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COVID reveals the benefits of cloud working

29 May: Businesses have been forced to adapt their ways of working almost overnight in light of the coronavirus lockdowns and those with cloud-based systems had a significant head start.

While cloud-based office and accounting platforms have existed for more than a decade, offering instant access to an organisation’s data anywhere with an internet connection, adoption in the understandably risk-averse world of finance has been relatively slow. The coronavirus pandemic, however, has quickly revealed how working in the cloud can allow organisations to respond to change.

Oliver Deacon, a former finance director at Microsoft, is running ICAEW’s online course on leading remote finance teams and explains that to make the transition from office-based to remote working there are three key areas that an organisation needs to think about: people, tools and processes.

“For teams that have already transitioned to the cloud their tools and processes can be used anywhere,” he says. “That means those teams only really have to think about the people aspect of remote working, such as communication and working spaces, which will have been a huge advantage in recent months.”

While some organisations have been able to adapt readily to the lockdown, for others it has highlighted the challenges. “I know of an example where using a finance system that is only accessible in the office, has meant that a staff member has had to sleep at their office to get invoices set out,” reveals Deacon.

As well as enabling staff to do their work from home efficiently – without clunky connections or slow servers – cloud-based systems also encourage collaboration, with many people able to work in files at the same time. This approach ensures transparency, with teams better able to manage their workloads.

One example Deacon highlights is using OneNote to manage the month-end close in his time at Microsoft. “In my 10 years of working in finance this was something that really revolutionised how we worked.” He explains. “A team of 35 people worked out of a shared OneNote workbook, and we could all see what progress was being made.”

But cloud-based systems aren’t just about working remotely, they can enable finance teams to focus on more value-add work, such as informing and evaluating business strategies and integrating performance management.

Deacon argues: “Moving to the cloud is essential. Best-in-class finance processes are cloud-based process, and finance teams working in the cloud are going to be able to do far more in the future than they are today.”

Teams at the forefront of financial services now are those with standardised, centralised finance functions designed to remove errors and minimalise low-value work. They are aligned with organisational strategies and offer timely insights into business performance. Deacon confirms that cloud-based programmes provide functionality that supports all of these goals.

Cloud-based software can more readily support the automation of finance processes and provide real-time data analysis than traditional ‘closed’ enterprise resource planning software which can make data extraction and integration with other products difficult.

As well as automatically importing bank transactions and sending invoice reminders, cloud-based open platforms, such as Xero, QuickBooks Online and Sage Business Cloud, have enabled external developers to create applications that ‘plug-in’ and offer additional functionality or integration with other systems.  This includes: payroll, inventory, ecommerce, time-tracking and practice management.

Organisations can also automate processes using cloud-based robotic process automation, where one piece of cloud-based software interacts with other software to complete tasks automatically, such as fulfilling ecommerce orders.

Greater automation and integration means standardised processes with fewer manual interventions, as well as providing output more quickly. Having systems that more readily talk to each other also provides finance teams with better data from which to provide support for strategic decision making and effective business partnering.

While open cloud-based accountancy platforms are currently focused on supporting small and medium-sized firms, Deacon is in no doubt that a solution will be developed that can cope with the complexities of large firms too.

“Someone is going to figure out how to make an open cloud-based accountancy platform work for large scale ERP in the next 10 years and the world will completely change,” he predicts.

With the adaptations that have been made for COVID-19 fresh in people’s minds, Deacon argues that now is the time for finance teams to start thinking about how they prepare for the future.

“We have seen more innovation in the past two months than teams will have seen in two or three years,” he says. “This is a great time to be thinking about what we can do differently.”

Why finance teams need to focus on moving to the cloud: