by Karen M. Kroll

Stuck in ‘Last Mile of Finance,’ CFOs Improve Things By Automating Them

Oct 17, 20114 mins
IT Leadership

Software helps companies deal with issues between when a transaction is captured, and the time that the report is required

In just four months on the job, Robert Fetterman, vice president of finance with the Oneida Indian Nation, based in Verona, N.Y., has chopped 20% off the time required to complete what’s come to be known as “the last mile of finance.” And he’s not done yet. At two previous companies, Fetterman was able to slash the function from 10-plus days, to fewer than three.

Achieving these reductions is akin to a manufacturer streamlining its cycle time, Fetterman says. While conventional wisdom had held that more time on the process equals higher quality, Fetterman has found that the opposite often holds true. “When you reduce the cycle time, you improve accuracy and cost because you have a more disciplined process,” Fetterman says. It also frees up the finance staff to work on higher-level projects, he adds.

The last mile of finance typically refers to “the activities that take place from the time a transaction is captured until the reporting or regulatory requirements are fulfilled,” according to Bob Pritchard, vice president of North American sales and marketing with software technology provider Trintech Inc. This can include transaction verification, reconciliations, journal entry and exception management, among other tasks.

Completing these jobs accurately is key, says John Colbert, vice president of research and analysis with BPM Partners Inc. “The risks of dropping the ball in the last mile can be significant.” Errors made by publicly held companies can mean having to restate results. For private companies, mistakes can put them in technical default on loan covenants, among other problems. And for either type of firm, of course, an erroneous management report can lead to all osrts of sub-optimal decisions.

Overlooked So Far

Even so, until recently this area often has been overlooked, as many finance departments focused first on automating such other processes as transaction and payroll systems. After closing the general ledger, the processes “kind of explode again,” says John Gimpert, partner and national leader, finance transformation, advisory services, for Deloitte & Touche LLP. Finance areas that used automated systems mainly for other, earlier functions often find that they need to develop volumes of one-off worksheets for analysis and reporting at the end of things.

While the activities making up this last mile may have been among the last to be automated, that’s steadily changing, Pritchard says. Many CFOs he’s talked with now rank such an overhaul as among the top five projects on their to-do lists. They recognize that their organizations are missing opportunities for time- and cost-savings, and that they take on risk if they lack visibility and control into these processes, he adds.

For that reason, some experts advise against outsourcing such operations. “You’re literally signing the document that could put you in jail,” according to Colbert. “You have to own the process.”

Mapping the Mile

Effectively automating at that late stage requires a holistic approach that encompasses people, data, best-practice processes and technology, Pritchard says.

The Oneida Nation’s Fetterman recommends mapping a detailed calendar of all activities that currently make up the last mile, and identifying those that can reasonably completed earlier. For instance, it may be possible to set an earlier deadline for the accounts payable group, even if not all bills have entered the system, and then accrue any that remain, if material.

As the time frame for completing the last mile is condensed, the staff should be instructed to place a priority on the activities that go into it, Fetterman says. When the work is spread over ten to 15 days, finance employees often continue to handle their other responsibilities; the overall process simply takes too long to make it a priority.

Another Job for Software

As more companies focus on automating the last mile, they can choose from an expanding array of technology offerings. What’s more, many of the system have been commercially available for several years, and thus can be considered stable, Colbert says.

The approaches being offered tend to be software-based, and can reside in the realm of cloud computing, says Beth Kaplan, Deloitte’s director for finance transformation services. Many solutions bolt on to a company’s ERP or other enterprise systems. As a result, while some investment typically is required, it tends not to be on the order of an ERP implementation.

The benefits of automating this function can include the cost savings resulting from greater efficiency, while also lowering the risk of reporting mistakes. But successful automation also gains management more timely insight into the company’s market and performance. Reducing cycle time, Fetterman says, also “is one of the most important ways to get the finance team to the next level.”

When the cycle time gets down to three days at his company, as his plan calls for, “our finance staff can move on to things that are more value-add” — such as analyzing performance.