A Practical Approach to Using Artificial Intelligence for CFOs – Part II

Part II The Benefits of AI and What You Will Need to Make It a Success

If you haven’t had a chance to read Part I – Leveraging AI in the CFO Suite yet, please do so before continuing on.

Potential Benefits of AI for Finance

The potential applications of AI are varied and being considered in virtually all sectors and industries. Today, companies are using AI algorithms to predict start up success, block spam messages and comments on social media, and boost webpage ranking. Lawyers are leveraging the same AI software to speed up legal research, and Financial Advisors have recently been piloting AI to monitor huge data sets and provide data-driven decisions. This handful of uses points to an exciting AI-driven future.

The Finance function is no exception. According to one of the CEO survey findings on the performance of their CFOs published by KPMG, although CEOs are increasingly expecting their CFOs to play an important strategic business partnering role, the gap between CEOs expectations and the actual performance of CFOs is still huge.

CEOs believe, instead of helping them understand and address the business challenges they are facing, CFOs are spending significant time on financial reporting as well as compliance and regulatory issues. In the eyes of the CEOs these activities are more rear-view focused and do little to help them prepare for an uncertain and volatile future.

AI has the potential of helping CFOs close this gap. AI technology can help CFOs automate end-to-end financial processes, make them much more efficient than previously, and spend reduced amounts of time and resources on repetitive and laborious tasks. This in turn helps them spend more time on strategic issues partnering with the business.

Examples where Finance can benefit from AI include:

1. Invoice Processing: Employees spend a significant amount of time on Procure to Pay (P2P). Manually entering invoice data resulting in high and costly error rates. Using an AI powered system, CFOs can significantly simplify and automate these manual processes. Because of the many data points on an invoice, an AI system can “learn” the relationship between the individual elements of an invoice. In the future, based on previous experience and data, the system autonomously processes the invoices and allocates them to the appropriate general ledger accounts. If there are any misallocations which are corrected by an expert, the system learns and improves from such interventions.

2. Bank Reconciliations: The reconciliation of account data and receipts as well as the allocation of banking information can be carried out faster and reliably using AI. The software retrieves both sources of data directly. Independently-learning algorithms match the document information with the transactions in the company’s bank accounts. This renders the bank reconciliation process much more reliable, transparent, and most importantly it can be carried out in real-time. This in turn helps CFOs to evaluate in real time the liquidity position of the business.

3. Budgeting and Forecasting: By using AI, CFOs will be able to improve the accuracy of their company’s forecasts, speed up and automate closing the books with lower compliance and auditing costs. Traditionally, CFOs have relied on financial data housed in ERP systems to drive budgeting and planning processes. This reliance on internal data alone to drive key performance decisions excluded important external data. Thanks to today’s advancements in computing processing powers and speed, CFOs are now able to make use of data sources once deemed inaccessible. AI algorithms are able to aggregate data from multiple data sources, analyze this data very quickly (in real time), identify patterns, calculate the probability and impact on business performance and feed that information into the forecasting model.

New skills, expertise and knowledge required to deliver and operate AI systems

As with any other new technology or system, delivering and operating AI systems requires new skills, expertise and knowledge. New technologies are enabling CFOs to do more with less and create added values for the organizations. Finance and Technology used to be miles apart. Not anymore, the two are now joined at the hip. The CFO has to be tech-savvy and possess a stronger understanding of the new technologies in the market, how easily they can be integrated into the company’s overall IT infrastructure, and their potential to drive business performance.

In addition to having knowledge of the technology landscape, these skills are also a prerequisite:

1. Quantitative: To successfully support effective decision making, CFOs have to make sure that the advice given to business partners is evidence-based and not mere guess work. Having strong analytical capabilities is therefore critical. As data volumes and types continue to grow at exponential rates, making sense of it means the traditional skill set of the Office of Finance has to change. New data analysis capabilities are required; developers, data scientists, data engineers, data architects, data visualization experts, behavioral scientists and cyber security experts working together with traditionally trained Finance professionals.

2. Deep Process Knowledge: Tasks where the desired outcome can easily be described and there is limited need for human judgement are generally easier to automate. Not all Finance processes are candidates for automation. Some processes are higher-value adding requiring judgement or creativity, and are therefore not easily automated. The CFO must be able to differentiate between transaction processing and value-add processes and select the suitable ones for applying AI technology.

3. People Management: Leadership, communication and change management abilities are all essential. Whenever there is talk of AI, the conversation ends up being a debate of Machines versus Humans. There is a common belief that AI has evolved to replace workers. We believe this theory is far-fetched. Implementing AI is also about people and not software alone. Automation is a huge opportunity but it’s also about “augmented intelligence”. In other words, combining human intelligence with technology-enabled insights to make smarter choices in the face of uncertainty and complexity.

The CFO must be able to address any employee fears that might arise, clearly communicate the rationale for adopting AI, and motivate and inspire their team to embrace the change. People are often the differentiator between success and failure. If they don’t buy into the vision of what the company is trying to achieve, the initiative is bound to fail. Also, emotions rise high during such initiatives because of conflicting priorities and as such, it is important for the CFO to manage and resolve such conflicts.

A recent article published by McKinsey in the Harvard Business Review¹ highlights another skill that is important as organizations start working with these new technologies – Data Translator. According to the authors of the article, translators are neither data architects nor data engineers. They’re not even necessarily dedicated analytics professionals, and they don’t possess deep technical expertise in programming or modeling.

Translators draw on their domain knowledge to help business leaders identify and prioritize their business problems, based on which will create the highest value when solved. They then tap into their working knowledge of AI and analytics to convey these business goals to the data professionals who will create the models and solutions. Finally, translators ensure that the solution produces insights that the business can interpret and execute on, and, ultimately, communicates the benefits of these insights to business users to drive adoption.

Thus, as the role of CFOs increasingly evolves into that of a strategic advisor or internal consultant, it is imperative that CFOs develop and improve on these data translation skills. In today’s data-driven era, where data science skills are in high demand, not all of us are cut to be data scientists.

¹Nicolaus Henke, Jordan Levine and Paul McInerney, “You Don’t Have to Be a Data Scientist to Fill This Must-Have Analytics Role?” Harvard Business Review, February 5, 2018

Next Up: Part III Where to Invest in AI, How to Measure the Financial Impact and Select Projects

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Leading in Uncertain Times

One of the biggest challenges facing business leaders today is making the right decisions that will ensure their organizations succeed, survive, and remain competitive in an increasingly uncertain and complex environment.

A recent post, The best way to lead in uncertain times may be to throw out the playbook, by Strategy+Business has several good points.

The article is about the COVID-19 pandemic, how global companies navigated through the crisis, and how best to prepare for future disruptions. Here are some key points and my comments.

  • Rather than follow a rigid blueprint, executives must help organizations focus on sensing and responding to unpredictable market conditions.
    • Comment: Senior leaders play a vital role in providing clarity about the organization’s strategic direction, creating alignment on key priorities to ensure the achievement of enterprise objectives, and ensuring the business model is continuously evolving to create and capture value in the face of uncertainty. They must not rest on their laurels and stick to the beliefs and paradigms that got them to where they are today and hope they will carry them through tomorrow. Regulatory changes, new products, competition, markets, technologies, and shifts in customer behavior are upending many outdated assumptions about business success. Thus, the businesses you have today are different from the ones you will need in the future hence the importance of continuously sensing changes in the global economy. Employees and teams often feed off the energy of their leaders and tend to focus their attention where the leader focuses attention. If the leader is comfortable with current business practices and rarely embraces the future or challenges the status quo, then the team is highly likely to follow suit.
  • When it became clear that supply chains and other operations would fracture, organizations began scenario planning to shift production sources, relocate employees, and secure key supplies.
    • Comment: Instead of using scenario planning to anticipate the future and prepare for different outcomes, it seems most of the surveyed organizations used scenario planning as a reactionary tool. Don’t wait for a crisis or a shift in the market to start thinking about the future. The world is always changing. As I wrote in The Resilient Organization, acknowledge that the future is a range of possible outcomes, learn and develop capabilities to map out multiple future scenarios, develop an optimal strategy for each of those scenarios, then continually test the effectiveness of these strategies. This does not necessarily mean that every change in the market will impact your business. Identify early warnings of what might be important and pay closer attention to those signals. In other words, learn to separate the signals from the noise.
  • The pandemic forced the organization’s senior management team to re-examine how all decisions were made.
    • Comment: Bureaucracy has for a very long time stood in the way of innovation and agility. To remain innovative and adapt quickly in a fast-changing world, the organization must have nimble leadership and an empowered workforce where employees at all levels can dream up new ideas and bring them to life. Identifying and acting on emerging threats and potential opportunities is not the job of the leader alone but every team member. To quote Rita McGrath, in her book Seeing Around Corners, she writes, “Being able to detect weak signals that things are changing requires more eyes and ears throughout the organization. The critical information that informs decision-making is often locked in individual brains.” In addition to the internal environment, the leader must also connect with the external environment (customers, competitors, regulators, and other stakeholders), looking for what is changing and how.
  • It’s worthwhile for leaders of any team to absorb the lessons of sense-respond-adapt, even if there is no emergency at hand.
  • Sensing: Treat the far-flung parts of your enterprise as listening stations. The question leaders must ask is, “What are we learning from our interactions beyond the usual information about costs and sales?” Train your people to listen for potentially significant anomalies and ensure that important information is not trapped in organizational silos.
    • Comment: Cost and sales data are lagging indicators that reveal the consequences or outcomes of past activities and decisions. Although this information can help leaders spot trends by looking at patterns over time, it doesn’t help understand the future and inform what needs to be done for the numbers to tell a different story. In addition to lagging indicators, pay attention to current and leading indicators and understand the relationship between these indicators and outcomes.
  • Responding: Improve communication across intra- and inter-organizational boundaries. Leaders should view business continuity as an essential function that acts as connective tissue for the enterprise.
    • Comment: In addition to creating mechanisms that allow the free flow of information both inside and outside the organization, decision-makers should also be comfortable receiving information that challenges their personal view of the world, even if it’s not what they want to hear. Create a culture of psychological safety where people are not afraid to share bad news for fear of getting punished, but rather are acknowledged and rewarded for speaking up. Leveraging the diversity of thought enables leaders to anticipate the future as an organization, decide what to do about it collectively, and then mobilize the organization to do what’s necessary.
  • Adapting: Challenge assumptions, and question orthodoxies. There’s always the temptation to mitigate threats simply by applying existing practices harder and faster. One way to get at those deeper issues and encourage double-loop learning is to ask, “What needs to be true for this to be the right approach?”
    • Comment: In an increasingly uncertain environment, it’s difficult to survive and thrive with an old business model or outdated technologies. Many businesses fail because they continue doing the same thing for too long, and they don’t respond quickly enough and effectively when conditions change. As a leader, stay curious and connected to the external environment, look for market shifts, understand what needs to be regularly refreshed and reimagined, adopt new technologies and capabilities, and adapt in ordinary times but also during times of transition. Unfortunately for many leaders, it’s just more convenient for them to continually downplay the fact that conditions are changing than take the appropriate course of action that drives business success.

How are you preparing your organization for potential future disruptions?

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The Collaborative Organization

These days the term collaboration has become synonymous with organizational culture, creativity, innovation, increased productivity, and success.

Let’s look at the COVID-19 pandemic as an example. At the peak of the crisis, several companies instructed their workers to adopt remote working as a health and safety precautionary measure.

Two years into the pandemic, they are now asking their employees back to the office full time or are planning to adopt a hybrid model.

The need to preserve our collaborative culture and accelerate innovation are two of the top benefits being cited by organizational and team leaders for bringing workers back.

Collaboration is indeed essential for the achievement of team goals, functional objectives, and the overall success of the organization.

Today’s breakthrough innovations are emerging from many interacting teams and collaborative relationships.

When teams, functions, and organizations collaborate, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; group genius emerges, and creativity unfolds.

But, what makes a successful collaboration? What are the key enabling conditions?

  • It extends beyond the boundaries of the organization. Business success is a function of internal and external relationships. Instead of viewing your business in vacuo, understand that you are part of an ecosystem. External to your organization, who do you need to partner with to enhance your value creation processes, achieve/exceed your objectives, or successfully execute your strategy?
  • Ensure the objectives are clear and there is shared understanding by everyone. Unclear objectives are one of the topmost barriers to team and organizational performance.
  • Foster a culture that encourages opinions and ideas that challenge the consensus. People should feel free to share their ideas and not hold back for fear of others penalizing them or thinking less of them. Collaboration is hindered when one or two people dominate the discussion, are arrogant, or don’t think they can learn anything from others.
  • Groups perform more effective under certain circumstances, and less effective under others. There is a tendency to fixate on certain topics of discussion amongst groups which often leaves members distracted from their ideas. To reduce the negative effects of topic fixation, members of the group should be given periods to work alone and switch constantly between individual activity and group interaction.
  • Effective collaboration can happen if the people involved come from diverse backgrounds and possess complementary skills to prevent conformity. The best collective decisions or creative ideas are often a product of different bodies of knowledge, multiple opinions, disagreement, and divergent thought processes, not consensus or compromise.
  • New technologies are making collaboration easier than ever, enabling us to increase our reach and broaden our network. Although new technology helps, it will not make your organization collaborative without the right culture and values in place. First, define what you want to achieve through collaboration then use these tools to promote creative collaboration.

How else are you championing collaboration within your organization to create value and succeed?

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Preparing for Geopolitical Shocks

Geopolitical instability has steadily increased over the past years, and uncertainty in the global economy is at an all-time high. Thanks to globalization and advances in technologies, we now live and work in a tightly interconnected world, one in which the boundaries that previously separated domestic from global issues have disappeared.

Threats are no longer confined to traditional political borders, social structures, and geographic boundaries. Geopolitical shifts have dramatically altered the global economic landscape and brought politics and business together.

The rise of China as an economic and politically influential power has threatened the dominance of the United States as the world’s largest economy. Although the opening of China and a market of 1.4 billion people have benefited both countries, it has also intensified competition and sparked U.S. economic and technological espionage accusations against China, leading to strained relations between the two giants.

U.S. companies operating from China have felt the impact of this tense relationship. The opposite is true for Chinese companies in the U.S.

Across Europe, national populism is on the rise and now a serious force. In 2016, the United Kingdom shocked the world when it voted to leave the European Union, generating reverberating effects across markets.

Banks and financial services companies that once benefited from the EU passporting system have had their cross-border banking and investment services to customers and counterparties in the many EU Member States impacted, causing them to reimagine their value proposition models.

The recent invasion of Ukraine by Russia is another example of a geopolitical event that has had devastating effects on human livelihood and businesses. Although the conflict between the two countries has risen over the years, I think it’s fair to say that few political analysts, governments, and businesses predicted a war to happen.

The war has created a humanitarian crisis, rattled global commodity and energy markets, caused prices to soar, and forced many international companies to temporarily suspend their Russian activities or completely cut ties with the country.

Global supply chains which are already fragile and sensitive due to the COVID-19 pandemic are now facing new challenges in the aftermath of the Russia-Ukraine crisis. Multilateral economic sanctions have been imposed on Russia. A state of affairs that was unthinkable months ago and is now threatening to derail the nascent global economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Given the global domino effect of geopolitical events and the shrinking of the distance between markets and politics, the need to better understand and more effectively mitigate geopolitical risk has become more urgent. The business impacts, whether direct or indirect, vary by company type and industry sector.

Your company may not be able to prevent wars between nations, but you can anticipate and better prepare for geopolitical shocks:

  • Integrate strategy, risk, and performance decision-making. Consideration of risks to business success is an important part of the strategy selection and execution process, not an afterthought.
  • Develop a better understanding of geopolitical trends and how they are changing. For example, what are the megatrends in business, politics, and technology that are making geopolitical risks more diverse, prevalent, and consequential?
  • Assess the links between these geopolitical events and business performance. What are the events that matter most to your business? For example, how might current global political trends pose physical, business, and reputational risks to your parent organization?
  • Anticipate how these trends are likely to play out in the short, medium, and long terms, and develop mitigation strategies for each geopolitical scenario. Proactively anticipate and plan for radically different worlds, instead of reacting to problems as they arise
  • Review your mitigation strategies as the world changes. Are they effective enough in case of a major shock?
  • Develop capabilities for continuous learning to anticipate, address, and recover from geopolitical crises.

What do you think?

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