Workday: For financial insight, put your head in the cloud - Robynne Sisco

The world of financial analytics, reporting and business intelligence is firmly in the grip of legacy systems, which have grown slowly and often awkwardly over many decades. The future, however, lies in the cloud. Finance Director Europe speaks to Workday's chief accounting officer Robynne Sisco about how its cloud-based financial management solution is bringing in a new age of speed, simplicity and valuable insight.

Most companies are to some extent now aware of what the cloud is and how subscribing to Software as a Service (SaaS) delivers greater flexibility compared with a complex in-house systems architecture, whether they are using it themselves or seeing a competitor try it out.

In finance, there is now a golden opportunity for technology providers to innovate and steal a march on more established players in the ERP space.

Some companies may view the cloud with caution, particularly when it comes to using it as a repository of sensitive financial information, but solution providers are taking the chance to tear up the rulebook and deliver the kind of functionality that forward-looking businesses crave.

"We started with a clean piece of paper when we were designing our system," says Robynne Sisco, chief accounting officer at Workday Inc. "Legacy vendors who are pursuing the cloud are pushing 30-year old technology into that space. We built a system specifically for the cloud."

All change

She continues: "Over those 30 years everything has changed. The technology is different, mobile access is becoming the norm, and regulations such as Sarbanes-Oxley have changed the game. So, we designed the system with all that in mind. We have no legacy."

Workday, which was co-founded in 2005 by former PeopleSoft CEO Dave Duffield and Aneel Bhusri, provides cloud-based, on-demand financial management and human capital management software. Sisco, who joined the company in 2012 shortly before its $9.5-billion public listing, is responsible for all aspects of the firm's accounting processes, and her first priority was to prepare for the IPO and manage its new reporting processes as a public company.

Workday provides solutions to hundreds of businesses, ranging from mid-sized enterprises to Fortune 500 companies, which buy subscriptions to services that are delivered in the cloud using the SaaS model. It has become well known for its HR application, but its Financial Management application is also gaining traction due to its immense flexibility, speed and efficiency.

"The system is object-oriented to provide real-time data," says Sisco. "Delivering the functionality in the cloud means that all of our clients are on the same version. We don't have to manage different versions and clients don't have any long, drawn-out upgrades to do, which could be year-long initiatives with legacy ERP systems. Our system sometimes needs a four-hour update, which we usually schedule for a weekend."

Matching tech to changing demands

A great deal has been said about how the finance function has evolved over the years, and there has been a notable change in how companies look for different skills, particularly when filling the senior finance roles. Technology, however, has not adapted as fast to these changes as the HR function in many companies.

"I have been in finance and accounting for 25 years and it used to be that the business wanted us to be nothing more than bookkeepers. We would close the books once a month and that would be it," Sisco explains.

"Today, that would not be much use. Now, the business environment is so dynamic and global that companies need real-time, meaningful data that is accessible to everyone who needs it."

"So, companies bought business intelligence tools to break up static accounts, but they still had a delay and there was no reporting flexibility. Now, business cannot afford to move that slowly. Companies need information on the fly, and people in my role must be providing insight as true business partners. Information impacts on the current period. Technology is both a driver and a solution for that change in the finance role."

Joined-up thinking

Workday Financial Management goes beyond the basics of accounting and focuses specifically on features that increase agility and reduce cost. It is a unified set of applications that run across finance and accounting capabilities and auditable process management. It allows the consolidation of global financial information in real time.

Workday's Composite Reporting combines the simplicity and flexibility of a spreadsheet with enterprise-class performance. Its financial dashboard makes it easy to visualise data, drill down and gain insight. Furthermore, it is optimised for use on mobile devices.

"Our reporting system is configurable, which legacy systems are not. It can, therefore, accommodate business change. For instance, if a company acquires another business then it needs the capability to incorporate everything from revenue to cash and payments. That could take up to nine months with a legacy system, but with Workday Financial Management you can set up a new entity in 30 minutes. There is no lag. The solution reflects your business as it is today," says Sisco.

"If your company enters a new market you can set up invoicing in a new currency, for example, in a matter of minutes. That would take weeks with a legacy system. We help to ensure that the finance function is not a block to the business because there is no lag."

Breaking the grip of legacy systems

Cloud-based financial management solutions will have to break into a market that is dominated by legacy ERP systems. The huge investment that has gone into that complex architecture is not something that companies will turn their backs on without good reason, but the appeal of a solution such as the one Workday offers could soon prove too much to resist.

"Some people are used to legacy systems and they are not aware that there is an alternative. We are building awareness, but we still see a legacy mindset that needs to be broken. There was a time when the reticence about putting financial or confidential data in the cloud was a hurdle we had to overcome, but that is becoming the norm for HR data and will soon become the norm for financials," says Sisco.

"The biggest challenge is a fear of change in the area of financials," she continues. "Change is often seen as risky. For me, not to change is riskier. Not having access to good business information hampers growth. More people are getting that message, so the mindset is starting to shift. The acceptance of Workday HCM, our human capital management solution, is helping people to become more comfortable with putting financial data in the cloud."

Sisco recently returned from an 18-month stint in Amsterdam, where she spearheaded the expansion of the company's back-office capability and a push of the Workday brand in the financial space.

The push has been successful and customers in the UK are already signing up for Financial Management. The company is committed to growing its European presence further, and already has a solid and rapidly expanding base of customers around the world.

Take control

"Fast-growing companies who have hit the limit of legacy systems are looking at our cloud-based solution. The biggest benefit is the ease of configuration. You can add a whole new set of books in 30 minutes. You can change business process workflow in a matter of minutes. And you are in control of it. You don't need to get anyone else to handle those changes for you," Sisco stresses.

"Our own company reporting takes a day after closing the books. It used to take three days. Now we have automated a lot of those processes. We have no IT people to support us internally; we do it all within the finance team. It is ex-accountants who configure the system, not IT people. It is easy to use, flexible and fast, which is partly why our customer satisfaction score has exceeded 95% for the last three years. We have a huge base of happy customers."

Cloud and clear

For Sisco, there is no doubt that the future is all about financials in the cloud. Workday will not be satisfied with leading that charge and is already working to ensure that its solutions provide even more valuable insight than just keeping the books. It will venture further into business intelligence and machine learning in the finance space, just as it has done in for its HCM suite, with a focus on predictive analytics. Very soon, the cloud will have more than just a silver lining.

Workday’s chief accounting officer Robynne Sisco.