Graphical Dashboards and Analytics: Is Your Accounts Team Being Sold a Pretty Pup

From the very first Graphical Executive Information System (developed in the early 1980’s by Comshare) to today's dashboards and graphical Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), two clear upshots apply now as they did then: management accounts don't use them and typically don't want them.

Don't believe me? Then go around any business and enter the accounts department; more often than not, you will only see Excel in operation.

Despite this, the dream of going from a high-level KPI down to transactions (to explain exactly where the variance is) gets pushed hard at every sales demo you attend, especially if you are looking to buy a new ERP solution. This is instead of looking at the key business processes that are needed to run a business and how you can get operational reporting out of the system.

Why is that? Well ERP report writers are hard to use, built with the wrong technology, and don't give the accounts team what they need. Building a reporting tool is very different to building an ERP system that is designed to handle vast amounts of transactional information; the reporting solutions they sell are too hard to use and don't give the accounts team what they need. Instead they focus on pretty graphics rather than showing the clunky report writer that leaves the accounts team with a problem or two.

ERP providers all boast inbuilt analytics and graphics, and whilst they might be interesting for a few key executives, the people who are trying to reconcile the drop shipments, the intercompany accounts, or the stock control account won’t find nice graphics of much use.

Software companies have lost touch with the reality of the accounts department and because Excel looks to have solved the problem, ERP vendors spend little attention on these users; they end up burning the midnight oil on reconciliations, and solving errors in the trial balance, before the month end close.

Help is here

Step in FastClose, a product designed exclusively for the management and financial accountant; a product specifically created to make their lives easier. Here are quotes from some of our customers

· “Normally, this report would take us a day to build using Excel… FastClose stepped up to the plate, and we now run this report in under 3 minutes.”

· “Until FastClose came around, there was no need to have the GL populated with lots of segments as there was no tool that could take advantage of them!”

· “Finance teams don’t have the time to learn complex tools. Nor do they want consultants to come in and build reports that only they know how to modify.”

· “We had a number of issues reconciling intercompany accounts and drop shipments but with FastClose we were able to do this easily.”

So how does FastClose work? By doing things very differently to Excel.

With Excel, firstly, you need to source and import your data (duplicating the data from the ERP system when it goes into Excel as you go). You probably need to ask IT for help to do this, who often just dump the data into an Access database or give you access to some key tables. Off you go, looking for the relevant data, without so much as a map to guide you, often finding that you are missing some information (which you manually add to your key management accounts spreadsheet hoping it’s correct). Then, when you have done all this, you need to use complex pivot tables to summarise and drill.

This is why there are hundreds of Excel plugin products, promising to make your life easier by getting data into Excel through pre-built connections to the database. But the big issue here is that these plugins don't understand your tables, or the joins that they need, to retrieve the data you really want. It's half-baked.

Accounting Intelligence

FastClose takes a different approach as it already understands the key tables and joins in the target ERP system. This information is baked into the product enabling the FastClose engine to really kick in. All you have to do is click on a starting template for, say, General Ledger, Accounts Payable, Accounts Receivable, Sales Order Processing, Purchasing or other modules / sub ledgers – and you're away.

What you get is a multidimensional model of your ERP system ready to be used for operational reporting and analysis. Something that is called Accounting Intelligence. You can click and select new dimensions to summarise by (something that a BI system and Excel would struggle with) or quickly consolidate any element. Or perhaps you just want an account code in the GL (and no other element)? You can do exactly this, and then you can quickly drill down to the detailed transactions.

You can even drill from the General Ledger to Accounts Payable then to Purchasing, or to any of the other sub-ledgers. This flexibility and power gives unparalleled access to your ERP system. There are user-defined calculations and hierarchies to build P&Ls. Whilst easy to use, this is the sort of functionality usually only found in complex BI tools.

The difference with FastClose is that they are aimed at the end user not a BI consultant. In turn, currency translations and consolidations are easy to do with runtime variables for exchange rates. Key reports can be saved away or published to other users, who then might run them with different filters; they can change the period’s or years or indeed any of the dimensions being used in the report.

So, the next time you get a demo of a dashboard with some pretty analytics, just ask to see the vendor’s customer accounts department, and see what software they are actually using to close the month end. If it is Excel, you have been warned – nice graphics shame about the data.