For Accenture, like for all businesses, the financial close process is designed to ensure complete and accurate financial statements. An important part of this process involves verifying and analyzing account balances and processing applicable journal entries before closing the period.
This pre-close variance process compares a current period’s balances with previous periods: month on month, quarter on quarter, and year on year. The balances from the two periods are compared and verified for reasonableness. Commentary is provided to explain variances between the two periods.
Performing variance analysis enables controllership to ensure large or inconsistent trends in balances are identified, investigated and actioned, if necessary. These explanations are an important part of our internal controls over financial reporting because they help demonstrate the completeness and accuracy of our financial statements.
For many companies, as it was for Accenture, the pre-close variance review process had changed little over time. It was manual, inconsistent, heavy on emails and spreadsheets, and inefficient. Our Finance organization turned to our Global IT organization for a better and modern solution.
When tech meets human ingenuity
Our Finance and Global IT teams collaborated with Internal Controls to make the pre-close variance process and reporting digital, automated and intelligent. The vision was to create a single standardized and centralized pre-close variance report that was easily accessible across controllership and provide the ability for controllers to add commentary and document their review. This was the starting point with the intent to add more capabilities over time.
Given Accenture’s global size and scope, the project was a succession of progressive, agile development phases over two years:
Creation of an online report
The first phase was the creation of a digitized, global pre-close variance report with the ability to add variance commentary manually. This report eliminated the need for data downloads from the SAP system into Microsoft Excel, manipulation of data, and multiple iterations of the local download. In key month-end close days, the data refreshed regularly.
This report became the same for global and local controllers, providing relevant views for each user group. Features included internal control validation, dynamic threshold analysis, and the ability to add comments at different levels, such as company code and the general ledger account levels. The commentary framework was designed to allow for future automated analytics.
Addition of automated commentary
This phase of development added automated commentary to the pre-close variance report. This capability populates commentary content as a starting point for controllers to validate, and if necessary, revise. The aim is not to replace all manual commentary, but to ultimately produce up to 95% of the content, and to guide users into more informed analysis. The benefit of auto-populating commentary is that it provides an unbiased, high-quality baseline of data. An early alert system was also developed to enable users to act on unexpected items in a timely manner.
Automated commentary models are designed to work for and with the users, providing support by 1) automating the explanation of common and expected behavior in variances; 2) providing data-driven insight regarding general and anomalous patterns; and 3) guiding controllers when exploring large variances and unexpected entries.
For example, in the case of an automated comment for travel air fare, the artificial intelligence engine looks at a large number of drivers that would make up a variance in a particular month’s air fare, such as headcount increase, number of working days, holiday periods, airport departure/destination locations, and a comparison with the previous year’s monthly numbers, among other factors.
Addition of variance insights
Our project team then enhanced the pre-close variance report with added capability that provides end users with more insights on variances by enabling them to drill down into the lower-level line item source for a specific variance. This capability eliminates the need for users to leave the report and go into the SAP system to find the cause of a variance or to validate the automated commentary. All needed information is now in one report.
Finalization of auto-learning of existing patterns
The natural language generation (NLG) engine was continuously enhanced using two years’ worth of historical commentary and manual inputs from controllership review. The development team is planning to add new patterns and to enable the engine to continuously auto-learn patterns.
The pre-close variance report was rolled out in waves that started with a soft go-live in a small number of Accenture countries to pilot and refine. It is being fully deployed Accenture-wide over the course of 2022.
A valuable difference
Accenture Controllership’s new pre-close variance report with automated commentary has delivered a huge leap in quality, user capabilities and controller productivity. Today, the report is centrally owned and standard across all controllership functions.
This leap in capability in automating commentary and infusing it with intelligence not only guides controllers to make more informed decisions, but it also removes a manual, time-consuming activity and frees up their time to spend on other month-end activities.
Controllers have an “anytime” view and views in real time along with more user-friendly variance analysis, facilitating fast decision making. Global Controllership gets better-quality reports faster than in the past, providing more time for review and decision making. Automated commentary aids in the explanation of variances. Comments are available to all functions with relevant access. Additionally, post-close internal control is built into the report for the Profit & Loss statement and Balance Sheet, a feature that previously did not exist.
The success of this project is contributing to modernizing other parts of the monthly close, such as reconciliations, accruals, prepayments and manual adjustments—all projected to increase controllership effectiveness, efficiency and compliance in a growing and complex organization in an ever-changing regulatory environment. It also paves the way for the rest of Finance and other teams across Accenture to use the technology to generate similar benefits.
Highlights of the pre-close variance report with automated commentary include:
"We haven’t seen any AI like this in pre-close commentary in the controllership space. Our controllers now have more reaction time on random variances and improved internal control sign-off, among other benefits."
— RONALD STEVENS, Managing Director – Finance Operations Controllership Lead, Accenture
Estimated controller hours saved in the first 12 months.
Controllers have “anytime” access that makes decision making easier and they receive alerts enabling them to act on unexpected items in a timely manner.
Controllers also have the ability to edit commentary for all to see in real time.
Line-item display helps with investigations; automated commentary guides users into more informed analysis.
737+ company codes and reports are streamlining internal controls sign-off.
A report framework that can be used for a multitude of reports; completely standardized across Controllership.