It’s easy to read reports on AI and think that the entire accounting world is living in an automation paradise. Meanwhile, the new coffee machine is the most successful example of digital transformation in your office.
In my experience, most finance departments are far less along the road to automation than the hype suggests. Most people feel they are fighting with their ERP system in some form. Most finance departments are still critically dependent on Excel spreadsheets.
You’d think the bigger corporations would be the ones pioneering this technology, while smaller companies catch up. If anything, the opposite is true, in my experience. It’s harder to change a big company than a small one.
What holds companies back?
Often, it’s down to time. I know of a large wholesaler who bought a planning automation system to streamline its planning processes, but because the CFO always prioritised day-to-day business, the project never got off the ground. They bought the system again, but they still struggle to make time to make the project happen.
Stretched resources also have an impact. A fast-growth retailer that desperately needed a forecasting system bought software to make it happen. However, it was growing so fast it never put the resource in place to get the project off the ground. Now their Exel models are bursting and they haven’t the time to change things. For businesses like these, it can be a real challenge to get new systems implemented. But it’s not impossible – and any pain in the short-term will be worth the effort.
How to get momentum behind automation
This is all about how you make change happen. There’s no one right way to do this, but there are a number of approaches that can help make a difference, in my experience:
Define what ‘automation’ means to you from a benefits perspective. Identify the daily, monthly and annual processes that consume the most time, and what needs to change to improve these.
Get senior level support to make a change. There will be sticky points when delivering a change management project, even when you think you’re done. Without senior support, you won’t overcome them.
Break the project into manageable steps. Focus on making small changes continuously, rather than one big leap. Don’t be afraid of interim workarounds, they can help the ‘change process’ happen. The workarounds will give people a sense that things are changing and force them to let go of existing slow processes. It also provide notice that more change is to come.
Get commitment from the business and your team. It’s not just the finance team that you need to convince. Typically, when we step out of our own function to effect change is when projects can get bogged down. Your role is to manage others to help get everything in place. Set them out in a direction and keep them moving. Give them a vision of the end result, and a series of achievable steps to get there.
Be prepared to manage and challenge. Getting a project over the line without pain, delay or escalating costs is tricky. By understanding your processes and communicating them to external consultants, you can build your vision. But there is a balance. Be prepared to listen as well. After all, your appointed consultants are doing this all the time, so they know the pitfalls to avoid.
SDL were able to get all of this right. The property group needed all its finance teams to use the same planning and reporting system. The company followed these steps, and its now in place. It’s transformed how they work together across different geographical locations and allowed them to achieve more accuracy and model flexibly, right across the business.
“Last year we went through a debt raise I simply couldn’t have done it without [cloud planning] Adaptive Insights,” says Martin Webster, finance consultant for projects at SDL. “ Now we spend more time thinking instead of continually defending and reconciling.”
Allocating the right resource, be that people or time, is crucial to keeping the project on track. Most crucially, ensure the people working on the project are monitored, supported and not left to cope alone. If you allow one person to make key decisions without any succession planning in place, you’re in trouble when they leave. Stay involved in direct decision making and troubleshooting, then you’ll get the improvements you want.