9 steps to simplify your FP&A process
What would you do with an extra 10 days for anything, especially when you're on deadline to prepare numbers to present to your CFO and the board?
If you've visited this blog before, you've probably read a lot about connecting data and simplifying reporting. But, what would it mean for financial planning and analysis (FP&A) processes, if you could connect data sources to final reports?
Put simply, it means spending less time preparing a given report that meets your requester’s needs—whether that requester is internal or external. For one global conglomerate's corporate FP&A team, it meant using the Workiva connected reporting platform to save 10 days in their quarterly operating cash flow performance reporting process—readying a draft in four days, down from 14.
That gave the team:
- 10 more days for analysis to understand drivers of performance
- 10 more days for reviews with business unit FP&A teams
- 10 more days to review results across the corporate accounting, tax, and treasury teams
- 10 more days to perform quality reviews to assure the accuracy of the presentation and messaging to be presented in the team's finite time in front of the CEO and CFO
- 10 more days to organize and communicate the business' story
The benefits are self-evident. First, you and your team will save time in preparation. Second, you’ll be able to deliver great financial reports quickly. These will feed the processes that help your team become a world-class finance organization. Fast, accurate reporting gives executives more information to aid their decision-making, yet 7 of 10 finance leaders say it takes too long to provide results to provide timely support for business partners, according to a 2019 survey by FSN.
In this blog post, we highlight the universal reporting challenges faced by finance teams, discuss strategies and best practices for improving the overall reporting process, and provide suggestions on how to apply the framework to your FP&A process.
Universal reporting challenges
If your company is like most, you report on a complex corporate environment with multiple business units and legal entities.
According to an EY Global Financial Accounting Advisory Services group study, 82 percent of the 500 enterprises surveyed have more than five business units, while 50 percent have more than 10 units.
And, these business units typically rely on multiple systems for their reporting data. EY found that 74 percent of the enterprises surveyed relied on more than 6 reporting systems—such as ERP, SAP, and ledger systems—while 20 percent had more than 15.
All of these legal entities, business units, and reporting systems are in a constant state of change to meet stakeholder demands.
The volume and frequency of reports have also been steadily increasing. According to the EY study, 69 percent of external stakeholders also want more frequent reports.
Government regulations are on the rise, and the U.S. Department of Justice, the SEC, and other entities are increasingly holding individuals personally liable for reporting failures and errors.
How connected cloud solutions are streamlining the FP&A process
A fundamental problem for reporting managers is that the primary desktop-based tools they use to do their jobs, including business intelligence (BI) tools, have not kept pace with business reporting requirements.
In fact, these tools were never designed to handle the complexities of business reporting. Instead, they bring their own set of challenges, including:
- Accessibility issues
- Version control issues
- Lack of true collaboration
- Security issues
- Lack of consistency
- Lack of efficiency
- No accountability
- Complex training and IT assistance
Sound familiar? It’s not surprising that 60 percent of the respondents to EY’s survey said they agreed or strongly agreed that their organizations' financial reports did not contain the right information.
Weak tools result in substantial non-value add time spent by your team to make up the tool gap. How much time does your team spend reconciling the same numbers across multiple reports? How about copying and pasting tables? Reformatting reports or slides? Mitigating the high risk of error?
And, how do all of these factors affect team stress levels and employee retention?
Accenture reports that about 80 percent of the finance organization's time is spent chasing data, correcting errors, and validating information—versus enhancing the business value of the information they're delivering.
How to improve FP&A
At Workiva, we’ve developed an overall approach to simplifying reporting processes based on our work with thousands of customers. It typically begins with simple but important questions. Here, we break it down.
Step 1: Understand report objectives
What is the purpose of the report? Is the information relevant? What source information is necessary, and what is extraneous? Is the source information shared with any other reports? Who receives the report? Does information in a particular report overlap with other reports? Can similar reports be consolidated into one?
Step 2: Map your team’s reporting process
Next, map your team's process from start to finish in a process flowchart. A whiteboard is particularly useful for this purpose. What are the inputs and outputs? Who is involved both in and outside of your team? How is everything connected? Which business partners receive the report, why, and how frequently? How many hours does your team's outputs take to produce? Don’t be surprised if the resulting diagram of your process looks like this:
Now that you understand what goes into the report, you can begin to transform the process into something that benefits you.
Step 3: Collect and normalize data
Normalize your data during the collection process. Create templates for all contributors to submit their data in the same format. Templates can be used for both unstructured and structured data.
Step 4: Organize information
Organize source data into a central location, so reporting teams can maintain control over the extensive, continuously changing information needed to meet evolving stakeholder requirements. For additional control, link data straight from templates into the central location, so the repository is always up-to-date with data from the field.
Step 5: Create a single source of truth
Eliminate too many moving parts. Establish a linked approach between source data and all of its destinations. Link from your central location out to individual reports, connecting silos of information across the enterprise. By connecting the data in this way, changes can propagate through all destinations. This enables you to update the report draft precisely and accurately.
Establishing a single source of truth for your reports is critical. It not only eliminates errors and reduces non-value add time, but it also provides audit trail evidence and gives greater confidence up the approval chain. It enables you and your team to create an auditable process that provides visibility into data linking, formatting, and changes.
Step 6: Collaborate in real time
Real-time collaboration allows users to work in parallel. Establish technology that allows team members to work on separate report sections concurrently, without version control issues.
Step 7: Review, approval, and sign-off
Establish a review process where project teams can review contributor feedback in real time in one active document. Having one active document enables geographically distributed teams to work together while building a cohesive story for management, stakeholders, and the board.
Step 8: House final reports in one location
Provide an environment where you can leverage your certified and trusted source information and have it publish to narrative reports, dashboards, workbooks, and presentations. Again, this simplifies the process and reduces non-value add time.
Step 9: Leverage technology to improve your process
So, this sounds great, but how do you do that with traditional office software? Answer: You can’t! The good news is that there are software as a service (SaaS) business reporting solutions like those offered by Workiva to enable you to take these steps.
Applying the framework to your FP&A process
Here are a couple of ideas and suggestions for applying this framework to your organization.
First, leaders set the tone for the team and for change. Be a thought leader, and help drive change in your organization.
Second, identify key, high-frequency reports—such as month end reports or board presentations—that could benefit from process improvement.
Third, listen! Listen to your requesters/business partners. What do they actually need? Challenge them! Listen to your team—get them involved. How are they actually preparing these reports? Why do they do it the way they do? Get their input, feedback, and ideas to help obtain their buy-in. Keep them engaged and involved with the changes.
Finally, implement process improvements in phases. Be realistic—see what works and what doesn’t. Re-evaluate processes with the team. Remember, process improvement is always a work in progress. Strive for continual improvement in both your process and reports.
Real-world benefits of process improvement
By following the steps above, you can see true gains from a more streamlined process. It's proven.
We commissioned Forrester Consulting to determine the Total Economic Impact (TEI) for several companies that transitioned from Excel® spreadsheets and Word® documents to the Workiva platform. The results were dramatic.
A major airline that relied heavily on antiquated physical paperwork along with external professional service firms decided to move to the Workiva connected reporting and compliance platform. The team used Workiva solutions for internal and external financial reporting, management reporting, board reporting, and sustainability reporting. The airline found that Workiva not only provided version control and better tracking, but that it shortened the time required to produce reports, enabling better deadline management.
Forrester determined that the airline’s ROI was 187 percent, with payback in less than three months. In addition, the airline reduced its security risks by using a cloud platform that is FedRAMP-authorized at the moderate security impact level and trusted by thousands of organizations, including federal, state, and local government teams.
Similarly, a multinational manufacturer who relied on a patchwork of emails, external services, and desktop-based spreadsheets and text documents to manage its reporting processes—compiling a typical financial report involved sorting through some 600 emails with attachments—also adopted the Workiva platform. In doing so, it saw improvements in version control, its ability to collect data from numerous sources, and collaboration, and also refined its security posture in handling sensitive data. Forrester estimated the company had a 108 percent ROI with a payback in two months. Overall, its data aggregation workload was reduced by 90 percent.
I hope this article has given you an appreciation of universal reporting challenges and the strategies that you can use to improve your organization’s FP&A process. For more information, check out a few of our other resources on process improvement.
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About the Author
Mike Rost is a key contributor to product strategy at Workiva and works with business leaders in the areas of financial reporting and compliance. With more than 25 years of experience assisting organizations using technology to optimize business processes, Mike has an extensive background in finance and accounting, corporate performance management, and GRC technology. Mike was a founding member of XBRL International with involvement in the XBRL initiative dating back to 1999. He has also been active in industry associations, including the Open Compliance and Ethics Group (OCEG) and the Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA). Mike has a bachelor's degree in economics and an MBA in marketing and finance from the University of Minnesota.