The reporting process at most businesses is manual and spreadsheet-focused, requiring intensive time and effort every month and at year end. This can mean several consecutive days of repetitive data entry work, with some adjustments off-system, but generally consistent in its effort, month-in and month-out.
The finance function in any business must run a series of reports, often across multiple systems, and manually combines that into a management pack.
As organisations look to deliver more ESG reporting, the introduction of non-financial data leads to even more data sources, and more challenges to combine them, meaning reporting requirements are taking longer and longer to deliver each month.
There are some simple steps to take that can improve impact, beginning with automating some aspects of how reporting packs are managed, that will also help analytics and presentation.
“It can start at a very basic level of leveraging Excel formulas and conditioning formatting,” says Ian Pay, Head of Data Analytics and Tech, ICAEW. “How you make the numbers jump out more using charts, graphs and colours in Excel to liven it up a bit. It’s recognising that small changes can make a very big difference.”
Small steps, including associating colours with performance trends, and thinking about how the data can be presented other than in tables, are important.
There are also tools available that most businesses will have access to if they have a Microsoft licensing agreement. Microsoft Power Automate can take a template and automatically update it based on source files.
The user can point at files stored locally or on SharePoint, and with zero coding set up a workflow to process the files when updated, saving time and adding efficiency.
Many smaller businesses are still stuck in thinking they must use Excel macros (VBA) and do not realise they can use programs like Power Automate to remove the effort from manual, repetitive tasks.
“There’s a fear that finance professionals have to go under the hood and use Excel VBA to automate but they don’t,” says Pay. “There are tools out there that don’t require coding knowledge or deep technical abilities. Tools like Power Automate that are included in many licence agreements already don’t require a lot of knowledge and can automate the sort of tasks that you have to do in month-end reporting.”
The reporting process is never going to be automated completely and there will always be need for the accountant’s judgement or narrative on top. “But we want to be able to free up people’s time so that they can focus on the narrative and do the tasks that use their skills,” says Pay.
For those already dabbling in automation and wanting to develop more sophisticated visualisations, another widely available Microsoft tool could be the answer – Power BI.
Microsoft’s Power BI has the potential to take month-end reporting to the next level through a fully visual and interactive presentation of data, and opens the door to stakeholders being able to take actionable insights and self-serve on detail.
ICAEW Academy is running courses in May and June to explore month-end reporting in Power BI.
Beyond this, the automation journey is leading towards machine learning and AI solutions, where the program intelligently starts to determine the sorts of adjustments needed in advance, and could even populate narrative elements based on pre-defined structures.
“But to be able to do that you would need to move away from Excel and reporting would need to be on a more dedicated dashboarding and analysis solution,” says Pay.
For now there’s still a strong bias towards the human element. “Would we ever be comfortable trusting and putting a report in front of the CEO or CFO that has been entirely written by a computer, including contextual narrative?” asks Pay. “You might get to the point that it does a first draft but you will always want to go in and put your angle on it.”
While digital upskilling to meet these future challenges will play a key part in the future of accounting, the practical start today rests with time-saving tools such as Power Automate and Excel skills – potentially moving onto Power BI – that are part of investing time in improving the process that will reap benefits over time.
“If I were to automate something, it might take a week or two to make that automation completely from scratch,” says Pay. “If I invest that time I won’t get payback immediately, but over the course of a few month-end reporting cycles I will soon see the benefit.”
Future of the finance function
Transformation within the finance function has been accelerated over the past couple of years. How is the role of the finance function changing? What technology is facilitating that change? And what skills are most in demand?
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