Monday, 27 August 2012

Scaling the Document Mountain

We were standing in “The Archives”, looking at twelve-foot high shelves mounted on rollers so that they could be crammed together.  Each one was filled with row after row of filing boxes.  I had just asked the silly question of whether all of the documents could be scanned to save money on storage.  The Archivist informed me that scanning to Archive Standards would take 37 person-years.  Now, most people aren’t interested in preserving historical documents for future generations of scholars.  All we really want is access to the information on the documents.  Still, staring at row after row of filing cabinets can give you that unpleasant sinking feeling in your stomach.

When you’re faced with a mountain of documents, what do you do?  Here are five practical suggestions:

  1. Clean House First – Some documents are more valuable than others.  If there’s anything that can be easily weeded out, start there.  Make sure you have a document retention / destruction policy.
  2. Draw a Line in the Sand – Start now.  Maybe scanning all the history is too much work or too expensive right now.  You can still contain the problem by setting a date after which all documentation will be scanned.  Later, as you get to know the system, you can selectively go back into history and scan the most important documents.
  3. Different Documents Different Strategies – Some documents are easier than others.  If you have standard forms, for example, where the same information appears in the same place, scanning can actually capture important information, such as company names, as text, as well as creating an image of the document.  That way, you can build a database as well as a library of scanned images.  You may also find that some documents don’t need to be scanned at all because you already have electronic versions that can be transferred, instead of being printed and scanned.
  4. Pick the Low Hanging Fruit – Some departments’ documents are more easily scanned than others.  Accounting is usually well organized, with documents filed for later retrieval and an annual transfer of old documents to storage.  Start there and gain some experience.  Don’t take on the whole challenge at once.
  5. Look for Golden Opportunities – You may actually get the most bang for your buck from the creative side of the business, which may have the most chaotic filing system.  Being able to browse through work done for previous customers can be a fertile source of new ideas for designers and salespeople.

Bottom line:  get someone who knows scanning in to take a look at your situation.  This is a growing area with lots of new ideas and fresh approaches.  When someone says, “It can’t be done,” don’t just take their word.  Do the research.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Workflow Software

Downsizing, right-sizing, layoff, restructuring, whatever word you use, accounting departments have been consistently trimming staff for decades.  Computers are taking on more and more of the daily routine.  While this is good news for cost control and efficiency, it’s not so good for accounting controls and segregation of duties.  Where you used to be able to separate incompatible functions between different staff, now there may now be only one person available.

The Controls Environment – The Sarbanes-Oxely Act (affectionately known as “SOX”) enacted in 2002, was legislation designed to reassure the investing public in the integrity of financial statements after the accounting scandals of Enron, Tyco and WorldCom.  It imposes some strict requirements on not just the accuracy of financial statements but also the control systems behind them.  Those requirements aren’t going away any time soon.  In fact, the US Bureau of Labour Statistics has this to say about accounting clerical positions:

“As the number of organizations increases and financial regulations become stricter, there will be greater demand for these workers to maintain books and provide accounting services.”  (Source:

So, not only are accounting departments being downsized, but they are also expected to meet increasingly strict requirements.  What are companies to do?

The answer may surprise you.  Most people don’t think you can automate accounting controls, but a computer approach called “workflow” can stop employees from shortcutting the internal control system and provide an evidence based audit trail that will stand up to outside scrutiny.  And the good thing is that it can be added to an existing system even if that system does not have the feature built in!

The Paper Trail – The basic building block of accounting control is the approved document.  Whether it is a supplier invoice, a customer purchase order or a government document, it follows a pre-set trail through the company’s approval process, depending on how much it is and what it is for.  For example, the purchasing manager may only approve invoices from preauthorized vendors under a certain dollar amount.  Anything from a new vendor or above his limit requires further authorization from a more senior corporate officer.  Workflow systems work on scanned images of the document and email.  The company’s rules are loaded into the software, so it can check if the document is from an approved supplier, as well as knowing the authorization of all of the staff.  This automation saves a lot of accounting staff time because they don’t even see the document until it has been properly approved.  No more squinting at illegible scrawls wondering if that’s the new division manager’s signature or turning the documents back because they aren’t approved.  The computer takes care of all that.

“He’s in Europe” – One of my first jobs in accounting was for a company with a head office in the United Kingdom.  The Vice President of Finance would let us know when he was going overseas and there would be a scramble to be sure that he had seen everything that needed to be approved.  And when he came back, there would be a stack of papers on his desk for approval.  No large transactions could be processed while he was away.  Because workflow is based on scanned images, they can be approved via a computer or even a smart phone at any time, anywhere in the world.  Now, isn’t that nicer than coming home to a stack of papers in your in-box?

Monday, 13 August 2012

What Keeps You Up at Night? Accounts Payable

Early in my consulting career, an Accounts Payable (AP) Supervisor set me straight.  She told me that AP is all about routine.  Expense reimbursements go out on Monday.  Domestic vendors on Tuesday.  International on Wednesday.  If this new system that I was training them on was going to work, it had to make it easier for them to keep on track.   That changed my view about AP.  It’s not just AR with the credits and debits reversed.  If there’s one thing that keeps an AP Supervisor up at night, it’s the sudden question that forces them to drop everything and go searching through the files, because vendors get cranky when their payments don’t come through.

So, what questions can cause AP to go scurrying to the files?  Well, anything that the computer system doesn’t capture, like:

  • Who authorized this payment?  Someone may have exceeded their limit.  Someone may have authorized a payment without knowing all the facts.  There might have been a dispute with the vendor AP was unaware of at the time.
  • Why did we do this?  Sometimes the simplest questions can be the hardest to answer.  Staff have to look at the invoice.  Maybe there’s a comment there.  Or maybe the Purchase Order has more detail.  Wasn’t there an email discussion about this, maybe six months ago?  You get the picture.
  • Tax (or anything to do with the government).  Governments have an annoying habit of changing their minds.  What used to work has suddenly changed.  And guess what?  The change is retroactive to this time last year.  You have to pull all of the affected invoices and rework them using the new rules.  Good luck!
  • Litigation.  Lawyers like to go fishing, hoping to catch something to their advantage.  When a requirement to produce documentation is received, not only do you have to pull and make copies of all of the documentation, but you also need to review it yourself to determine the impact of what you find.  I hope nobody had plans for the weekend.

You get the idea.  You need a central repository that will capture electronically everything at the time the transaction is done, including email exchanges, purchasing documentation, contracts and, of course, the approved invoice itself.  And for those people who can’t remember if they submitted this or that expense, wouldn’t it be cool to send them a link and say, “Feel free to browse the transactions yourself.”  Then your AP department will get a good night’s sleep and all your vendors will get paid on time.

Reposted with the kind permission of iDatix:

Monday, 6 August 2012

Changing Accounting Standards

What are some of the biggest headaches in accounting?  I’m sure you have your favorites, but let me tell you about Doug.  I called him last week to see if he wanted to go for a drink, but he was still in the office late on a Friday evening.  It turns out his company adopted some of the new International Financial Reporting Standards, so he has to go back and restate the numbers, right back to his opening balance sheet at the end of 2009, and then carry the results forward using the new rules.

“As if that wasn’t enough,” he said.  “We’ve got a bunch of contracts that go back ten years or more.  The auditors now want proof of existence.  They never asked for that before and they don’t accept the fact that we get payments each month.  They want to see the actual paper.  I mean, I know we have them.  They’re piled up on skids at the back of the plant.  But it’s really dirty back there and it’s going to take days to find all the ones the auditors want to see.”

When rules change, they never get simpler.  So often you have to go back to the original transaction and interpret it in light of the new rules.  And it’s not like you can plan for the change.  I can’t tell you the number of times I have wished I had had the original documentation about a transaction so I could see who signed it and ask them what they were thinking at the time.  Or, better yet, if I could have the emails or memos that led up to the deal, so I could understand the intentions of the parties.

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could click a button and see the documentation?  Or what if charities and universities could track the trust documents and bequests in their endowments.  I know a church that wanted to consolidate its endowments because many of them were tiny.  The $5,000 that was a significant gift in 1960 was now almost more trouble than it was worth.  It would have been helpful to have all the original documentation, so that they could approach the surviving families and/or the public trustee.

Honestly, I don’t know which is Doug’s biggest headache, the changing rules or auditors’ demands, but I’ll let you know after we finally go for that drink.  What is your biggest accounting headache?  I’d be happy to feature some in future blogs.

Reposted with the kind permission of iDatix: