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Automate or perish: why it’s past time for finance departments to scrap the spreadsheets
Mon, 23rd Aug 2021
FYI, this story is more than a year old

Forced to throw your budgets and forecasts out the window after last year's COVID-19 crisis, and again as its unpleasant sequel — the virulent Delta strain — unfolds?

You're far from alone. The lockdowns of 2020, and those currently in place across several Australian states and territories, as well as the entirety of New Zealand, wreaked havoc with the financial plans of thousands of ANZ enterprises.

Those in the hardest-hit industries saw their business models disrupted and their revenue evaporate overnight. In contrast, others took advantage of burgeoning demand for their products and services to expand their operations and grow their profits.

Software that allows finance departments to provide senior executives with up-to-the-minute business data comes in handy at such times. Having a clear picture of the status quo — how an organisation is performing in the here and now, not three or six months prior — enables leaders to make optimal decisions at times of immense uncertainty.

Old systems, dubious decisions?

Unfortunately, leaders with access to real-time business data have been in the minority up to now. While 99% of respondents to a recent Accenture CFO survey stated that access to real-time data was critical to navigating changing conditions, just 16% believed they were being informed by data at an appropriate scale.

Many mid-sized and large organisations are racing to remedy this deficit. BlackLine's most recent annual survey of finance leaders and senior executives found that over a third of respondents had invested in finance automation since the onset of the pandemic. Many more are planning to do so, with 40% expected to devote funding to improve their financial planning, analysis, budgeting and forecasting via automation projects in 2021-2022.

Building smarter finance infrastructure 

Achieving an intelligent digital finance function requires investment on several fronts, chief among them robotic process automation (RPA) and machine learning. That's where continuous accounting software comes into play.

Continuous accounting refers to a technology-driven methodology for managing the accounting cycle: one which aims to distribute workloads evenly across the accounting period, rather than finance departments experiencing a spike in activity at period-end.

At the core of the concept are three principles:

  • Automating repetitive processes
  • Getting rid of end-of-period bottlenecks
  • Developing a continuous improvement culture.

Because it eliminates opportunities for human error, continuous accounting isn't just fast; it's also highly accurate. As a result, it can provide leaders with the intelligence they need to pre-empt and respond to fast-changing conditions, rather than struggling to regather long after an event has occurred.

Scrapping the spreadsheets

But adopting this technology represents a serious paradigm shift for many businesses and organisations. While finance departments regularly have a hand in advocating for digital transformation initiatives elsewhere in the enterprise, they're not always in the high tech vanguard themselves because of the efficiency and productivity dividends they can deliver.

All too often, finance teams are hamstrung by last century's tools and technologies — spreadsheets, folders and repetitive manual processes — rather than migrating to the digital ledgers and AI-driven data analytics programs that should have long since superseded them.

That needs to change if businesses hope to compete in the post-COVID-19 business landscape. As lockdown-triggered disruption has repeatedly revealed over the past 18 months, the future belongs to companies that are lean, agile and prepared to pivot on a sixpence.

Having an up-to-the-minute view of an organisation's financial position makes this immeasurably easier. Conversely, it can be impossible to plan in the absence of a continuous accounting platform that allows CFOs to quickly see what is and isn't financially viable.

Enjoying an automated advantage

The COVID-19 crisis has caused economic and societal change over the past 18 months and served as the catalyst for a wave of digital transformation. Finance departments that fail to ride that wave may well find themselves struggling to deliver the insights their employers need to thrive in a rapidly changing world.