FP&A Professionals at a Crossroads over Reporting Tools

The role of financial planning and analysis (FP&A) is evolving. More than ever, the FP&A function needs to be quick, flexible, dynamic, delivering plans and analytical insights accurately to facilitate decision making. To accomplish these goals, adopting new technology is a must.

In March 2014, gtnews surveyed 224 FP&A practitioners from the North America, Asia-Pacific region, Europe, and Africa on the systems they are currently using. They identified challenges these applications create in the planning and reporting process, as well as the attributes of an ideal FP&A support system.

“It comes as no surprise that FP&A teams are searching for reporting models and technologies to streamline their reporting processes to efficiently collaborate with internal teams and ensure report accuracy,” said Joseph Howell, co-founder and managing director of Workiva. “Spending less time on manual tasks allows FP&A teams to spend more time on value-added activities, like analysing data and playing a strategic role in guiding business objectives.”

Excel and Other Spreadsheets

Though FP&A professionals have a variety of tools available to them to generate reports, the majority of them continue to rely on Excel and PowerPoint. Survey respondents use Excel 58 percent of the time for their FP&A-related reporting needs. PowerPoint is used 14 percent of the time. FP&A professionals less frequently use other spreadsheet programs and software solutions.

Less than half of all respondents (47 percent) who use Excel for FP&A reporting rate its effectiveness as a “4” or “5” on a five-point scale. Financial professionals from organisations that use either PowerPoint or another business reporting solution indicate that they are not currently up to the standard required for FP&A reporting needs.

Respondents who use Excel face a number of substantial challenges during a typical monthly FP&A reporting cycle which are often intensified when companies move towards a more dynamic rolling forecasting budgetary approach. These challenges include:

  • Time spent on identifying and correcting reporting errors in Excel (64% of respondents)
  • Manually updating reports for changes made during the review and approval process (63%)
  • Verifying accuracy and seeking confirmatory sources for data from untrusted sources (61%)
  • Manually collecting and compiling loose, non-system data (60%).

One in four respondents said they spend more than 20 hours per month on non-value added activities (locating data, copying/pasting data, formatting data and identifying data inconsistencies) during the reporting process. Automating these tasks would free up time for more strategic work, increase efficiency in the FP&A function and allow for fuller utilization of the expertise that resides in FP&A.

Desired Functionalities

Nearly all survey respondents (91%) cite accurate reporting as an important attribute in an organisation’s FP&A support system. Also, 92% indicated that efficient reporting is a crucial functionality in any technology system.

FP&A professionals are also looking for a number of other valuable attributes in their FP&A reporting tools, including:

  • Automatic updates for actual results (89%)
  • The ability to understand and easily update the model (85%)
  • The ability to slice and dice, and drill-down (i.e., multi-dimensionally) (83%)
  • Managing FP&A routines easily between different departments in organisations (to enable assisting in collaborative or participative planning) (81%)
  • Speed (80%)
  • The ability to easily play different scenarios, risk tests and forecasts (78%)
  • Capabilities for both bottom-up and top-down planning (76%)

But despite a considerable demand from FP&A for better functionality, only about 10% of all respondents said their organisations plan to invest in a dedicated FP&A system in the next year.

Upgrading the Reporting Process

Many of the organisations that have upgraded their FP&A functionality have done so through Tier 2 systems, such as the Wdesk product platform. These systems are designed for complex reporting that FP&A teams face, and are considered more flexible. They do not require specialised programming and can be maintained by FP&A professionals – eliminating the need for IT involvement. There is a common misconception among some organisations that these systems are only suitable for small- and medium-sized businesses. In truth, large organisations have been using Tier 2 systems as vital tools to streamline the reporting processes for years.

One organization leveraging new technology to make its reporting process more efficient is Edward Hospital & Health Services. This full-service, regional healthcare provider located in the western suburbs of Chicago, recently invested in the Wdesk product platform. Edward Hospital had been using standard Word, Excel and PowerPoint tools, as well as a subscription-based program called HealthCare Insight. These applications presented substantial challenges in collecting report data, collaborating with teams, and reporting accurate data to management.  

“Some of the issues were surrounding version control—not being able to link between Word and Excel, not being able to link easily to PowerPoint, or people not wanting us to link to PowerPoint because then they did not have control over it,” Robyn Farm, system director of accounting for Edward Hospital, told gtnews.

The process, which required collaboration with multiple teams including finance, budget, executive, and operations, was very cumbersome and time-consuming. High-value employees were spending a lot of manual time gathering and hunting for data, collaborating across teams, going through rounds of review, and presenting outdated data to management.

The team was also forced to do a fair share of printing, redlining, scanning and emailing during the review process, which presented a lot of confusion between departments. “We needed to know what version was the latest,” said Janette Fontana, senior accountant for Edward Hospital. “That was a big thing for us. Getting emails back and forth was confusing; we didn’t know who had the latest version.”

Edward Hospital’s finance and budget team realised that it could streamline its processes if it could find a platform that used one source of truth when reporting information. After evaluating different products, it found what it needed in Wdesk.

“When we put together financial reports of any kind—whether it be a budget book, a finance committee presentation or really anything—there tends to be more than one source for information,” said Farm. “It doesn’t all come from HealthCare Insights. It doesn’t all come from one person. There are so many different financial indicators that you calculate somewhere. It could be headcount, cash flow—things that don’t normally sit in your general ledger.”

Secondarily, the team also liked the way in which Workiva was able to link across all documents, workbooks and presentations seamlessly. “You can’t really do that outside of Wdesk,” Farm added.

The team worked with a Wdesk customer success manager during implementation to get its documents, workbooks, and presentations up and running, and did not need to consult its IT department. Unlike Tier 1 platforms, Wdesk is designed to allow the FP&A department to manage and maintain it. “We were able to us Wdesk on our own and it was very intuitive and easy to navigate,” Fontana said.

Post implementation, all that scanning and emailing the team used to do during the report creation and review process is no longer necessary. Instead, it utilises the Wdesk comment feature, which streamlines the review process by allowing teams to collaborate in real time.

Additionally, the new platform allows the entire team to work on one project at the same time. “I think we feel more comfortable that the product we’re putting out,” said Fontana. “Everything that we’re putting out there is more accurate.”  

Farm added that the team loves working in the product because it is so easy to use. “Anybody—whether they have an accounting, finance or statistical background—they like working in it,” she said. “They get it very quickly. The thing about Wdesk is you can make it your own, so if you have somebody who wants to take a lead on a project, it’s really easy for them to take that lead and set it up. You can do it so many different ways; it’s just so flexible.

Download the 2014 gtnews FP&A Technology Survey here.


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