5 biggest challenges controllers face—and how to take control

Make smart plans to address the obstacles of a data-driven age.
By Lou Carlozo

Even as technology revolutionizes how companies do business, the division of labor at many organizations still goes something like this: Finance watches all the digits, while IT watches all things digital. Convincing both sides to meet in the conference room and get on the same page isn't as easy as you might hope—and represents one of five major issues facing today's controllers, according to a new KPMG report.

According to the report, more than half of the 202 U.S.-based corporate controllers surveyed said silos still exist between finance and IT—creating major barriers for those wanting to move beyond the traditional controller role and provide greater value to their companies. These findings are contained in The Transformative Controller: Adding Value, Insight and a Bridge to the Future, developed by KPMG and conducted by Forbes Insight.

Other prominent challenges the controllers highlighted include a lack of tech-savvy personnel (41%); increasing demands for more data and analysis (38%); lack of executive buy-in (36%); and budgetary constraints (34%).

Let's examine how controllers can address those five areas productively:

Breaking down the silos: Project management teams

"Controllership and IT need to have a strategic partnership," said Beth Kaplan, CPA, managing director of the Deloitte Center for Controllership. "We've seen an increase in collaboration among these functions as the need for more efficient and effective processes has intersected with demand for greater insights from controllership. This requires improved leverage of existing and new technologies that improve productivity and control over finance processes while enabling advanced analytics."

Formal project management teams can improve communications issues between finance and IT, and might also include representatives of HR and operations, said Roger O'Donnell, CPA, KPMG partner and U.S. and global leader of data and analytics, audit.

Finance and IT can also break down barriers by teaching each other new technologies, and how to best apply them, as innovations come online and established technologies change at breakneck speed.

Another strategy is to make it clear that errors in the accounting and financial reporting system can't be fixed unless both sides help each other. "While there is always some level of shared culpability, it's critical for finance to be able to articulate and pinpoint these downstream issues," said Thomas Bonney, CPA, founder and managing director of CMF Associates, which provides financial and operational consulting and executive recruiting services to private equity firms and middle market companies. With improved communication, he said, IT and finance can take a team approach to correcting problems.

Tech savvy personnel: Look to digital pros in your workforce

To meet the demand for talent well-versed in finance and IT areas, seek out the technically skilled among your current employees, as well as turning to Millennials. "The good news is that the tech-savvy Millennial generation is quickly becoming the majority in the workforce," said Randy Garrison, CPA, CGMA, vice president of line of business finance at SAP. "This means personnel who can bring speed, automation, and digital conveniences to your business are ripe for the picking."

Finding such talent marks a starting point for keeping up with data and analysis, though the remaining obstacles are formidable. "Alongside advancing technology, corporate reporting complexity and volume has skyrocketed," said Myles Corson, markets leader, EY Americas Financial Accounting Advisory Services.

Corson cited a recent EY survey of 1,000 finance leaders in which 48% reported having to comply with more than 10 sets of reporting standards, while a third work with 16 or more reporting systems. O'Donnell said, "Those who remain ahead of the newest technology tools—and can leverage them better than others in the marketplace—will have a competitive advantage."

Keeping up with data: Welcome to the warehouse

Bonney stressed that to manage data in an efficient way, "there needs to be a data warehouse"—that is, a central repository used to gather, integrate, and analyze data. It's the core of financial intelligence for smart business decisions.

Be careful how you prepare that data for presentation, though, or you may wind up making more work for yourself. "Make sure you present information in a format that's easy to digest so readers can quickly understand trends and issues. If executives don't understand what they are looking at, they will ask for more data to try to make some sense of it." 

Executive buy-in: Speak their language of ROI

To win executive buy-in, controllers need to demonstrate a return on investment in technology and personnel that advances the organization's goals in clear-cut ways, Corson pointed out.

"Many organizations have spent millions of dollars on technology to mine and manage data but achieved disappointing returns," Corson said. "This is often because they spend relatively little on drawing actionable insights out of the data and convincing people to use them—that is, the human element of analytics."

Budgetary constraints: Life is cheaper in the cloud

"Cloud technology disrupts the old way of buying IT, not only because it eliminates the risk profile but it is also inherently elastic, scalable, and pay-as-you-go," said Jim McGinnis, vice president, Intuit Accountant Segment. "The financial risk of moving into the cloud is now so small that it becomes incredibly attractive compared to the risks of buying IT infrastructure that quickly becomes outdated." McGinnis added, "There's no need to buy and download new software each year."

To be sure, controllers will have varying degrees of success addressing each challenge area. But if you must pick one area to start, consider breaking down those walls that separate finance and IT and building something new. "Historically, controllers and IT departments have stayed in their own lanes, keeping a laser focus on their respective areas," Garrison said. "But as the digital economy continues to demand faster, deeper insight, finance is being called on to find these new solutions. Senior financial executives need to collaborate with their operational peers for optimal security and performance."

Lou Carlozo is a freelance writer based in Chicago. To comment on this article, contact Chris Baysden, senior manager of newsletters at the AICPA.

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