Smarter and simpler software and systems are liberating finance professionals

2nd March 2012

Software is progressively deskilling, simplifying and speeding up ever-more finance processes, giving accountants more time to spend on value-added work – whatever that is? Well, as with most things, the answer depends on whom you ask, as FSN writer Lesley Meall discovers.

When Rowanmoor pensions shaved two weeks off its budgeting cycle with a new system it opened a little window of opportunity for the finance team. ‘We used to spend a lot of time manually managing the system,’ says James Simpson, financial administrator, and now things are more automated. ‘Finance has become more proactive and strategic,’ he says. But what does this mean in practice? ‘We can spend more time analysing why things happen,’ explains Simpson, and run more ‘What if?’ scenarios. ‘We are better equipped for forecasting the effect of potential company and market changes such as income fluctuations or altered tax rates’, he says, ‘and because we can do more than we were ever able to do before, we can provide more information to management and make it more timely.’ 

Being liberated by software from some of their more repetitive low-value tasks has also enabled the finance team at Ted Baker (the designer label) to use their ‘valuable and expensive’ time to add value. ‘Making my team more efficient is allowing us to adapt to changing market conditions more quickly and easily,’ says Charles Anderson, head of finance at Ted Baker, and help to support the businesses as it expands its product portfolio. ‘We can quickly model changes to our product lines, stores, territories, staffing or supplier base, and so help the business to make more timely, accurate decisions,’ he says, and focusing less on where the business has been and more on where it is going has ‘put finance at the heart of all the strategic decisions that define the overall direction of the business.’

For David Putt, the chief financial officer at Data Mail (a multi-channel direct mailing company), using software to automate and speed-up essential everyday financial tasks, has given him time to work with non-finance managers on the development of future projects – something he previously struggled to find time for. ‘When the finance organisation within the business devoted lots of effort to just getting the day-to-day financials, we didn’t do as much strategic stuff as we do now,’ recalls Putt. ‘We are always trying to drive down costs as a percentage of sales, and I can now spend time working with people on the operations side, identifying projects that could affect out cost structure,’ he says. ‘As I can see how much benefit they could really deliver financially,’ he adds, ‘this has a positive impact on the bottom line.’ 

Using software to ‘improve financial processes, procurement and visibility’ and ‘eliminate some of the drudge work’ has given Vic Smith, finance project manager at East Dorset District Council, the support structure that he needed to implement financial shared services with a neighbouring council, and the time he needed to focus on bringing the councils’ two finance teams of together. ‘It’s my job to ensure that the transition goes smoothly and to manage the expectations of everybody involved,’ he says, which can be a challenge. ‘People have a lot of concerns. They are worried about their jobs in the future, and which location they will be expected to work at,’ explains Smith, who also has to ensure that all of the required skills are distilled across the two teams and retained when they merge. 

However, not all finance professionals are equally comfortable stepping out of their comfort zone to exercise their softer skills and re-position themselves as strategic business partners. ‘Some finance teams are not ready for this,’ asserts John Hill. As chief operating officer at Avisen, a profit improvement consultancy, he comes into contact with a lot of his fellow finance professionals, and he sees them becoming more polarised. ‘Some finance directors are dealmakers, the sort of people who want the business to achieve what it can commercially, and can carefully assess and manage the associated risks,’ says Hill, but things are different at the other extreme. ‘The policeman type is more focused on governance and control. They’re happier doing that and making sure the numbers right,’ he says. 

This could be an astute and accurate observation; it could be a gross over-generalisation. There does seem to be evidence of a shift in what organisations are looking for from their most senior finance professionals, according to feedback from recruitment professionals. ‘The role of finance is evolving and the traditional image of the accountant buried in a spreadsheet is changing,’ says Helen Goold, associate director of accountancy, finance and business change with the recruiter Badenoch & Clark, and this change is happening, at least in part, because of the evolution of specialist software and systems. ‘Finance is managing more processes that other departments would previously have done because technology enables this,’ says Mark Sheldon, managing director, at Hays Accountancy & Finance. 

According to Goold and Sheldon, this is creating a demand for finance professionals who can demonstrate a balanced mix of the qualities that have historically been associated with finance professionals, and the ‘softer’ skills required to take on a more collaborative partnering role. ‘Finance is still predicated by safety, security and the ownership of data’, says Sheldon, and although he is seeing ‘less demand’ for those with just traditional financial control skills, he is seeing more demand for those who have these skills plus ‘analytical skills’ and ‘business smarts’, because they can demonstrate commercial awareness and see finance in the wider business context. This is echoed by Goold, who rather succinctly states: ‘The best finance professionals are well-rounded individuals.’ 

But being a well-rounded individual who exploits technology to simplify and speed up finance processes doesn’t always mean becoming more strategic or adding value; sometimes it just means doing your job more efficiently – which is what the financial modelling specialist Alan Lewis, at Whale Rock, is doing with the support of a cloud-based spreadsheet. ‘Before a model is ready there may be 30 or 40 different versions of it and they may need to be viewed and revised by 20 people,’ he explains, and managing this process used to be a nightmare. ‘Now I can keep one version of each model at a central location, we can all access this online, and I can collaborate more quickly and easily with clients,’ says Lewis. So what does he do with the time he’s saved? ‘Well, I still spend 95 per cent of my time working on spreadsheet models.’