In today’s world, cloud-based process automation is becoming omnipresent in everything from banking to shopping, and businesses are beginning to feel the benefits of smoother processes and ROI.

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However, this was not always the case. A few years ago, if you asked a finance or accounting professional about the state of their work processes, more often than not, they’d tell you they were snowed under with laborious, time-consuming manual processes, and cloud-based business solutions were an unknown and frightening prospect.

In fact, it wasn’t until quite recently that businesses began to adopt cloud-based software solutions designed specifically for finance and accounting professionals – which, when you think about the huge benefits, is mind boggling. The automation of financial processes, or as we at BlackLine like to call it, the Modern Finance approach, not only makes life easier for finance professionals by saving time, cutting costs and virtually eliminating risk of error, but benefits the wider business in ways that a few years ago, we couldn’t have begun to imagine. And it all started with an idea…

The birth of BlackLine and the Modern Finance prototype

The concept of Modern Finance was designed by BlackLine back in the early Noughties. Founder and CEO Therese Tucker, comfortably retired from her position as CTO of SunGard Technologies, was enjoying maternity leave and had no intention of going straight back into work. Until, that is, she began to reconnect with former clients and heard their horror stories about being kept in the office at all hours, poring over spreadsheets and box files each month in an effort to complete their reconciliations on time.

The primary issue was that, whilst other areas of business were embracing process automation and thus moving forward in terms of efficiency and productivity, finance and accounting departments were finding themselves left behind. Staff were overworked, spending hours on manual data entry in spreadsheets, which by its very nature was not a secure process and was left wide open to mistakes – accidental or otherwise. Time, money and paper was being wasted and something had to be done. It was from these conversations that Therese formulated the idea for an automation solution, something that would modernise the way accountants worked. From this idea, BlackLine’s original account reconciliation automation solution was born.

The solution essentially automated and controlled the financial close process – by providing visibility into data, the solution enabled accountants to rapidly detect any anomaly, thereby limiting the potential for mistakes to happen. The process enabled a more continuous approach to accounting – instead of a spike in activity at month end, accountants could spread out their duties over the month, leading to a smoother close.

Therese developed the original BlackLine solution entirely on her own and was sole investor in the product for the first five years. It wasn’t long before former clients began requesting a trial of the new solution. Very quickly, BlackLine’s success began to pick up speed. In 2009, Therese led her now-burgeoning company through a migration to SaaS, a risky move at the time and one which could alienate users. Luckily, it paid off, and enabled BlackLine to later develop a full suite of solutions for accounting departments.

Modern Finance today: Still a need for automation education

Today, the Modern Finance revolution is in full swing. Not only are businesses acknowledging the benefits of process automation, they are continuing to build on the original reconciliation solutions they have purchased, enabling them to take the ‘next step’ in automation. Increasingly, businesses are seeing less errors, more timely month-end close, and happier staff. One such example would be BlackLine customer Western Union which, following the adoption of BlackLine’s solutions, was able to sync up over 20 global accounting offices, enabling the Group Accounting Director to view in real-time which reconciliations were complete and which were outstanding.

And BlackLine? We now have over 1300 customers in over 100 countries; large and mid-sized corporates including LV, KFC, British Gas and RSA, to name just a handful. In late 2014, BlackLine’s Finance Controls and Automation Platform – a scalable, unified cloud platform built around Therese’s original solution – was recognised by Gartner as a ‘best of breed’ solution in the newly-created category, Enhanced Finance Controls and Automation (EFA). Further to this, BlackLine is also an SAP Gold Partner, Oracle Gold Partner, and participates in the partner programs of NetSuite and several other ERP providers.

Despite the success of BlackLine – and the happy customers – it’s clear that there is still a great deal of work to do when it comes to educating finance and accounting departments on the benefits of automation. In 2008, it was estimated that close to 90 per cent of spreadsheets had errors in them. Whilst we don’t have any data to hand that conveys the extent to which this has decreased, we know that those using automation tools report a higher level of job satisfaction and are confident in the accuracy of their data. Some recent BlackLine research found that in 2014, around 27 per cent of CFOs were concerned about the accuracy of their financial data. This rose to a whopping 44 per cent in 2015, likely due to increasingly tight regulation, which businesses must comply with. The threat of cyber security breaches has loomed large on the business agenda for the past few years and this is only becoming more prominent. What many of these businesses still don’t realise is that a Modern Finance approach can help them to ensure compliance, will keep their data secure from threats and will also enable them to spot potential errors earlier on.

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It’s clear that cloud-based process automation, particularly within the finance industry, is the future. The next step is to ensure that businesses of all sizes are better educated about the benefits, learning from those who have successfully embraced a new era – the era of Modern Finance.

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Mario Spanicciati, Chief Strategy Officer, BlackLine Chief Strategy Officer Mario Spanicciati is responsible for strategy and alignment across the entire global organisation, driving strategic partnerships and building out alliances worldwide. Spanicciati has worked alongside company CEO Tucker since 2004 and headed up the company’s EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa) operations, launched in London in January of 2013. Under Spanicciati’s direction, the BlackLine Financial Close Suite for SAP Solutions became an SAP-endorsed business solution, joining the ranks of fewer than 40 other software offerings globally across all industries and categories. Prior to joining BlackLine, Spanicciati was a manager with Merrill Lynch Private Banking and Investment Group. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree from Cornell University.