Today’s finance organizations are riddled with stressful manual processes. It’s no surprise that CFOs are increasingly worried about undetected errors (especially their own), inefficient workflow, lack of collaboration and accountability.

Last minute changes and inconsistent information are two principal causes for errors. Too many finance functions rely on information collected during in-person meetings, and on data pulled from more than six different sources.

Manual processes are however not the only problem. Multiple contributors, compliance demands and mounting deadlines also add to the stress.

So, how can you best manage your external reporting process, eliminate errors and allow your finance team to sleep well?

Herding cats
Producing company results is a time consuming and highly stressful exercise that unfortunately does not end when financial statements get approved. There is still the process of communicating the results to your stakeholders, from the executive team to the board of directors, investors and regulators.

And they want more than just accurate numbers. They also want to read the story that the numbers tell about the business. If this weren’t enough, each stakeholder has a different point of view and this makes it challenging and potentially risky to meet the needs of everyone.

Communicating with external stakeholders involves different departments across a company, from finance to HR, risk, IT, etc. and can take different forms that can either be a press release, an investor deck or a board book.

When data is manually inserted into a system, there is always a degree of risk involved. If numbers from disparate, incompatible operating systems or applications need to be recombined into another, versioning issues arise. Questions may be raised concerning accuracy and even the objectivity of data may come into question if it passes through too many layers of hands.

It’s the finance team’s responsibility to pull together all the data from the various departments. The problem is, finance doesn’t own the data so tracking it down can be time consuming and error-prone.

Workflows and audit trails increase accountability and decrease risk. It is therefore essential to give the content and consumers of your reports alignment, accuracy and confidence.

Make it repeatable
The worst part of the reporting process is that is has to be done over and over again. It’s not a one-off operation but instead happens every month and every quarter. It’s a time consuming, manual and repetitive process that takes away from other value-added activities.

The reliance on manual processes can lead to a lack of data consistency and control. And with regulatory mandates intensifying the need for change, having the right systems and processes in place in the form of a reliable, unified corporate performance management platform, can be the solution to reporting process headaches and a cure for CFOs sleeplessness.

The right platform shouldn’t require major technology investments or significant process redesign as you should be able to easily map it into your existing IT architecture.

Automating your reporting process means having one source for multiple reports, one database for accuracy and consistency, a repeatable process that saves time and resources, the financial intelligence to ensure accuracy and workflow to manage many people across many departments.

An effective unified system should enable all the above allowing you to communicate your numbers to all your stakeholders accurately, timely and simply and, by doing so, to reduce your financial reporting risks. Automate and turn your data into a winning reporting process for your company.

John Hancock/Manulife case study

Donald Guloien, chief executive officer of Manulife Financial Corp., speaks during an interview in New York on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2015.
Donald Guloien, chief executive officer of Manulife Financial Corp., speaks during an interview in New York on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2015. Bloomberg

The challenge
Manulife, a financial services group based in Canada, acquired U.S. insurance leader John Hancock in 2004 to become one of the largest insurance companies in the world. With different processes and regulations in North America, it was increasingly difficult to manage all of the reporting, so in 2011 the organization began to focus on how to improve financial reporting processes across entities. Challenges included multiple reporting requirements and a reliance on manual processes. For example, data provided by decentralized business units for the same footnote needed to be consolidated manually. To add to the complexity, finance teams in each country were using different processes. The Canada team used embedded Excel files while the U.S. team manually updated all numbers and text, resulting in an inconsistent financial statements reporting process. Another problem was that only one user at a time could update a document.

The objectives
In September 2011, the company formed a project team to identify a set of goals and begin the search for an automated reporting solution. The plan was to implement a solution in 2012 for the John Hancock unit in the United States and roll out to parent company Manulife in 2013.

The team’s overarching objective was to simplify the financial reporting process. A critical goal was to create one source of the truth for producing all financial statements. The reporting solution also had to integrate with Lawson’s general ledger system. The project team also wanted to ensure consistency and standardization across all financial reports without error-prone and time-consuming manual work.

The solution
In January 2012, the company selected a collaborative disclosure management (CDM) solution with advanced functionality.
In March 2012, the team documented and reviewed business requirements and implemented the CDM in a test environment. Next, the team began testing, building reports and training. The company also established a working group of super users, including IT and financial reporting personnel.

In May 2012, the CDM software was officially implemented. Leveraging the existing Lawson general ledger system and Essbase database management system, the team created a second data mart so that all financial information could be uploaded into a central repository. Over the following months the project team focused on generating nine reports, which included multiple sets of audited US GAAP statements, audited statutory reports which are filed with insurance regulators and National Association of Insurance Commissioner (NAIC), and unaudited footnotes included in regulatory filings with insurance regulators and NAIC. Within six months, the company had trained staff, created all requirements and started generating financial statements.

In early 2013, the organization began using the CDM for additional John Hancock reports, including multiple sets of management discussion and analysis (MD&A) required by the NAIC and insurance regulators as well as internal quarterly management reporting for the audit committees and board of directors. By the end of 2013, 96 people at John Hancock were accessing the software and the finance team was producing reports involving three different basis of accounting methods and 15 legal entities.

In addition, Manulife began using the CDM to produce its annual and quarterly interim financial statements. By early 2014, Manulife was also using the CDM for the MD&A in its quarterly reports to shareholders and for its press releases.

Today, John Hancock/Manulife has a central repository for all financial reporting information. The data collection process is much simpler and the organization has a more controlled environment where users know exactly where to go. The CDM also allows to continuously monitor the data with built-in checks to make sure it balances before anything is uploaded from the general ledger.

Processes are much more streamlined and standardized. For example, business areas have standard templates that allow them to update their data during the quarterly or annual close process, resulting in greater consistency across financial statements.

The organization has developed a very strong group of expert users on North America’s finance teams. The group’s efficiency has helped expedite the management review process and has significantly reduced reporting time. For example, the team was able to issue John Hancock’s 2013 financial statements four days earlier than issued in 2012.

Going forward, the project roadmap includes leveraging the CDM’s linking functionality between various Manulife reports and utilizing the software’s XBRL capabilities and implementing new job scheduling functionality. So many reports run back-to-back and these can take 15 to 30 minutes each to run. The CDM helped create a scheduling function that actually will allow jobs to run overnight. When the team arrives in the morning, financial statements will be updated and ready for management to review.

Nick Nesbitt

Nick Nesbitt is managing director at Tagetik UK.