assessment

How do we decide whether to keep, replace, or enhance our systems?

Great systems can add tremendous value to your business. They make processes more efficient, control risk, deliver a better customer experience, and produce superior data and insight. Poor systems are inconvenient and sometimes devastating – demoralizing employees with red tape, offering a difficult and frustrating user experience, leaving data fragmented and inaccurate, and creating confusion with customers.

If your systems aren't adding the value they should, what should you, as a leader, consider when making decisions to keep, replace, and enhance your systems that maximize the possibility of success?

Systems are a lot more than just technology and business processes. They are behavior patterns, incentives for collaboration, institutionalized cultural norms, and tacit expectations for how your people should be efficient and effective. Successful systems account for:

  • Psychology - why do people think this way?
  • Sociology - how are groups of people behaving?
  • Tools - what do we use to do things better?
  • Management science - how do we measure what's happening?

They are of course also rooted in business science, mathematics, and core technology.  They amplify both desirable and undesirable behaviors and, in turn, either accelerate or hold back your business growth.

The success of your business systems will be determined by three main factors:

  1. How well the technology and processes fit your business strategy
  2. The quality and capabilities of the technology
  3. How well your users adopt

Understanding where your business stands with each of these will help you choose the best path forward.

For purposes of this article, “systems” refers to both the business processes and the technology used to support them.

Fit to the business

The basic question is: did you choose a reasonable solution up front? There are few legitimately bad software packages and also few that will exactly fit your business processes without modification. The question is not “Is the system perfect?” but rather “Did we make the right trade-offs and decide to change the right processes when we selected (or designed) the software?”

To be clear – if a system failure is because of a major deficiency in this area, you will probably need to replace it. If the deficiency is minor, see section 2 for a few ways to address it.

How do you ensure business fit?

A rigorous system selection will force your team to collaboratively decide on the most important requirements up-front and agree on major process changes. Systems projects are a litany of trade-offs – what needs to be perfect, what areas can you change your process to fit the system, and what processes are worth spending more effort and money on (e.g. customizing the system or purchasing a separate bolt-in). The thoughtfulness of these trade-offs are what will set the implementation up for success.

Do not skimp on the selection process. Some of the most expensive implementations are the result of the cheapest selections. Analyst reports will tell you general quality and focus of products, but not how appropriate they are for your business. You need to get inside your business, uncover its operating priorities and biggest value drivers, and match them with the systems you are considering. This takes a little bit of money and a lot of time from your best people – but it’s worth it.

Technology and Functionality

The base technology is usually fine – if it doesn’t “work” it can usually be fixed with some professional help. Custom software can be more challenging or more expensive, but these systems can be fixed as well. The good news is that in the new world of enterprise technology, there are many more options than those offered by your primary vendor to support your most valuable areas, mitigate major risks, or make a challenging system more palatable for your users.

Example: ERP

ERP systems are sprawling technologies that do a lot and ask a lot of their users. The accepted approach to ERP used to be to standardize business processes to the functionality of the package, adjusting only when absolutely necessary. This maximized the vendor’s ability to support the solution and tried to concentrate investment in the most important areas.

This isn’t necessarily the case anymore. There are more niche solutions, software is easier to build, and most platforms play nicely with each other. It’s more important to choose the right ecosystem of technologies that give your business flexibility and in the aggregate add the most value than it is to standardize on a specific package.

If your platform is mostly successful but failing in a small number of critical areas, is it possible to simply plug those holes with secondary applications? This is often easier, less disruptive, less expensive, and more effective. Odds are good that you can avoid a wholescale replacement.

In these cases, you should perform selection processes for add-ons where the base system doesn’t fit the business. This can include features like subscription billing, customer support, portals, analytics and reporting, or workflow applications. Not all packages do these things well, but there are many third-party products that will play nicely with your other systems and dramatically improve these areas.

User Adoption

Your users will ultimately determine the success of the solution. Assuming you made acceptable trade-offs, made reasonable assumptions, and have a fundamentally sound, supportable ecosystem, your users are responsible for the consistency, efficiency, and innovation the new systems drive.

If you don’t think your current systems are adding value, ask yourself: How much is due to poor technology and how much is due to employees resisting using it correctly?

Fixing user behavior is challenging. Most of it is set in motion during the implementation itself. When a system has been deemed a failure, it can be hard to recover. Good project managers will help manage these user expectations in the immediate aftermath of an implementation but this can only last for so long. If things spiral in the months following a go-live, sometimes this can be a lost cause.

So what do you do?

It depends on how bad it is. Sometimes a few loud user groups end up coloring the organization’s perception of the entire system. You need to put a laser-focus on these groups, solve their problems while giving them ownership, and slowly bring them back into the fold. At the same time you need to roll-out incremental improvements demonstrate momentum to improve the business.

If the system isn’t being adopted because people don’t understand it, this can be easier. Start with aggressively pursuing stakeholder buy-in from senior leadership. They need to re-inforce with their staff how important it is to use the system as intended and to identify additional training requirements. This needs to be combined with a rigorous enhancement process that uses stakeholder feedback to improve the system.

If this is the core problem, have an independent professional work with your users on assessing the source of the system’s weaknesses. They will cut through the noise and the politics and be able to tell you the heart of the problem. This is very difficult for anyone who had a stake in the original process.

And remember that the users’ complaints may be right: Maybe the system was the wrong choice or was not implemented well. Given that they have the most detailed view of the solution, they may have valid points in this area. In these cases, the details matter. Understand the specific issues instead of the broad complaints and have someone help you understand if they can be resolved or not.

Remember: it doesn’t matter what the users should be doing, it matters what they are doing. Blaming users doesn’t accomplish anything while giving them resources, listening to them constructively, and supporting them accomplishes a great deal.

In Summary

If you feel your business needs technology changes, look at your systems holistically. Understand the processes, the system possibilities, and the cultural needs of your users. Ensuring all of these elements directly support your growth strategy will greatly improve your business and ensure you can be successful as you grow over the long-term.

Most of all, get an independent opinion. It may end up saving you a lot of money and aggravation, and will certainly help confirm your best path forward.

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Evaluating Your Finance Function

Does your finance function stack up to your scale?

One of the early functional areas that businesses outgrow is their finance function. The processes, systems and skills that are required to track, maintain and report on organizational finances as companies grow change dramatically. Think of finance as the core of your enterprise – not most critical, but certainly most foundational. Absent a strong finance foundation, it is very difficult to scale, grow and integrate your other functional areas and it makes your management of the business enormously more challenging and less discrete.

Today we will examine three common challenges within your finance function. This is not intended to be an exhaustive list of every problem you may encounter. Instead, these are some of the most common issues that occur and, more importantly, the issues that are most visible to non-finance executives. The solutions may be simple, they may be wide ranging. But once you know where your challenges are, it becomes much easier to establish a clear path to resolving them.

1. Your business makes a lot of manual journal entries

Why it’s a problem

Manual journal entries are error-prone, are not recorded on a timely basis and do not provide adequate control over your books. Since most categories of journals should be automatically generated during the course of business, they often indicate underlying issues with your systems and processes.

Other forms of this problem

a) you have non-accountants submitting requests for journal entries; b) your accountants are doing a lot of offline calculation (probably in Excel) to generate the journal entries (revenue recognition and asset depreciation are common areas for this); c) when something doesn’t look right in the general ledger, it is hard to locate the backup documentation

Common manual journal entries:

Revenue recognition, asset depreciation, lease payments, payroll, purchasing accruals, inventory valuation, receivables backlog

How to diagnose

Look at your previous three months of manual journal entries. If the number of entries is relatively limited, then you probably do not have a major issue. If there are many entries for the same category, you have an isolated problem that you can probably address on its own. If the entries are spread across multiple categories or there is not a distinct pattern for why the entries are occurring, then you have a bigger issue to address.

Possible Solutions

For one, you should evaluate your chart of accounts and make sure it is structured appropriately for your business. Many companies start with a simple chart of accounts and then grow to the point where it no longer provides enough data or structure for accurate reporting. Then, evaluate the integration between the general ledger and your various sub-ledgers (receivables, payables, fixed assets, project accounting, inventory, etc.). If there is manual intervention required during the transfer of financial data between these systems and the GL, then you have a systems issue you need to address. Finally, evaluate your overall finance strategy. If the system is not able to generate the accounting entries you need, it’s probably time to start looking at alternatives.

2. Reporting takes a lot of time and some desirable reports aren’t possible

Why it’s a problem

Reporting and analytics should be your easiest, most accessible tool for managing your business. If you can’t review your key metrics on a regular-enough basis, your ability to effectively manage your business suffers. Lots of time generally equates to lots of effort which means lots of error-prone, manual work.

Other forms of this problem

Let’s briefly distinguish management reports from operational reports. Operational reports are used by your managers to execute the operations of the business on a day-to-day basis and are not what we are addressing here. Management reports are used by leadership to make decisions about how to run the business and these are what we are discussing here. If your set of monthly or quarterly reports is variable (i.e. the exact same reports are not generated every month/quarter/year), if your reports change in form or format based on monthly or quarterly activity, if your finance department needs more than a few days to close the books and generate reports, or if you want to see some new types of reporting but they cannot be generated with your systems or numbers, then you have a problem that should be addressed promptly.

Common problem areas

Profitability and margin reporting is a common pain point for growing businesses - it’s fairly complicated and requires highly structured underlying data. Budget-to-actual reporting tends to maturate later on for many businesses and forecasting is often cobbled together from several imperfect sources of data (note: forecasting usually matures faster in manufacturing environments while lagging in professional services). It is unusual for basic P&L and balance sheet reporting to be an issue – most businesses have this down pretty well. If you have issues with this type of reporting you should probably address them immediately. In addition to being your only true source for good numbers, it probably means something unpleasant lurks beneath the surface.

How to diagnose

Look at your management reporting and see how replicable it is. Talk to the accounting department about how and on what platform they generate these reports. Talk to an expert about what reporting you should, reasonably be able to generate for your type and size of business and ask your managers to put them together. If you can report on most of what should be required then you’re probably in good shape; otherwise it is likely you have some technology/talent/process issues to address.

Possible Solutions

Solving your reporting issues may or may not require changes to your software. Many business actually possess the necessary tools but need to resolve issues in underlying business processes or data structures. This is less expensive to fix and can often be executed in-house, although you probably need some basic outside guidance on structuring the project. If you do not have a strong reporting platform and your finance systems are very old, then you may need a multi-step roadmap to fix the underlying systems and processes before implementing a more robust reporting platform. The good news is this can be done along with better operational reporting and sometimes real analytics so you won’t be fixing just one problem – you’ll be setting yourself up for more exciting management tools as well.

3. You don’t really trust your numbers

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Why it’s a problem

I probably don’t need to elaborate on this one

Other forms of this problem

a) If you have questions for the accounting department after reviewing your monthly/quarterly/semi-annual reports, the answer is frequently an adjustment in the ledger and reissuance of the reports that is required. b) It is not uncommon for your summary financials and the expected numbers from each department to not match up (inventory levels don’t seem in the ballpark of what your warehouse manager expects; PO accruals don’t seem to match what the purchasing manager thinks they bought this month, etc.). c) Your outside accountants have a hard time figuring out your numbers each period from the materials you provide.

Common problem areas

This could happen anywhere in the business, but start by looking at areas that a) have an offline process and toolset; b) Have a high monthly volume of transactions; or 3) Have the most people touching the transactions

How to diagnose

Have departments sign-off on the final accounting numbers for each period. If you currently only “close the books” annually or semi-annually, begin to move towards monthly or quarterly close cycles. Although they will be more frequent, they will also be less work and it will be much easier to perform a root cause analysis on any issues you find. After doing this, then start to see how many discrepancies you have on a regular basis.

Possible Solutions

This is more than likely going to start with a systems solution. The hardest part of performing root cause analysis on questionable numbers is finding all the data you need to back it up. The transactions for those numbers are the result of a process somewhere in your business and having a platform for that process that integrates with your finance systems will make your numbers more reliable, generate them with less effort, and cut overhead.

Closing Guidance

One thing to note on finance systems in general: the number of technology solutions available, level of automation that is now considered “normal,” and leading practices that have emerged over the past 4-6 years have substantially changed the expectations of a “corporate” finance department. The next tier of possibilities for your business are more exciting than anything in the recent past – real, insightful analytics, understanding customer profitability based on social media data, operational and sales automation. These are all tools that can dramatically improve how your business grows and can allow your best people to add more value than ever before. Start by improving your core finance operations and then understand how you can begin taking advantage of the new technology available to your business.

Have you encountered any other major problem areas in your finance area? Post them in the comments!

It’s always valuable to get a new perspective on your finance function and Ronan Consulting Group is here to help. Contact us today at info@ronanconsultinggroup.com or (203) 313-9480 to talk about what challenges you are facing in your business and understand what your assessment, diagnosis and improvement options are. 

 

 

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