Outsourcing and Skeuomorphs

So I learned a new word today: skeuomorph. I figured a logical extension of the elementary school advice to try using a new word in a sentence would be to use it in a blog post. And it wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. In fact, I was quickly inspired.

But first, what is a skeuomorph? According to Wiktionary.org, a skeuomorph is “a design feature copied from a similar feature in another object, even when not functionally necessary.Wikipedia explains that the term has been applied to material objects since 1890, but is now also used to describe computer interfaces. It was in this context that I first encountered the word – specifically, in a Fortune magazine article by Adam Lashinsky about Apple, which referenced Steve Jobs’ predilection for graphical user interfaces that emulate physical objects (e.g., envelope icons for email, folder icons for file directories, notebook paper background for Apple’s mobile “Notes” app, etc.). After Googling “skeuomorph,” I found a great explanation of the concept on the BBC News Magazine site.

So what, exactly, is the connection of skeuomorphism to finance and accounting outsourcing? As Wikipedia notes, “Even systems that do not employ literal images of some physical object frequently contain skeuomorphic elements… Skeuomorphs need not be visual.” When we explain how our financial management outsourcing solution works, we talk about fulfilling the roles of a bookkeeper, accounting manager, controller and CFO. Because most entrepreneurs and CEOs understand the financial function in terms of these internal positions that historically comprise an accounting and finance department, it has become natural to refer to these same roles when explaining how outsourcing works. But they are only metaphors. By describing and categorizing our services in the context of these roles, we are using skeuomorphs: making the new accessible and understandable by likening it to the old way of doing things. Why? Because what Wikipedia says about interactions with computer devices can be applied to the common view of the finance and accounting function: it is cultural and learned in society, and therefore difficult to remove.

The aforementioned Fortune article notes that, with iOS7, Apple is moving away from skeuomorphism. And perhaps we should start doing the same when we talk about finance and accounting outsourcing. We are not simply filling the old roles of bookkeeper, accounting manager, controller and CFO. We are offering a completely new and better way to meet the need for reliable accounting and disciplined financial management; we are redefining how the finance and accounting function is carried out. As in the very definition of a skeuomorph, a comparison to the old roles is not functionally necessary. The focus should be on activities and deliverables, the skill sets required, and the results sought, not the traditional roles. A recent new client, for example, initially saw a need to fill the position vacated by its part-time CFO – but now realizes that the problems they are trying to solve, and the solutions they really need, require several different people with different skill sets, unlikely to be found in one CFO. For this client, outsourcing is a solution that means more than just plugging the CFO hole; our solution is designed to deliver the necessary financial leadership, technical accounting, planning and analysis skills that are lacking at more than one level in the organization. Our outsourcing solution meets these needs, with fractional time from more than one professional; it does not simply plug one person into a pre-defined “CFO” position.

Apple and other technology designers can only move away from skeuomorphism because digital applications are becoming as familiar as the original physical objects that they emulated. But skeuomorphs provided the bridge from physical to digital that enabled the successful adoption of these modern technologies in the first place. Similarly, the metaphors of bookkeeper, accounting manager, controller and CFO provide a link from the old ways of staffing an accounting and finance function, to the new way of outsourcing it. As it becomes evident that the new way is superior, we, too, can abandon skeuomorphism.