By Marc Dukes, Client Services Director at investment reporting specialist Factbook.
As investment managers scale up, their businesses become more complex and their clients more diverse, the need to speed up the production and delivery of client reports becomes ever more critical.
Technology has been a vital enabler for the client reporting process and the automation of client reporting is becoming widespread. There are, however, important issues that should be considered prior to embarking on the reporting automation journey.
To begin with, regardless of the nature of the reports that a firm is looking to automate, one simple fact holds true: it’s all about the data. Always. To populate reports, reliable content sources are needed. Comprehensive data sources, in machine-readable formats and consistently presented, are vital to the automation process.
A key reason for automating report production is risk reduction. Ideally the reporting process will be fed with data that has been sourced as far upstream as possible, so that it passes through as few hands and secondary processes as possible. In this way an investment manager can increase the consistency of presentation and reduce the risks created by manual handling and repeated reprocessing of data.
Rather than relying on some old spreadsheet, investment managers need to ask themselves where the data originates from and whether that source can feed the automation process directly. The net effect will be reduced opportunities for data inconsistency or error and mitigated process risk.
Design also plays an important part. For any client reporting automation process, templates need to be created that can support the rendering of every report variant. This has a number of significant impacts.
Firstly, the more report templates that need to be created, the longer the implementation will take and the more it will cost. Rationalising the variables between similar reports in order to aid the implementation process and ensure that the final outputs are as consistent in look and feel as possible is key. Besides, it is likely that the range of reports will have evolved and diverged over time. It is important to consider whether that divergence is desirable or even necessary.
Secondly, automating the reporting process will usually mean that reports will be consistently rendered from month to month. This can often be at odds with what certain stakeholders are used to; they may have become accustomed to being able to request frequent changes to the content or layout of reports from production to production. Accommodating this via an automated process is challenging and potentially costly. Once again, consistency is paramount.
It is also possible that some presentational objects such as charts won’t be suitable for automation, so one will need to consider whether there could be a better way to present the content.
There might also be implications in terms of the scheduling and structure of the production process. Indeed, if the automation process delivers on its promise, the time taken to generate the reports should be drastically reduced. Paradoxically though, this truncation of timescales can lead to process bottlenecks which were previously not apparent due to the greater duration of the manual production process. Careful design processes and scheduling will maximise the benefits and avoid bottlenecks.
In order to get the most out of the automated process, investment managers will need to carry out a wholesale review of everything, from report structure and content, production scheduling, process design, content delivery to report sign-off.
They also will need to take stakeholders on that journey – they need to buy into the process. This is important not only to neutralise potential resistance, but to avoid processes which inherit the deficiencies of the existing operating model. To borrow a well-known phrase, ‘change what you cannot accept and accept what you cannot change’. The balance achieved between those two will largely be determined by the degree to which stakeholders buy into the vision.
For a reporting automation project to go as smoothly as possible, and for it to be delivering benefits at the earliest opportunity, the input from the team will be fundamental.
Finally, resourcing of the project is paramount. For a reporting automation project to go as smoothly as possible, and for it to be delivering benefits at the earliest opportunity, the input from the team will be fundamental. Unfortunately, experts and practitioners who will need to contribute to the project are also the ones who will be tied-up with the ‘business as usual’ (BAU) of the current process. So how does one balance the needs of the project with other BAU obligations in such a way as to gain the greatest possible project benefits in the shortest possible time?
This question is not as intractable as it may first appear. What it does require, however, is clear forward planning by the project leader and project teammates, and a vendor partner that is prepared to be flexible during the transition.
To conclude, whether one is automating for the first time or not, the above points remain the important issues to consider before setting out on an automation journey. Creating reports manually is by its very nature time-consuming. Automation will help reduce reporting risk, improve timelines and increase throughput without undue increases in fixed costs or headcount. It will also maintain reporting quality without compromising standards.