The Controller’s Guide to Finance Automation
In this guide
According to a survey conducted by Deloitte's Center for Controllership and the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA),* 65% of respondents in finance and accounting say their organizations' controllership function is either unprepared or only somewhat prepared to meet future demands. In this guide, we’ll cover how to identify key areas of weakness throughout your financial reporting processes, and how and when these can be addressed using automation in accounting and finance to help you arm your organization, including your board and executive team, for the future.
Who is the financial controller: the financial compass of the company
As a financial controller, you operate at the center of a high-performing reporting function with one eye on financial operations, ensuring regulatory adherence, and the other providing strategic financial insights that empower informed decision-making. You act as the lynchpin between multiple internal stakeholders from FP&A, internal audit, and general counsel, all the way to the CFO. This comes with a unique set of responsibilities—and risks:
Providing accurate financial data
As a controller, credibility is king. As such, your first priority is to ensure the financial data and related financial insights you provide are accurate and reliable. This includes meticulously examining financial statements, transaction records, and other relevant documents.
Leading the financial reporting cycle
Being at the core of the financial reporting cycle, financial controllers must ensure their internal processes remain as efficient and pain-free as possible. Tackling inefficiencies while mitigating the risk of burnout in your team is key to keeping this well-oiled machine going smoothly.
Delivering respected business insights
It’s not just about the numbers. It’s also about the financial story they tell. The insights you provide regarding the financial performance of the business directly inform strategic direction. When done well, this can help you take the next steps in your career—but rushed insights based on inaccurate data can be devastating to your organization.
Top three concerns of financial pros: A recent Workiva survey** revealed that minimizing risk, protecting data integrity, and ensuring efficiency are the three top concerns for finance professionals.
From key priorities to external pressures
While these priorities remain steadfast, your financial controller role probably looks quite different from how it once did. Expectations placed on controllers are increasing. In fact, 80% of controllers surveyed by Deloitte and the IMA feel their jobs have become more forward-thinking and analytical.* This is because of a quickly evolving backdrop:
Between volatile markets and an unstable socio-political landscape, there’s more pressure than ever to arm your company with regular, accurate financial insights that enable agile decision-making. Cash flow might also be tighter, so it’s likely you’re being asked to do more with less.
New regulations are coming in and shaking things up. The information contained in financial reports is being scrutinized more closely, heightening the need for traceable data. Integrated sustainability and financial reporting requirements mean that more data needs to be reported on and verified. For you, this means keeping the ship steady as your team adapts to new requirements while mitigating risk by continuing to ensure accuracy across everything you report.
Talent shortages and the rise of remote work have transformed the way accounting, finance, and sustainability teams operate. While businesses strive to break down silos, departments remain disconnected and overstretched, using inefficient systems and outdated tools. Finance controllers are grappling with overstretched processes and staff burnouts making team productivity and satisfaction more of a challenge than ever before.
Why use financial process automation?
Eliminate costly processes
Working in this risky, high-pressure environment, you know firsthand that significant changes are necessary—but you’re also being asked to do more with smaller budgets and sometimes even a smaller team. Hiring new staff may not be an option at present, let alone embarking on a full overhaul of existing financial processes, structures, and tools.
Accelerate financial processes
Faced with these challenges, many finance teams find themselves turning to modern, cloud-based finance process automation solutions that promise measurable benefits without the disruption, expense, or risk of a full overhaul. From accounting to financial planning, finance process automation solutions can automate repetitive manual tasks, strengthen data accuracy and consistency, and help improve the quality of insights.
Improve regulatory compliance
In many cases, the slightest deviation from compliance norms can have far-reaching consequences. Utilizing finance process automation helps enforce consistent processes and reduce the likelihood of non-compliance due to human errors. This is especially crucial in industries such as banking, insurance, and energy & utilities—with strict financial regulations.
Choosing the right finance automation tool
But with so many tools and platforms to choose from, how do you choose the right one(s) for your team? Read on for our 3 steps for a successful digital transformation.
Step 1: Establish where financial automation is needed
As pressures mount, it can be tempting to tackle financial process challenges on a case-by-case basis. Unfortunately, this can lead to a disconnected set of short-term solutions that work only until the next problem arises.
Being prepared for the long term requires a more strategic approach. To find out where you could benefit the most from accounting and finance automation, start by mapping out strengths and weaknesses across your three key priorities—your insights, your data, and your teams.
Insight considerations for the controller
Data story-telling is instrumental in helping steer business decisions. Start by considering the value your financial insights hold for your CFO in the context of board and executive reporting. How has this changed in recent years? Make a list of the shareholder expectations and regulations guiding what needs to be reported on, noting the main areas that are currently evolving.
Next, consider the speed with which you can deliver these insights. If your CFO asks you for a particular figure, how quickly can you provide it? Take note of what information you can provide or verify quickly, and what data would be more challenging, or slower, to access.
To deliver high-quality insights, two things are needed: trust in the accuracy of your data and enough time to dive deep in your analysis and proactively anticipate questions and concerns. Highlight which areas you feel confident and less confident in reporting on with speed, accuracy, and depth. This will help you to flag the areas in your process that could be addressed with finance process automation.
As controllers are being made responsible for more financial and non-financial data than ever, it’s essential for you to have a clear view of where all your information originates. Your data points are most likely generated from multiple systems, including enterprise resource planning (ERP), business intelligence (BI), and enterprise performance management (EPM) platforms. Map out how and where your data is gathered and what financial planning, tracking, and reporting software is being used.
Continue building your map of financial data by following individual data points along their journey from the point of origin to the final report. Make note of all the different teams, systems, and processes a single data point encounters.
As you map out your data journeys, make note of the controls and processes that ensure information remains accurate and unchanged. How is data verified at source? What finance controls are in place as it passes from one team or software to the next? Consider whether information is being passed along manually (e.g., by copy/pasting) or automatically, and who is in charge of transferring, amending, and verifying figures.
As stakeholders demand more financial and non-financial insights, it’s likely that you’re working across more teams than you may even realize. As you map out your data journeys, compile an inventory of everyone involved in the financial reporting process and what roles they have, from input providers (e.g., FP&A, tax) to report creators (e.g., corporate accounting), to reviewers (e.g., executives, department leads).
As you map out your teams, consider how they work together. Take note of how edits are made, how comments are exchanged, where people are able to collaborate in real time, and where they circulate individual document versions (e.g., using emails or print-outs). How efficient, fast, and traceable is communication at every step? Consider how this works both within and between disparate teams.
Examining these different team processes should start to give you a clear picture of where the main inefficiencies and areas of weakness lie. Taking this information into account, ask your financial reporting team what their biggest frustrations are, what their most time-consuming tasks currently are, and what they feel they should be spending more time on.
Step 2: Know the signs of a strong solution
Answering the above questions in detail will help you highlight and connect underlying issues in your financial reporting process and identify which areas are in most need of addressing with financial process automation.
Your individual ERP systems may be very effective however, inefficiencies and risks can often arise as data travels between different systems and teams. Automating finance processes from beginning to end can alleviate any discrepancies that may arise between ERP systems. Having identified areas in which finance automation can be most strategically deployed, what are the key indicators of a robust finance automation solution?
Must-haves in finance automation solutions
According to our survey,** 51% of businesses are planning to spend more on their finance transformation. Look at where investments are currently being made—what overarching problems are they aiming to solve? Aim to leverage and expand upon existing areas of investment.
Consider also what ROI you hope to achieve with the platform, and find out what ROI other companies have achieved by using it. Strong finance automation solutions will often give prospective customers the chance to connect with their current users to discuss their experiences before they commit.
Am I aiming to solve one timely problem, or tackling an underlying issue? Ask yourself:
- Will this solution help improve data quality?
- Will it support team efficiency?
- Will it strengthen my insights?
If the answer is yes to any of these, the solution is more likely to have a long-lasting impact on your organization. As the need to report on both financial and non-financial data increases, finding a financial process automation solution that unites disparate functions by impacting two or more of the above areas is key.
In the current landscape, lengthy implementation processes simply aren’t feasible. Modern, cloud-based financial automation solutions offer the option of a much faster adoption process. Look for automated financial reporting solutions that are designed to work with your existing tools, rather than simply adding to them, and that have a familiar user interface that will be easy for your team to adopt.
Step 3: Plan your finance automation implementation
According to a survey conducted by Deloitte’s Center for Controllership and the Institute of Management Accountants,* the biggest barriers to a successful transition to finance process automation include a lack of time, financial resources, capacity, and expertise in implementation. Of course, even the perfect tool won’t go far if the adoption phase isn’t thought through. Here are our top suggestions for a seamless implementation process:
While a strong solution should be quick to implement, successful implementation still needs planning and care. If a new tool is being implemented during a reporting cycle, running both old and new systems in parallel before fully changing over can help ensure a smooth transition. Consider the needs of all stakeholders and ensure everyone has enough time to get on board.
It’s important to include all key users from early on in the decision-making process to fully understand their needs, roadblocks, and reservations. Your team members may have varying levels of experience, ability, and confidence when it comes to technology. Internal onboarding sessions can go a long way to get everyone up and running more quickly.
From decision-making to implementation, adopting the right tools can be all-consuming. Make sure you speak to solution experts who can guide you through the entire financial automation process, help you make the right choices for your team, and provide support along the way. Involving partners and experts from the very beginning can help maximize your ROI and help you see results more quickly.
Where Workiva comes in
Trusted, accessible data
Aggregating data from both systems and people? Across multiple places? We’ve got you covered—automate the collection of financial data and connect directly to your source systems with comprehensive finance automation.
Productive, happy reporting teams
Reduce the need for time-consuming, risky manual data entry thanks to finance automation technology. Do more with increased confidence while working in real time across multiple teams on our cloud platform.
Deeper, accurate financial insights
Workiva’s finance automation platform connects information across multiple reports and presentations, helping your story stay consistent and up-to-date while giving you full oversight across multiple teams. With less time spent updating and verifying data points, you can focus on going deeper in your insights and providing them with more certainty.