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INFLUENCE: Automation simplifies the last mile for integrated reporting

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Producing an integrated report can be a tedious and stressful affair, but automated tools are becoming available.

Most organisations have sophisticated intelligence and analytical tools in place for planning, budgeting, forecasting and consolidation, also known as the ‘first mile of reporting’. However, when compiling monthly and annual reports, all data is initially extracted from Excel spreadsheets or Word documents and compiled manually. This ‘last mile of reporting’ is a vital task but is often seen as one of as the most challenging as it is dominated by time-intensive, error-prone manual processes. With the recommendation of King III for all listed organisations to include sustainability, corporate social responsibility (CSR) and other transformation issues (along with traditional financial and business matters) into an integrated report, this task has become more onerous.

While financial reporting is done on a monthly basis, the components of the integrated report are often compiled only once a year. The manual complexities and time consuming nature of these reports can further complicate the process. However, by automating the last mile of reporting the finance office can greatly reduce pressures associated with preparing internal and external (monthly or annual) reports. Automation removes the manual complexity of processes, assists with the integration of various reports and increases efficiency, which drives the timely completion of one of the company’s most labour-intensive operations. It also enables reports about transformation and sustainability issues to be compiled on a more regular basis, for enhanced risk management and simplified reporting.

Collecting and collating data from structured sources into financial reports has always been a challenging task. Requirements for integrated reporting add further complications, requiring information to be pulled from various unstructured sources. Manual processes create version control and accuracy complexities, which are often time consuming and inefficient. The dominance of manual processes in reporting creates an increased risk of human error, with issues around data validation and accuracy often emerging. The number of different parties involved in compiling integrated reports, coupled with tight deadlines, many iterations before final sign-off, last minute changes and a lack of version control, leads to a highly stressful environment. This is compounded by a lack of workflow and audit trail control. There is often no control over who has access to the documentation and when they can access it, resulting in problems tracking low-level changes. All of this adds up to a lack of process transparency, document uniformity and synergy, with no evidence of compliance.

Automating the last mile makes both financial and business sense. Sophisticated solutions are available to improve not only efficiency of report delivery but also the efficiency of their generation and the quality and accuracy of the end product.  Implementing a secure enterprise-scalable reporting and analysis solution that leverages tools such as Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint (that are already in use within the organisation) offers a number of advantages. By providing direct access to source data, these solutions enable data and analysis to be dynamically and automatically updated in reports. Last mile reporting tools provide a powerful collaborative environment with workflow and task management, audit trails, validations and reference variables, as well as embedded controls, security and validation. These also enable organisations to easily publish highly consumable reports and analysis, in multiple output formats, more quickly and efficiently than ever.

Automating data collection cycles reduce the time usually taken to compile information and increases the time available for analytics, thus enhancing reporting process value. A controlled multi-author environment enables organisations to work collaboratively and harness team insights. Integration with data sources ensures consistency of information across reporting, and real-time data updates make certain that the latest information is always included in reports without the need for manual intervention, reducing the risk associated with human error. Workflow and task management tools provide greater visibility into every step of the process, creating an audit trail for control and compliance purposes. These tools also provide the ability to create the content once and automatically update the content across multiple reports for each reporting period. Once the framework has been established, the report can be easily updated, without starting from the beginning again.

While there are many benefits to using these tools, when adopting new technology it is necessary to clearly define the scope of the report. Powerful tools offer organisations the ability to include far more analysis and granular depth than ever before, but it is also important to ensure that the content of integrated reports is relevant and material. The purpose of the integrated report is to deliver information to stakeholders in a concise manner. Without including this step, reports can become long and unwieldy, adding unnecessary complexity to the reporting process and deterring stakeholders from accessing the information they require.

Last mile reporting automation and analysis tools can be hugely beneficial to organisations, improving the speed, efficiency and quality of integrated reporting. However, as with any powerful analysis and reporting software, it is important to ensure that the information generated is relevant by assessing the importance of and prioritising this information. The purpose of reporting – to inform stakeholders – should always be kept front of mind, and all information included in the report should be relevant and material to this purpose.

Tiani Annadale is Senior Consultant at Cortell Corporate Performance Management

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