New Report on Finance Transformation From AICPA & CIMA and KPMG

In the past years, finance has been undergoing significant changes in order to streamline its operations and free up more time to partner with the business and support key decision-making processes that drive enterprise performance.

Sadly, not all finance transformation initiatives are achieving the expected outcomes or return on investment outlined in their business cases.

A number of theories are usually cited for these failures, and they include – talent struggles, thinking transformation is a one-time project, concentrating too much on cost cutting, focusing too much on customer satisfaction, lack of strategic alignment, inability to leverage technology in the right way, and insufficient leadership sponsorship.

But how many of these causes are real? We must be careful and not run the risk of focusing more on symptoms, critical though they may be, without getting to the underlying causes of breakdowns in transformation initiatives.

Catastrophic finance transformation initiatives can be prevented, but only if we start thinking about transformation in strikingly new ways.

For starters, this means putting aside the widely-held notion that finance transformation is all about new technologies and systems improvement, and start looking closely at the real causes of failure – the people who lead and implement the change.

People play a pivotal role in the success or failure of any business or organizational transformation initiative. But in an increasingly digital world, are organizations neglecting the people perspective as they work to transform their businesses?

Finance Transformation: The Human Perspective, a new publication from AICPA & CIMA and KPMG seeks to provide an answer to this important question and has some interesting content on why it’s time for finance to invest in its people. Here are some useful excerpts with my comments:

  • Under-investment in people can spell disaster for transformation programmes and the wider organization. As much as employees are responsible for preparing themselves for a new world of learning and work in which people will interact ever more closely with machines, employers should not take the back seat and relax. In fact, finance leaders should take charge and start now to envision what the future finance function looks like, the talent and capabilities that would be required to succeed in this brave new world, and come up with a robust action plan to close any gaps, and be future-ready. Unfortunately, most employers are involved in more talk and less action about the organization’s future talent needs, and it’s time to flip the scale upside down.
  • The key to success is developing the digital, technical and people skills that will bring out the best in the technology, maximizing insight, influence and impact. Machines cannot do everything. In order to achieve improved productivity, a range of human skills in the workplace, from technological expertise to important social, out-of-the box thinking, problem solving and emotional capabilities are also required. Therefore, train your teams to think of new digital tools as team members rather than as competitive threats.
  • Finance professionals must commit to lifelong learning and upskilling, so they can keep pace in this ever-changing business ecosystem. The authors are spot-on. Placing continued trust in the skills, capabilities, habits and behaviors we developed during our professional training to cushion us from this ongoing change is ill-advisable and quickly makes us irrelevant.
  • It’s people not robots, who are the key to better insights and analysis. Simply buying new technology doesn’t help you to truly transform. Technology is an enabler of change, and can be used both for good and bad. The type and quality of data that goes through machine analysis ultimately determines the quality of insights, recommendations and impact generated. Garbage In, Garbage Out. Hence the need to train people in business, data governance and translation skills so that they can monitor and understand where and how these technologies are deployed across the organization. Also, if your team is not equipped to use the new tools to perform their jobs better, then it doesn’t matter how shiny the new tool is because an opportunity to create value is immediately lost.
  • While advances like AI promise to change the way we work, it is easy to forget that new technologies are driven by human responses to a changing environment. Although certain old roles are being eliminated and new ones created because of AI, the goal should be to augment human and technology capabilities, rather than reduce the size of your workforce. Identify and differentiate which tasks humans and machines are best suited for. For example, in the context of prediction, humans and machines both have identifiable strengths and weaknesses, and it’s important to understand the extent of these otherwise your organization’s analytics and AI investments will fail to deliver the desired outcomes.
  • The ability to learn, evolve, think differently and understand quickly is just as important for individuals as it is for business. In today’s ever-changing environment the ability to learn, unlearn and relearn is going to be a key currency for finance professionals to hold. Allowing inertia to creep in and deciding to stick with the tried and tested approaches definitely hampers innovation and change.
  • As old systems and processes are superseded by new ways of working, we must learn to leave our legacy mindsets in the past. Finance transformation is not a series of projects, it is a change in the mindset of the organization. Thriving in today’s new world of learning and work requires organizations to adapt its workforce skills and ways of working. This means embracing a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset. That which made the company successful in the past is no longer valued in the same way today. Understand that the rules of the game are continuously changing and thus you need to be adaptive.
  • Leaders have many roles to play; introducing and communicating the need for change, acting as a change champion and enrolling employees in idea generation. Efficient and effective change management is a result of leaders taking action rather than doing more lip service. Most leaders create playbooks to guide their managerial action, and sometimes as much as the world changes they firmly hold on to those playbooks. Rather than respond to their challenges and mistakes, or earnestly learn from the problems of their competitors, they continue unhampered in their quest for certainty, stability, and conformity. As a leader today, are you relying entirely on preconceived fixed notions about your organization’s talent needs while ignoring or rejecting any contrary signs?
  • The future is unpredictable; ensuring that finance teams have the right mix of digital, technical, business and people skills to deliver insight, influence and impact will be essential if organizations are to successfully navigate the uncharted waters. Since the level of uncertainty and complexity is intensifying and the rate of change also increasing, it’s critical for organizations to ensure that their workforce are equipped with the right skills and capabilities to perform their jobs better. Employers themselves stand to reap the greatest benefits (improved productivity, increased morale, innovative ideas etc.) if they can successfully transform their workforce. On the contrary, not acting right now or delaying action shuts down opportunities to adapt and change in accordance with the new demands.

The authors go on to discuss the various catalysts for transformation, current digital skills gap, and barriers to skills development.

I recommend you to read the entire piece.

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Finance Analytics: It’s Not About the Size of The Data

As the need to make impactful operational and strategic decisions in real time increases, CFOs are playing a greater role in the adoption and integration of data analytics in their organizations to support data-driven decision making.

Executives and business unit leaders are increasingly relying on insights produced by Finance to better understand enterprise performance. That is, what has happened, why it has happened, what is most likely to happen in the future, and the appropriate course of action to take.

In an era where data is proliferating in volume and variety, decision makers have realized it’s no longer enough to base key enterprise performance and risk decisions on experience and intuition alone.

Rather, this must be combined with a facts-based approach. Which means CFOs must set up modernized reporting and analytics capabilities with one of the main goals being the use of data as a tool for business decision making.

Appropriately analyzed and interpreted, data always has a story, and there’s always something to discover from it. However, many finance functions are failing to deliver value from their existing data analytics capabilities.

There is a misconception that to deliver actionable insights, the function needs more data for analysis. As a result, the supply of data keeps rising, while the ability to use it to generate informed insights lags badly.

Yet it’s not about the size of the data. It’s about translating available data and making it understandable and useful.

In other words, it’s about context and understanding that numbers alone do not tell the whole story. Finance leaders should connect the dots in ways that produce valuable insights or discoveries, and determine for example:

  • What is being measured, why, and how is it measured?
  • How extensive the exploration for such discoveries was?
  • How many additional factors were also reviewed for a correlation?

Further, to use data intelligently and influence better decision making, CFOs and their teams should recognize that most enterprise data is accumulated not to serve analytics, but as the by-product of routine tasks and activities.

Consider customer online and offline purchases data. Social media posts. Logs of customer communications for billing and other transactional purposes.

Such data is not produced for the purpose of prediction yet when analyzed, this data can reveal valuable insights that can be translated into action which delivers measurable benefits.

Often the company already has the data that it needs to answer its critical business performance questions, but little of it is being aggregated, cleaned, analyzed, and linked to decision making activities in a coherent way.

Exacerbating the issue is the mere fact that the company has a mishmash of incompatible computer systems and data formats added over the years ultimately making it difficult to perform granular analysis at a product, supplier, geographic, customer, and channel level, and many other variables.

There is nothing grand about data itself. What matters most is how you are handling the flood of data your systems are collecting daily. Yes, data can always be accumulated but as a finance leader:

  • Are you taking time to dig down into the data and observing patterns?
  • Are the observed patterns significant to altering the strategic direction of the organization?
  • Are you measuring what you really want to know, what matters for the success of the business?
  • Or you are just measuring what is easy to measure rather than what is most relevant?

CFOs do not need more data. What they need right now is the ability to aggregate, clean and analyze the existing data sitting in the company’s computer systems and understand what story it is telling them.

Before they can focus on prediction, they first need to observe what is happening and why. Bear in mind correlation does not imply causation.

Yes, you might have discovered a predictive relationship between X and Y but this does not mean one causes the other, not even indirectly.

For instance, employee training hours and sales revenue. Just because there is a high correlation between the two does not mean increase in training hours is causing a corresponding increase in sales revenue. A third variable might be driving the revenue the increase.

Jumping to conclusions too soon about causality for a correlation observed in data can lead to bad decisions and far-reaching consequences, hence finance leaders should validate whether an observed trend is real rather than misleading noise before providing any causal explanation.

Certainly, big data can be a powerful tool, but it has its limits. Not all data is created equal, or evenly valuable. There are situations where big data sets play a pivotal role, and others where small, rich data sets trump big data sets.

Before they decide to collect more data, CFOs should always remember data is comparable to an unexploited resource.

Even though data is now considered an important strategic asset for the organization, raw data is like oil that has been drilled and pulled out of the ground but not yet refined to its finer version of kerosene and gasoline.

The data oil has not yet been converted into insights that can be translated into action to cut costs, boost revenues, streamline operations, and guide the company’s strategic direction.

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Doing The Right Thing For Too Long

Markets and business models are shifting, and so should you keep up with these market changes if your business is to survive and succeed. Compared with the past, the current era of digitization represents an inflection point.

Consider individual trends such as artificial intelligence, virtual reality, Big Data, cybersecurity threats, drones, the Internet of Things, driverless cars, blockchain technologies, and more.

These new technologies have significantly changed the way we connect and interact as individuals, including how businesses deliver products and services to their customers.

Reinventing your business will determine whether you succeed or fail in the digital age. As the saying goes, disrupt or be disrupted. No company, business, or industry is safe from disruption. Today, individual businesses have the potential to compete against multinational companies and win.

These businesses are quick to anticipate market changes and flexible to get ahead of the curve. Sadly, many companies are blinded by their successes and aren’t willing to disrupt themselves. They are not experiencing their desired growth trajectory because they are stuck doing the right thing for too long.

Don’t get comfortable with the status quo and allow your business to get stuck on a strategy and mindset that no longer fit the market.

Here are a few questions to ponder, the answers to which will determine the future of your business:

  • What is at the core of your strategy?
  • Are you in touch with the customers you want to serve? When customers give you negative feedback, how often do you listen and act on it?
  • Are you operating your business on the premise that you know what is best for your customers therefore they are supposed to buy whatever product or service you offer them?
  • Are you keeping up with market shifts or you only know how to grow under one set of conditions or products and services, but not how to survive and strive under another?
  • How robust and flexible is your IT infrastructure to help you innovate, perform your company’s Jobs To Be Done, and scale your business?
  • Are you creating a strong culture that is focused on customers, including a culture that not only embraces change but seeks it out?

Given our world is changing faster, it’s imperative to continuously look for signs that things are changing and think about how those shifts would play out in the short-term, medium-term, and long-term, not forgetting the impact on the execution of your strategy and enterprise performance.

The signs can reveal individually. At times, they are part of a wider trend.

Nonetheless, how you adapt will determine whether you succeed or fail. Keep learning. Learn about innovations in your industry and beyond. Try out new business models and technologies and embrace a philosophy of constant change.

Once you understand how the market is changing and evolving, you can develop the right product or service and strategy that will help you achieve your desired outcomes.

We often talk of the ability to “connect the dots” and “take a helicopter view of the business” as key ingredients for success. But how often are business leaders and their teams doing this?

Across the organization, a culture of “them versus us” prevails. Important decisions are made at a functional level with little or no consideration of their impact at the enterprise level.

Having the ability to grasp the big picture and see how different trends intersect is essential for determining the right path or course of action to pursue.

So, how do you spot market transitions and develop a clear sense of where the market is going?

  • Be curious and hungry for new ideas. Continuously ask tons of key performance questions and pay attention to what’s around you.
  • From time to time, challenge conventional wisdom. It’s easy to stick with what you know about your business model, customers, competitors, markets, or industry but dare to pivot when conditions change.
  • Don’t be nostalgic about the past or worried about protecting what you’ve built in the present. Always be curious about the future and develop a willingness to take calculated risks.
  • Ask existing and would-be customers how they feel about your company’s products, services, and strategy. Instead of turning to sources that reinforce your existing point of view, seek multiple perspectives and cross-reference them as new facts come in.
  • Develop an ability to handle multiple random data points at once. This will help you generate critical market, customer, and business performance insights and make smarter, informed decisions. Be careful to distinguish between the signal and the noise since data can be deceiving, especially when you’re looking for “confirmation” that protects your business model.

Data might not tell you why something is happening, but it does tell you what’s going on.

  • Look for patterns and abnormalities that might suggest something is going on, including any interdependencies.
  • Anticipate all the various scenarios of what could happen.
  • Plan your course of action in response to what’s happening in real time.

As the signals of a market shift increase, the need to act becomes more imperative. Note, monitoring and identifying market shifts, and effectively taking the appropriate course of action is a matter of timing.

If you continue doing the right thing for too long and lack the boldness to disrupt both the market and your own organization, you risk being disrupted and left behind. There is no company that is too big to fail. Neither is there a startup that is too small to succeed.

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How Feasible Are Your Strategic Objectives?

Every organization sets out its goals and objectives, to accomplish its mission and vision. The two often seem like two interchangeable phrases but there is a distinction.

A goal is a desired result you want to achieve and is typically broad and vague. An objective, on the other hand, defines the specific, measurable actions each employee must take to achieve the overall goal.

It is every leader’s job to create a coherent set of feasible objectives or what Richard Rumelt calls proximate objectives. Objectives that define targets the organization is fairly expected to achieve, even overwhelm.

This is essential for ensuring energy and resources are focused on one, or a very few, critical objectives whose accomplishment will lead to a cascade of positive outcomes.

An effective strategy defines a critical challenge or opportunity and clearly articulates how the organization is going to play to win or perform customers’ Jobs to Be Done.

Thus, the objectives an effective strategy sets should stand a good chance of being accomplished, given existing resources and competence.

On the contrary, a bad strategy results in the setting of bad strategic objectives.

Long lists of “things to be done,” are often labeled wrongly as strategies or objectives. Or the desired outcome is simply rehashed with no explanation of how this will be accomplished.

It doesn’t matter how well-thought your strategy is in response to an identified challenge or opportunity. If the resultant strategic objectives are merely a list of things to do, or just as difficult to achieve as the identified key challenge, there has been little value added by the strategy.

In today’s highly competitive, uncertain, dynamic, and complex environment in which a leader’s ability to look further ahead is diminished, it is better to focus on a few pivotal items through taking strong positions, creating options, and building advantage.

First identify the key challenges or opportunities for the business. Look very closely at the changes happening within your business, where you might get an added advantage over competition.

Next, create a list of the issues, including the actions your company should take.

Then, trim the original list to a noticeably short list of pivotal issues and proximate objectives by identifying one or two feasible objective(s), when achieved, would make the biggest difference. Remember, the identified objectives should be more like tasks and less like goals.

Now, focus on the objectives by channeling skills and available resources to accomplish the overall goal.

Once accomplished, new opportunities will open up resulting in the creation of more ambitious objectives. This cycle will help you develop a system that enables the setting of feasible strategic objectives.

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