As more companies switch from using spreadsheets and other home grown point solutions to tools such as SAP BusinessObjects Planning and Consolidation (SAP BPC) to support their financial planning and consolidation processes, the means of supporting those processes has changed. Whilst the new tools are designed so they can be supported by Finance, it is unrealistic to expect there to be no need for IT support.
Sadly, in my experience, there is often a poor relationship between Finance and IT, characterised by a mutual misunderstanding and distrust. Sometimes, it is easy to forget that these two functions work for the same company. No wonder, then, that I have seen many cases where the support of finance planning and consolidation systems is just not working.
I have seen the support of these systems approached in the same way as the support of transactional financial systems, i.e. general ledgers or procurement solutions. Here, effective first line support can be provided by offshore resources as the processes involved are rigid, and have a clearly delimited and documented scope. The technical skills involved are in abundance to the point where they are a commodity and priced as such. Little financial domain knowledge is required to support the systems, especially if they are well documented.
Combining accounting experience and knowledge of IT systems
This doesn't work with planning and consolidation systems. Those systems are highly complex and flexible. Support of these systems requires a deep understanding of accounting - for example, if a user raises a support ticket because their balance sheet doesn't balance, combined deep accounting and systems knowledge is required to perform a root cause analysis. Such support tickets are frequent in planning and consolidation systems that are integrated with source ledger systems to provide actuals data and master data such as (e.g. charts of accounts).These systems must be constantly kept in line with their source systems and mappings etc kept up to date.
The lesson from this is that first line support must be brought into the finance function and dedicated "systems accountants" should be used to triage support tickets and perform root cause analysis on user errors. These should be the same people who own the planning or consolidation processes. In order to be really effective, as well as deep accounting knowledge, these systems accountants should be fully trained in all technical aspects of the tool in question and be able to perform the following tasks (I'm using SAP BPC terminology here):
Maintain users and authorisation profiles/ teams
Maintain BPFs and launch BPF processes
Maintain master data and mapping files
Launch imports of data from either flat files or SAP BW
Create and run reports in SAP BW and SAP BPC in order to reconcile data and identify mapping issues
Run data manager processes, e.g. copying, deleting data and other data manipulation tasks such as currency conversion and account transformations
Maintain account transformations and script logic
Maintain ownership, rates and business rules required for legal consolidation.
This is clearly quite a significant amount of activity and requires a deep understanding of the technical aspects of the tool and the peculiarities of the model that has been implemented.
What is the best way to acquire the right skills?
The answer is to involve the systems accountants who will ultimately support the solution from day one in the project. Don't just include them as part of the workshops to define the requirements, but get them involved in the build process as full time members on the project team. They should also attend formal training in the tool before the project starts in order to make this as effective as possible.
Does IT still have a role to play?
They do, but I would suggest it is limited to the following:
Governance of the change control process, transport of fixes etc.
Maintenance of underlying environment (e.g. for SAP BPC, this would be the SAP NetWeaver stack, database, operating system, physical/ virtual servers, network, and client tools installed on users PCs)
Support and maintenance of any SAP BW or ABAP developments
Technical root cause analysis, when an issue has been identified by the systems accountants as being not down to the configuration of the solution.
Finance must take the leading role in supporting the solution and ensure that the right blend of accounting and IT skills are present in first line support. Support of planning and consolidation systems must be approached in an entirely different way to the traditional IT approach of supporting transactional systems.