CFOs frequently find themselves walking a tightrope between their traditional roles as financial steward and guardian of corporate assets and the newer demands of stakeholders for them to become strategic advisors and active business partners. The nub of the problem is a profound lack of time and, worse still, not even enough time to invest in the activities that would break the mould.
With financial processes under constant strain and reporting deadlines potentially overwhelming it is not surprising that rational decision-making is often supplanted by gut feel. Indeed, recent research1 reveals that even though 81% of senior finance professionals believe CFOs will be more influential in decision-making within the finance function of the future, a third of them admit their decisions rely too much on ‘gut feel’ rather than on hard data.
So is there a better way to secure a robust and dependable Decision-Making Platform (DMP)?
Clearing out the multi-vendor clutter
One of the keys to delivering better (more data-driven) and timelier decisions lies in the quality and dependability of the core financial systems that underpin them. CFOs routinely complain1 that they spend too much time on transaction processing (52%), management accounting (42%) and statutory reporting (32%). And this is despite the vast sums of money that have been invested in these processes over the years.
Part of the problem is that organisations are saddled with too many different systems. For example, a 2014 study2 of large enterprises (minimum $250 m turnover) suggests that 27% of organisations have between two and five different financial reporting systems 29% have between six and 10 systems and 28% have more than that. Fractured systems architectures, deployed internationally, with unresolved differences in metadata (structural data such as entity hierarchies, charts of accounts and cost centres) present an obvious challenge for straight-through-processing and decision-making.
Increasing business complexity hasn’t helped either. Multiple channels to market and digital disruption has changed almost every facet of business and this has had a knock-on effect on transaction processing, analysis and reporting. Effectively, modern finance professionals are running to stand still because legacy systems cannot cope with an era of constant change for which they were not designed. All of this leaves precious little time for rational data-driven decision making. So how can finance functions carve out more time for decision making?
Standardisation is the way forward
The starting point is process standardisation. Its importance cannot be over-stated. Standardisation lays the foundation for everything else, by releasing swathes of time, buying the breathing space that the finance function needs to make better decisions. FSN’s 2016 research1 shows clearly that organisations that focus on standardisation find they are not only able to spend more time on business analysis rather than accounting, but are also more actively involved in strategy development. Furthermore, they are more likely to;
- make quicker decisions based on comprehensive and accurate management information
- to be perceived more positively by other business functions
- have a better view of organisational performance and forecast more accurately.
But standardisation also has a profound effect on decision-making. The same study finds that organisations that have standardised their processes are far less likely to rely on gut-feel for decision making. The impact is subtle but important. In a nutshell, finance organisations that have invested in common processes benefit from uninterrupted transaction flows, driving up the dependability of the information, instilling more confidence in the results and reducing time-to-insight.
Once processes are standardised then FSN’s research1 finds that further automation pays dividends by accelerating time-to-decision. It may seem obvious, but the order in which standardisation and automation are applied is important too. Many organisations seek to accelerate what they have in the vain hope that it will hasten decision-making, but these initiatives invariably fail. It is vital that standardised processes are put in place before contemplating enhanced automation.
However, standardisation is easier to propose than it is to fulfil, especially in the area of Corporate Performance Management (CPM) and Business Intelligence (BI). Business that have experienced rapid growth or that have undertaken a series of acquisitions and mergers accumulate many different applications on the way, frequently from different vendors. But mixed computing environments reduce user productivity and are difficult to manage. So how can businesses build a DMP (Decision-making platform)
Building a DMP
In practice standardisation is the confluence of many individual physical and logical layers of computing. In broad terms, a modern decision-making platform promotes standardisation through;
- a focus on a single vendor solution which helps to deliver a common user experience (UX) across all of the applications as well as driving up user productivity.
- a unified environment for CPM with one definition of metadata (e.g. hierarchies, account codes, time periods, currencies) shared by all of the applications which ensures consistent data definitions and reporting.
- a single, centralised data repository (data model) to ensure that data is not duplicated in different applications the so called, “one-version of the truth”.
But a DMP also ensures that process standardisation extends to the way that data is harvested from data sources allowing, where feasible, consistent interfaces across the organisation to pull in data with the minimum amount of human intervention. This aspect is becoming particularly important in an age in which 66% of CFOs are struggling to master the volume and variety of business data1.
Once established, these technical foundation layers pave the way for further standardisation and higher levels of automation. Consistent data allows information to flow seamlessly between common CPM applications such as budgeting, planning, forecasting and reporting, providing a sound basis for performance reporting as well as a common set of goals and metrics for financial decision-making.
FSN’s research1 confirms that a common set of processes and technology sets the scene for further automation. In the case of CPM this often manifests itself as workflow, collaborative decision-making and the use of predictive analytics. High levels of automation which link front-office customer-facing or operational systems to back-office financial systems is the ‘icing on the cake’.
The same research shows that while organisations that standardise and then automate make quicker decisions and are less likely to rely on gut feel, those finance professionals that complete the modern finance journey by successfully linking front to back office have better information on which to make decisions, forecast more accurately and are more actively involved in strategy development.
FSN research1 sponsored by BOARD points to process standardisation as the single most important thing that a CFO can do. Many organisations have too many processes and too many applications all purporting to do the same thing. Process standardisation acts as a springboard to automation and process innovation – crucially releasing time that can be devoted to business partnering, nurturing finance talent and strategic development.
The best way to mobilise this change is through a modern DMP such as BOARD that provides a unified environment for technology, data and process standardisation with goals and metrics that provide a robust for strategic alignment and better decisions.
Note2 “Empowering Modern Finance”, by Longitude Research, Accenture and Oracle; 2014
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