Just before the holiday I hooked up with Elizabeth Milne, Birgit Starmanns and James Fisher from SAP to talk about their new book, ‘Accelerated Financial Closing with SAP’, which was published in the last quarter of 2013. Every time I’ve looked recently it shows as ‘out of stock’ on Amazon, which is always a good sign of demand exceeding supply. But as anyone who has written a technical accounting book knows, the reward is the reception you receive from your, often small, target audience, rather than the life-changing wealth that would be needed to adequately reflect the amount of time and effort involved in such a mammoth task. So, big respect everyone; now let’s get down to our discussion:
CFOK; Why did SAP bring out a book on the Financial Close now?
Birgit: SAP has published books on various aspects of the Financial Close before but these tended to be written for a single audience – the expert user – and to focus on a single SAP solution. But with the acquisition of the solutions from cundus AG in early 2011, that subsequently became SAP Disclosure Management and SAP Notes Management, SAP effectively covers all aspects of the Finance Close from core accounting in the SAP ERP Financials solutions right through to the ‘last mile of finance’ with report production and publication.
James: There’s more to come too. We touch on some of the newer technologies in the book such as the use of SAP HANA – the in-memory calculation engine – and how some corporate finance teams have already benefited from step changes in calculation speeds and productivity; about how mobile can be used to expedite some of the key stages in disclosure management and mention how the cloud is an increasingly attractive deployment option. But companies are only now starting to adopt these newer technologies in significant numbers and over the next few years I can see us publishing revisions of the book that include new solutions at various stages in the close process and lots of new customer stories where adopting in-memory, mobile and the like have delivered major benefits. For me, it’s a work in progress that will need new editions over the coming years.
Elizabeth: Don’t forget regulation is always changing too. Although many have already done a lot of preparation, corporate finance teams based in North America are still waiting for the Securities and Exchange Commission to decide on the adoption and timing of IFRS – and there is increasing momentum behind Integrated Reporting, which will bring another dimension to the close as few companies to date have addressed sustainability as part of their routine financial reporting. We discuss these trends in the book but once they hit, we will certainly need to rewrite some key sections.
CFOK: What makes this book different from others?
Birgit: We structured the book around three factors – Process, People and Technology – starting with an overview of all the different stages involved in the Financial Close, before stepping through each one in detail; covering the roles and responsibilities of the various people typically involved at each stage of the process and the software solutions needed to automate and expedite each step and how it all fits together into an integrated process.
Choosing that structure did mean we had some challenges to address, particularly where SAP offers a choice of solutions for various stages of the close such as with SAP Financial Consolidation or SAP Business Planning and Consolidation for consolidation and reporting. But reading through the finished book now, I think readers will get enormous benefit from the way we’ve structured the book and the detailed discussion of how various factors influence the choices that need to be made between overlapping solutions.
Elizabeth: The people issue is an important consideration though. Besides the accounting and finance people involved at individual stages of the process, we also wanted the book to be of value to people from the IT side of the house, who might not need to immersed in the detail of each stage, but need to know how to diagnose issues across the entire end-to-end process, contribute to the discussion on selecting the most appropriate software solution to address the particular pain point, and know how to go about building a compelling business case to secure any necessary investment. So some chapters take a helicopter view of the process, while others, such as the chapter on disclosure management, which was a completely new SAP offering at the time we wrote the manuscript, is definitely a deep dive as we think that’s what most readers will want. But even then, we’ve shied away from slavishly replicating the type of content you find in a user manual. There’s little value in that.
James: The customer cameos are also an important element of the book in that they allow readers to see that the issues they might be experiencing themselves are far from unique; to understand something of the thinking process customers went through when selecting a particular solution and how it fits into their overall IT landscape – and to have some quantified proof of the type of improvements that their peers are achieving. This is all extremely useful material for building a business case and for developing a timetable for continuous improvement. Knowing where to look for quick wins and how to prioritize implementation initiatives can save a lot of frustration and wasted effort.
CFOK: Finally, what were the high points and low points of writing the book?
Elizabeth: Well it’s not something that you can do during the normal working day; you have to be prepared to sacrifice weekends for a while and take advantage of any spare evenings.
Birigit: Keeping ourselves aligned with each other to ensure we didn’t repeat content unnecessarily initially took some coordination, but the most time-consuming thing for me was having to go back and revise what I’d already written to incorporate changes such as more recent research findings; additional functionality in newer versions of software and constantly changing regulation – to say nothing of how rapidly the newer technologies were coming along during the months we were actually writing.
James: As we’ve already said, it’s a work in progress. I’m sure we all learnt a lot during the months we were writing the book – I know I did – and I’m confident that we will find tackling the next edition less daunting. But perhaps not just yet though.
CFOK: Thanks everyone.