Advances in technology are helping the finance function reduce operational costs, streamline processes and improve productivity. Thanks to automation, tasks that used to take months to complete are being completed in weeks and those that took weeks to accomplish are getting done in days.
For instance, advanced analytics and robotic process automation are shortening the timelines finance teams require to produce a forecast, perform account reconciliations or close the books.
Technology is enabling more to be done with less and the trend is not expected to go away anytime time soon. A couple of years go the staff size of the finance function was big. CFOs were happy to have separate staff handle AP, AR, Payroll, Bank Reconciliations, Management Accounts etc.
Today the size of the finance function has shrunk significantly. Thanks to shared services centers, outsourcing and process automation. Robots have taken over rules-based, repetitive and transactional tasks that were once performed by humans.
Machine learning algorithms are already replicating highly analytical tasks, analyzing large data sets and churning out insights in real time to support decision making. Although the adoption of machine learning and/or AI tools is not yet widespread it’s only a matter of time before the technology becomes a part of our everyday life.
Implications for finance professionals
In order to stay current and move ahead finance teams need to evolve and adapt to the changing environment.
Some of the skills we have acquired in the past and relied on to get us to the next level are no longer sufficient in the current and future environment. As a result, we have to develop a continuous learning mindset. Learn new ways of doing things, unlearn the old habits and continue to relearn.
For instance, being detailed oriented alone used to be sufficient. Not anymore. Today finance professionals are expected to be commercially aware and broad in their thinking.
Decision makers are searching for collaborative business partners who have a deeper understanding of the operational and strategic challenges facing the business. Problem solvers able to enrich the business with insightful analysis and capable of recommending the right solutions. Team players who understand the markets in which the business operates, its products, competitor business and the drivers of performance as a whole.
Build a big picture perspective of the business
If finance is to be recognized as a valuable strategic business partner we need to build a big picture perspective of the business and be able to recognize the role and contribution of each function, individual, process and activity in achieving the objectives of the company. Knowing debits and credits alone will not take us far.
With the business environment constantly changing, we need to shift our focus from historical analysis to forward looking.
Many at times we spend a lot of time producing variance analysis reports that do not drive the right conclusions and actions out of the insights. For example, simply commenting sales for the month are up 5% or operational costs are down by $1MM is not insightful enough to support key decision making.
We need to understand what the numbers mean and the real drivers behind them. For example, did sales increase because of new customers, price increases, improved demand, enhanced marketing efforts, new product lines, entry into new markets, product bundling?
CFOs and their teams need to be doing more than running the financial side of the business – recording revenues and costs. Instead, they should help the business adapt and make insight-driven strategic turns without throwing off alignment between broad strategy and day-to-day execution.
Part of building a bigger picture perspective of the business requires a finance function that is more flexible and collaborative than in the past and knows how to manage its internal working relationships. A finance function that is capable of partnering with operations instead of always pointing out what operations is always doing wrong.
Spending the majority of our time behind our desks preparing financial statements and regulatory compliance reports will not help us become more strategic and commercially aware. We need to get interested in the affairs of the business. Avail ourselves for projects that take us out of our comfort zones. Regularly interact with colleagues outside finance to get a deeper understanding of the drivers of the business, what projects the teams are working on, how they align with the broader strategy, the risks and challenges they are facing and recommend solutions.
If you are used to sitting behind a computer all day, leaving your desk to engage with the business is initially unnerving but the more you do it the more confidence you gather. Evolving priorities require a finance professional with a well-honed ability to communicate, build trust and maintain collaborative relationships with the rest of the business.
Driving business growth versus cost cutting
Too often finance teams are focused on cost cutting activities in order to improve the bottom line instead of identifying alternative ways of driving up top line growth. Today’s global companies are operating in a world of complex supply chains, intense competition, shifting customer expectations, increased regulatory demands, emerging operating models and exposure to significant business risk. Cost reduction alone will not help the business sustain its competitive relevance in this world.
The problem with many cost optimization programmes is that they fail to deliver the expected outcomes. It is not about how much you cut the costs, rather where you channel resources to differentiate, stimulate growth and achieve strategic objectives. Finance needs to look beyond narrowly defined functional or organizational structures when identifying candidates for cost cutting and take a holistic, end-to-end view of costs across the whole organization. This will help separate the strategically-aligned good costs from the non-essential bad costs.
With the adoption of big data and analytical tools becoming mainstream, it’s not too late for finance to play catch up. Transitioning to data analytics starts with putting in place a well-structured data and information management foundation and then combining technology with the right analytics and expertise.
Only then can finance transform data into true, actionable business intelligence (on products, customers, markets, process efficiencies, supply chain, competition and business risk) that drives better informed decision making and business growth.
Traditional financial reporting does not provide the actionable information the business needs to make more informed strategic decisions. Today, the business needs to leverage both structured data (which resides in enterprise databases) and unstructured data (email, social media, internet) including analytics to generate insightful analysis that can help drive operational and strategic performance.
For example, finance should be able to collaborate with the marketing function, analyze and interpret customer data to understand customer journeys, and help the function design and implement better customer/brand strategies and responses.
Finance cannot expect to drive business growth by continuously doing the same things. It’s not about this is how we have always done things here. Ask yourselves: what is the right way of doing things in today’s disruptive world and what are the expectations of the business?