The pandemic was the ultimate disruptor for businesses, but it’s also providing the opportunity to accelerate transformation and position companies to adapt more quickly to competitive pressures, customer demands, regulatory changes, emerging technology and more. While chief financial officers need to focus on being transformational CFOs to navigate today’s turbulent business environment (as outlined in our CFO Evolution), controllers have a strategic role to play as well and can take a similar approach — starting with the transformation of the finance and accounting function.

Understanding the Drivers of Transformation

There are two main drivers or objectives for transforming the finance department. The first is to liberate the controller and the team to focus on delivering greater strategic value to the CFO and other company executives. The question is how can today’s controllers shift to strategic work when historically they have spent much of their time handling day-to-day accounting and reporting tasks such as the monthly and quarterly close?

Perpetually underinvested in staff and technology and operating with manual and inefficient processes, many finance teams and controllers can’t free up enough time for higher value, more strategic work.

That’s why the second objective for transformation is imperative. Controllers must invest in streamlining, optimizing and automating processes and tasks so that they and the finance team have time for strategic business reporting and thought leadership. Creating a streamlined, automated function not only makes the first objective possible, but helps ensure that as volumes and complexity increase, the finance team can sustain their efficient operations to support company growth.

Transformation doesn’t require years of work and investment before the finance team can begin to reap benefits and start achieving the objectives. When you look for quick wins that free up time and energy, you’ll be able to focus on mid-term and long-term transformation goals, which will help you become the strategic controller of tomorrow.

Empower Your People for Higher-Value Activities

The only way for you to shift from tactician to strategist is to elevate the roles and capabilities of the rest of your team as well. Have you given them the right tools and processes to optimize financial activities and free them to focus on strategic, higher value work? Or do they spend the majority of their time on low-value information tasks such as manual journal entries and spreadsheet-based reconciliations?

Short-term improvements

Look at the tools already in place in your organization. Are there ways to use them more effectively to automate tasks that are handled manually today? Here are some examples:

  • Do you have an expense management tool that you could use more effectively to eliminate manual or double data entry?
  • Are you doing manual check runs, and if so, what would it take to automate them in your existing system?
  • Have you integrated your existing systems to automate the record-to-report process and shorten the close?

Mid-term and long-term transformation opportunities

Start by understanding the work your team does, who does the work and how they are doing it. Then empower the team with the right tools, processes, training and development to achieve a sustainable balance across the team even as complexity and volume grow.

Invest in new technology that further automates how your staff accomplishes their day-to-day tasks. For example, robotic process automation (RPA) can automate manual finance tasks and artificial intelligence (AI) can analyze vast amounts of data to provide new insights to inform business decisions.

Finally, think about which areas and skills could better serve your company through outsourcing instead of permanent staffing. Whether low-level tasks, cyclical processes or high-expertise roles such as technical accounting and regulatory compliance, you can formulate a talent management approach that includes partnering for expertise and scale.

Rethink, Refine and Retire Processes

As the workforce shifted to remote work during the pandemic, many companies realized just how convoluted and redundant some of their existing processes had become. Smart companies took the opportunity to evaluate and improve their business processes and retire old ones that no longer served a useful purpose.

Finding ways to standardize and simplify your back-office processes is essential to preparing your team to adapt to changing company needs. The faster and more efficient, transparent and scalable the finance organization’s processes are, the better they can adapt.

Short-term improvements

Take a hard (i.e., honest and objective) look at your existing financial processes and identify those that no longer make sense. Just because they worked in the past doesn’t mean they’re still valuable or necessary. Consider these examples:

  • Do you have custom processes? Is your business truly unique or can you use core capabilities of your systems without requiring manual or custom workarounds?
  • Do executives really need all the current reports your team provides? Are there some your team could stop producing without impacting the business?
  • Are there manual processes that are easily automated with existing systems, such as invoicing customers?

Mid-term and long-term transformation opportunities

If your general ledger doesn’t reflect the current operation of your business or your team is using manual workarounds necessary because the general ledger is out of date, it might be hindering process advancement opportunities. Forcing your financial processes to use a 10-year-old general ledger structure may be causing more ongoing effort and pain than modernizing the general ledger would incur.

Look at your processes that seem fine today. Will they be able to handle future needs including higher volumes, increased billing complexity, acquired or merged companies, a faster close, real-time reporting and other changes and requirements? Think about which of these processes should be automated to further free up your team, improve accuracy and enable your function to scale as the company grows. Also consider the investment needed to integrate your existing tools and/or implement or integrate new technology.

Create a Technology Roadmap

Automating manual tasks, streamlining processes, improving productivity, reducing errors and uncovering actionable insights in real time — you can’t achieve any of these without the right technology. Yet, many controllers have typically underinvested in tools and systems that would empower their staff.

Short-term improvements

Start with your existing systems. Are you making full use of their capabilities or is there an opportunity to optimize how they are used and/or integrate them with other software to improve the value you’re getting from them? For example:

  • Are you using the latest version of your systems? Would upgrading existing systems provide you with new or expanded capabilities?
  • Are there new capabilities available that your team hasn’t yet adopted?
  • Would training help the team more effectively use existing systems?
  • Are you using manual workarounds instead of integrating your current systems?

Look at which new systems or capabilities your team needs or will need to drive increased efficiency, better meet compliance requirements and provide company leadership with insights for faster, more informed decisions. Create a roadmap for deploying the new capabilities and technology, prioritized by the value to the team and the business.

For help in creating a technology roadmap, it pays to seek guidance outside of your immediate team. Your IT department may be able to offer help, but often external guidance can be valuable as well, particularly from a partner that specializes in finance and accounting technology. These experts can help you identify critical capabilities needed, match your goals with specific technology solutions, and determine how current systems and new ones should be integrated to maximize your return on your investment.

What Will You Do Next?

What will be your agenda as controller for the coming months and years? Are you ready to begin taking on a more strategic role and evolving your finance department to better support the business in the face of further volatility and uncertainty?

There’s never been a better time nor a greater imperative to automate accounting and finance work, raise the skill level of your team, and streamline and improve processes to build the finance department and the controller role of tomorrow.

To learn more about becoming the controller of tomorrow with the right people, processes and technology, contact the experts at Armanino.