Spreadsheet Risks in Banks

No other industry perhaps handles such large volumes of critical financial data more than the banking industry. For decades now, spreadsheets have become permanent fixtures in the front-line reporting tool sets of banks, providing organised information when and where needed.

But as banks enter into a period of heightened credit risks, elevated levels of fraud, and greater regulatory scrutiny, many are wondering if continued reliance on spreadsheets is a wise decision for banks today.

The downfall of Lehman Brothers which eventually led to its filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on September 15, 2008, served as a wake up call for many institutions across the globe to make a serious examination of their own risk management practices. But would these reforms include evaluating the security of user developed applications (UDAs), the most common of which are spreadsheets, and putting specific guidelines as to when they can – or cannot be – used?

Banks and Spreadsheet Use

Banks have been known to utilise spreadsheets systems for many critical functions because most personnel are well-acquainted with them, and the freedom of being able to develop customised reports without needing to consult with the IT department offers flexibility and convenience. In fact, more than having a way to do financial budgeting and analysing customer profitability, even loan officers and trade managers have become reliant on spreadsheets for risk management reporting and for making underwriting decisions.

But there are more than a few drawbacks to using spreadsheets for these tasks, and the sooner bank executives realise these, the sooner they can adopt better solutions.

General Limitations

Spreadsheets are far from being data base systems and yet more often than not, they are expected to act as such, with figures constantly added and formulas edited to produce the presumably right set of reports.

In addition, data integrity is always a cause for concern as most values in spreadsheets are entered as manual inputs. Even the mere misplacement of a comma or a negative sign, or an inadvertent ?edit? to a formula can also be a source of significant changes in the outcome.

Confidentiality risk is also another drawback of the use of spreadsheets in banks as these tools do not have adequate?access controls to limit access to only authorised individuals. Pertinent financial information that fall into the wrong hands can lead to a whole new set of problems including the possibility of fraud.

Risks in Trading

For trading transactions, spreadsheets can prove to be of immense use – but only for small market volumes. As trade volumes increase and the types vary, spreadsheets are no longer a viable solution and may likely become more of a hindrance, with calculations taking longer in the face of bigger transaction amounts and growing transaction data.

And in trading, there is always the need for rigorous computational functions. Computing for the Value at Risk (VaR) for large portfolios for instance, is simply way beyond the capabilities of spreadsheets. Banks that persist in using them are increasing the risk of loss on those portfolios. Or, they can be opening up?opportunities for fraud?as Allied Irish Bank (in the case of John Rusnak – $690 million) learned the hard way.

Risks in Underwriting

Bankers who use spreadsheets as their main source of information for underwriting procedures also face certain limitations. Loan transactions require that borrowers? financial data be centralised and easily accessible to risk officers and lending officers involved in making decisions. With spreadsheets, there is no simple and secure way of doing that. Information can be pulled from different sources – individual tax returns, corporate tax documents, partnership documents, audited financial statements – hence there is difficulty in verifying that these reports adhere to underwriting policies.

Spreadsheet control and monitoring

Financial institutions which are having difficulty weaning themselves from the convenience and simplicity that spreadsheets offer are looking for possible control solutions. Essentially, they want to find ways that allow them to continue using these UDAs and yet somehow eliminate the?spreadsheet risks?and limitations involved.

Still, the debate goes back and forth on whether adequate control measures can be implemented on spreadsheets so that that the risks are mitigated. Many services have come forward to herald innovative solutions for better spreadsheet management. But at the end of the day, there really is no guarantee that such solutions would suffice.

More Spreadsheet Blogs


Spreadsheet Risks in Banks


Top 10 Disadvantages of Spreadsheets


Disadvantages of Spreadsheets – obstacles to compliance in the Healthcare Industry


How Internal Auditors can win the War against Spreadsheet Fraud


Spreadsheet Reporting – No Room in your company in an age of Business Intelligence


Still looking for a Way to Consolidate Excel Spreadsheets?


Disadvantages of Spreadsheets


Spreadsheet woes – ill equipped for an Agile Business Environment


Spreadsheet Fraud


Spreadsheet Woes – Limited features for easy adoption of a control framework


Spreadsheet woes – Burden in SOX Compliance and other Regulations


Spreadsheet Risk Issues


Server Application Solutions – Don’t let Spreadsheets hold your Business back


Why Spreadsheets can send the pillars of Solvency II crashing down

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How to Reduce Costs when Complying with SOX 404

Section 404 contains the most onerous and most costly requirements you’ll ever encounter in the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX). In this article, we?ll take a closer look at the salient points of this contentious piece of legislation as it relates to IT. We?ll also explain why companies are encountering difficulties in complying with it.

Then as soon as we’ve tackled the main issues of this section and identify the pitfalls of compliance, we can then proceed with a discussion of what successful CIOs have done to eliminate those difficulties and consequently bring down their organisation’s IT compliance costs. From this post, you can glean insights that can help you plan a cost-effective way of achieving IT compliance with SOX.

SOX 404 in a nutshell

Section 404 of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, entitled Management Assessment of Internal Controls, requires public companies covered by the Act to submit an annual report featuring an assessment of their company?s internal controls.

This ?internal control report? should state management’s responsibility in establishing/maintaining an adequate structure and a set of procedures for internal control over your company?s financial reporting processes. It should also contain an assessment of the effectiveness of those controls as of the end of your most recent fiscal year.

Because SOX also requires the public accounting firm that conducts your audit reports to attest to and report on your assessments, you can’t just make baseless claims regarding the effectiveness of your internal controls. As a matter of fact, you are mandated by both SEC and PCAOB to follow widely accepted control frameworks like COSO and COBIT. This framework will serve as a uniform guide for the internal controls you set up, the assessments you arrive at, and the attestation your external auditor reports on.

Why compliance of Section 404 is costly

Regardless which of the widely acceptable control frameworks you end up using, you will always be asked to document and test your controls. These activities can consume a considerable amount of man-hours and bring about additional expenses. Even the mere act of studying the control framework and figuring out how to align your current practices with it can be very tricky and can consume precious time; time that can be used for more productive endeavours.

Of course, there are exceptions. An organisation with highly centralised operations can experience relative ease and low costs while implementing SOX 404. But if your organisation follows a largely decentralised operation model, e.g. if you still make extensive use of spreadsheets in all your offices, then you’ll surely encounter many obstacles.

According to one survey conducted by FEI (Financial Executives International), an organisation that carried out a series of SOX-compliance-related surveys since the first year of SOX adoption, respondents with centralised operations enjoyed lower costs of compliance compared to those with decentralised operations. For example, in 2007, those with decentralised operations spent 30.1 % more for compliance than those with centralised operations.

The main reason for this disparity lies in the disorganised and complicated nature of spreadsheet systems.

Read why spreadsheets post a burden when complying with SOX and other regulations.

Unfortunately, a large number of companies still rely heavily on spreadsheets. Even those with expensive BI (Business Intelligence) systems still use spreadsheets as an ad-hoc tool for data processing and reporting.

Because compliance with Section 404 involves a significant amount of fixed costs, smaller companies tend to feel the impact more. This has been highlighted in the ?Final Report of the Advisory Committee on Smaller Public Companies? published on April 23, 2006. In that report, which can be downloaded from the official website of the US Securities and Exchange Commission, it was shown that:

  • Companies with over $5 Billion revenues spent only about 0.06% of revenues on Section 404 implementation
  • Companies with revenues between $1B – $4.9B spent about 0.16%
  • Companies with revenues between $500M – $999M spent about 0.27%
  • Companies with revenues between $100M – $499M spent about 0.53%
  • Companies with revenues less than $100M spent a whopping 2.55% on Section 404

Therefore, not only can you discern a relationship between the size of a company and the amount that the company ends up spending for SOX 404 relative to its revenues, but you can also clearly see that the unfavourable impact of Section 404 spending is considerably more pronounced in the smallest companies. Hence, the smaller the company is, the more crucial it is for that company to find ways that can bring down the costs of Section 404 implementation.

How to alleviate costs of section 404

If you recall the FEI survey mentioned earlier, it was shown that organisations with decentralised operations usually ended up spending more for SOX 404 implementation than those that had a more centralized model. Then in the ?Final Report of the Advisory Committee on Smaller Public Companies?, it was also shown that public companies with the smallest revenues suffered a similar fate.

Can we draw a line connecting those two? Does it simply mean that large spending on SOX affects two sets of companies, i.e., those that have decentralised operations and those that are small? Or can there be an even deeper implication? Might it not be possible that these two sets are actually one and the same?

From our experience, small companies are less inclined to spend on server based solutions compared to the big ones. As a result, it is within this group of small companies where you can find a proliferation of spreadsheet systems. In other words, small companies are more likely to follow a decentralised model. Spreadsheets were not designed to implement strict control features, so if you want to apply a control framework on a spreadsheet-based system, it won’t be easy.

For example, how are you going to conduct testing on every single spreadsheet cell that plays a role in financial reporting when the spreadsheets involved in the financial reporting process are distributed across different workstations in different offices in an organisation with a countrywide operation?

It’s really not a trivial problem.

Based on the FEI survey however, the big companies have already found a solution – employing a server-based system.

Typical server based systems, which of course espouse a centralised model, already come with built-in controls. If you need to modify or add more controls, then you can do so with relative ease because practically everything you need to do can be carried out in just one place.

For instance, if you need to implement high availability or perform backups, you can easily apply redundancy in a cost-effective way – e.g. through virtualisation – if you already have a server-based system. Aside from cost-savings in SOX 404 implementation, server-based systems also offer a host of other benefits. Click that link to learn more.

Not sure how to get started on a cost-effective IT compliance initiative for SOX? You might want to read our post How To Get Started With Your IT Compliance Efforts for SOX.?

Is Change Management a Myth or a Possibility

The theory that it is possible to manage organisational change (Change Management) in a particular direction has done the rounds for quite some time, but is it true about Change Management. Was Barrack Obama correct when he said, ?Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we have been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.?
Or, was business coach Kelly A Morgan more on the button when she commented, ?Changes are inevitable and not always controllable. What can be controlled is how you manage, react to, and work through the change process.? Let us consult the evidence and see what statisticians say.

What the Melcrum Report Tells Us

Melcrum are ?internal communication specialists who work alongside leaders and teams around the globe to build skills and best practice in internal communication.? They published a report after researching over 1,000 companies that attempted change management and advised:

? More than 50% report improved customer satisfaction

? 33% report higher productivity

? 28% report improvements in employee advocacy

? 27% improved status as a great place to work

? 27% report increased profitability

? 25% report improved absenteeism

Sounds great until we flip the mirror around and consider what the majority apparently said:

? 50% had no improvement in customer service

? 67% did not report increased productivity

? 72% did not note improvements in employee advocacy

? 73% had no improved status among job seekers

? 73% did not report increased profitability

? 75% did not report any reduction of employee absenteeism

This shows it is still a great idea to hear what all parties have to say before reaching a conclusion. You may be interested to know the Melcrum report gave rise to the legend that 70% of organisation change initiatives fail. This finding has repeated numerous times. Let’s hear what the psychologists have to say next.

There is a certain amount of truth in the old adage that says, ?You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make him drink.? Which of us has not said, ?Another flavour of the week ? better keep heads down until it passes? during a spell in the corporate world. You cannot change an organisation, but you can change an individual.

At the height of the Nazi occupation of 1942, French philosopher-writer Antoine de Saint-Exup?ry said, ?A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single man contemplates it, bearing within him the image of a cathedral?. Psychology Today suggests five false assumptions change management rests upon, THAT ARE SIMPLY NOT TRUE.

1. The external world is orderly, stable, predictable and can be managed

2. Change managers are objective, and do not import their personal bias

3. The world is static and orderly and can be changed in linear steps

4. There is a neutral starting point where we can gather all participants

5. Change is worthy in itself, because all change is an improvement

Leo Tolstoy wrote, ?Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.? A prophet can work no miracles unless the people believe. From the foregoing, it is evident that change management of an organisation is a 70% impossibility, but encouraging an individual to grow is another matter.

A McKinsey Report titled Change Leader, Change Thyself fingers unbelieving managers as the most effective stumbling stones to change management. To change as individuals ? and perhaps collectively change as organisations ? we need to ?come to our own full richness?, and as shepherds lead our flock to their ?promised land?, whatever that may be. Conversely, herding our flock with a pack of sheepdogs extinguishes that most precious thing of all, human inspiration.

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Job & Staff Scheduling with FieldElite Mobile Service Management Software

Field Service Management (FSM) software systems are designed to enable you to manage your mobile workforce from a central point- and do away with the paperwork involved with the process. They connect your technicians on the ground (via app on their phones), to the staff at the head office- who have an interactive dashboard accessed through their browsers. The office team will have access to all the jobs that are to be handled by the company, simplifying the management process and taking away the risks that come with manual data entry. Here, we will walk you through a quick process of scheduling a job for your personnel with FieldElite.

Say you are a HVAC contractor, licensed, bonded and insured. You’ve made quite a name for yourself in the industry, and have a wide range of clients- in both residential and commercial establishments. Consequently, you also have a large workforce to attend to the different situations- from installing to repair and maintenance. One of your clients- let’s call them ABC Computer Supplies, has an issue with their HVAC unit- perhaps a pipe is leaking. It needs to be fixed, and ABC have booked an appointment.? Your goal here is to get one of your personnel to handle the task as soon as possible, and this field service scheduling software comes in handy.

There are two approaches that you can take:

1. Job Scheduling

From your Dashboard, on the left-hand side you will see the menu option. Clicking on Jobs, will take you to all jobs carried out by your company.

FieldElite

The filters will allow you to view different categories of jobs:

  • Complaint– This means that there was an issue with on ground during the task delivery, and the client lodged a complaint.
  • On hold– Here, different aspects can cause a job to be paused- like when spare parts or equipment required for repair jobs have been ordered, and one needs to wait for them to be shipped in from a different location.
  • Pending– This is basically your in-tray, a list of jobs that are to be carried out.
  • In Progress– The technicians are on the ground, attending to the client’s needs, and you’re getting routine updates from them.
  • Incomplete– Though the job had been assigned to the required technician, it was not completed in the set amount of time, thus requiring an additional visit to the site. Given that the FSM solution increases the first-time fix rate, cases of ?incomplete tasks? are reduced.
  • Complete– The task is successfully done and the customer has appended their e-signature, and now it can be invoiced.
  • Cancelled Invoice– The head office determines that a particular invoice shouldn’t be paid, and thus cancels it.

Our focus here is the pending tasks, so use this filter. ABC’s HVAC job will be among these. Clicking on its Job ID will open up the details of the task, with such an Update Job window:

FieldElite Job

This section contains all the information of the job- both past and present, which you can update in real-time. Any changes will be recorded by the system and can be viewed on the “Audit” tab.

As you can see here, the HVAC repair job is both “pending” and “urgent”. No one really likes sitting in an office that feels like an oven. Being the headquarters, it’s likely handles lots of foot traffic, and the damaged HVAC unit will make the working conditions really difficult. It’s best not to keep the client waiting, right?

So, head on over to the Supervisor and Workers section (on the same “Details” tab), and select the personnel suited for the task.

FieldElite Job Details

Set the time that the task will take for your technician, and once satisfied with the details of the job, click on Update. Voila! You’re done.

FieldElite Job Update

Immediately this happens, the worker received a notification on their app, telling them that they have been assigned the job.

From the app, the technician will be able to view the specifics of the HVAC job, including notes and attachments that you can add directly from your own dashboard, such as schematics of the building and reports from other technicians who installed the air conditioning system for the facility. You also get to add products that will be required for the task- like the pipe and panel mounted socket shown here. As the system also includes an inventory of the products used, their quantity and costs, you will be able to keep an accurate record of the supplies as they as are used.

As such, the field workers will not have to keep coming back to the central office to get documents and reports of new tasks, or walk around with bulky files. When they are carrying out the job, they will also be able to keep the staff at the office updated about its progress, through the chat feature on the mobile app, taking photos and adding notes as required.

2. Staff Scheduling

With this approach, the perspective is basically: ?So I have a couple of jobs- which of my employees has time to handle them?? The FSM allows you to optimise your productivity- by ensuring that you get the most out of the staff work hours, and avoid cases of jobs going into overtime.

Follow these steps:

  1. Select ?Scheduler? from the left-hand side of the window. You will have a view of the workers of your company and how their day is planned out, and a summary of the unassigned jobs.

Here, you can tell whose busy, and who can have a new task assigned to them at the click of a button- which is far more effective than keeping on jotting down points in your diary or going through files of documents.

If the job has yet to be added to the system- like for the cases of new clients, simply click on the ?Add Job? button and key in its details.

2. Scroll down, you will see a list of unassigned jobs.

unassigned jobs

3. Next, click on the edit button under ?Actions?. This will take you to the same ?Update Job? window described in the first approach, in order to assign the preferred worker to the role.

This real-time dispatching avoids cases of your desk getting cluttered with paper sheets, and prevents duplicate entries as each job has its own ID and task details- from the scheduling to the invoicing. In this case, your HVAC technician will have access to the information needed right at the palm of their hand, to ensure that the task at ABC?s head office goes seamlessly. The optimised schedule will enable the task to be carried out faster- restoring normalcy to your client’s facility.? In case the client’s location is on the route that one of your technicians takes while heading home, you can take advantage of this by giving them the task towards the end of their working day- thus clearing more of your backlog, sorting out your client, and easing your technician?s worries about getting home late.

As you can see, the field service scheduling software enables you to easily and efficiently handle your workflow, avoid the mess that is associated with manual documentation and cases of your employees getting conflicting schedules and overlaps- which would strain them and dampen their morale. Streamlining your workflow and standardising operations ultimately results in increased customer satisfaction.

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