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Reconciling accounts at the end of a period is one of those mundane finance department tasks that are ripe for automation. Reconciliation is the process of comparing account data (at the balance or item level) that exists either in two accounting systems or in an accounting system and somewhere else (such as in a spreadsheet or on paper). The purpose of the reconciling process is to identify things that don’t match (as they must in double-entry bookkeeping systems) and then assess the nature and causes of the variances. This is followed by making adjustments or corrections to ensure that the information in a company’s books is accurate. Most of the time, reconciliation is a matter of good housekeeping. The process identifies errors and omissions in the accounting process, including invalid journal postings and duplicate accounting entries, so they can be corrected. Reconciliation also is an important line of defense against fraud, since inconsistencies may be a sign of such activity.
But let’s be frank: The reconciliation process is tedious. As for all tedious processes in modern corporations, it makes sense to let machines do this work. Reconciliation is a part of the accounting close process, and one of the main benefits of automation here is that it can accelerate the process. This is important because our benchmark research on closing finds that it’s actually taking longer for companies to close their books than it used to. The research also shows a correlation between the degree of automation in the close process and the time it takes to complete it.
Back in the days of quill pens and blotters it might have been manageable to meticulously comb through accounting entries. Today, however, volumes of data are too great to make this realistically feasible, and technology provides accountants with faster and more effective means of spotting patterns and familiarizing them with the peculiarities of the company’s books. For CFOs and controllers who are trying to determine how to begin the process of transforming their department to make it a more strategic player in their company, here is a way to free finance staff to do more productive tasks.
There are three important virtues associated with automating reconciliation. The first is consistency: Business rules, policies and procedures are applied consistently in ways that are in line with accounting policies that external and internal auditors accept. Machines are more reliably consistent than humans in such tasks. The second virtue is elegance: Automated systems simplify the process while making it faster and more accurate. They enable auditors to focus their time and attention on the most important issues that arise from the process. The ability of automated systems to highlight exceptions eliminates the need for random sampling, which both consumes time and poses the risk that something important will go unnoticed. The third virtue is efficiency: Automated systems enable a company to substantially reduce the amount of time needed to complete the reconciliation of accounts because the system performs the purely mechanical tasks and skips the accounts in which there has been no activity or in which the amounts to be reconciled are too small to be material. These systems also reduce the time internal and external auditors need to check reconciliations because all of the work is centralized in a single system and because the system and its configuration functions as a higher level of control in the reconciliation process that’s easy to test and monitor.
Despite these obvious virtues, most companies don’t use such capable automation. The majority manage reconciliations in spreadsheets shared through email. Electronic spreadsheets were a major advance decades ago. Today, however, they are not the best choice because the information they contain is fragmented, difficult to consolidate, hard to share and prone to error. Running this process with spreadsheets and email is more difficult and time-consuming to manage and control than using a dedicated reconciliation application. A well-designed dedicated application assigns ownership of every task to individuals and provides real-time visibility into which parts are on schedule, which are behind and which may be in danger of falling behind schedule. These systems employ templates that are centrally controlled to ensure consistency and quality. The templates can be updated as needed. A spreadsheet may start as a template, but it’s difficult to control them, even with protections built in.
Documentation is another weak spot in spreadsheets shared through email. Although there are objective aspects to the reconciliation process, those performing it ultimately must use their judgment. These judgments must be supported by narratives and calculations that clearly and completely explain the decisions each person made and by citing supporting documents wherever necessary. A related aspect is approvals, since good governance and control of accounting systems requires that someone inspect and approve the work of others when their actions (or lack of action) can have a material impact on the quality and accuracy of financial statements. So another important element that a dedicated reconciliation system can provide are approval workflows to ensure that the work has been completed before the books can be closed.
Automating reconciliation can be a first step in creating a virtuous cycle. Many executives in finance organizations would like to improve the performance of their department but face the challenge of finding the time to devote to such efforts. The staff time that can be saved through automation can be reinvested in finding the root causes of other issues that bog down the department and fixing them. Automating reconciliation can accelerate the financial close, improve productivity, reduce errors and the related possibility (albeit limited) of financial misstatements, enhance control and diminish the risk of financial fraud. These are reasons enough why all midsize and larger corporations should investigate the benefits of dedicated reconciliation software.
Robert Kugel – SVP Research
Information technologists are fond of predictions in which the next big thing quickly and entirely renders the existing thing so completely obsolete that only troglodytes would cling to such outmoded technology. While this vision of IT progress may satisfy the egos of technologists, it rarely reflects reality. Mainframes didn’t disappear, for example. Although they long ago lost their dominant position, many remain key parts of corporate computing infrastructures. The IT landscape is a hybrid because technology users have varying requirements and constraints that can lengthen replacement cycles. Most business users of IT pay little attention to the religious wars of technologists because they take a pragmatic approach: They use technology to achieve business ends. This scenario is repeating itself in clamor about another corporate mainstay, the ERP system, which advocates claim will soon be redeployed en masse to cloud computing. That, too, won’t happen. I believe that ERP will increasingly become cloud-based, but it will be in hybrid cloud environments.
For ERP, vendors draw the rhetorical battle lines as on-premises vs. the cloud, but in the end it’s more likely to be a combination of the two. The term “hybrid cloud” refers to an environment where one or more clouds are connected to or combined with on-premises systems. These clouds may be private (that is, controlled by a single company for its sole use), public (a service offered to all comers) or a community cloud (available to a limited set of organizations or individuals). Clouds can be multitenant (where a single instance of some software serves multiple customers) or single tenant (where it serves just one).
Our benchmark research shows that more than half (55%) of companies are using cloud computing, and one-third (34%) more intend to. Cloud deployment has come to dominate many business applications categories such as HR, Marketing, Sales, and travel and entertainment expense reporting. It is rapidly displacing on-premises in categories such as human resources and sales operations systems. On the other hand, ERP is still firmly based on-premises both in terms of license revenues for software vendors and their installed bases, although revenue for cloud ERP vendors has been growing faster than on-premises over the past few years.
We see three main reasons why companies have failed so far to embrace the cloud for ERP as fully as in other categories. The most important is that, as I’ve noted, multitenant ERP offers users only limited configurability, and this often is incompatible with what companies need to manage their business. The second reason has been data integration, which until recently could be complicated and difficult to manage. The third reason is that finance departments have been more conservative than most in embracing the Web, especially for ERP systems, because the information in them is sensitive and they fear security breaches. These last two factors are starting to diminish in importance. Data integration between cloud and on-premises systems has been facilitated by new tools and methods. Concerns over the risk of having company data in the cloud are also abating as cloud services vendors demonstrate reliability and security.
Many existing ERP systems already are hybrids. Companies often manage payroll, treasury and travel expenses in the cloud. Any aspect of business related to ERP systems that can benefit from mobile deployment (such as those related to inventory and manufacturing execution) is a candidate for cloud deployment. In the future, companies also will be using smaller (usually mobile) apps that interact with their ERP software for automating the execution of simple processes that require limited data input (such as giving approvals or filling out short forms) or for viewing data. As I noted, Microsoft’s Project Siena, in development now, is designed to enable business users with no programming background to construct such simple applications. Other such systems are likely to follow. Having these apps hosted on the Web may be the most attractive option, especially since most people will be using mobile devices to work with them.
There’s also a case to be made for midsize companies and second-tier ERP installations moving off premises into cloud-based, single-tenant deployments. Some midsize companies (those with 100 to 1,000 employees) may find the total cost of ownership of a cloud-based, single-tenant system lower than for an on-premises approach because of lower costs in implementing and maintaining the hardware and software. Even when those costs are higher, midsize companies that cannot accept the compromises that multitenant deployments entail may find it attractive not to employ an IT staff to support its software and outsource the maintenance of their ERP system to a software-as-a-service provider. For decades, large corporations that use enterprise software for their main business systems have used ERP tools designed for midsize companies to support smaller, stand-alone operations. Putting this “tier two” software in the cloud is likely to be less expensive than buying, implementing and maintaining it. Moreover, in most respects this form of software deployment is easier to control and audit because it has no physical presence and therefore facilitates separation-of-duties requirements in locations with limited personnel. Hybrid clouds also enable companies to maintain the applications in the cloud while conforming to local requirements that customer records be kept physically within their jurisdiction.
Until now, many companies have been reluctant to embrace the cloud for ERP. That is likely to change over the coming decade as security issues diminish and companies decide to take advantage of the cloud’s benefits. On-premises ERP software vendors and their partners can diminish their vulnerability to cloud-based software vendors by creating offerings that improve the economics and affordability of single-tenant ownership and facilitate using their software in a hybrid cloud environment.
Robert Kugel – SVP Research