Improving On The Entity Close Process

Elizabeth Milne

Part 11 in the Continuous Accounting Series.

With increasing transactional volumes and complexity, it’s no surprise that the repetitive manual processes and late nights compressed into the financial close window often top surveys of accountants’ biggest frustrations about their roles.

At most enterprises, the financial close remains an intensely resource-intensive process, with dozens of parallel monthly closes occurring within subsidiaries and divisions. A failure in any one of them can delay the close at corporate, or worse, place the financials at risk.

The challenge has become more acute as organizations have increasingly become inherently global at every level, from looking to tap into high-growth emerging markets through acquisition or launching new lines of business. All are associated with a proliferation in legal entities, which in turn have their own global complexity. McKinsey summarized the issue as a “globalization penalty.”

At the individual entity level, a recent survey by the Corporate Executive Board (CEB) found that while the fastest closers take just four days, that’s not the whole story. Despite the common call for a faster close, teams the survey identified as “high performing” take seven days to close. Those teams balanced the need for a fast close with being a good business partner and adviser by having established operationalized and detailed close checklists and controls. They balance speed, analysis, strategy, and risk.

In addition to having more detailed internal controls and close checklists, typically they are able to provide interim results to management faster, perform a complete analysis (such as greater balance sheet and cash flow planning), and work better with better with line of business teams.

Within a subsidiary framework, higher-performing accounting teams can typically provide better financial visibility to corporate, meaning corporate can better trust subsidiary general ledgers to move confidently into the consolidation and reporting process and minimize the number of pre-consolidation checks.

So how do entities navigate the balancing act within their financial close – achieving a fast-enough close, ensuring strong controls, minimizing risk, providing analysis and guidance to business partners (including corporate), while being cost- and resource-conscious?

1. Assess goals, issues – and create a blueprint

There’s no point in jumping into a financial close improvement project without a plan. What are the goals of the improvement? Is it to improve governance? Reallocate accounting resources towards strategy? Provide more transparency to corporate? Be more efficient?

Improving the entity close requires an assessment of controls, processes, people, and technology. Are there too many unintegrated transactional systems in place resulting in manual, painful reconciliations? Is there a problem with documentation and audit trails behind transactions? Are controls and close activities too coarse-grained?  Is reporting too manual? Does everyone know their roles and responsibilities? For divisions or corporate, is the bottleneck around intercompany processes (like intercompany eliminations and reconciliations), currency translations, or the financial consolidation process?

Creating a blueprint and scorecard of the process enables a financial close improvement project to focus on high-value targets.

2. Improve orchestration at detail

If you’re like many, your close checklist is in spreadsheets. But spreadsheets and documents are rarely referenced and fail to operationalize the close, leaving the process to email, phone calls, and online chat. In this scenario, relatively informal close checklists are held at too high a level, they are not operationalized, vital steps are missed, or team members unintentionally delay the process. Worse, if key employees leave, the process may disappear with them.

Modern tools provide an online, up-to-date list of detailed financial close activities across cash and bank reconciliations, inventory, fixed assets, prepaid expenses, and other areas. The controller gets a real-time view of where the close is in the process, and workflows route the right activities to the right people at the right time, control sequencing and dependencies, and auto-schedule repetitive tasks.

3. Move from month-end to continuous

Increasingly, accounting organizations are shifting to a soft close, moving more tasks out of month-end, instead doing them on a continuous basis over the course of the month. For example, does all your month-end financial reporting hinge on getting through a significant backlog in matching account balance, doing bank reconciliations, or reconciling other subledger detail? What if you performed those reconciliations over the course of the month instead? Are allocations deferred until the last-possible minute? If you could perform more activities during the month, could you allocate more time in the close to management reporting instead?

While some activities must remain at month-end, many repetitive tasks can be performed as they happen using automation, provided the right tools are in place. For example, these tools can perform tasks such as intercompany processes, reconciliations, and profitability analysis allocations and reporting in real time, reducing pressure at the close and providing a clearer picture of the financials throughout the month.

4. Measure, iterate

The story of the financial close at most high-performing accounting organizations is success built on success – rather than an overnight transformation. Their accounting leaders have continually measured incremental improvements, such as the number of hours spent on different processes or end-to-end cycle times for different steps in the close, and made step-by-step improvements. However, without a financial closing system, measurement, while not impossible, is a significant challenge simply because many of the processes take place in spreadsheets, emails, journal postings, extracts, and manual rekeying. Without the ability to gauge who is doing what, and who is waiting on whom, it’s challenging to know where the individual bottlenecks are and how successful improvements really are. Using a closing cockpit that breaks down activities and shows trends around tasks enables improvements to be applied month after month and measured to ensure that they’re paying off.

Improving the close starts with the first step

The truth is that there is no silver bullet to transforming the financial close. It takes clearly identifying the shortcomings, applying opportunities to automate, improving collaboration that is grounded in well-developed workflows, and continuously measuring and improving. It’s the real confluence of people, process, and technology. Taking the first step on any of these axes is the first step to creating a better close.

To learn more, read the Ventana Research Paper.

Follow SAP Finance online: @SAPFinance (Twitter)LinkedIn | FacebookYouTube

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Elizabeth Milne

About Elizabeth Milne

Elizabeth Milne has over 20 years of experience improving the software solutions for multi-national, multi-billion dollar organizations. Her finance career began working at Walt Disney, then Warner Bros. in the areas of financial consolidation, budgeting, and financial reporting. She subsequently moved to the software industry and has held positions including implementation consultant and manager, account executive, pre-sales consultant, solution management team at SAP, Business Objects and Cartesis. She graduated with an Executive MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg Graduate School of Management. In 2014 she published her first book “Accelerated Financial Closing with SAP.” She currently manages the accounting and financial close portfolio for SAP Product Marketing. You can follow her on twitter @ElizabethEMilne

The CFO Role In 2020

Estelle Lagorce

African American businessman looking out office window --- Image by © Mark Edward Atkinson/Blend Images/CorbisThe role of the CFO is undergoing a serious transformation, and CFOs can expect their role to continue to evolve, according to a recent CFO.com article by Deloitte COO and CFO Frank Friedman.

In the futurist article, Friedman says one of the biggest factors that will contribute to the CFO’s significant change over the next five years is technology.

Digital technology is obviously expected to drive change in high-tech companies, but Friedman says it’s industries outside of the tech sectors that are of particular interest, as they struggle to understand how to grasp and harness the digital capabilities available to them.

Working with high tech in low-tech industries

Five years from now, a finance team may be defined by how well it uses technology and innovative business tools, regardless of what industry it’s in. The article outlines some examples of ways that digital technology will increasingly be used by CFOs in “non-tech” sectors:

  • Predictive analytics: CFOs in manufacturing companies can forecast results and produce revenue predictions based on customer-experience profiles and current demand, instead of comparing to previous years as most companies still do today.
  • Social media and crowdsourcing: You may not think CFOs spend a lot of time on social media or crowdsourcing sites, but these methods can actually expedite finance processes, such as month-end responsibilities of the finance organization.
  • Big Data: CFOs already have a lot of data at their fingertips, but in 2020 they will have even more. CFOs in both tech and non-tech sectors who understand how to use that data to make valuable, informed decisions, can strategically guide their company and industry in a more digitally oriented world.

To do this, Friedman says CFOs can lead the way by addressing some critical areas:

  1. Know the issues: Gather the key questions that leaders expect Big Data analytics to answer.
  1. Make data easily accessible: Collect data that is manageable and easy to access.
  1. Broaden skills: The finance team needs people with the skills to understand and strategically interpret the data available to them.

The tech-savvy CFO

The role of today’s CFO has already expanded to include strategic corporate growth advice as well as managing the bottom line. In 2020, Friedman says expectations placed on the CFO are presumed to be even greater, and CFOs will likely need a much more diverse, multidisciplinary skill set to meet those demands.

The article details several traits and skills that CFOs will need in order to keep up with the pace of digital change in their role.

  1. Digital knowledge: CFOs must be tech-savvy in order to capitalize on technical innovations that will benefit their company and their industry as a whole.
  1. Data-driven execution: CFOs will need the ability to execute company strategy and operations decisions based on data-driven insights.
  1. Regulatory compliance: Regulations continue to be more stringent globally, so CFOs will need to be proficient at working closely with regulators and compliance systems.
  1. Risk management: With the growing global economy comes increased cyber and geopolitical risks worldwide. The CFOs of 2020, especially those in large multinational organizations, will need to have the expertise to monitor and manage risk in areas that may be unforeseen today.

The future CFO’s well-rounded resume

By 2020, the CFO role will require much more than just an accounting background. According to Deloitte’s Frank Friedman, “CFOs may need to bring a much more multidisciplinary skill set to the job as well as broader career experiences, from working overseas to holding positions in sales and marketing, and even running a business unit.”

So if you’re a current or aspiring CFO, you have five years to round out your resume with the necessary skills to be ready for the digitally driven role of the CFO in 2020.

The above information is based on the CFO.com article What Will the CFO Role Look Like In 2020?” by Deloitte COO & CFO, Frank Friedman – Copyright © 2015 CFO.com.

Want to learn more about best practices for transforming your finance organization? View the SAP/Deloitte Webinar, “Reshaping the Finance Function”.

For an in-depth look at digital technology’s role in business transformation, download the SAP eBook, The Digital Economy: Reinventing the Business World.

To learn more about the business and technology factors driving digital disruption, download the SAP eBook, Digital Disruption: How Digital Technology is Transforming Our World.

To read more CFO insights from a tech industry perspective, read the Wall Street Journal article with SAP CFO Luka Mucic: Driving Insight with In-memory Technology.

Discover 7 Questions CFOs Should Ask Themselves About Cyber Security.

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Estelle Lagorce

About Estelle Lagorce

Estelle Lagorce is the Director, Global Partner Marketing, at SAP. She leads the global planning, successful implementation and business impact of integrated marketing programs with top global Strategic Partner across priority regions and countries (demand generation, thought leadership).

Get Your Payables House In Order

Chris Rauen

First of 8 blogs in the series

Too many organizations ignore the business potential from streamlining accounts payable operations. In a digital economy, however, this may represent one of the best opportunities to improve financial performance and boost the bottom line.

In its recent report, E-Payables 2015: Higher Ground, the research and advisory firm Ardent Partners made a strong case for accounts payable transformation. “In 2015, more AP groups are accelerating their plans to transform their operations and scale to new heights,” states the report.

The digital makeover

From a payables perspective, how you go about fixing outdated procure-to-pay (P2P) practices is much like the decision to improve an aging home. Do you tear your house down and build a new one, or leverage as much of the existing structure as you can and begin a major home improvement project?

There is, of course, a third option. Take no action and make calls to plumbers, electricians, roofers, and other specialists as needed before the house falls apart altogether. While few organizations would consider a “triage” strategy the best option to address deficiencies in P2P operations, many still do. (Just don’t share that with your CFO.)

This blog post is the first in a series that will examine options for upgrading procure-to-pay processes from outclassed to best-in-class. Continuing to focus time and effort on managing transactions just doesn’t make sense. With today’s business networks, organizations have new ways to collaborate with suppliers and other partners to buy, sell, and manage cash.

Automation handles low-value activities, eliminating data entry, exception management, and payment status phone calls. That leaves more time for benchmarking operations, monitoring supplier performance, expanding early payment discounts, and improving management of working capital – the kinds of things that can dramatically improve business performance.

Where do you start?

To begin, you have to recognize that getting your payables house in order is much more than a process efficiency initiative. While cost savings from e-invoicing can be 60% to 80% lower than paper invoicing, there’s much more to the business case.

Improving contract compliance and expanding early payment discounts are other components of a business case for P2P transformation. According to various procure-to-pay research studies and Ariba customer results, the cost savings from getting your payables house in order are conservatively estimated to be $10 million per billion collars of spend. We’ll break down these ROI components in greater detail in future posts on this topic.

The value of alignment

Another important first step, validated by the Ardent Partners report, is getting procurement and finance-accounts payables in alignment. As this is a holistic process, you’ll need to make sure that both organizations are in sync, and you have support from upper management to make it happen.

Now, back to the question: Do you approach a payables makeover to support P2P transformation as a tear-down or a fixer-upper? If your procurement-accounts payable teams are out of alignment, your P2P processes are predominantly paper, and decentralized buying leaves little control over spend, you’re looking at a tear-down to lay the foundation for best practices payables. We’ll share a blueprint with you in the next post in this series.

Chris Rauen is a solution marketer for Ariba, an SAP company. He regularly contributes to topics including e-invoicing and dynamic discounting as well as the value of collaborating in a digital economy. 

Learn more about how to take your payables to the next level of performance in Ardent Partners’ research report “E-Payables 2015: Higher Ground.

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Chris Rauen

About Chris Rauen

In his role at SAP Ariba, Chris Rauen educates procurement, finance, and shared services professionals on the business value of accounts payable automation, procure-to-pay transformation, and collaboration via business networks. Chris has addressed these topics at finance and shared services conferences, in articles for trade and business publications, and in blogs for online communities. Chris has more than 15 years of experience in e-payables, and holds a B.A. in Economics from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Human Skills for the Digital Future

Dan Wellers and Kai Goerlich

Technology Evolves.
So Must We.


Technology replacing human effort is as old as the first stone axe, and so is the disruption it creates.
Thanks to deep learning and other advances in AI, machine learning is catching up to the human mind faster than expected.
How do we maintain our value in a world in which AI can perform many high-value tasks?


Uniquely Human Abilities

AI is excellent at automating routine knowledge work and generating new insights from existing data — but humans know what they don’t know.

We’re driven to explore, try new and risky things, and make a difference.
 
 
 
We deduce the existence of information we don’t yet know about.
 
 
 
We imagine radical new business models, products, and opportunities.
 
 
 
We have creativity, imagination, humor, ethics, persistence, and critical thinking.


There’s Nothing Soft About “Soft Skills”

To stay ahead of AI in an increasingly automated world, we need to start cultivating our most human abilities on a societal level. There’s nothing soft about these skills, and we can’t afford to leave them to chance.

We must revamp how and what we teach to nurture the critical skills of passion, curiosity, imagination, creativity, critical thinking, and persistence. In the era of AI, no one will be able to thrive without these abilities, and most people will need help acquiring and improving them.

Anything artificial intelligence does has to fit into a human-centered value system that takes our unique abilities into account. While we help AI get more powerful, we need to get better at being human.


Download the executive brief Human Skills for the Digital Future.


Read the full article The Human Factor in an AI Future.


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Dan Wellers

About Dan Wellers

Dan Wellers is founder and leader of Digital Futures at SAP, a strategic insights and thought leadership discipline that explores how digital technologies drive exponential change in business and society.

Kai Goerlich

About Kai Goerlich

Kai Goerlich is the Chief Futurist at SAP Innovation Center network His specialties include Competitive Intelligence, Market Intelligence, Corporate Foresight, Trends, Futuring and ideation.

Share your thoughts with Kai on Twitter @KaiGoe.heif Futu

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The Human Factor In An AI Future

Dan Wellers and Kai Goerlich

As artificial intelligence becomes more sophisticated and its ability to perform human tasks accelerates exponentially, we’re finally seeing some attempts to wrestle with what that means, not just for business, but for humanity as a whole.

From the first stone ax to the printing press to the latest ERP solution, technology that reduces or even eliminates physical and mental effort is as old as the human race itself. However, that doesn’t make each step forward any less uncomfortable for the people whose work is directly affected – and the rise of AI is qualitatively different from past developments.

Until now, we developed technology to handle specific routine tasks. A human needed to break down complex processes into their component tasks, determine how to automate each of those tasks, and finally create and refine the automation process. AI is different. Because AI can evaluate, select, act, and learn from its actions, it can be independent and self-sustaining.

Some people, like investor/inventor Elon Musk and Alibaba founder and chairman Jack Ma, are focusing intently on how AI will impact the labor market. It’s going to do far more than eliminate repetitive manual jobs like warehouse picking. Any job that involves routine problem-solving within existing structures, processes, and knowledge is ripe for handing over to a machine. Indeed, jobs like customer service, travel planning, medical diagnostics, stock trading, real estate, and even clothing design are already increasingly automated.

As for more complex problem-solving, we used to think it would take computers decades or even centuries to catch up to the nimble human mind, but we underestimated the exponential explosion of deep learning. IBM’s Watson trounced past Jeopardy champions in 2011 – and just last year, Google’s DeepMind AI beat the reigning European champion at Go, a game once thought too complex for even the most sophisticated computer.

Where does AI leave human?

This raises an urgent question for the future: How do human beings maintain our economic value in a world in which AI will keep getting better than us at more and more things?

The concept of the technological singularity – the point at which machines attain superhuman intelligence and permanently outpace the human mind – is based on the idea that human thinking can’t evolve fast enough to keep up with technology. However, the limits of human performance have yet to be found. It’s possible that people are only at risk of lagging behind machines because nothing has forced us to test ourselves at scale.

Other than a handful of notable individual thinkers, scientists, and artists, most of humanity has met survival-level needs through mostly repetitive tasks. Most people don’t have the time or energy for higher-level activities. But as the human race faces the unique challenge of imminent obsolescence, we need to think of those activities not as luxuries, but as necessities. As technology replaces our traditional economic value, the economic system may stop attaching value to us entirely unless we determine the unique value humanity offers – and what we can and must do to cultivate the uniquely human skills that deliver that value.

Honing the human advantage

As a species, humans are driven to push past boundaries, to try new things, to build something worthwhile, and to make a difference. We have strong instincts to explore and enjoy novelty and risk – but according to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, these instincts crumble if we don’t cultivate them.

AI is brilliant at automating routine knowledge work and generating new insights from existing data. What it can’t do is deduce the existence, or even the possibility, of information it isn’t already aware of. It can’t imagine radical new products and business models. Or ask previously unconceptualized questions. Or envision unimagined opportunities and achievements. AI doesn’t even have common sense! As theoretical physicist Michio Kaku says, a robot doesn’t know that water is wet or that strings can pull but not push. Nor can robots engage in what Kaku calls “intellectual capitalism” – activities that involve creativity, imagination, leadership, analysis, humor, and original thought.

At the moment, though, we don’t generally value these so-called “soft skills” enough to prioritize them. We expect people to develop their competency in emotional intelligence, cross-cultural awareness, curiosity, critical thinking, and persistence organically, as if these skills simply emerge on their own given enough time. But there’s nothing soft about these skills, and we can’t afford to leave them to chance.

Lessons in being human

To stay ahead of AI in an increasingly automated world, we need to start cultivating our most human abilities on a societal level – and to do so not just as soon as possible, but as early as possible.

Singularity University chairman Peter Diamandis, for example, advocates revamping the elementary school curriculum to nurture the critical skills of passion, curiosity, imagination, critical thinking, and persistence. He envisions a curriculum that, among other things, teaches kids to communicate, ask questions, solve problems with creativity, empathy, and ethics, and accept failure as an opportunity to try again. These concepts aren’t necessarily new – Waldorf and Montessori schools have been encouraging similar approaches for decades – but increasing automation and digitization make them newly relevant and urgent.

The Mastery Transcript Consortium is approaching the same problem from the opposite side, by starting with outcomes. This organization is pushing to redesign the secondary school transcript to better reflect whether and how high school students are acquiring the necessary combination of creative, critical, and analytical abilities. By measuring student achievement in a more nuanced way than through letter grades and test scores, the consortium’s approach would inherently require schools to reverse-engineer their curricula to emphasize those abilities.

Most critically, this isn’t simply a concern of high-tuition private schools and “good school districts” intended to create tomorrow’s executives and high-level knowledge workers. One critical aspect of the challenge we face is the assumption that the vast majority of people are inevitably destined for lives that don’t require creativity or critical thinking – that either they will somehow be able to thrive anyway or their inability to thrive isn’t a cause for concern. In the era of AI, no one will be able to thrive without these abilities, which means that everyone will need help acquiring them. For humanitarian, political, and economic reasons, we cannot just write off a large percentage of the population as disposable.

In the end, anything an AI does has to fit into a human-centered value system that takes our unique human abilities into account. Why would we want to give up our humanity in favor of letting machines determine whether or not an action or idea is valuable? Instead, while we let artificial intelligence get better at being what it is, we need to get better at being human. That’s how we’ll keep coming up with groundbreaking new ideas like jazz music, graphic novels, self-driving cars, blockchain, machine learning – and AI itself.

Read the executive brief Human Skills for the Digital Future.

Build an intelligent enterprise with AI and machine learning to unite human expertise and computer insights. Run live with SAP Leonardo.


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Dan Wellers

About Dan Wellers

Dan Wellers is founder and leader of Digital Futures at SAP, a strategic insights and thought leadership discipline that explores how digital technologies drive exponential change in business and society.

Kai Goerlich

About Kai Goerlich

Kai Goerlich is the Chief Futurist at SAP Innovation Center network His specialties include Competitive Intelligence, Market Intelligence, Corporate Foresight, Trends, Futuring and ideation.

Share your thoughts with Kai on Twitter @KaiGoe.heif Futu