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