Finance Must Embrace Digital or Risk Being Left Behind




The face of the finance function is changing every day but do we really understand what this means in reality? I love to mentor young professionals and offer them advice that can help them propel their careers forward. One of the many questions I often get asked is “With all the technological advancements taking place, what does this mean for current and future finance professionals, as well the finance function as a whole?”

A lot has been written about the current digital revolution taking over specific jobs performed by humans and making them redundant. One of the jobs being accounting and finance. No wonder finance professionals are worried whether they will still be in employment in the next five years, ten years or not too distant future.

Think of robotics, artificial intelligence and machine learning. These new technologies are taught to replicate human decision making and perform rules-based, repetitive activities.

Traditionally, finance professionals have joined the finance organization via the accounting route. An individual would go to university, earn a Bachelors in Commerce, upon graduating register with a professional accounting body such as ACCA, CIMA, CPA and CMA. Undergo a three-year training program and bingo, your finance career is birthed.

Fast-forward to the current digital age. The finance landscape has significantly changed. Rapid environmental changes, shifting customer behaviours and technological breakthroughs are all turning business models upside-down and upending conventional wisdom. This new operating model demands finance professionals to have a different skill set.

Having technical competences alone is no longer a hundred percent determinant for success.

We now live and conduct business in a hugely connected and better informed world. Thanks to social media and IoT. Social media is allowing us to stay in touch with colleagues hundreds of miles away from us. Through IoT, buildings and other items are now technologically connected allowing data to be gathered, exchanged and analysed to generate key decision-making insights.

Cloud is Driving Finance Transformation

Cloud-based applications are enabling CFOs to do more with less, at the same time modernizing and transforming finance. These solutions have the capability to integrate external data and optimize decision-making. They allow finance executives to have full data visibility, identify correlations and trends, as well as key drivers of operational performance and financial outcomes.

One example of cloud-based solution that is making waves is Syft, a cloud analytics platform that directly links into your existing accounting cloud software and instantly generates easy to interpret graphs and reports for your business.

The challenge for many CFOs today is unlocking critical business insights from their data. The insights they are looking for lay buried in disconnected, legacy ERP systems that are struggling to keep pace with today’s information needs of the business. Most of these legacy systems operate in silos and do not communicate with each other.

In the ongoing digital revolution, integration is the new information paradigm. Where silos were the norm, organizations today must seek to share critical data among business operations to manage costs and coalesce company strategy.

Not only does cloud integrate external data, it also simplifies the cost structure of the business, help forecast with greater precision and potentially close books faster. In addition to having analytics embedded within the applications, these cloud-based financial systems are designed from the ground with the end-users’ real-time information requirements in mind.

This is different from the traditional ERP systems that lack customer specifications and customization, and are build for standard adoption. In today’s information age, organizations have different information needs, specific to their strategic direction and are not keen on adopting the herd mentality.

Investing in cloud computing and SaaS often results in reduced finance and IT costs mainly because of reduced up-front capital expenditures. With cloud-based applications, the focus shifts from capital expenditures to operational expenditures (subscription-based) as there is no need to have the financial system set up on business premises.

Unlike traditional, on premise financial systems which require the software providers’ IT support team to visit your offices to service or upgrade the system, cloud-based platforms are easily updated remotely allowing you to always work with the latest version, with current features and functionality.

This way, you avoid getting billed for call-out fees and other unnecessary servicing costs.

Reinventing the Finance Function’s Wheel

Technology alone is not the silver bullet, it is an enabler and empowers finance professionals. Rather than look at the ills of this new digital age, why not look at the opportunities presented? Higher demands are being placed on finance to transition from a back office reporter of the past to a trusted business advisor.

In most companies, finance is spending considerable time and effort gathering data and getting to the right numbers instead of analyzing what the numbers mean. In these organizations, a lot of emphasis is placed on transactional processing and reconciliations as opposed to insightful analysis.

Thanks to the digital revolution, finance has an opportunity to move up the value chain. But what does this digital transformation really mean? Does this mean entirely changing what finance does within the business? No. Finance is a decision support function to the business and will always remain so.

What digital transformation means for finance is that the function should take stock of its current deliverables, evaluate priority areas and establish where value should be delivered most, and how, arguably by leveraging new technologies.

This also involves building upon the existing talent and skills. Individuals with a strong technical background still have their place within the function. But what we are saying is that the organization’s talent base must be fit for purpose in this digital age, and aligned to areas of value creation.

Having a finance workforce that is tech savvy, diverse, connected, curious about how the business works, asks the right operational and commercial questions, and understands the application of disruptive digital technologies to drive automation and insight will differentiate great finance functions from those that are simply good.

Build a Positive Business Case for Digital Investment

Companies that have fully grasped the opportunities presented by the current digital revolution are allocating significant resources to IT budgets. The future finance function will have robotics and automation at the core. It is therefore advisable that CFOs jump on the train before it passes through their station.

Just because your organization is not investing in digital does not mean that your competitors are also sleeping. Lessons can be learnt from the demises of Kodak, Blackberry, Borders and Nokia, only to mention a few. These companies failed to set pace in a rapidly changing technological environment and they all paid dearly for their slumber.

Thus, to avoid risking their organizations disappearing overnight, CFOs must build a robust strategic business case for investing in digital and the advantages of harnessing its power. This will help secure the much-needed buy in from senior management. This later group wants to understand why it is critical for the organization to transition to the current digital ecosystem.

If the CFO is able to articulate the complexities the business is currently facing and how they can be addressed by investing in digital, then getting the thumbs up from senior management will not be very onerous.

This is a make or break time for many organizations. The ball is in your court, to either maintain your old-fashioned systems or inadequate business processes or invest today in modern systems for future strategic success.

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