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Wednesday, Oct 17th

Automation and the cloud: Africa's path to global competitiveness in finance

Automation and the cloud: Africa's path to global competitiveness in finance

African finance professionals are facing a time of disruption, of great pressure to improve radically the kind of service they offer their clients. This disruptive pressure is being driven not by new competitors but their clients themselves.

Africa is on the move. Companies and governments across the continent are clamouring for greater financial transparency and real-time access to high-quality financial data. These demands are a direct reflection of their commitment to improve economic growth, reduce corruption and so strengthen Africa's ability to play in global markets.

In Nigeria, the Nigerian Stock Exchange has now mandated that companies listed on its board should report quarterly rather than annually. On the other side of the continent, the Kenyan National Treasury now requires the same quarterly reporting of public entities—and where government goes, the private sector is likely to follow.

These are two very significant indicators of a fundamental change in what is expected of finance professionals.

To meet these expectations, and avoid completely overwhelming finance professionals with repetitive, manual paperwork, automation is the only option. This automation is well established across the globe, and is delivering huge benefits to those who are adopting it.

These benefits include compliance with global standards like IFRS and IFRS for SMEs, IPSAS Accrual and IPSAS Cash, greatly streamlined processes and high-quality, credible data.

Accounting technology guru Louie Balasny rightly says that, "The greatest disruption will result from automation of data entry and workflows. This alone leads to three major changes. One, faster processing which translates into real-time reporting and more timely financials. Two, increased accuracy with less human error. And three, significant reductions in cost on an order of magnitude of 50 to 75 percent."

Don't forget the cloud

Automation is going to be critical to the success of Africa's efforts to develop cleaner, more effective and vibrant economies. But there is another critical piece of the puzzle: the cloud.

Too frequently, people see the cloud primarily as a way to store data cheaply and safely. It certainly is that, but the real opportunity is much bigger, especially when combined with automation.

When it comes to financial information, risk mitigation is always top-of-mind. Data stored in the cloud is protected by the cloud provider's investment in security, and is independent of any device. If a tablet is stolen, or your servers crash, that all-important data remains secure and immediately accessible in the cloud.

The cloud also enables a collaborative but highly secure work style. There is only ever one version of a document but many people can work on it, even simultaneously. (Goodbye to all those filenames like "Final", Final Final" and the all-time favourite "Absolute Final with John Doe edits".)

The cloud makes anywhere-anytime work possible, with huge productivity benefits. In so doing, it also eliminates geography.

A firm in Nairobi can now easily collaborate with a firm in Lagos or Addis Ababa to service a particular client. By enabling the creation of such ecosystems, small firms can compete on equal terms with the largest.

Establishing what progress has been made on a particular document, and how many hours each individual has put into it, are both easily ascertainable. This is especially important when collaborating across an ecosystem.

A strong business case

From a business perspective, using the cloud makes automation much more feasible. It is no longer necessary to buy the required software. The modules and seats required can be purchased as a service cost-effectively, with no capital outlays.

The maintenance burden is also substantially reduced as the software is upgraded centrally, without any user intervention. Staying competitive is also easier because the cloud enables access to all the latest technology.

In fact, one could argue that the cloud makes innovation available to everybody.

The cloud offers exciting opportunities to streamline not only the creation of financial statements via seamless collaboration but also the electronic submission of documents. For example, a remote provincial office can submit a monthly return to head office electronically, via the cloud, without the hassle and expense of printing and faxing it—or even, in some instances, having it hand-delivered. Naturally, because it's electronic, the information will not have to be re-inputted into the head office's systems.

And, of course, less printing means a greener footprint.

Automation? Absolutely the way accounting and auditing are going. But add the cloud and suddenly one can see how Africa's finance professionals can begin to provide world-class service to their customers—to the great benefit of their firms and the economy as a whole.

* By Theuns Holtshousen, Divisional Business Leader, CaseWare Africa

Theuns Holtshousen, plays a pivotal role in the strategic direction and growth of the business across the African continent. His focus lies in market strategy and growing market share. He is passionate about using technology and delivering the right software and products to improve and change the way business is done in Africa, not only in the accounting and auditing industry, but also within Public Sector and corporate markets.

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