Managing corporate income taxes is a challenge for chief financial officers and their tax department professionals. Tax codes are often complex, so tax accounting as well as the data required for tax provisions and tax compliance are different enough from statutory accounting to create significant workloads for the tax department. The provision for income tax expense and, for public companies, the assembly of information related to tax-related disclosures, can be a factor holding up the completion of the accounting close.
The broad consensus holds that organizations should complete the quarterly close within one business week, yet our Smart Close Dynamic Insights research found that just 39% achieve this objective. Shortening the tax provision process by using software designed for this purpose can be a factor in closing the books sooner.
The need for tax provision software has grown over the past decade as statutory accounting and tax authority reporting requirements have become more demanding. Today there are more rigorous requirements for accounting for uncertain tax provisions. Tax authorities are demanding greater tax transparency, especially on the part of multinational organizations. In response, corporate boards and senior executives are demanding greater visibility into tax provision to oversee the process more closely and plan more effectively to minimize tax expense and exposures while mitigating tax risks. This is especially true for publicly held companies. Our Office of Finance Benchmark Research revealed that 52% of public corporations actively manage tax strategies, compared to 29% of closely held organizations.
The tax provision process, an essential part of the close process, is a core responsibility of tax departments. This process estimates the amount of income tax an organization will have to pay to tax authorities in the jurisdictions in which it operates. Tax accountants derive the number by adjusting the reported net income with a variety of permanent differences, such as expenses that are not deductible, and temporary differences – for example using allowable accelerated depreciation for tax purposes and straight-line depreciation for financial reporting. Historically, spreadsheets were the tool of choice for tax provision because, until recently, technology limitations meant that tax accountants did not have an alternative. Despite the growing availability of alternatives, spreadsheets are still popular: Our Office of Finance Benchmark Research found that 59% of tax departments use spreadsheets exclusively for tax provision, while just 22% utilize a third-party tax application. Ventana Research asserts that by 2026, four in 10 organizations will use a dedicated third-party tax provision software.
Spreadsheets are a major barrier to making the tax function more productive and effective. One well-known issue with spreadsheets is that they are error-prone, which is not a risk that tax professionals should have to bear. To be certain that tax provision and other tax-related calculations are correct, individuals must double- and even triple-check the numbers. This overlaps with a second major issue with spreadsheets: They are time-consuming. Our spreadsheet research finds that those working heavily with spreadsheets spend on average 18 hours a month (the equivalent of more than two full workdays) just maintaining their most important spreadsheet. Spreadsheets are so time-consuming that they prevent individuals from doing more valuable work – in this case, tax analysis and planning.
Beyond delaying the accounting close, another spreadsheet-related issue is that they diminish visibility into an organization’s tax provision and tax positions. Using spreadsheets takes so long that executives get to the numbers late in the financial close process. This matters because of the impact that tax expense has on profits. In addition, spreadsheets are black boxes: That is, they are difficult to control, and it’s difficult for anyone other than the spreadsheet’s owner to understand their construction. Often, assumptions are buried in formulas and hard to uncover. It’s not well-understood whether formulas are inconsistent or wrong, and it’s not easy to spot them. Even with advanced spreadsheet management techniques designed to make updates consistent (such as applying the LAMBDA function in Excel), it’s hard to be certain that some cell wasn’t overwritten with another number.
Using a dedicated tax application enables tax and accounting departments to operate more effectively. It enables the whole department to manage a consistent set of tax-sensitive data in a controlled process that promotes accuracy and auditability. Software promotes data integrity and efficiency by managing provision as an end-to-end process that takes numbers directly from authoritative source systems to construct tax financial statements, calculates taxes owed and keeps track of cumulative amounts and other balance sheet items related to taxes. Having tax data and tax calculations that are immediately traceable, reproducible and permanently accessible provides executives with greater certainty and reduces the risk of noncompliance as well as attendant costs and reputation issues. Maintaining an accurate and consistent tax data store enables organizations and tax departments to better execute tax planning, provisioning and compliance.
I maintain that the best career decision that tax professionals can make is to embrace technology that allows them to be more productive and enables them to spend more time on work that fully utilizes their training and experience. Information technologies, especially artificial intelligence and other forms of cognitive computing, will transform how tax professionals work, driving a fundamental change in what they do. Their real value is not their ability to overcome spreadsheet limitations, but their training in understanding income taxes. Once freed from the drudgery of performing computations, massaging data and checking (two or three times) for errors, tax professionals can turn their attention to performing analytical work aimed at optimizing an organization’s tax spend – and thus ensuring their value as workers.
I recommend that midsize and larger organizations – especially those that operate in multiple tax jurisdictions and have an even moderately complex legal entity structure – use dedicated software to automate income tax provision and analysis functions. Organizations that take more than a business week to close the books should assess whether streamlining tax provisions would have a positive impact. Beyond that, using dedicated software rather than relying on spreadsheets helps the tax department, and those working in it, increase strategic value so they won’t be obsolete tomorrow.