It’s not just about the snow.

Whilst many parts of the business have gradually migrated to remote and flexible working, the finance team has remained trapped as the last bastion of an office based department – a fact that could have caused considerable disruption during the recent bad weather. Yet, if you have little or no cash or cheques to bank, is there really any reason why finance cannot also benefit from a different way of working? Why does the Finance Manager need to be in the office to analyse cash flow or complete management accounts? Surely the ability to work from anywhere would enable not only a more productive team but also facilitate a real change in working practice that can help finance deliver quantifiable business added value. Mike Risley, Commercial Director, Nolan Business Solutions, explains how organisations can leverage Software as a Service (SaaS) to transform the efficiency and effectiveness of the finance team whilst also safeguarding the business against weather, strikes and ill health.

Reducing Risk

Minimising the cost of lost business due to bad weather, flu epidemic or travel problems has become a pressing issue in recent years. Indeed, it is estimated that the bad weather in December 2010 cost the UK economy approximately £1 billion per day according to the Centre for Economics and Business Research*, while the travel chaos caused by the Icelandic volcano eruption earlier that year also had a significant impact on business, and the annual flu epidemic is making itself felt keenly throughout the winter. The impact of extended staff absence within the finance team can be significant. What organisation can risk damaging cash flow because key credit control processes have been missed; delay raising customer orders or invoices; or fail to complete the month end management accounts on time because 50% of the finance team is stuck at home looking after unwell spouses and/or children? Of course, it has been possible to provide staff with remote access to key systems such as finance for some time. Using a Virtual Private Network and thin client technology, employees can hook into the corporate network from outside the office environment. The problem is that this requires a significant investment, a sustained commitment from the IT team and complex security definitions and design.  For most organisations, the cost benefit equation has been hard to prove, and in this financial climate, the capital investment tough to justify.

Hosted Model

The growing shift away from on premise systems towards a hosted model and the adoption of Software as a Service (SaaS) fundamentally changes the equation. Organisations can significantly cut the IT overhead by simply getting the infrastructure hosted by a third party in a secure, well managed data centre. However, there is still an overhead associated with the initial system design which may deter some organisations. An investment in SaaS, in contrast, removes all of these technical issues. Under the SaaS model, vendors are maintaining applications ‘in the cloud’, so there is no need for organisations to ever install systems internally. These applications can be securely accessed by users from any location with Internet access; there is no need to make any investment in complex remote access technology. With a simple web browser, any member of the finance team can have access to key information such as invoices, credit records and payment transactions at any time or place via phone, PDA or laptop. This will enable remote working from home in the event of bad weather, flu epidemic or transport disruption. It will also provide a platform for increasingly important flexible working practices, enabling organisations to meet employee demands for part office/ part home working, for example. Indeed, the ability to minimise business loss and enable flexible working combined with the fact that with the SaaS model there are no additional IT costs or internal infrastructure change, means the investment is likely to be repaid extremely rapidly.

Proactive Service Delivery

However, it is important to recognise that the adoption of SaaS can facilitate far more than simply enabling flexible and remote working. Any time, anywhere secure access to information provides the chance to fundamentally transform business practices. With real time access to systems, individuals can analyse information, find out what happened with a customer or ascertain the cash position – whether they are at home, on the train or in a hotel. In practice this can transform productivity. There is no need, for example, for the FD to return to the office from an off site meeting to complete the management accounts and analyse the cash position. Invoices can be approved, orders authorised and customer credit limits changed from anywhere, enabling far more productive and effective working. With all staff able to access the relevant information from diverse locations any time, organisations can ensure far better resource utilisation across the finance team.  With this approach there should be no delay to responding to customer/supplier inquiries that could affect payment and hence cash flow, for example, or delay to key corporate purchases due to authorisation problems. Adopting the SaaS model also provides the chance to become far more proactive, for the finance team to begin to deliver quantifiable value to the business. Rather than relying on intermittent access to financial reports, senior management can leverage the SaaS model to securely access daily, even hourly, cash flow positions; understand recent order history; or flag up any department that has gone over budget.

Organic Change

This is a significant shift in working practice for the finance team and making this cultural change will always be a challenge. The good news is that SaaS enables the change to be evolutionary and attained without demanding any massive upheaval. With an on premise system, any change in the way the finance team interacts with the business has to be planned, designed and implemented. It requires a considerable project and significant IT and management intervention. In contrast, once individuals have real time, anywhere anytime access to information via SaaS these changes just begin quite naturally to evolve without any requirement for corporate strategy or planning meetings. This progressive adoption of technology will get rid of the fundamental bottlenecks in business processes and provide a catalyst for change. Critically it will enable finance to shake off traditional constraints and begin to evolve from corporate cost centre to business enabler. *
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