Improved job quality for thousands of finance and accounting employees is one of the goals of GE's newly transformed closing process, Anjan Roy, the company's CFO for transformation and IT systems, said in a CFO.com webinar last week.
"We want to make this job more enriching for our finance team," said Roy, who is still working on the company's closing process transformation he launched four years ago. "We want people coming in charged up and motivated … not doing the same things that are really not fulfilling."
The company has 5,000 staff handling the closing functions of the company's roughly 4,000 legal entities, each with its own processes and, in many cases, its own enterprise resource planning (ERP) platform. The diversity of systems made it imperative the company find a way to create efficiencies, speed processes and reduce errors, he said.
"We have a very complex organization, a lot of legal entities, a number of bank accounts, general ledgers (GLs), multiple subsystems that more often than not don't talk to each other very well," Roy said. "You try to simplify ERPs into one but that doesn't always work, so we try to identify different solutions."
Centers of excellence
At the core of the transformation are several centers of excellence, each led by a finance professional focused solely on the transition process.
"It can't be someone's side job," Roy said. "You have someone saying, 'I have a day job, but spend 20% on the project.' That's OK for support, but you need people 100% focused on this. They have to be unbiased and just focused on quality."
The centers of excellence include regular staff, who know the ins and outs of their systems, along with outside consultants, who can bring a broader view of what best practices should look like.
"You need a mix of talent," he said, "inside talent, people who know how the machinery works, but also you need a little external perspective, people who can be an honest skeptic of the process."
Roy also encouraged input from all other staff with a stake in the process through surveys and an input process that assures their comments and criticisms are taken in good faith and evaluated objectively.
"We try to have a culture that's more upfront, where people feel comfortable to talk about their challenges, empowered to drive a lot of those projects themselves," he said. "It's rewarding, if a person comes up with something and leads a solution that can be utilized globally … that kicks off a cycle of more people encouraged to bring problems and work on solutions. You can never overdo this; the more insight and feedback you get, the more you'll be able to improve the process."
Roy divides the transformation process into three components: people, systems and technology.
On the technology side, the company has moved to a cloud-based data lake in which all of the data generated by the businesses is stored and made accessible, with controls, to finance and other functional leaders across the organization. About 85% of the data is now stored there.
"What the data lake allows you to do is bring in all different kinds of systems," he said, whether that system is based on SAP, Oracle, or other technology. "It's pretty much dumping into this lake, and so now you have this giant virtual ERP, where all the data is available at your disposal. That's step one. The second step is to make sure you harmonize all the systems so the attributes — you know, SAP may call something X, Oracle may call something Y — so you want to make sure you harmonize attributes, so then you're able to use this data, extract it in a way that's consistent across the portfolio."
With data in the lake, Roy said, finance staff can much more easily conduct reconciliation and validation, which speeds the closing process and reduces the likelihood of errors, and finance leaders can be more proactive in analyzing the data for insights bring to the executive suite.
"That's the real value," he said. "Automate a lot of this to free up time for you to do more value-added stuff. It's not easy to measure. It's an intangible, but you're saving full-time equivalent (FTE) costs."
Roy and Sas Mukherjee, executive vice president and CFO of York Risk Services Group, cautioned that, notwithstanding the long-term benefits of transforming the close process, you won't necessarily see productivity gains right away.
"I can’t honestly say my team has a lot of work-life balance" right now, Mukherjee said, but they're doing more value-added work.