Is Your Accounting Or Finance Department Measuring Up Or is it Down For the Count?

Accounting is a methodology by which a company or financial entity measures, discloses, or provides assurance about the financial information of a company that may be used to act as an aid to managers, investors, tax authorities and other decision makers to reach decisions regarding resource allocation. Financial accounting is a branch of accounting that throughout history has required processes to record, classify, summarize as well as interpret and communicate all financial information concerning the business. In other words one can think of accounting as being the “language of business” and accounting forms as the medium upon with that language is communicated.

The heart of accounting is the measurement of financial transactions that are meant to transfer the legal property rights that are performed through contractual relationships. Accounting specifically excludes non-financial transactions because of the need for conservatism as well as principles of materiality. Persons that practice accounting are known as accountants and it is necessary to have a number of different professional bodies that are formed by accountants all across the globe. There are titles given to different accounting personnel such as Chartered Certified Accountants, Chartered Accountants, and Certified Public Accountants.

The use of accountancy methods allows companies to create accurate financial reports and accounting forms that are of great help to managers, regulators, shareholders, creditors and owners. When the day-to-day business transactions are recorded in the books of the company, the method used is known as bookkeeping. The heart of the modern financial accounting system is called the double-entry bookkeeping system.

Double-entry bookkeeping systems require at least two entries for each transaction, one being a debit and, the other a corresponding credit. It is imperative that the sum of all debits exactly equals the sum of all credits and, if it does, then it is a promising sign that the entries have been properly recorded. Such a system first found use in medieval Europe, though some claim that it was practiced much earlier in Ancient Greece.

To get into the profession of accountancy, one would need to attain certain qualifications based on the country in which they intend to practice. An accountant needs to be licensed by a number of organizations, mostly at the state and country level although it is not always a legal necessity for an accountant to be a paying member of any one of the institutions and bodies that are in the business of providing such licenses.

There are different types of accountancy including cost accounting, cash-basis and accrual basis accounting, financial accountancy, fund accounting, internal and external accountancy, management accounting, project accounting, positive accounting, environmental accounting and social responsibility accounting. In addition, accounting principles, rules of conduct and actions can be described with the help of different terms like concepts, conventions, tenets, assumption, axioms and also postulates.

An oft cited criticism of accounting is that it has not changed much and there is need for affecting reforms to keep up with the changing business needs and because of the need to keep accounting relevant to changes in capital assets or production capacity. That is not to say that the basic principles will change; for these should be independent of dynamic economics. Of late, there has been deviation in accounting from economic principles that has ended up with controversial reforms being affected in order to make financial reports more pinpointing of economic realities.

Staffing Accounting – Finance Department For Start – Ups to Medium-Sized Companies

I have had a lot of conversations recently about staffing the accounting and finance function in the company. As companies grow and shrink, their needs in this area change. We certainly do not want to be over-staffed, and we also want the most cost-effective staff doing as much of the work as possible. For example, we typically do not want our Controller or CFO entering payables – this task can easily be delegated to a much lower cost employee.

In a a simplified organization chart of the different accounting and finance functions, a CFO would be at the top of the chart with a Controller reporting to her. The Controller would have staff in AR, AP, and Payroll along with one or more accounting managers over one or more of those functions. The reality is that most start-up and emerging companies cannot afford all of these positions. My purpose in this post is to explain how to fulfill all of these necessary functions throughout the life-cycle of a start-up company. I am making the assumption that we all understand the purpose of the accounting/finance function as well as the assumption that the company has or will hire the appropriate outside professional(s), like a tax CPA, to help the company remain compliant.

Even at the earliest stages of a start-up, it is usually best to hire a part-time bookkeeper to fulfill all of the roles listed above. They usually do not have the expertise of a high-level controller of CFO, and they will be slightly over-paid for doing some of the more clerical tasks. But the bookkeeper gives an affordable and flexible option to start-ups.

As the company grows and has revenue, the company should begin to look to hire full-time clerical staff to handle most of the AR, AP, and payroll tasks while the bookkeeper remains part-time and delegates everything they possibly can to the in-house staff. One of the major challenges that usually emerges during this process is that the part-time bookkeeper will begin to struggle to keep up, especially with the monthly financial statement preparation and analysis as well as other management reports on how the business is doing and what improvements should be made to maximize cash flow.

Often the next best step is for the company to consider engaging the services of a part-time CFO. This individual will be a strategic direction to this department and may only be needed about a half-of-a-day per month. As the company continues to grow, the part-time bookkeeper will need to be replaced by a full-time Controller or Accounting Manager. All of the full-time accounting staff will report to this person. In addition, this position will take direction from the CFO.

The last full-time hire should be to fill the position of CFO. Often companies can do very well leaning on the part-time CFO services to exceed $50 or even $75 million in annual sales.

Is Your Finance Department Fighting Fit? You May Need an Accounts Reconciliation Healthcheck

As a finance director you may not be fully aware, but your finance department could also be a part of the overwhelming majority that are concealing an illness. The question you need to raise is your account reconciliation process fighting fit? A reconciliation medical exam will dramatically improve your finance department’s processes and will deliver additional worth and help facilitate to drive down costs. In line with a recent finance survey, only 8% of financial accounting employees are actually happy with their monthly close process. This implies that a large 92% of finance workers assume that it is time to call in the doctor as their financial close procedure is sick. The simplest way to help establish all of the potential issues within finance department is to carry out a reconciliation medical exam.

There are 3 main advantages of an efficient account reconciliation strategy that need to be considered: reduced operational costs, mitigated risk, and the tightest attainable compliance. Each account reconciliation method ought to give clear visibility over key financial information to bring these advantages – nevertheless however in line with a recent financial survey; only 8% of senior finance employees are happy with the visibility of key financial information.

Stages of the reconciliation lifecycle

There are four major stages to a reconciliation lifecycle:

1. Data import and enrichment.

2. Matching.

3. Exception management.

4. Reconciliation.

In order to produce the complete advantages of the account reconciliation process every stage should be in good health: optimised to be sturdy nevertheless agile, and standardised across your entire business. However, with 46% of finance employees using a shared spreadsheet solution to achieve a summary of all their data, their ledgers, to achieve the level of standardised reconciliation required for a really great reconciliation process may be a tall order indeed.

Checking the health of each stage

A health check of every stage of your reconciliation lifecycle should not be a large challenge. You need to possess an honest appraisal of where your department presently sits and wherever you wish to be.

1. Import and enrichment – This initiative is crucial in standardising your data. Enriching your knowledge upon import is much more efficient than doing it ad-hoc, reducing the price of your reconciliation process and limiting the chance of errors later on.

Health risks: the data import and enrichment method could also be let down by the usage of spreadsheets – thus if you’re still using them as an accounting cure, stop! They provide unsecure following or segregation of duties, no automation of enrichment and they do not preserve the initial details of the account. Not to mention the potential problems that arise from sharing spreadsheets- Sharing a finance spreadsheet is extraordinarily risky especially when it involves the health of your reconciliation. It is not always possible to inform you who has used the spreadsheet, have their changes documented and spot any errors that are created. Despite this risk, over half of all finance departments still share finance spreadsheets to organise their reconciliation.

Prescription: Specialist accounting software packages are much quicker, more accurate and helps guarantee compliance – paying for itself in the reduction of cost to your department.

2. Matching – Matching financial data is the core of your reconciliation process and also the one that consumes the most amount of time. While comparatively easy, the task is horrendously mundane for any accounting employees.

Health risks: Its very nature implies that manual data matching will prove to be the most error prone stage of the reconciliation method. Providing that a quarter of finance employees have no second authority or approver, this might mean that mistakes aren’t detected before filing.

Prescription: automated transaction and data matching software solutions cuts out around 98% of the manual work, serving to minimise errors. An enhanced automation software solution can even progress the reconciliation lifecycle forward for you and make sure that there is continually a second authority before figures may be signed-off.

3. Exception management – to create the most effective use of your time you want to be able to prioritize the unmatched exceptions in your ledgers.

Health risks: whereas exception management ought to cut back operational costs, sloppy budgets, input errors and also the increased activity for the managerial team will mean that costs grow much higher. This might be somewhat relieved by a less centralised method, permitting employees to tackle exceptions at source rather than add an additional method in later.

Prescription: automated account reconciliation software may be tailored to manage exceptions, which can help by dramatically reducing time, cost and error rate.

4. Reconciliation – The part where you get to play detective. Why don’t these amounts match: It might or might not be an error, underpayment or even perhaps fraud? Reconciling mismatched figures provides finance employees plenty additional information to get their teeth into; however the method remains vulnerable to health issues.

Health risks: one of the largest reconciliation health risks is that the overreliance on paper for archiving. When reconciling items, it’s typically necessary to trace back through all of the previous monthly close reports, as well as ledger entries and bank statements. However, 64% of finance employees still at least, in some way rely, on binders and paper to archive their financial close results.

Prescription: as well as being far more secure, digital archives can also be much easier to look through than paper archived financial data for the required information. Digitised financial archives create the reconciliation process faster, easier additionally as helping you keep compliant with things like eDiscovery requests.

Overall, the reconciliation lifecycle is an important method for the finance department, however for many people there is still an abundance of enhancements that are required to be carried out. The health risks exposed to your finance department’s reporting, issues with governance, risk and compliance and threats to your future financial position are all over the place. It is necessary for Finance directors and CFOs to make sure that their reconciliation process is in great health. A healthy finance reconciliation helps maintain correct and up-to-date general ledger data by comparing it to details noted within the subsidiary ledger for every account.

Poor reconciliation will result in cancerous late payment penalties, unnoticed liabilities, and missed vendor discounts. For these reasons each finance department ought to perform a daily self-examination, or internal audit frequently.

However, if you are seeking for the magic pill which will alleviate all of your woes then you ought to take a look at an enhanced balance sheet reconciliation software package. This type of accounting and reporting software package automates giant chunks of the reconciliation lifecycle, delivering multiple prescriptions quickly.

How to Evaluate Your Finance Department

Nobody knows your business better than you do. After all, you are the CEO. You know what the engineers do; you know what the production managers do; and nobody understands the sales process better than you. You know who is carrying their weight and who isn’t. That is, unless we’re talking about the finance and accounting managers.

Most CEO’s, especially in small and mid-size enterprises, come from operational or sales backgrounds. They have often gained some knowledge of finance and accounting through their careers, but only to the extent necessary. But as the CEO, they must make judgments about the performance and competence of the accountants as well as the operations and sales managers.

So, how does the diligent CEO evaluate the finance and accounting functions in his company? All too often, the CEO assigns a qualitative value based on the quantitative message. In other words, if the Controller delivers a positive, upbeat financial report, the CEO will have positive feelings toward the Controller. And if the Controller delivers a bleak message, the CEO will have a negative reaction to the person. Unfortunately, “shooting the messenger” is not at all uncommon.

The dangers inherent in this approach should be obvious. The Controller (or CFO, bookkeeper, whoever) may realize that in order to protect their career, they need to make the numbers look better than they really are, or they need to draw attention away from negative matters and focus on positive matters. This raises the probability that important issues won’t get the attention they deserve. It also raises the probability that good people will be lost for the wrong reasons.

The CEO’s of large public companies have a big advantage when it comes to evaluating the performance of the finance department. They have the audit committee of the board of directors, the auditors, the SEC, Wall Street analyst and public shareholders giving them feedback. In smaller businesses, however, CEO’s need to develop their own methods and processes for evaluating the performance of their financial managers.

Here are a few suggestions for the small business CEO:

Timely and Accurate Financial Reports

Chances are that at some point in your career, you have been advised that you should insist on “timely and accurate” financial reports from your accounting group. Unfortunately, you are probably a very good judge of what is timely, but you may not be nearly as good a judge of what is accurate. Certainly, you don’t have the time to test the recording of transactions and to verify the accuracy of reports, but there are some things that you can and should do.

Insist that financial reports include comparisons over a number of periods. This will allow you to judge the consistency of recording and reporting transactions.
Make sure that all anomalies are explained.
Recurring expenses such as rents and utilities should be reported in the appropriate period. An explanation that – “there are two rents in April because we paid May early” – is unacceptable. The May rent should be reported as a May expense.
Occasionally, ask to be reminded about the company’s policies for recording revenues, capitalizing costs, etc.

Beyond Monthly Financial Reports

You should expect to get information from your accounting and finance groups on a daily basis, not just when monthly financial reports are due. Some good examples are:

Daily cash balance reports.
Accounts receivable collection updates.
Cash flow forecasts (cash requirements)
Significant or unusual transactions.

Consistent Work Habits

We’ve all known people who took it easy for weeks, then pulled an all-nighter to meet a deadline. Such inconsistent work habits are strong indicators that the individual is not attentive to processes. It also sharply raises the probability of errors in the frantic last-minute activities.

Willingness to Be Controversial

As the CEO, you need to make it very clear to the finance/accounting managers that you expect frank and honest information and that they will not be victims of “shoot the messenger” thinking. Once that assurance is given, your financial managers should be an integral part of your company’s management team. They should not be reluctant to express their opinions and concerns to you or to other department leaders.

Learn How Your Finance Department Can Inspire Growth

Almost all departments within all companies have an untapped ‘cognitive surplus’. A ‘cognitive surplus’ is the difference between the specific tasks an employee is assigned to do and what they actually are capable of doing – the actual versus the potential work.

It seems obvious, but to tap into it the ‘Cognitive Surplus’ can make a huge difference.

Companies such as 3M, Dell and Google have all implemented what is called ’20% time’ or ‘innovation time’ – one day of their working week, dedicated to whatever projects they like… provided it benefits the company in some way.

Does it pay off?

One might wonder: Does it pay off? Well, at Google this has resulted in successful projects such as Gmail, Google News and AdSense, and according to ex-employee, Marissa Mayer, as many as half of Google innovations are a result of ’20% time’.

But, while this approach might be considered something market leaders can utilise, many finance departments perceive they barely have the time to complete all the necessary work at present, never mind crafting new and innovative ideas, supporting procedures that aid business growth.

Yet finance departments really do need this ‘innovation time’.

In this slow and sometimes contracting economy, the next two years will be critical for businesses. It will fall largely on finance departments to walk the thin line between productive spending and managing a dwindling pool of resources. Additionally, with a host of new financial regulations coming into place in this two-year period, financial departments will be instrumental in helping businesses to remain compliant without losing their current standing.

This extra pressure and workload will make it difficult for finance to inspire new talent whilst holding on to the employees they already have. Finance professionals require stimulating challenges without being overloaded with extra work – they need ’20% time’ to effectively tap-in to their expertise, and not have their time consumed by lengthy, repetitive tasks – that can be automated.

How to make time for tapping into ‘Cognitive Surplus’ in the finance department

One way in which businesses can help free up some of their finance department’s time to complete tasks, is by automating the tedious and time-consuming tasks that turn prospective talent off finance work. Reconciliation is one such set of tasks that finance professionals find particularly tiresome and time consuming. Fortunately it is now possible to automate account reconciliation, processing hundreds of thousands of transactions in just minutes rather than hours or potentially days.

While significantly reducing reconciliation errors, automation also frees up large chunks of time that could be dedicated to maintaining compliance, providing strategic insight in this tough economy.

This additional time could even become the rarely considered ‘innovation time’ your business needs to inspire growth and stay competitive.