the ability to spot deviations from expected results and thus address problems or seize opportunities sooner. For example, price and revenue optimization is rapidly developing applied analytic techniques that enable businesses to achieve higher profitability, increased sales or some combination. Software that helps manage pricing and profitability is spreading from hospitality, transportation, retailing to consumer financial services and other areas, especially business-to-business verticals. Used properly, this type of software enables a company to tailor its control of individual decisions regarding pricing, discounts and other terms to achieve the results best suited to its strategy. It can continuously make adjustments consistent with longer-term objectives in response to market conditions. Price and revenue optimization is impossible to achieve without using software and analytics that can deal with the huge volumes of today’s data.

Tools for Promoting Productivity and Effectiveness

There are a range of specialized software tools also can promote a more effective finance function, and executives must focus on acquiring and using those that enable the department to take a more active role in improving performance in the company’s operations. Finance has the necessary analytical talent and is positioned to be a neutral party in balancing the requirements of different functional groups or where issues cross business units or geographic boundaries.

The Office of Finance practice will continue to focus on software categories that can improve corporate efficiency, increase visibility and enhance agility. Our main objective is to enable finance organizations to be more effective by eliminating the root causes of time-wasting, low-value activities. For example, more companies are adopting a subscription or recurring revenue business model. This model isn’t always handled well by ERP systems, especially if a company is selling something more complex than simple subscriptions. These companies need to automate their quote-to-cash process from end to end, with the objective of controlling the flow of data, from configuring, quoting and pricing all the way to billing. Using this type of automation to ensure data quality enables companies to achieve two usually conflicting goals: substantially reducing finance and accounting department workloads while still allowing sales and marketing to offer customers flexibility in how they buy their services or products. Expense management is another classic time-waster poorly executed in most companies. Automation not only can save the finance department time, it also can reduce the “administrivia” workload for employees who have to submit expense reports. The cost of these expense management systems is typically less than one full-time equivalent employee, but it can save a multiple of that amount of time.

Managing Taxes More Intelligently

Taxes are one of the biggest expenses corporations face. There are two basic types of taxes: direct or income taxes and indirect taxes, which include sales and use tax and value taxes. Managing direct tax provision and analysis is still in the dark ages in most companies. We recommend to corporations that operate in multiple countries and that have even a moderately complex legal entity structure that they consider tax provision software that is supported by what we call a tax data warehouse of record. Taxes operate in a parallel universe from business management. Our research confirms that most companies use spreadsheets to manage their tax provision and analysis: Half (52%) rely solely on spreadsheets, and another 38 percent mainly use them. Several issues arise in using spreadsheets in the tax function: They are time-consuming, provide limited visibility to senior executives and pose unnecessary risks through errors. International companies are facing increasing scrutiny of their tax positions and can benefit from using dedicated software to manage their direct taxes more intelligently. Among the indirect taxes, in the United States, sales taxes are notoriously complex to administer. We recommend that any company with 100 or more employees doing business in more than a handful of states adopt a sales tax service for the same reason that they use a payroll service: It’s not worth the time, hassle and potential liability to do it in house.

The Impact of Changes to Accounting Rules

The Office of Finance practice at Ventana invests a great deal of time in researching software applications and related information technology. Uniquely, though, we also read accounting bulletins. The world of accounting is undergoing a substantial change now and over the next three years as a result of the adoption of accounting rule changes for revenue recognition and, to a lesser extent, lease accounting. The impact of revenue recognition changes will be profound because it is built on a fundamentally different conceptual framework than classical accounting. The upshot of this framework is that systems must account for revenues and expenses in a parallel fashion rather than in a balancing one. This type of approach would have been extremely problematic in paper-based systems. It’s feasible only because of the nearly universal use of computer-based accounting systems. Almost all ERP vendors are gearing up to support the new accounting rules, but it’s important for companies to plan ahead to make the transition as smooth as possible. And it’s important to be sure that sales contracts and documentation are designed to make accounting for them as efficient as possible.

Technology’s Role in the Office of Finance

One major reason for investing in technology is to help senior executives achieve better results by supporting more effective business management techniques. For example, our benchmark research on long-range planning demonstrates that better management of technology and information can improve alignment between strategy and execution. And when it comes to cloud computing, far from simply being a technology concern, cloud computing enables corporations to cut costs and gain access to more sophisticated technology than they could feasibly support in an on-premises deployment. Using technology can boost performance. The improper use of spreadsheets as seen in our research continues be an unseen killer of corporate productivity because these tools have inherent defects that significantly reduce users’ efficiency. Relying on spreadsheets makes it impossible to find the time to improve performance. Increasingly companies have inexpensive options that are easier to use and enable more advanced, reliable modeling, analysis and reporting.

Information technology is an essential element of business management and promotes a discipline of continuous optimization, a term we use to emphasize the importance of achieving better alignment of organizations to a company’s strategy. Yet many senior executives and managers have too narrow and too limited an understanding of IT’s full potential, much as those managing corporate information technology usually don’t appreciate business issues and how IT can address them. The business/IT divide is a barrier that prevents many companies from achieving their performance potential. The divide need not exist. Business executives don’t have to be able to write Java code or master the intricacies of an ERP or sales compensation application. However, they should master the basics of IT just as they must understand the fundamentals of corporate finance, the production process and – at least at a high level – the technologies that support that process. Our research practice addresses the significant business issues where technology plays an important role in addressing those issues. Because business is dynamic, optimization must be continuous to adapt to changes in markets, the competitive landscape and customer demands. Continuous optimization requires companies to operate in faster cycles and have real-time visibility to improve responsiveness and agility. Information technology can remove the barriers that prevent them from achieving more optimal results.

Regards,

Robert Kugel – SVP Research

Ventana Research recently released the results of our Next-Generation Business Planning benchmark research. Business planning encompasses all of the forward-looking activities in which companies routinely engage. The research examined 11 of the most common types of enterprise planning: capital, demand, marketing, project, sales and operations, strategic, supply chain and workforce planning, as well as sales forecasting and corporate and IT budgeting. We also aggregated the results to draw general conclusions.

Planning is the process of creating a detailed formulation of a program of action designed to achieve objectives. People and businesses plan to determine how to succeed in achieving those objectives. Planning also serves to structure the discussion about those objectives and the resources and tactics needed to achieve them. A well-managed planning process should be structured in that it sets measurable objectives and quantifies resources required to achieve them. Budgeting is a type of planning but somewhat different in that is financially focused and is done to impose controls that prevent a company from overspending and therefore failing financially. So while planning and budgeting are similar (and budgeting involves planning), they have different aims. Unlike budgeting, planning emphasizes the things that the various parts of the business focus on, such as units sold, sales calls made, the number and types of employees required or customers served.

Integrating the various business planning activities across a company benefits the senior leadership team, as I have written by enabling them to understand both the operational vr_NGBP_02_integrated_planning_works_betterand the financial consequences of their actions. There are multiple planning efforts under way at any time in a company. These plans typically are stand-alone efforts only indirectly linked to others. To be most effective, however, an individual business unit plan requires direct inputs from other planning efforts. A decade ago I coined the term “integrated business planning” to emphasize the need to use technology to better coordinate the multiple planning efforts of the individual parts of the company. There are good reasons to do this, one of which is accuracy. Our new research reveals that to be accurate, most (77%) planning processes depend to some degree on having access to accurate and timely data from other parts of the organization. For this reason, integrating the various planning processes produces business benefits: In our research two-thirds of companies in which plans are directly linked said that their planning process works well or very well. This compares favorably to 40 percent in those that copy planning data from individual plans to an integrated plan (such as the company budget) and just 25 percent of those that have little or no connection between plans.

Technology has been a major barrier preventing companies from integrating their planning efforts. Until relatively recently, joining the individual detailed plans of various departments and functions into an overall view was difficult because the available software, data and network capabilities were not sufficient to make it feasible and attractive to take this approach. To be sure, over the past decades there has been steady progress in making enterprise systems more accessible to ordinary users. But while dedicated planning software has become easier to use, evidently it’s still not easy enough. The research reveals that across the spectrum of corporate planning activities, three-fourths of organizations use spreadsheets to manage the process. We expect this to change over the next several years as the evolution in information technologies makes dedicated planning software a more compelling choice. One factor will be enhanced ease of use, which will be evident in at least two respects. Software vendors are recognizing that a better user experience can differentiate their product in a market where features and functions are a commodity. Ease of use also will extend to analytics and reporting, making it easier for business users to harness the power of advanced analytics and providing self-service reporting, including support for mobile devices. The other factor will be the ability to make the planning process far more interactive by utilizing in-memory processing to speed calculations. When even complex planning models with large data sets can be run in seconds or less, senior executives and managers will be able to quickly assess the impact of alternative courses of action in terms of their impact on key operating metrics, not just revenue and income. Having the means to engage in a structured conversation with direct reports will help executives be more effective in implementing strategy and managing their organization.

Technology is not the only barrier to better planning. The research demonstrates the importance of management in the process, correlating how well a planning process is managed with its accuracy. The large majority (80%) of companies that manage a planning process well or very well wind up with a plan that is accurate or very accurate. By contrast, just one-fourth of companies that do an adequate job achieve that degree of accuracy and almost none (5%) of those that do it poorly have accurate or very accurate results. Additionally, managing a planning process well requires clear communications. More than three-fourths (76%) of companies in which strategy and objectives related to plans are communicated very well have a process that works very well, while more than half (53%) with poor executive communication wind up with a planning process that performs poorly. And collaboration is essential to a well-functioning planning process. Most (85%) companies that collaborate effectively or very effectively said that their planning process is managed well, while just 11 percent of companies that collaborate only somewhat effectively expressed that opinion.

vr_ngbp_03_collaboration_is_important_for_planningCollaboration is essential because the process of planning in corporations ought to get everyone onto the same page to ensure that activities are coordinated. Companies have multiple objectives for their planning processes. Chief among these is accuracy. But since things don’t always go to plan, companies need to have agility in responding to changes in a timely and coordinated fashion. In a small business, planning can be informal because of the ease of communications between all members and the ease with which plans can be modified in response to changing conditions In larger organizations the planning process becomes increasingly difficult because communications become compartmentalized locally and diffused across the entire enterprise. Setting and to a greater degree changing the company’s course requires coordination to ensure that the actions of one part of the organization complement (or at least don’t impede) the actions of others. Coordination enables understanding of the impact of policies and actions in one part of the company on the rest. Yet only 14 percent of companies are able to accurately measure that impact, and fewer than half (47%) have even a general idea. Integrated business planning address that issue.

In most organizations budgeting and operational planning efforts are only loosely connected. In contrast, next-generation business planning closely integrates unit-level operational plans with financial planning. At the corporate level, it shifts the emphasis from financial budgeting to planning and to performance reviews that integrate operational and financial measures. It uses available information technology to help companies plan faster with less effort while achieving greater accuracy and agility.

For companies to improve competitiveness, their business planning must acquire four characteristics. First, planning must focus on performance, measuring results against both business and financial objectives. Second, it must help executives and managers quickly and intelligently assess all relevant contingencies and trade-offs to support their decisions. Third, it must enable each individual business planning group to work in one central system; this simplifies the integration of their plans into a single view of the company and makes it easy for planners in one part of the business to see what others are projecting. Fourth, it must be efficient in its use of people’s time. Success in business stems more from doing than planning. Efficient use of time enables agility, especially in larger organizations.

Today’s business planning doesn’t completely lack these features, but in practice it falls short – often considerably. Senior executives ought to demand more from the considerable amount of time their organization devotes to creating, reviewing and revising plans. They should have easy access to the full range of plans in their company. They must be able to engage in a structured dialog with direct reports about business plans, contingency plans and business unit performance. Information technology alone will not improve the effectiveness of business planning, but it can facilitate their efforts to realize more value from their planning.

Regards,

Robert Kugel – SVP Research

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