This is part one of two articles written by Della Hudson, a chartered accountant, business owner, bestselling business author and industry speaker.
The team at SAP Concur recently shared new research they conducted with Oxford Economics with me, as they know that the interaction between finance and technology is my sweet spot. The findings point to a greater need for these two functions to work closer together in light of the changes to business operations in the last few years.
Collaboration between functions
The idea that there needs to be more collaboration between finance and IT makes complete sense to me. As accountants we are very good at understanding systems. There is an input, some sort of process, and then an output. The process in the middle is often a technological one and usually falls into the IT realm.
For this reason IT responsibility often sits with the Finance Director as it has with me in a few previous roles. We have an overview of the system but the IT department understand the detail. When I switch on a light I know what I expect happen. In this case a physics A level and some general knowledge means that I have a broad understanding of what happens between the light switch and the light bulb but the electrician is the real expert who understand the whole process and makes it happen.
The research shows a clear need for better collaboration between functions. But what does that mean in reality? I was fortunate enough to do a stint in IT support for the finance dept of a large business. We had a team of four accountants and five IT guys to support 100 accountants and 1000 engineers/users. Most of our role seemed to be acting as interpreters between the accountants and the techies; both professions with their own well developed jargon. As a team we were able to combine our expertise to understand the accountants’ problems and requests and convert them into detailed programming requirements. We would then do the first level testing and training before releasing the change into the relevant department for further testing and then a live rollout.
Smaller businesses may not be able to commit this amount of resource but an accountant who has done any sort of coding will understand how a programme flows logically, irrespective of the language. Technology companies are also increasing the number of people who can liaise with users in plain English. This is a real skill that has grown as both finance and IT have come to understand their real value is not just in what they do but in understanding the business and how they can make a relevant and positive difference. There are also specialist app integrators who can provide expertise and a team to implement new technology in smaller businesses.
There is often a culture of working in silos or a belief that knowledge is power. But the best teams have people who are able to liaise with other departments to understand their needs and to provide simple explanations of possible solutions. What used to be called soft skills are becoming key business skills. Individuals are learning the value of these communication skills but we are also building more diverse teams that will naturally include a broader range of such skills.
Successful implementation of technology
So what does this mean in the real world? How can we use this collaboration to benefit our businesses?
Small multi-disciplinary teams will provide the best outcome when implementing technology. These can be made up of internal staff, consultants and representatives from the software supplier, such as SAP Concur solutions. Six to eight is an easy number to coordinate but never more than twelve in meetings if you want to achieve anything.
There will need to be representatives from the user community who will become your testers and future superusers. They will want ease of use and flexibility to do their normal job better or more easily. If the software and training provides them with this then they will become your ambassadors for the project within their own departments as they will be able to explain the benefits to their colleagues. This will encourage take up amongst those who dislike change. Every user wants to know what’s in it for them.
Finance will need to ensure that the software meets all their needs for compliance and management information as well as protecting the assets of the business with sufficient security. Too often finance will work in isolation with a compliance mindset but they should look for other benefits to the business too.
Obviously there will be a need for IT resource to integrate any hardware and software requirements and to support it on an ongoing basis. Although they may not be users they will need to have an overall view of what the software does.
The implementation team will also be responsible for testing, training, and ongoing support. Training should start with the superusers so that they can understand and test the system thoroughly. There is a benefit to involving professional trainers or in getting some of your project team properly trained as trainers. Whilst initial training will need to be given before users have access to the live system it is helpful to have a second training session soon after the ‘go live’ date when users can ask specific questions and the superusers can share hints and tips.
The users, finance and IT departments will all have different testing requirements so these will need to be coordinated. It may be possible to run one dataset to cover all the tests or it may be easier to use several datasets. These will be coordinated through IT in one or more ‘sandpit’ test systems. All testing should be planned and documented to ensure that nothing is missed.
Whilst calls can be handled through the IT helpdesk system it helps to have super users in each dept who have a deeper understanding of the technology. This is where the multidisciplinary support team of which I was a part was so strong as we all knew different aspects of the software but, more importantly, we also knew who to ask about a particular issue that wasn’t our area of expertise. There is nothing worse for the user than being passed from department to department or person to person for what may seem, to them, a simple query. This should all happen behind the scenes so that the user receives the right answer from the right person in the shortest possible time. You should also be building your support manual with the FAQs.
Having the right software to support your business will provide useful, timely information to decision makers during periods of uncertainly. This digital transformation should be carried out by a cross-function team from finance, IT and end users. This collaboration will give you the best outcome when it comes to implementation and support. The Oxford Economics and SAP Concur research explains why this is so important in companies throughout the UK and more globally.