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About a decade ago, I was an expert witness in a major ERP trial. One of the items I was to opine on involved the question: Why would a company change out its application software? I proceeded to list some 18 or so reasons that covered topics like mergers, acquisitions, divestitures, vendor change of ownership, etc. Of course, I covered economics and obsolescence and why these affect software replacement decisions.
I tell you this as many years of research have shown that even in the worst recessionary times, there will still be new software purchases. If history repeats itself, approximately 4% of the software installation base can turn over annually even during a recession like today’s pandemic driven event. Why will this happen? When businesses undergo material change (e.g., a divestiture), they may very well need to adopt new software that better matches their new business and economic circumstances. Anecdotally, we are already hearing some vendors hint at new software sales in their pipelines but this activity doesn’t seem to affect all vendors or software products equally.
When it comes to Financial Accounting software, we see Finance needing to get in front of several things:
- It needs to support the business at today’s speed of business. It’s not enough to have real-time applications within Finance. Finance must possess planning data/tools that go beyond the enterprise and well into the future. Finance needs AI tools that spot potential issues/opportunities long before a staffer normally would (if at all). Finance solutions that require manual data uploads, sneaker-net integrations, spreadsheet inputs, etc. are not real-time but error-prone anachronisms that must go.
- It needs to reset the cost structure of its solutions. Software costs should be reasonable. The best vendors have been attacking their cost structure to keep their solution costs low while increasing the functional richness you can exploit. The worst vendors:
- have continued to embrace costly, proprietary stack components (vs. open-source).
- litigate their own customers over access to the customer’s own data.
- require hosted/on-premises implementations.
- require expensive implementors to get their solution installed.
- have overly difficult contracts to navigate that make compliance and contracting difficult and expensive.
When the cost/benefit ratio for application software gets out of whack, new solutions become a business necessity.
- It needs solutions that scale well and cost-effectively. Why should Finance face even higher software costs when the business has shrunk (a very real scenario for many firms today)? The technology and cost structure of Finance solutions should be aligned with the business’ needs and not with Wall Street’s ever-growing expectations of the software vendor. And it cuts both ways. Firms whose businesses are booming of late are finding older, rigid solutions didn’t scale upward easily either. Bottom line: old software was based on an older business world, a slower paced world, that doesn’t exist anymore.
The Scale Challenges of Old Software
Recent events have shown that many firms were sitting on many old back office and operational software products that were difficult to support or use remotely. Those products also costed too much to use for the times. Those old systems often ran on outmoded architectures, had accumulated tons of technical debt and were patched/modified to a brittle, fragile state. Like a house of cards, all it took was a little bump for the whole thing to come tumbling down.
These systems had grown expensive over the years. They were very costly to maintain, required ever-growing annual maintenance fees (and the services needed to implement these patches), and needed a long list of on-premises computer hardware that had to be “refreshed” every couple of years. Even that hardware needed expensive licenses for database management software, system backup and recovery tools, virtual machine software and much, much more. When the pandemic caused so many firms to contract partially or entirely, the operational and support costs of those older systems did not contract. When companies needed their application software to scale, their software did not.
Some of the specific issues that companies recently encountered with their legacy software included:
- On-premises solutions that were hard for employees to access and use from home.
- On-premises solutions that couldn’t be updated remotely.
- Poor/non-existent planning functionality that lacked early signal data.
- Applications that were never designed to utilize big data, external data or operational data.
- Systems that required manual entry of journal entries.
- Systems that relied on inputs from spreadsheets and were difficult to use.
- Processes that required people to review, sign, approve or complete on paper tasks that did not get done.
- Processes that required people to open mail (e.g., my tax return) that did not get processed.
- Processes that required coordination or collaboration from multiple people and were difficult to complete in a timely manner.
Finance Will Drive Change
Changing times require businesses to change as well. That dictum also includes Finance. Recent events triggered firms in numerous industries to:
- Produce alternate products (e.g., ventilators instead of automobiles).
- Restructure their supply chains due to product shortages and transportation shutdowns.
- Create new business models overnight (e.g., full-service restaurants shifting to takeout only).
- Move from a 100% bricks-and-mortar business to an online business.
- Take loans from governments.
- Significantly reduce (or expand) their working hours and employment ranks.
And most every one of these events impacted their firm’s Finance organization as well. Finance had to acquire documentation for special government bailout monies or loans and for the forgiveness of those loans. Finance had to develop new cost accounting standards and data inputs for the manufacture of essential products. Finance was pivotal, and remains so, in the development of numerous, almost daily, cash forecasts, business plans and other reports. The list goes on and on.
Finance must create an organization, processes and systems that are scalable, malleable, and, once again cost-effective. The nature of Finance must be one of relevancy with the times and focused on delivering more and different kinds of value.
The New Finance
Finance needs a new raison d’être – its reason for existence. Finance can no longer be about just closing the books, paying suppliers and managing cash. Transaction processing can no longer be the main purpose of Finance. Instead, Finance needs to be shepherding all new kinds of information and using technology, not people, to process much of the old transaction data that previously consumed so much of their time.
The first shift Finance needs to address centers around who will Finance serve now? Old recipients of Finance staff time were mostly customers and suppliers with external auditors, bankers and shareholders getting some of their time periodically. Finance was preoccupied with the correct classification and processing of business events. In doing so, Finance paid bills, managed debt, collected payments, prepared financial statements, etc. But today, technologies and better integration can take away much of the routine work of Finance. Specifically, tools like robotic process automation, automated workflow processing, exception handling technology, chatbots and machine learning can interrogate invoices, payments and email inquiries and complete needed responses with minimal or no human intervention.
The new Finance must be focused on delivering a new level of service and new service offerings. More specifically, we see Finance:
- Becoming an ever more critical partner with the Operational and Sales parts of the business. The planning and analytical capabilities within Finance are ideal to help other aspects of the firm succeed.
- Delivering forward-looking insights about the business (not just backward-looking financial statements).
- Leading the firm in the capture, analysis and exploitation of internally and externally sourced big data.
- Providing (via big data and analytics) insights into competitors, product usage in the field, potential warranty/recall issues, changing customer sentiment, etc.
- Develop a more extensive planning capability via the use of a far greater number of external and big data points.
But how will Finance achieve this? Finance processes and technologies must be rethought and reimagined. In this retooling, Finance must move away from a number of low- or non-value-added activities. Finance must:
- Eliminate any financial software technical debt.
- Acquire accounting software where the vendor, not IT or Finance, maintains the solution (aka multitenancy).
- Perform all work via mobile-friendly/mobile-first cloud applications.
- Ruthlessly eliminate paper and spreadsheets.
- Look for ways that technology can automate everything from form-filling to anomaly detection to suggesting solutions to problems and more.
- Make every integration to financial systems automated, real-time and error-free. Finance should take a total quality management approach to these integrations and not accept anything less than 100% accuracy from each integration.
As the reimagination starts to come to life, Finance will have to consider the impact of New Finance on customers, suppliers, employees, banking relationships, annual audits and more. Part of that reimagination will likely require a new, cost-effective and flexible technology suite that supports the use of big, data and operational data.
And once Finance has completed the above, what will fill their day? Here is just a partial list of activities Finance could/should be working on now:
- Finance could help de-risk the firm’s supply chain. Finance could determine how concentrated the firm’s spending is with some of its critical suppliers. They could also assess if its raw material spend is overly concentrated in 1-2 countries. Finance could also explore if your firm is buying key raw materials from the same suppliers as your competitors.
- Finance could develop produce better plans regarding long-term office space needs. Finance should assess whether recent Work From Home (WFH) trends will trigger a reduced need for office space. This analysis consider which positions will likely need less office space and what contractual/lease issues might be involved. Similarly, Finance should examine whether WFH is creating new tax nexus issues for the firm especially if employees are given the option to continue working past government lockdown orders.
- Finance should take the point in new scenario planning activities. Finance should acquire solid external data sources to help identify future business events weeks/months earlier. Finance should seek any new data sources that would provide better signal processing. This data could be diverse and vertical specific (e.g., weather forecasts, medical prescriptions, social sentiment data, etc.).
- Finance could analyze the improving/deteriorating condition of key suppliers and customers. Finance could use new algorithms and machine learning tools to spot changing conditions/trends in the firm’s value chain. Finance should lead the effort to acquire external and big data stores to help with this.
During WWII, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill stated “Never let a good crisis go to waste”. Finance leaders that are staring at the recent pandemic might want to consider that advice. Current events have been both instructive in showing how out-of-date the infrastructure of businesses can be and that Finance groups are not exempt from that same obsolescence. Both must change to remain relevant.
The old Finance was designed for a different time and for different business needs. It’s out-of-sync with the business world today. Even Luca Pacioli would recognize the need for Finance to evolve and reassert its relevancy in the modern business environment. The changes this time won’t be incremental or measured. They must/will be bold and swift – in line with the realities of today’s business world.
Time to get on with it!