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The Consolidation & Reporting function faces many problems making it difficult to fulfill its prime mission of producing reliable figures and data. The Consolidation & Reporting activity employs processes, an information system (IS) – and men and women – all of which require regular adaptation to guarantee data quality.

In the ongoing data deluge now referred to as «Big Data», this task of delivering high-quality, reliable, understandable data is becoming increasingly complex.

Yet investors want greater transparency, legislators demand more non-financial data (HR or QHSE metrics for instance), and managers need reliable, realistic budget forecasts. The data sources exploited (ERP, business intelli­gence decision support systems, etc.) must be reliable and of good quality.

The human factor is the main risk to Data Quality

In reality, very often data quality problems are not due to computers at all; the information system simply underlines them. When we review the processes and the organization, we discover (if it was not already evident) that 76% of data quality problems are due to users 2 (2 “Data Quality and the Bottom Line: Achieving Business Success through a Commitment to High Quality Data” – The Data Warehousing Institute. 2002).

In short, the human factor is a key link in the data production, consolidation and reporting chain. The risk is obvious. How can we mitigate it? Organizations must help their finance employees, and take into account this human factor. Let’s have a closer look on means and solutions to help the user of reporting systems.

Training and e-learning can help, but they are costly considering that lessons are soon forgotten!

Training is of course the first idea that comes to mind. New staff will appreciate classroom or virtual (remote and real-time) sessions, or e-learning in the form of videos and exercises. Face-to-face training also create ties and networks between experts (generally trainers from headquarters or some central department) and between trainers and trainees, including finance managers in subsidiaries which may be foreign.

But training can be very difficult to plan and organize on a regular basis. Low return of investment is also an issue, considering that maintaining e-learnings or any other training materials is costly

In any case, 80% of traditional training material is forgotten after one month! (H.F. Spizer) and informal learning models (like the 70:20:10 model developed by Morgan McCall, Robert W. Eichinger and Michael M. Lombardo at the Center for Creative Leadership), tell us that the user will only learn on the job, when he finds himself actually facing reporting forms!

Reporting players need information, but have no time to read it!

Email, intranets and now social networks are the most common way of sending and distributing information in enterprises. Sending or sharing information is easy, but making sure the users will read and understand it is another thing. Emails actively contribute to the information data deluge (“Huh, did you send me an email?”). Intranets are used only by 50% of employees. Social networks are more accurate to ease team communication.

Plus it’s now Twitter and text messages time. People are getting used to 140 characters only. What’s the use of sharing the 300–pages-yet-complete-reporting guidelines book on the Intranet?

In-house business experts can help but are not always available. No capitalization either.

In fact, the majority of user problems today are not technical but result from a lack information (or training) about closing instructions, form input procedures, indicator definitions, etc.

The support staff at the headquarters, often rightly considered to be functional experts with in-depth knowledge of processes and systems, are mostly solicited in an informal manner by telephone, personal email, instant messaging, or at the coffee machine! The enterprise social network makes these contacts easier, but not all companies and finance departments have one.

However there is no guarantee that the user will get an immediate response. In multinational organizations, time zone differences prevent 24/7 support for obvious reasons of organization and cost!

The ideal solution for the user data quality issue

All means or solutions we can today think of (training, emails, intranets, business experts) have drawbacks and are not perfect. We may need a new type of solution to boost the performance of reporting systems users and to dramatically improve their data quality input.

Let’s draft this new solution features. It should:

Supply relevant business information quickly and efficiently: reporting guides, consolidation manuals, chart of accounts, indicator definitions, controls, instructions for filling in forms. The solution must centralize and distribute the knowledge of in-house experts.
Be «user friendly». The transfer and assimilation of knowledge require easy access to information presented in a concise, convivial manner (like the 140 characters twitter messages). To avoid wasted time, the information must be available instantly at the workstation where the user is working on his reporting or filling in forms.
Be available 24/7 since international organizations operate day and night in different time zones. The solution must aid users at all times – even outside headquarters working hours.
Handle all information formats: PowerPoint, Word, Excel, PDF, intranet data streams, even e-learning videos and exercises. Users can then choose from the proposed formats the one that makes it easiest to assimilate information.
Be easy to maintain. Information is increasingly ephemeral; the «bibles» change all the time; every new period bring new instructions; applications evolve (new screens, fields, procedures). Experts have little time to formalize their knowledge, so short formats are preferable (think again of Twitter).
Create a virtuous circle – involving users – for production, maintenance and distribution of information. The idea is to capitalize and distribute knowledge throughout the entire organization, but it is important that users can easily get modifications or additions made to the knowledge base. Statistics on the consultation (and non-consultation) of individual data items reveal users’ real needs and help database administrators to tailor their information.

Such a system keeps the knowledge base alive and able to provide clear, complete, relevant, up-to-date information.

Equipped with that, the Consolidation & Reporting function will surely benefit from reduced training and user support costs. What’s mainly at stake however is to reduce the risk on the human factor. Taking care of Finance players and consider them as human beings, not as figures providers. Simple as that.

Written by Toan Nguyen – Shortways CEO & Founder