By Tatiana Walk-Morris
As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to roil the economy, one issue that remains top of mind for decision makers is labor.
First, companies are dealing with a shortage of qualified employees. Then there’s the move to hybrid work, which has disrupted established processes.
The Great Resignation hasn’t helped matters either. Now, an organization’s best people are more liable to leave jobs on short notice, which affects business continuity and operational resiliency.
When companies need to do more with less and higher workforce volatility is a given, streamlining operations is crucial to success. Here’s how organizations can make accounting and finance functions more efficient.
Optimizing Processes Using Automation
Automation is especially critical now because companies want to ensure that workflows are as simple as possible in case employees get sick or leave for other jobs, says William Watts, managing principal of consumer markets at the accounting, consulting and technology firm Crowe.
In addition, automation helps accounting departments pivot away from repetitive manual tasks, freeing employees up to perform higher-value work. “That’s something that efficiency-minded chief financial officers are eager to see happen,” Watts explains. “More companies are eliminating manual or entry-level processing of data in the accounting and reporting areas,” he says. “They’re turning to automation or third-party providers, or they might purchase a cloud-based technology tool that they can bolt on or integrate.”
“Often, companies already have automation solutions at their disposal, but they aren’t using them effectively,” says James Hannan, managing director in accounting advisory at Crowe. So companies’ first task is to inventory what they already have. If, for example, the accounting department uses invoicing software, companies should check if the software includes optical character recognition that can scan and process invoices, which could reduce manual processing chores for the accounts payable team.
Next, companies need to expand their capabilities, Hannan explains. Rather than requesting document reviews via email, companies could use other available cloud-based applications to securely review that information and simplify their workflows. Cloud accounting platforms can also speed up the account reconciliation process and help eliminate human error.
Not that technology is a magic bullet. “Organizations have to figure out where best to use tech and recognize its limitations,” Watts says.
“Manual or human intervention will still be necessary to dissect and solve quick problems that automation can’t,” he adds.
Harnessing Business Intelligence
Integrating business intelligence solutions into accounting and financial reporting processes allows companies to analyze oceans’ worth of data quickly.
“More and more data needs to be analyzed, and it’s just not humanly possible to do that with old methods,” Watt says. Cloud-based analytics business intelligence tools can “pull information from all the different systems that companies might be using and organize it in an intelligent way,” Hannan adds.
Integrating cloud-based analytics can yield a more transparent view into operations and become a resource that company leaders and employees alike can mine to make good decisions, such as when to increase inventory or hire more employees.
“Accountants and finance professionals are used to crunching historical data and producing reports, and now they’re being asked to make decisions and provide input,” Watt says. Analytics solutions can relieve them from “spending too much time cranking through information” and free them up for creative thinking.
Confronting The Labor Shortage With Tech
If technology can transform organizations’ internal functions, it can also help them outsource numerous functions.
Fixed asset management is one function that companies have been outsourcing in the interest of getting leaner and more resilient, Watts says.
To give just one example, acquiring lighting for a warehouse, logistics center or office building on an as-a-service basis can be good for the bottom line, transforming capital expenditures into operating expenses and relieving organizations of the maintenance burden and the need to employ maintenance staff. This approach allows companies to concentrate on other value-added parts of their strategy, and it’s one that Watts expects organizations to continue to leverage.
Today’s cloud-based work technologies can help organizations beat the labor shortage by making it possible to hire new talent from various geographies. As Hannan points out, companies today have access to a national, if not a global, talent pool.
Getting Buy-In From Employees
What about the cultural effects of introducing efficiency-driving technology within an organization? Discussion of outsourcing and optimization can, understandably, generate anxiety among employees.
It shouldn’t. Watts says that executives need to make clear that new solutions are not about layoffs but instead about improving an organization for the benefit of all its stakeholders.
Hannan concedes that introducing tech can make people nervous. “Every time I’ve worked on any kind of process improvement or transformation project,” he says, “the first things we have to overcome are the fear aspect and getting cultural acceptance.” Leadership can take steps to make sure that “everybody understands that as we make improvements, everybody benefits.”
Deployed correctly, the next generation of automation and business intelligence technology can help create easier and more productive work for everyone while also helping organizations prevail in a challenging labor landscape.
Tatiana Walk-Morris is a Detroit-born, Chicago-based freelance writer specializing in business and technology.
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