How to Hate Your Financial System Less

Here are three key thoughts for avoiding common implementation mistakes from a CFO who's made his share of them.
Jeremy Van EkMay 7, 2015

Jeremy Van Ek, CFO, Trisect

Jeremy Van Ek, CFO, Trisect

As indispensable as financials systems are to companies, many of the people who work with them simply hate them. New software implementations are frequent, and the systems industry is littered with horror stories of implementations gone bad.

This is particularly frustrating because, with ever-increasing financial pressure from shareholders, these tools are more important than ever.

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The good news is, you don’t have to hate your financial system — at least not too much. After living through more than my fair share of system implementations, I offer three thoughts that will help you avoid common mistakes:

  1. Get the cart before the horse.
  2. What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?
  3. Vanilla doesn’t work in a Tutti-Frutti industry.

Get the Cart before the Horse

If you think like a systems engineer, reporting is the last thing on the to-do list. You have to build a system before you can get reporting out of it, right? Tragically, that’s how many systems implementations go. Requirements are gathered, systems are configured, testing is done. Then: “So, what reports do we need?”

When you think about it, analytics is one of the main points of the whole mess. What do you really want from your financial system?

  • To process transactions efficiently
  • To provide insight on how your business is performing

I submit for your consideration that the entire system should be designed around the second objective. Processing transactions is a greens fee. Analytics are how you will really unlock the value tied up in this investment. Sit down and ask yourself, “What three things that I don’t know, if I knew them today, would make a difference in how I make financial decisions about running this place?” Then design your system around making sure that you can get those three things every day of the week.

What Happens When an Unstoppable Force Meets an Immovable Object?

The unstoppable force: The resistance of your staffers to working within any financial system, especially those that are cumbersome

The immovable object: Your new financial system

We’ve all seen this movie before. Destruction of biblical proportions ensues. The way around it: change management. In case you don’t speak Dilbert, there are three uniform principles involved:

  • Talk to people. The world’s worst financial tools are conceived in a vacuum. Believe it or not, the people who have to work in the system have great insights into how to make it better. By talking to people up front you harvest those insights and avoid pitfalls.
  • Talk to people some more. Make sure everyone knows what’s coming down the pike, including those you didn’t talk to up front. Especially the management folks. And actually train everyone. In understandable terms. Talk to them to ensure it all makes sense.
  • Talk to people even more. It ain’t over when you turn it on. Even the best-laid plans of mice and highly paid consultants go awry. Talk to people to ensure the new system is working as expected. Adjust and retrain if necessary.

Vanilla Doesn’t Work in a Tutti-Frutti Industry

Let’s face it, while it might not be rocket science, each industry and business has its peculiarities. Not all financial software packages have this in mind. The siren song of “vanilla” implementation (that is, “out of the box,” without any changes or customizations) is surprisingly strong as you start to plan: Do you know how much it would cost to customize? And what happens when we need to upgrade?

Many software salespeople will answer your detailed “make or break” questions with “yes, of course our software does that.” Let me break it to you: in some of those cases it doesn’t, in the context of how you want to run your business.

Perhaps I’ve arrived at this point of view since I work in the marketing industry, one that’s not well known for toeing the line. But my exhortation to you is not to be led down the primrose path without considering if the way this system works is really going to work for your business.

You may be better off to do some tweaking up front. The inefficiencies you will accrete by conforming to rigid software written for someone else’s business model may outweigh the cost. Moreover, It will cost you double if you decide to go vanilla then rework the whole darn thing when it doesn’t pan out.

Now that I’ve said those three points out loud, it all seems pretty obvious. You don’t have to scratch a financial-system project very deeply to find textbook examples of what not to do. In fact, my ulterior motive for writing this is a self-serving hope that if I say all this publicly, I will be personally accountable for not making any mistakes like these ever again.

A financial system is a hard thing to love. But hopefully by following this advice you’ll be able to hate yours a little less.

Jeremy Van Ek is CFO at Trisect, a growing marketing agency in Chicago. In a career in finance he has unwittingly been involved several times in the exciting world of financial-system implementations. Don’t let the unwitting part make you think he doesn’t love it, though.