- CA ANZ surveyed 674 CAs in the corporate sector last year, more than two-thirds (69%) said their organisation faced “disconnection challenges” between platforms.
- Almost all (91%) said a lack of timely software integration reduced their finance teams’ capability to perform.
- Cybersecurity ranked equal fourth with document management (30%) as a priority investment.
Too many systems that don’t talk to each other, and no budget to fix it. That’s by far the biggest tech challenge for CA ANZ members working in corporate roles.
When Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand surveyed 674 CAs in the corporate sector in August last year, more than two-thirds (69%) said their organisation faced “disconnection challenges” between software platforms. And almost all (91%) said a lack of timely software integration reduced their finance teams’ capability to perform.
“It is exceedingly difficult to have an awareness of all the tools available, how they may integrate, and the benefits that may accrue from their adoption,” responded one member.
Another remarked: “[I] generally find that systems have more capability than staff know how to use, and that new staff either don’t receive sufficient handover/induction or don’t understand what the system is set up to do.”
Adem Turgut, chief executive of automation and analytics platform SolveXia, confirms the problem. “People are spending hours, days, sometimes even weeks just assembling data together from all these different places, massaging it in spreadsheets, checking it and passing it on,” he says.
“It’s incredibly tedious, and very, very expensive in terms of the headcount that goes into it. There is also opportunity cost and control risks around it, too, because people make mistakes, and the processes become heavily dependent on the people who do the work.”
Pictured: Adem Turgut, SolveXia
“People are spending hours, days, sometimes even weeks just assembling data together from all these different places, massaging it in spreadsheets, checking it and passing it on.”
The knock-on effects of disconnected systems
The lack of timely and affordable software integration reduced nearly every finance team’s capability to perform (91%), the CA ANZ 2021 Technology Survey revealed, although this was more pronounced in Australia than New Zealand.
The two other most important issues affecting performance for finance professionals were insufficient use of resources used to gather data from multiple sources (91%), and data integrity concerns with multiple systems and/or spreadsheets (91%).
With line of business systems, e-commerce databases, data warehouses and enterprise resource planning (ERP), every time a business adds a new application with relevant data, it creates more administrative work for finance professionals. This is a hidden cost that is measured indirectly through longer reporting times, increased overtime and staff burnout.
Businesses are happy to spend money buying applications but rarely invest on integrating the data, forcing the finance team to extend their list of manual processes and proliferating spreadsheets.
Even when a company has a well-staffed IT department and a high-functioning data warehouse, integration is often viewed as a low priority, says Turgut, particularly as business processes are always changing, which can require updating integrations.
“Accountants are almost preconditioned to being primarily consumers of technology. It's about changing that point of view so you're thinking, ‘I can pick up these tools and deliver my own solutions’.”
The advantages of a unified platform
One response to software integration challenges is to replace multiple systems with a unified platform such as ERP software. This can work well: over half of all survey respondents (58%) were somewhat or extremely satisfied with an ERP.
Companies will typically replace three to five systems with an ERP, as well as spreadsheets for complex tasks such as capacity utilisation and management. Systems commonly replaced include inventory and supply chain systems, sales (customer relationship management), project management, finance, and performance management (HR), says Sadia Khan, managing director of Exceleris Consulting, a boutique firm that specialises in CRM, ERP and EPM (enterprise performance management) systems.
The explosion of e-commerce during COVID lockdowns has forced many companies to also look at integrating their websites with their finance systems, says Rebecca Paul, ERP consultant at IT Services and Consulting platform Liberate IT.
Sometimes e-commerce systems include a one-way integration where they push online sales to the finance software. However, pricing information may sit in a separate system, and customer information may need to be manually updated in both places.
Before the pandemic, Paul still encountered distrust of cloud-based software. But the COVID lockdowns highlighted the accessibility of cloud software – with no need for a VPN (virtual private network), your workforce could switch to remote overnight.
“The conversations now are, tell me where are your data servers, what’s your redundancy like? We’re not explaining about cloud. The conversations are a lot smarter,” she says.
Paul adds that the biggest trigger for moving to an ERP is the cost of employees’ time. “When a company has lots of different systems, replicating things in one system or another, trying to pull up reports… you’ve got a frustrated team. That’s when people start coming to us and asking, what can we bring into one system?”
The other solution: DIY software
Unified business platforms are not the only response to the explosion of business software. A more recent trend is to create more software.
The “low code, no code” software movement replaces written code with a drag-and-drop interface. This gives business users the ability to create simple applications to replace manual processes and spreadsheets.
Microsoft, for example, used its Power Apps platform to create a basic application that allocated money to employees working from home. It took about four days to create the app which was used globally by thousands of employees to authorise transactions.
The app ran the process “seamlessly and effectively across various lines of business” says Matthew Ng CA, product marketing lead for Microsoft Dynamics Finance and Operations. “Everyone in the workforce was affected so you need to be able to scale and manage that across the business really quickly.”
Convincing finance professionals to create their own applications, however, no matter how simple the interface, requires retraining. The question companies need to ask is what they want their finance teams to work on, says Ng.
“Do you want them to spend cycles crunching and validating data from multiple spreadsheets? Or do you want to spin up an app with clearly defined parameters that can be used by multiple teams and then consolidated into one single source of truth?”
SolveXia’s Turgut adds: “Accountants are almost preconditioned to being primarily consumers of technology. It’s about changing that point of view so you’re thinking, ‘I can pick up these tools and deliver my own solutions’.”
SolveXia’s reporting tool is another “low code, no code” solution. It’s used by banking and insurance organisations to give business users the ability to create and maintain the automation themselves, with no need to wait on IT.
It has a library of more than 1000 common actions with plain English labels such as “update formula”, “aggregate data” and “map data”. The user drags and drops these actions into the same sequence used to manually create the report.
“Think about it as a solution. Who are the stakeholders? What are the outcomes? How do we get from inputs to outputs?” says Turgut. “All that has got nothing to do with technology. It’s just thinking in a very structured way about data and work.”
What’s the key to seamless integration – getting platforms to talk to each other?
The survey results revealed 66% of members are challenged by the disconnection of tech platforms but that organisations are looking to invest in a variety of areas to enhance their technology capabilities, specifically in analytics and reporting (55%).
Reporting is an essential activity to understanding the forces that drive a business. But as soon as you step outside accounting software in search of operational metrics, producing a report can become much harder.
Software developers are searching for ways to make integrated reporting easier. The raison d’etre of the “low code, no code” movement is to give users a way to create applications such as reports without the need to engage developers.
Microsoft’s Power Apps platform aims to replace a lot of Excel spreadsheets and expensive integration projects. And Matthew Ng, now a product marketer, built a Power App while he was working as a financial controller at Microsoft that won an internal Finance Impact award.
He admits that traditionally, accountants haven’t been at the forefront of app development. “I’ve always relied on the IT department to do that and be the gatekeepers of those sorts of functions. So it’s really taking a leap of faith, I think, for a lot of finance teams, and CFOs, to understand the benefits of low code, no code, and embrace those technologies,” he says.
Spreadsheets will always be there for ad hoc analysis, Ng adds. However, accountants need to think more about where they are getting their data from and how to do it efficiently. Microsoft’s Power Apps platform can pull data directly from a data warehouse which reduces the risk of unreliable data.
“You need to know that you’re not massaging data or creating fictitious data which then is used to make business decisions. That’s just going to be fraught with danger, right? You want to make sure that your data is coming from some type of an integral data source.”
Only a third of organisations are investing in cybersecurity. Is training staff in this area becoming more essential?
The CA ANZ 2021 Technology Survey showed that cybersecurity ranked equal fourth with document management (30%) as a priority investment to improve workflow in business.
It is likely that cybersecurity is rising in the ranks of importance as more processes move from paper to digital, says Sumeet Kukar CA, founder of cybersecurity learning platform Arascina. [See “Cyber siblings, cyber defenders.”]
Digitisation of workflows is a global phenomenon accelerated by the COVID pandemic, Kukar says. This explains why business process automation (48%) and workflow management (32%) scored so highly in the survey.
However, as an organisation’s digital footprint expands, so does its attack surface area. Kukar believes the next phase will increase the awareness of cybersecurity as a critical responsibility for CFOs.
“The CFO is not meant to be a techie and know everything in terms of cybersecurity. But at the end of the day, you’re accountable for the security of your function. You need to be aware of at least how things work, and be able to communicate and challenge it,” Kukar says.
The CA set up Arascina to teach cyber education to “non-techies”, and its most popular courses are on cybersecurity skills and cybersecurity leadership.
Estimates of 3.8 million unfilled cybersecurity jobs worldwide underline the risks facing many organisations. This is a particular problem for finance teams which sit on vast troves of commercially sensitive data.
Education is the best defence in businesses of any size, Kukar says. “We need to shift from awareness of cybersecurity to practical skills. How do we go about protecting our systems and networks? This is everyone’s responsibility, not just IT.”
Pictured: Sumeet Kukar CA, Arascina. Image credit: Graham Jepson
“We need to shift from awareness of cybersecurity to practical skills… This is everyone's responsibility, not just IT.”
What are big firms using an ERP for?
A sure sign of system overload is when customers frequently complain that the finance department is not talking with tech support or their sales manager. An ERP can bring all three divisions onto the one platform, so a customer doesn’t have to keep explaining the same issues.
Integrating existing systems can work up to a point, says Rebecca Paul from Liberate IT. However, some legacy software will restrict the amount of data that it can export to an ERP making it impossible to get real-time updates.
“If you’re bringing lots of data from some legacy system, often that will have an impact in terms of the speed of the ERP,” Paul says.
Choosing the right platform is an extremely important decision. It requires reviewing not just current requirements but making assumptions about the growth rate and directions the business could take in the next decade.
A professional services firm could decide to start selling a subscription service and need to license and manage contracts and recurring billing. An ERP would need to include contract management to cover terms and conditions, quoting and invoicing, says systems specialist Sadia Khan from Exceleris Consulting.
“Bringing that division and functionality on the same platform will be required in future to really make it an optimal business solution. The flexibility of the platform is very important,” she says.
Khan recommends reviewing the breadth of functionality so as many divisions as possible can work within the one system. “It will bring data integrity, promptness, and give the customer a better experience with that organisation from a delivery standpoint because there’s better communication within the organisation,” she says.
Who are the front runners in the analysis and reporting area?
There are dozens of reporting tools that vary by ease of use, depth of integration and ability to scale. The best known is probably Microsoft Power BI, thanks to its close connections to Excel and the weight of the Microsoft brand.
One of the most important features of reporting tools is their ability to draw large volumes of data from various sources. The capacity to scale has become even more important since the COVID pandemic.
Millions of us changed routine activities such as going to the supermarket from in person to online shopping, explains Heidi Badgery, ANZ managing director for Alteryx, a competitor to Power BI.
“If you were a shopper that didn’t use a rewards card and you now shop online, I have much more data about you, about how often you shop, what you buy most frequently, what you’re prepared to substitute. I know you better,” Badgery says.
According to International Data Corporation (IDC) research, the amount of data created experienced unusually high growth in 2020 due to the increase in people working, learning and entertaining themselves from home. It predicts data volumes will have a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 23% over the 2020–2025 period.
Companies are now trying to make sense of all this data, particularly New Zealand enterprises, Badgery says. That could explain why reporting and analytics is the highest investment priority in CA ANZ’s survey.
“Every person in every role depends on reporting or analysis in some way. It’s the analysis of that data that gives them the power and the insight to make decisions. That could be to grow the business, to deliver a better customer experience or address market or competitive pressures,” Badgery says.
“Every person in every role depends on reporting or analysis in some way.”
The silver lining of lockdowns
In some cases, improvements to workflow and automation occurred as part of the transition to working from home during COVID lockdowns. One example was the switch to digital credit cards from having a single corporate credit card stored in the office to pay for expenses.
COVID lockdowns forced businesses to find new ways to continue spending without physical supervision but with a similar level of trust. Asking staff to spend their own money and file expense claims is appropriate for incidentals but not for $10,000 weekly ad buys on Google or Facebook.
“It’s not a coffee or a chair here and there. You’re running the business through something that needs sizable amounts of money,” says Adriana Amato, head of marketing at expense management tool DiviPay.
DiviPay saw an increase in businesses looking for digital credit cards to facilitate working from home. In one case, an IT services firm providing on-site tech support had – pre-COVID – required its consultants to return to the office in Sydney’s Macquarie Park to order server and networking equipment.
During the first lockdown in New South Wales, the firm gave each consultant a digital credit card with individual limits and an online approval process so they could order parts themselves.
The COVID lockdowns also accelerated a move from cash to digital spending, bringing unexpected benefits. Organisations in Australia’s National Disability Insurance Scheme switched from dropping cash payments to clients’ homes to digital credit cards so they could continue buying groceries and medical supplies.
For one NDIS provider in Western Australia, the act of replacing cash payments with digital credit cards enormously improved its ability to track expenditure against grants. This helped cut the month-end close from four days to half a day, Amato says.
The controls on digital credit cards also reduced review work. Western Sydney University blocked merchants such as casinos and liquor stores on digital credit cards handed out to 3000 students buying back-to- school supplies. The cards rejected $32,000 of transactions in the first week, says Amato.
Cyber security for SMEs
As the accounting profession is growing increasingly reliant on online systems, a cyber security threat is not a question of if, but when. Find the information, tools and resources you need to develop a strong, proactive plan to mitigate risks and protect your business and your clients.Find out more