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Technology

DO I NEED A MOBILE APP?

By Peter Stonham, Technical Architect at Altus

 

The rise of Mobile is news to no one, and mobile banking continues to grow in popularity and uptake, with UK Finance reporting nearly half of UK adults using mobile banking in 2018. But without a behemoth budget and development team, should you spend the time and money putting together a mobile app?

Research and proposition design are key. Delivering a tempting and competitive offering which caters for a market need is what sets you apart. Beyond this, users need to be able to use the product when – and where – the thought takes them. Whether this is on the morning commute reading about new funds, at the desk planning a pension pot or in the garden on lockdown when you get a notification that your holiday cancellation refund has been processed, and need to choose where to save the money. Circumstances will influence the means the user chooses to interact with your product. When they think to do so, it must be simple and familiar to them, and it needs to allow them to perform whichever actions they need, intuitively.

If an opportunity to grow revenue through a mobile channel is identified, your next question is whether you need an app, or if mobile web is sufficient. Key to this is working out what features should it provide – should it be a lightweight means to check account balances, or a full-featured interface with the potential to replace web browser access?

 

Progressive Web Apps are an entry point to developing a mobile-focused interface. These appear to the user as mobile apps, but are in fact regular web pages, albeit with many additional features. From push notifications and background synchronisation, through to offline caching and data bandwidth reduction, many of the features which used to be limited to native apps are now achievable via Service Workers in Progressive Web Apps. As a starting point these could be a good choice, but it is only the first of many ways to provide mobile functionality, from this stage all the way through to full native. The considerations are both desired functionality and organisational maturity.

Native Apps are at the other end of the spectrum, whether these are written using low-code tools like OutSystems or Salesforce, platform-agnostic frameworks like Xamarin, or directly in Swift or Kotlin. Using native applications enables access to the many services and sensors mobile platforms make available through APIs, such as biometric security; this could include face recognition and fingerprint or iris scanning. Using the inbuilt biometric security APIs of the phone allows users to quickly and securely authenticate with the application. Solution accelerators in the low code platforms provide drop-in components for common features, and bespoke native applications provide unrivalled flexibility and customisation.

Peter Stonham

Increasing the complexity of the solution, and the breadth of access to your services, has many advantages, but these come at a cost. Native application development requires a different set of skills to web app development. Alongside this, having multiple client interfaces operating well, requires a system back end (or at least, an orchestration layer) which is designed to handle service and API calls from different user interfaces. For large multi-national institutions serving client bases in the hundreds of thousands, this cost can be offset with the customer advantages. For smaller organisations it becomes difficult to justify, although an increasing number of services are available via SDKs and APIs from third parties. For example, using a third-party SDK for security and authentication can provide the highest level of security with minimal effort.

Middle ground can be found in the form of Hybrid applications. These applications wrap a responsive web page within a native application. In doing this, the same user interface (and the same code and backend servers) can handle requests from desktops, laptops and mobile devices, reducing development and maintenance costs. Many of the advantages of native mobile applications can be achieved as well, including biometric security for authentication, phone calls for customer service and wearable integration.

Ultimately deciding whether you want or need an app is only the start. Having decided the how and the what, not only do you have an app to build, you need to ensure your operating model supports this provision. Apps are built and live in a world of fast-moving change and falling behind these changes can be damaging, from brand damage and bad reviews to more serious issues such as data loss or security flaws. Apple are reportedly releasing 4 new models in 2020; iOS has been updated 5 times this year; at least 10 new Android phones have been announced with a myriad new features and functions. We have already seen the first phone with a folding screen – a big change in format that could mean a significant change to the new app you have just decided to release.

Consider your proposition, decide on the features you want to offer your customers, and ensure your operating model allows you to provide these features. Mobile offerings will allow customers to use your product when it suits them, and in a more remote world this flexibility will be desirable. Take note of the tripping points though, and set up the supporting models and infrastructure to enable this success.

 

Technology

WHY TECHNOLOGY IS KEY TO THE FUTURE OF AUDITING

By Piers Wilson, Head of Product Management at Huntsman Security

 

The Financial Reporting Council (FRC), which is responsible for corporate governance, reporting and auditing in the UK, has been consulting on the role of technology in audit processes. This highlights growing recognition for the fact that technology can assist audits, providing the ability to automate data gathering or assessment to increase quality, remove subjectivity and make the process more trustworthy and consistent. Both the Brydon review and the latest AQR thematic suggest a link between enhanced audit quality and the increasing use of technology. This goes beyond efficiency gains from process automation and relates, in part, to the larger volume of data and evidence which can be extracted from an audited entity and the sophistication of the tools available to interrogate it.

As one example, the PCAOB in the US has for a while advocated for the provision of audit evidence and reports to be timely (which implies computerisation and automation) to assure that risks are being managed, and for the extent of human interaction with evidence or source data to be reflected to ensure influence is minimised (the more that can be achieved programmatically and objectively the better).

However, technology may obscure the nature of analysis and decision making and create a barrier to fully transparent audits compared to more manual (yet labour intensive) processes. There is also a competition aspect between larger firms and smaller ones as regards access to technology:

Brydon raised concerns about the ability of challenger firms to keep pace with the Big Four firms in the deployment of innovative new technology.

The FRC consultation paper covers issues, and asks questions, in a number of areas. Examples include:

  • The use of AI and machine learning that collect or analyse evidence and due to the continual learning nature, their criteria for assessment may be difficult to establish or could change over time.
  • The data issues around greater access to networks and systems putting information at risk (e.g. under GDPR) or a reluctance for audited companies to allow audit firms to connect or install software/technologies into their live environments.
  • The nature of technology may mean it is harder for auditors to understand or establish the nature of data collection, analysis or decision making.
  • The ongoing need to train auditors on technologies that might be introduced, so they can utilise them in a way that generates trusted outputs.

Clearly these are real issues – for a process that aims to provide trustworthy, objective, transparent and repeatable outputs – any use of technology to speed up or improve the process must maintain these standards.

 

Audit technology solutions in cyber security

The cyber security realm has grown to quickly become a major area of risk and hence a focus for boards, technologists and auditors alike. The highly technical nature of threats and the adversarial nature of cybers attackers (who will actively try and find/exploit control failures) means that technology solutions that identify weaknesses and report on specific or overall vulnerabilities are becoming more entrenched in the assurance process within this discipline.

While the audit consultations and reports mentioned above cover the wider audit spectrum, similar challenges relate to cyber security as an inherently technology-focussed area of operation.

 

Benefits of speed

The gains from using technology to conduct data gathering, analysis and reporting are obvious – removing the need for human questionnaires, interviews, inspections and manual number crunching. Increasing the speed of the process has a number of benefits:

  • You can cover larger scopes or bigger samples (even avoid sampling all together)
  • You can conduct audit/assurance activities more often (weekly instead of annually)
  • You can scale your approach beyond one part of the business to encompass multiple business units or even third parties
  • You get answers more quickly – which for things that change continually (like patching status) means same day awareness rather than 3 weeks later

Benefits of flexibility

The ability to conduct audits across different sites or scopes, to specify different thresholds of risk for different domains, the ease of conducting audits at remote locations or on suppliers networks (especially during period of restricted travel) are ALL factors that can make technology a useful tool for the auditor.

 

Benefits of transparency

One part of the FRC’s perceived problem space is that of transparency, you can ask a human how they derived a result, and they can probably tell you, or at least show you the audit trail of correspondence, meeting notes or spreadsheet calculations. But can you do this with software or technology?

Certainly, the use of AI and machine learning makes this hard, the learning nature and often black box calculations are not easy to either understand, recalculate in a repeatable way or to document. The system learns, so is always changing, and hence the rationale that a decision might not always be the same.

In technologies that are geared towards delivering audit outcomes this is easier. First, if you collect and retain data, provide an easy interface to go from results to the underlying cases in the source data, it is possible to take a score/rating/risk and reveal the specifics of what led to it. Secondly, it is vital that the calculations are transparent, i.e. that the methods of calculating risks or the way results are scored is decipherable.

 

Benefits of consistency

This is one obvious gain from technology, the logic is pre-programmed in.  If you take two auditors and give them the same data sets or evidence case files they might draw different conclusions (possibly for valid reasons or due to them having different skill areas or experience), but the same algorithm operating on the same data will produce the same result every time.

Manual evidence gathering suffers a number of drawbacks – it relies on written notes, records of verbal conversations, email trails, spreadsheets, or questionnaire responses in different formats.  Retaining all this in a coherent way is difficult and going back through it even harder.

Using a consistent toolset and consistent data format means that if you need to go back to a data source from a particular network domain three months ago, you will have information that is readily available and readable.  And as stated above, if the source data and evidence is re-examined using a consistent solution, you will get the same calculations, decisions and results.

 

Benefits of systematically generated KPIs, cyber maturity measures and issues

The outputs of any audit process need to provide details of the issues found so that the specific or general cases of the failures can be investigated and resolved.  But for managers, operational teams and businesses, having a view of the KPIs for the security operations process is extremely useful.

Of course, following the “lines of defence” model, an internal or external “formal” audit might simply want the results and a level of trust in how they were calculated; however for operational management and ongoing continuous visibility, the need to derive performance statistics comes into its own.

It is worth noting that there are two dimensions to KPIs:   The assessment of the strength or configuration of a control or policy (how good is the control) and the extent or level of coverage (how widely is it enforced).

To give a view of the technical maturity of a defence you really need to combine these two factors together.  A weak control that is widely implemented or a strong control that provides only partial coverage are both causes for concern.

 

Benefits of separation of process stages

The final area where technology can help is in allowing the separation and distribution of the data gathering, analysis and reporting processes.  It is hard to take the data, evidence and meeting notes from someone else and analyse it. For one thing, is it trustworthy and reliable (in the case of third-party assurance questionnaires perhaps)? Then it is also hard to draw high-level conclusions about the analysis.

If technology allows the data gathering to be performed in a distributed way, say by local site administrators, third-party IT staff or non-expert users BUT in a trustworthy way, then the overhead of the audit process is much reduced. Instead of a team having to conduct multiple visits, interviews or data collection activities the toolset can be provided to the people nearest to the point of collection.

This allows the data analysis and interpretation to be performed centrally by the experts in a particular field or control area. So giving a non-expert user a way to collect and provide relevant and trustworthy audit evidence takes a large bite out of the resource overhead of conducting the audit, for both auditor and auditee.

It also means that a target organisation doesn’t have to manage the issue of allowing auditors to have access to networks, sites, data, accounts and systems to gather the audit evidence as this can be undertaken by existing administrators in the environment.

 

Making the right choice

Technology solutions in the audit process can clearly deliver benefits, however if they are too simplistic or aim to be too clever, they can simply move the problem of providing high levels of audit quality. A rapidly generated AI-based risk score is useful, but if it’s not possible to understand the calculation it is hard to either correct the control issues or trouble shoot the underlying process.

Where technology can assist the audit process, speed up data gathering and analysis, and streamline the generation of high- and low-level outputs it can be a boon.

Technology allows organisations to put trustworthy assurance into the hands of operations teams and managers, consultants and auditors alike to provide flexible, rapid and frequent views of control data and understanding of risk posture. If this can be done in a way that is cognisant of the risks and challenges as we have shown, then auditors and regulators such as the FRC can be satisfied.

 

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Finance

HOW TECHNOLOGY IS CHANGING ACCOUNTING

Mike Whitmire is Co-founder and CEO of FloQast,

 

The fundamentals of accounting have been around for hundreds of years. They’re not likely to change any time soon, other than adapting the way they interact with new business regulations and tax laws. But the day-to-day process of accounting has seen a rapid change in the past few years resulting from disruptive new technology. But, is this a good thing or a bad thing?

Taking the Accounting Department on the Road

Cloud-based technology is one of the most significant shifts in the modern accounting department. If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s the importance of location flexibility for businesses. With cloud accounting platforms and applications, accountants can work from almost anywhere.

Even on a typical, office-based day, cloud tech allows an accounting team to collaborate seamlessly, sharing access between several people in real-time. No need to worry about multiple versions of the financials when the current iteration is always just a click away.

Cloud technology also makes it easier to integrate apps into the base accounting software. In addition to an accounting suite, many companies use inventory software, AR/AP software, and other specialized tools to meet their needs. With so many cloud-based apps available, it’s getting easier and easier to set up an entire ecosystem of apps for your business that sync and integrate seamlessly with one another. Not only does that save time and effort, but it also reduces the chances of mistakes, omissions, and accidental double entries of data from one system to another.

 

Convenience for Accountants and Clients

For those accountants working in private practice or in the public accounting sector, technology and cloud-accounting can be a lifesaver. Files and documents can be uploaded digitally and client work can be handled remotely with no need to ever visit the client’s place of business. This makes for a more flexible and much less disruptive workday for many accountants.

For clients, this is a more convenient way to work too. They no longer need to travel across town to deliver a stack of documents and across town is no longer the limit of their accountant options. They can just as easily work with someone across the state or across the country, allowing them to find the best fit for their business needs. This is a win/win for both parties.

The New Role of Accountants

Technology has all but eliminated some part of the job for accountants, and that can be scary. As

AI takes a bigger role in accounting, many of the manual tasks are being automated. Connected bank feeds and AI can match transactions and even automatically reconcile accounts in some cases. But that doesn’t mean the job of the accountant is disappearing. In fact, it’s the beginning of a whole new role for many accountants.

But those aren’t bad things. Quite the opposite, in fact.

With their time free from the drudgery and monotony of manual data entry (and all that double-checking and second-guessing about typos and transposed digits) more and more accountants are taking on a strategic role. The numbers are beginning to take care of themselves, but businesses still need people who know what the numbers mean and can apply them to business problems.

For example, as technology makes reconciliations easier, the accounting team can get through more reconciliations each month and close the books with more confidence. They now have time to follow through with things like flux analysis and future projections. These strategic moves let the business make better business decisions, backed up by solid financial data.

 

Preparing for the New Accounting Landscape

Adapting to new technology is a key skill for the modern accountant. Those looking to get into the industry, or looking for upward mobility in their accounting career, need to seriously consider upping their tech comfort level.

Accounting degree programs are increasing their focus on technology and creating more tech-savvy accounting grads. Those already in the industry should take the hint and seek out continuing education to increase their own tech skills and understanding.

But the new accountants won’t only need tech skills, they’ll also need greater communication and teamwork skills. As they take on a more strategic and integrated role in the company, accountants will need to work well with other departments and communicate financial information to non-financial team-members. These “soft skills” have been lacking in the caricatured accountant, but they’re making a serious comeback in the new generation.

Conclusion

The future (and present) of accounting is bright. Technology is making the job easier and taking over a lot of the tedious tasks but the job outlook continues to grow. Instead of data entry and number crunching, accountants are free to analyze, strategize, and guide their clients and businesses with their financial insights.

 

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