Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Expense management: Honing the double-edged sword



Ironically, growth and success can be a double-edged sword for small and medium-sized businesses. On the one hand, you're growing and hitting the milestones, which is a massive achievement, especially in today’s tough economy. On the other, quite quickly things that used to be simple and straightforward acquire added levels of complexity. All of a sudden, as the business owner or FD, you simply can’t be as hands-on and omniscient as you used to be.


It’s pretty daunting giving up some of this control, especially when it comes to something such as expenditure. Expense management, especially in the SME world, is really about procurement and “signing off” on expenditure before the money is spent. As your company grows, this becomes impractical. You as the business owner or manager need to focus on new business and growth strategies, rather than being tied to paperwork.


The only way to proceed is to start empowering the rest of the organisation to take ownership of some of these tasks. And to do this, you need to put the tools and processes in place — such as reporting, which, while reactive, will allow you to spot issues in a timely manner. And most importantly, you need to ensure everyone understands and buys into the big picture, and is able to align their goals with this overall strategy.


For instance, you need to make clear the difference between cutting expenses and managing expenses and tie this to overall company strategy.


A mid-level manager tasked with controlling spending might be wildly successful at that specific metric, when taken in isolation. And this might be wildly unsuccessful for your company as a whole when you consider things holistically.


For instance, collectively your mobile phone bill might be right down, which is great. But it’s not that great that customers are disgruntled because they are not being contacted in a timely manner, and so have taken their business elsewhere. On balance, that mobile phone bill saving suddenly doesn't look so rosy anymore, not when compared to the business you have lost.  And your middle manager? Well, they did what you asked them to do, especially if you didn’t provide them with any context.


I’ll admit, this is a pretty simplistic example — although unfortunately still a common enough occurrence. How often, as a customer, have you been inconvenienced to the point of defection through an obvious cost-cutting exercise? But now consider this in the context of the digital disruption the world is going through. Where doing more of the same is no longer going to cut it, and very soon you’ll find you are running to stand still.


It’s a world where, in order to save money and make money in the future, you need to spend money today. Moving to the cloud is the perennial example: without an investment in cloud infrastructure and capabilities today, you won't be able to offer the services and functionality demanded by your customers tomorrow.


In this scenario, being over budget is not necessarily a negative, provided you can explain it in terms of a bigger picture. So expenditure management is not always about minimising costs. Today, more than ever, it is critical to communicate your company strategy, tie it closely to individual goals and targets, and then give your people the tools to enable them to achieve their, and your collective, goals.


As published Accountingweb - 20 September 2017
https://www.accountingweb.co.uk/community/blogs/kevin-philips/expense-management-honing-the-double-edged-sword

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

What is the new normal?


There’s no doubt that the last 12 months have got most people muttering, ‘Well, truth is stranger than fiction, after all.’ It’s easy to get caught up in the mass, global Chicken Little, ‘the sky is falling in’ reaction to events such as the Trump election and the Brexit referendum.

We’re used to keeping an eye on the world to spot the trends, shifts, and Netflix series coming our way. But this can sometimes blind us to our unique experience living and doing business in Africa. Operating in change and uncertainty is our status quo. And, without wanting to glamourise the very real challenges Africa faces, the unintended consequence is that we’ve become extraordinarily resilient and adaptable – comfortable with not only riding out tectonic disruptions but also turning them into opportunities.

Here in South Africa we’ve been through a few pretty bumpy few years, to put it mildly. From musical chairs in our finance minister’s office, which wiped out around R500 billion in value from the economy and saw the rand go into free fall at the end of 2015; a yo-yoing petrol price; a 6,6% official inflation rate (many would argue the true inflation rate is double that!); and last but not least, a highly uncertain political landscape. Not to mention that, like the rest of the world, we are facing a massive period of digital disruption as we enter the fourth industrial economy. Change is quite literally our constant.

Today we need to tap into our inherent entrepreneurial savvy more than ever before. At all levels.

For instance, typically when you plan you set parameters and make some fairly significant assumptions: ‘Robots won’t be replacing my people in the next five years’; ‘The UK will still be part of the European Union’; ‘Smartphones aren’t going to become the biggest supplier of my product.’

Today, these assumptions are pointless! You can’t plan for the amount of disruption that is coming your way. And if you try, you risk baking a panicky, knee-jerk reaction into your numbers. At best, this would be inappropriate and regrettable when the dust settles. At worst, this approach becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Instead, ensure your planning and business strategy is responsive to change by looping in the view from the grass roots of your organisation. Head office might be running around like Chicken Little, but the people on the ground can often see the opportunities, and know where to hustle. That is why you employed them, after all.

Look for the opportunities. We are resilient and uniquely adapted to make things happen, so we should be relishing the potential presented by the turbulence in the world today!

Navigating the new normal
  • Realise you can’t begin to plan for the amount of disruption you are about to face.
  • Embrace the hustle like you’ve never done before.
  • Don’t codify a Chicken Little response – it may just come true.
  • Look for opportunities and don’t only focus on the threats.
  • Leverage our adaptability and resilience, the unintended consequence of ‘our normal’.
As published Accountancy SA - 1st September 2017
http://www.accountancysa.org.za/wordpress/viewpoint-what-is-the-new-normal/ 

Thursday, 7 September 2017

When your normal is change then change is opportunity


It's easy to get disruption fatigue when literally every article you read reminds you that digital disruption is here, and that if you are not doing something about it, you’ve already missed the bus

Well, I hate to say it, but you’ve not only missed the bus, but you’re missing the taxi-on-demand-service and are imminently going to miss the self-driving vehicle. Take Uber — the poster child for the disruption of traditional business, shaking up the centuries-old taxi industry. But, while Uber sorts out its internal culture issues, and figures out its relationship with its drivers, it is already getting a taste of its own medicine. Dubai is about to disrupt the disruptor with the announcement that it is launching driverless drone taxis this year.


So I think we can all agree that change is coming, it is coming fast and it is exponential. I could say: “like nothing we have seen before” but we have, consistently over the last generation. It is just getting faster!


However, operating in this amount of change and uncertainty is par for the course in Africa. And the consequence of our exposure to unrelenting and erratic change is a deep-seated entrepreneurial optimism, which I think is going to stand us in good stead. I’m writing this in the week that my country, South Africa, saw its president survive an eighth vote of no confidence in parliament. This is a reasonable reflection of the lack of confidence the country as a whole is suffering from, compounded by musical chairs in our finance minister’s office; a yo-yo-ing petrol price; and an official 6.6% inflation rate (which many would argue is far from realistic) and constant revelations of mismanagement, corruption and graft. Change is quite literally our constant.


We’ve become extraordinarily resilient and adaptable. Comfortable with not only riding out tectonic shifts, but also turning them into opportunities. With the uncertainty created by Brexit and Trump, the western world is learning the hard way how to challenge existing thought processes and adapt to an environment of continual change and uncertainty. It is not all bad and the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is a more versatile and adaptable management team, with a good dose of entrepreneurial spirit thrown in.


If your normal is change, then you should be well-prepared for making the most of digital disruption by looking for the gaps and the opportunities it presents. Because there are going to be opportunities. Take the arrival of the car at the start of the last century. For sure, businesses died as fewer horses were used: the grain industry faced ruin; and stables, farriers, trainers and other support services that had built up around horse-drawn vehicles saw a massive decline.


But other businesses emerged. Cars needed to be built and these cars needed tyres, fuel stations, etc. Proper roads had to be designed and built, as did road signs, pedestrian crossings and other infrastructure we take for granted.


How is this playing out in our finance world? Consider the automation of accountancy functions. Robots are simply better at doing tasks that are repetitive and rule-based. They are faster and more accurate than we are, and don't get bored or distracted. They are taking over some of the more repetitive functions in our firms, and at our clients, as accountancy software becomes more accessible.


So, as accountants, do we go the same way as the farriers and grain suppliers? Or are we agile enough to adapt to this new normal and look for the opportunities? For instance, with the flood of repetitive work taken care of, can we hone our critical thinking and problem-solving skills on behalf of our clients? Can we use our time analysing and assessing the real-time data we now have at our finger tips to give strategic input to our clients and support their planning and decision-making process? Can we develop our inter-personal skills now that we can leave the back office and interact with the rest of the firm as well as our clients? And can we review a few holy cows, for instance, what impact will blockchain technology have for us and our clients?


We have the opportunity to lead, not follow, the digital disruption. But we need to learn to be adaptive and hone those skills that were not perhaps at the top of the list: interpersonal skills, analysis, and a healthy and open minded view of what the future holds for us and our clients. We can lead or we can follow, but in tomorrow’s world there is little value to be added by being a follower.


As published Economia 17th August 2017
http://economia.icaew.com/en/tech-hub/when-your-normal-is-change-then-change-is-opportunity

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Holy cow, the robots are coming!


Back in the day, when I set out on some of my first auditing jobs, I was accompanied by a formidable team of comptometrists. Their fingers were a blur as they entered lines of numbers into their comptometers — for the younger generation who have likely never seen one, this was a huge, key-driven calculator — and added up the trial balances. In those days, the human was the final word in accuracy.

But by the 1990s comptometrists were a thing of the past. We had started trusting computers enough to run the numbers, and what needed double-checking were the systems that governed the computers, not the calculations themselves. And the comptometrists? Well, their role was made obsolete, not in a generation but virtually overnight. They needed to find a new space to apply their existing skills, or, retrain and stay relevant in a changed world. 

Thinking about succession planning today, this story keeps playing through my mind. Except today the changes we are experiencing are far more profound and fundamental, not to mention coming at us at an almost exponential rate. Take automation. Repetitive tasks don’t bore robots, they are faster and more accurate, they don't make mistakes and they don't take breaks; put simply they are just better than we are… at the routine tasks. It also means our clients, including small and medium-sized companies, through the use of technology, have the ability to do a lot more self-service accountancy work. 

In the same way the internal combustion engine drove (pun intended) the horse and cart off the road, robots, in this case software robots, are going to replace humans in your organisation sooner rather than later — on the factory floor as well as in the office. According to a PwC report, 30% of jobs in the UK are at risk of being replaced by robots and artificial intelligence in the next 15 years.

What does this mean for how we think about succession in our organisations? In the past, this meant ensuring the leadership had understudies waiting in the wings for their time to take the reins.  

But today — and I do mean today — succession planning needs to consider what happens to our people when part of their function is taken over by robots. We need to be putting a plan in place for our existing employees, and also hiring people that have the skills to adapt: not only to working with robots, but also to thriving at the functions that robots can’t do. Recruitment policies need to focus on ensuring organisations attract and retain the correct people, not necessarily for the skills they have today but for the ability and potential they have to adapt to the skills they will need tomorrow. 

Take strategic client relations. In an ideal world, with the repetitive work items picked up by robots, accountants will have more time to analyse the data, problem solve creatively and engage with your clients to help them grow their businesses. Suddenly an ability to establish trusted inter-personal relationships becomes essential. So that hard-as-nails accountant, the “human calculator”, who previously did incredible work in from the back office, but never ventured out to client meetings, may well become a square peg in a round hole. 

This is succession planning today. It’s about considering the functions that software will do for you, and then figuring out how to redeploy staff whose functions have fundamentally changed and they no longer fit. And hiring for the skills and talent-sets that you will need humans for.  

It’s in appreciating that some of our holy cows, the things we are the “experts” at, the production of accounts or even, potentially, the double-entry bookkeeping system, might be slain, and choosing to act like Darwin’s finches, adapting to new circumstances and thriving, rather than putting our head in the sand and hoping.

As published in Accountingweb – 22 August 2017



Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Digital Darwinism: it’s still adapt or die


Charles Darwin was right about survival depending on our ability to adapt. And never has this been more true than in the face of the digital revolution we are living through in the twenty-first century. While Darwin might have been speaking about adapting from generation to generation, today it feels like you need to adapt from month to month and day to day.  

Look at the taxi industry and Uber. Retail and Amazon. Publishing and Facebook. Hotels and Airbnb. 

Frighteningly, even these examples are dating. Amazon has already gone full circle and is expanding its bricks and mortar presence, armed with everything it has learnt about consumer behaviour in the digital world. Uber and its drivers are still figuring out their working relationship, but Dubai has announced it is launching driverless drone taxis this year. 

So where does that leave us, the accountants? We’re typically the conservative bastions of caution and risk-aversion in any company. Wielding the double-entry bookkeeping system for the last several centuries, we have, for the most part, kept businesses honest and solvent. But now even the double-entry system is being questioned in the world of blockchain and other decentralised, shared digital ledger systems.

The same thing applies to us, I’m afraid. Adapt or die. But bear in mind that adapting doesn't mean throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Adapting means understanding what needs to change in order to continue delivering value to your clients and your organisation. Look at Darwin’s finches on the Galapagos Islands, which, within one generation evolved larger and stronger beaks to find food during a prolonged drought. The birds adapted fast to their current reality, by optimising a function rather than replacing it all together. 

Likewise accountants need to look down the line and start shifting their position today — we are already seeing the impact of some of the changes brought about by digitalisation. Just like with the introduction of the internal combustion engine at the start of the previous century, there will be winners and losers. The “horseless cart” put an ecosystem built up around horse-drawn vehicles out of business, but enabled the growth of entirely new industries to support the automobile.  

The same is happening today. 

My advice? Step away from the spreadsheets, literally and figuratively. Step out of the shadows and reconnect with your colleagues at the coal face — they are the ones who know where the changes are coming from, can see the impact of these changes, especially the opportunities.  Open up the accounting process and empower your colleagues to collaborate with you. By doing so you’ll ensure that they have access to the numbers that impact their view of reality and in turn provide real input and value to your analysis of the numbers. This gives you an accurate picture, and creates buy-in and mutual benefit whether in the planning process or understanding the variances, when looking at actuals. You’ll stay connected and relevant, and by decentralising some of the accounting functions, you’ll free up your own time to be more strategic and adaptable. 

With the world changing so fast, the old rules no longer work but the new rules haven’t yet been developed!  This makes finance’s custodial role more difficult but even more important than ever before. Stay adaptable and you’ll be able to guide your clients and organisation ethically and prosperously through these opaque days; don’t and you will be one of Darwin’s casualties.

As published in Accountingweb – 27th July 2017


Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Lockdown Time Thieves

 

In my May article I suggested that one of the biggest challenges to innovation and business progress is simply finding the time to think, research, experiment and develop new ideas.
 
The notion of carving out 20% time, à la Google, is a pipe dream for most. So I thought it would be interesting to figure out what is keeping finance people so busy. 
 
To do this we held a snap survey of finance managers and administrators across a range of industries to find out what takes up their time, preventing them creating space for strategic review thinking.
 
The top three time thieves at budget/forecast time were investigations or enquiries from source, incomplete or incorrect data, and manual processes, while the top three time thieves at month-end reporting time were report compilation, manual processes, and investigations or enquiries from source. The top three time thieves at other times were ad hoc reporting requests, firefighting, and other ad hoc information requests. 
 
Interestingly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, there was no single time thief, which perhaps points to the complexity of the real world today, plus shows that there is not a silver bullet solution – companies need a fix that comprehensively tackles a web of challenges. 
 
Alarmingly, manual processes ranked in the top three for both budget/forecast time and during month-end reporting. Automation of these processes is the key not only to freeing up time in its own right, but it also results in timely, accurate data that you can confidently use for decision-making. In addition automation is the cornerstone for further innovation and new ways of working. 
 
What’s more, it looks like too much time is being spent on report compilation. This is a red flag because if you are spending your time compiling reports, you are not spending it analysing the information therein! 
 
Ad hoc reporting, information requests and firefighting also rank highly, though probably more understandably and, unfortunately, this is not an easy challenge to master. However, ad hoc reporting requests, in particular, are indicative of an un-empowered business that relies too heavily on finance to deliver and explain anything with a number in it. Consider how much time would be created by empowering the non-financial user through removing the frivolous queries, and freeing time for review and analysis.
 
The survey, though brief, did re-iterate that the key challenges we all face have not changed over the years. However, if we continue the status quo and fail to innovate, our relevance to the business will reduce and the spectre of robot replacement will become a reality. 
 
We are the principal architects of our own reality so it is time to start shaping our future! 
 
Unbusy your days
  • There’s no silver bullet for a complex challenge.
  • Automate, automate, automate – the tools to do so are out there.
  • If reports are taking up too much time, how can the data be timely?
  • Empowering the business will redefine our function from bean counting to strategic analyst.
  • The pace of change is only going to speed up, so start today.
  • We are the principal architects of our own reality, so it’s time to start shaping our future! 
 
As published ASA Magazine - July 2017
http://www.accountancysa.org.za/wordpress/viewpoint-lockdown-time-thieves/

Monday, 3 July 2017

The storm on the horizon for cloud computing


Like the wheel or the printing press, cloud computing is more exciting because of what it enables, rather than for its own sake. Much has already been written about what the cloud allows us to do: from launching new economy businesses such as Netflix and Airbnb, to saving money through processing elasticity, to gaining access to new services and capabilities.

And, despite security still being the number one concern when implementing cloud, we’ve recently been very starkly reminded how cloud-based infrastructure can be more secure than on-premise, thanks to the WannaCry ransomware attack and the unrelated catastrophic systems failure at British Airways. Both of these affected on-premise data.

For us, data security is just one of the many issues we deal with in running our varied businesses. A cloud provider’s business is data and its protection, so they should be better at it than you or me.

Too often we forget that, although the name sounds fluffy and intangible, cloud computing is based on some very real infrastructure, housed in complex, highly secure, and some might say, black box-esque, buildings very possibly located in a different country to you, your customers, and even your cloud provider.

This is where the red flag goes up. Not because sensitive private and personal data is being moved offshore though. Frankly, in terms of access, thanks to increasing bandwidth it is irrelevant whether your data is housed next door or on the opposite side of the planet.
 
Rather, a perfect storm is brewing as legislation attempts to catch up with technology and the globalisation of digital communications. In the balance is the protection of private and personal data, weighed up against a growing reliance on data, especially encrypted information, to predict and prevent acts of terror, and arrest those responsible.

The cloud spreads data around the globe, creating concerns around the protection of personal information, and as a result, a number of countries are legislating around this issue. In South African, for example, companies are required to comply with the newly legislated Protection of Personal Information (POPI) Act. This law brings us in line with global best practice when it comes to how private data is collected, processed, stored and shared by setting the conditions for how companies can legally handle information. The new law prohibits businesses from transferring personal information to a third party in a foreign country, unless they get consent at the time of gathering the information. So far, so good, if a bit of an administrative headache, especially in time of such rapid change.

However, in response to the recent atrocities and the use made of internet communications by terrorist organisations, there are moves afoot in the US to legislate that data stored by an American company — wherever it is stored in the world — is accessible, unencrypted, by US law enforcement. Or the discussion of reciprocal agreements that allow countries to gain access to information stored in each other’s geographies, or indeed, the newly passed “Snooper’s Charter” in the UK, which mandates onerous and illogical demands for hosting providers to leave backdoors in their encryption for government access. All of these step on or over the line of privacy of one’s data.

Hosting companies that aren’t US or UK organisations will simply move their operations to other countries where these agreements are not in place. But the reality is that the hosting giants are US companies, not to mention that the country contains much of the world’s internet infrastructure.

So where does this leave businesses around the world, wanting to realise the benefits of cloud computing, but also needing to comply with locally legislated laws such as the POPI Act? Are they and their customers simply excluded from the benefits, growth and innovation opportunities presented by the cloud? What is certain is that they will be looking very closely at the implications of their cloud decisions, and where and how their data is stored.

To be sure, the fight against terrorism is vital, but let's not also, in the process, destroy the cloud’s silver lining.