Helping FE stay ahead with cloud-based technology by Simon Kearsley, CEO of bluQube
Further education has endured a turbulent few years, with the Covid-19 pandemic requiring institutions to pivot almost overnight to enable digital and remote learning, institutions having to forge a way in the ‘new normal’, ongoing funding constraints, staff shortages and a time-poor workforce looking to maintain and continually drive high standards. With many of the same challenges set to continue into 2023, FE institutions need to make sure their tools and technologies – from teaching platforms to back-office systems - are working as hard for them as possible to relieve some of the burden and ensure that employees can focus their time and energy on their core job functions.
This is especially true when it comes to accounting. Accounting and finance professionals within the education sector hold a significant amount of responsibility. From budgets and grant management to reporting and bookkeeping, each of these tasks play a key role in the smooth running of the organisation and its financial health. Within the FE sector, institutions have been very responsive to cloud-based accounting software as a digital solution to manage the challenges they face.
As the time approaches for FE institutions to review the effectiveness of their internal systems, it's key that they understand and make use of the features and functions at their disposal to improve visibility of data, free up staff resource and boost operational efficiencies. Here are just some of the key software requirements forward-thinking FE institutions should be looking for in order to stay ahead.
The fundamental ingredients
There are several features of cloud accounting software that we tend to take for granted, but when exploring a new solution, it’s crucial to check it delivers these things as standard, and in a way that suits the organisation. Intuitivity is one key factor that is often overlooked. The solution must be capable of carrying out all the necessary functions and processes with ease, enabling time poor staff to understand and find their way around it straight away without having to rely on lengthy instructions or guidance manuals. Staff simply don’t have the time to invest in navigating complex new systems or rewriting existing processes to fit.
Multi-device access from anywhere is another basic – but crucial – feature. At the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, many finance teams across the country experienced an initial slowdown, as many systems and processes weren’t set up for remote access. With remote or hybrid working here to stay for many finance professionals, secure access from anywhere is vital to continuity of operations.
Automation capability should also be a key consideration, allowing teams to automate more time consuming manual processes and move away from monotonous and error-prone tasks like data entry. Instead, their time can be reallocated to activities that benefit from manual input and strategic thinking.
Visibility of data and reporting
As well as enabling the day-to-day processes and operations, finance and accounting systems should also provide a higher level overview of accounts to give professionals the bigger picture. Crystal clear reporting is key in helping to identify costly inefficiencies, and if and where essential revenue may be going missing. Not only does this help FE institutions make data-driven decisions, but it also helps them remain more agile in the face of cost restrictions and funding challenges.
Just as the finance department never operates in silos, financial software needs to be able to integrate with the necessary programmes and processes to be truly effective. Interoperability, referring to when software from different third-party suppliers interacts and shares information in real time without human intervention, is no longer seen as a ‘special’ or advanced feature of accounting software. It’s becoming increasingly essential to enable institutions to overcome the difficulties created by disparate systems and data silos and means that information only needs to be input once for it to be replicated across all systems used by the organisation automatically.
This can be invaluable in tackling the spike in workload usually experienced by FE institutions in the Autumn when enrolling students for the new academic year. In our experience working with numerous FE partners, each annual enrolment might mean anything from 20,000-40,000 new students; all of whom must be entered into the institution’s myriad of systems individually, taking dozens of hours and leaving significant potential for human error. With interoperability, staff only need to enter the information once for it to be automatically updated across all other systems, resulting in significant time savings and greater accuracy. Not only this, but interoperable systems can also help increase job satisfaction and fulfilment for these employees, freeing up more of their time to spend on more interesting and strategic tasks that can make a real impact.
Furthermore, when effectively interacting with and leveraging data from other areas of the business, financial software can become a more powerful tool for performance insight and act as a wider decision support mechanism.
While AI might still seem like a far-off development, its uses and application can be more practical and immediate than many thought. And, while it may not be high on the list of priorities when looking for a new accounting system, FE institutions should not be closed off to or deterred by it. It can be used to make software more proactive and helpful to customers, asking questions and highlighting issues or areas that may need attention, for example, asking, ‘have you forgotten to attach an invoice?’ or suggesting actions that it can handle automatically, like, ‘would you like me to chase this payment?’
There are undoubtedly more complex and powerful use cases for it that will become more accessible in future, but for now, FE institutions should remain open to the benefits AI can bring and how it might transform operations in future.
While these features and functions aren’t entirely advanced or specialist, they’re essential to ending silos, improving data visibility and reporting, freeing up staff time and making roles more strategic and fulfilling, and providing a crucial tool for performance insight and decision support mechanism. Their importance – and necessity – within FE institutions shouldn’t be overlooked as FE institutions need accounting systems to do more than simply enable basic finance processes, and look to them as more of a mission-critical, interconnected solution that underpins wider business functions.
Find out more about bluQube at www.bluqube.co.uk.