TagCFO

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

Part I Leveraging AI in the CFO Suite

In their role as curator of critical information for their company, Chief Financial Officers must create processes and develop systems that filter out noise and focus only on the most important, actionable information. The plethora of data being created is growing at astronomical rates making this role much more crucial and much more difficult. In this article we’ll explore how CFOs can take a practical approach to integrating artificial intelligence (AI) into their operations.

First let’s define AI in a manner that applies to its use in finance.

AI is information derived from algorithms applied to data set(s) normally accomplished with little or no human intervention.

  • Algorithm: a set of steps that are followed to solve a mathematical problem or to complete a computer process
  • Information: knowledge you get about something: facts or details about a subject

In his book, The Design of Business, Roger Martin describes the stages of learning that go from mystery to heuristic to algorithmic. The financial processes at many companies are heuristic, made up of general guidelines but containing many steps, developed by trial and error, and known only to the process owner. These processes lock corporate technology in the minds of one or a few individuals; creating technology risk and a training burden when staffing transitions occur. Developing an AI system and framework to effectively select processes that should incorporate more AI is rapidly becoming a core skill required for CFO success.

Until recently, many financial applications of AI have helped uncover altogether new techniques or capabilities. For example, program trading in the financial markets came about because AI could “crunch” numbers (the price of a basket of individual stocks) fast enough to allow traders to arbitrage an index against a portfolio of individual stocks.

In addition to the speed factor, AI now is being used to replace repetitive, linear tasks and increase our information output capacity. Both uses have wide implications for the CFO, including;

  • Choosing a system architecture that will capture AI most effectively for your organization
  • Managing your talent in a manner that is socially responsible
  • Developing and acquiring talent that captures the benefits of our AI system investment
  • Mastering the ability to manage the Decision Pyramid

How to Leverage AI in Finance

To date, most of the investments in AI for business have to do with specific industries; stock trading, portfolio management, banking and insurance underwriting. Customer development and customer service have also benefited from large investments in AI. The CFO responsibility areas, although ripe with automation, have not adopted AI to the extent these other industries or functions have. The opportunity is vast, but we need a methodology to identify where to start and continue our AI investment.

The main benefits to AI are derived from three aspects; speed, accuracy and volume. Logically, we should apply AI to areas where the total value (increased revenue and reduced cost) of the following three variables is greatest:

  • Speed: The incremental value of time as applied to a process or delivering information
  • Accuracy: The incremental cost of error or lack of precision in a process or information
  • Volume: The incremental cost of each unit of volume in a process or in reports and analysis.

Identifying the value of these different variables is the key to selecting an appropriate AI strategy and developing a work plan to implement it.

There are two main ways AI can enhance the CFO responsibility areas.

  1. As a Process Improvement Mechanism. In this case AI will be applied to the transactional work to complete it more quickly, more accurately and/or more of it.
  2. As a Decision Support Mechanism. Here AI is applied to the data used to create the information in a report or analysis to improve the decision support. This support is enhanced through quicker, more accurate and/or more information.

Illustrations of these two types of AI applications can be visualized using two examples:

  1. Procure to Pay (P2P): Using AI on the P2P process may yield big improvements in process effectiveness which will lead to lower costs and a reduction in errors.
  2. Budgeting and Forecasting: Using AI in the Forecasting process expands the scope of data that can be incorporated into the model, including the shift from exclusively using internal data to expanding the model to include external data. This use of AI will improve decision making by reducing the noise in our outputs due to using more robust input data.

We have a developed a worksheet to assist in targeting where AI will bring you the most value. The worksheet is patterned after the Four Pillars of CFO Success and includes the major CFO technical competencies (i.e. CFO competencies ripe for AI application). Some critical thinking about each competency will allow you to develop a comparative scoring schedule to assist you in building an AI strategy.

Click to get your AI Identification Worksheet

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

The CFO’s Role in Cyber Security

Artificial Intelligence (AI), Blockchain, Robotics, 3D Printing, Cloud Computing, Internet of Things (IoT), Mobile, Advanced Analytics among others are some of the new technologies making waves in the technology space. The rate at which technology is evolving is alarming to such an extent that if you’re a player in this field you have to constantly be on top of your game otherwise if you sleep you snooze.

Love them or loathe them, technological breakthroughs have created a world that is always connected, continuously innovating and constantly challenging conventional wisdom. For example, new computing power in the form of customer analytics is enabling businesses across all sectors to interact 24/7 with their customers, understand consumer behavior like never before and deliver unique customer experiences that yield results.

Current digital capabilities are disrupting traditional business models and presenting valuable opportunities to streamline processes, improve efficiency, free up resources, sharpen data analysis and improve business performance. Taking these benefits into account and others, CFOs are leading their companies on exciting digital transformation journeys.

It is true that technology is empowering us to perform our jobs better and achieve more with less. However, I get concerned when all we talk about is only one side of technology – benefits.

In the midst of all the promises and excitement brought by these “new shiny” tools, we are forgetting the heightened risks that also come along, which if not closely monitored and addressed have increased potential to bring the business down to its knees overnight. As organizations continue to increase their reliance on new technologies to drive strategic performance, new risks to data security and confidentiality are sprouting.

This automatically elevates the need to protect customer and employee data, as well as confidential information from third parties and business partners. The consequences of failing to do so are not only financial but also intangible – lost customer confidence and reputation damage.

CFOs have a critical role to play in enhancing and strengthening their companies cyber security programs. In the past security responsibilities have fallen under the radar of the IT manager. However, an increase in data breaches and cyber attacks are elevating cyber security to the boardroom resulting in the CFO taking over the mandate.

The good thing though is that Finance owns majority of the data generated and used in the business. Secondly, Finance is responsible for performance reporting and analysis and CFOs have a bird’s eye view of the business and the market. Because of these two advantages, CFOs have better knowledge and understanding of where sensitive information is stored at all times, how it is secured, who has access to it, potential perpetrators and how they can get access to the information.

The problem in many companies is that cyber security becomes an imperative only after a breach has occurred. Just because you have not experienced a cyber breach or attack does not necessarily imply that you should give yourself a false sense of security. If you believe that your network is secure or you are a small company therefore immune to cyber breaches, think again.

These days cyber criminals are becoming more and more sophisticated and repeatedly aim to stay a couple of steps ahead of their victims. Most attacks are discovered a couple of months or years later from the date of initial breach. A case in point is the attack on the shipping company Svitzer, which is part of the Maersk Group. Sensitive personal information of around 500 employees in Australia where the attack happened was affected.

Perpetrators got access to email addresses of 3 employees and for 11 months (May 2017 – March 2018) they secretly auto-forwarded between 50 000 and 60 000 emails outside the company. Accounts in Finance, Payroll and Operations were affected. The perpetrators were smart enough to introduce supporting rules that deleted the forwarded emails to prevent the compromised account owners see that their emails were being forwarded.

With the speed and complexity of the threats changing on a daily basis, CFOs must take action and a play leading role in helping their organizations fight against cyber crime. As a CFO:

Acquire knowledge on cyber security. If the CFO is expected to take the lead in assessing and advising the board on cyber security issues, how best is (s)he going to do so if (s)he lacks an understanding of the risks and potential impacts of a breach. Lack of understanding leaves valuable information exposed. It is therefore critical that the CFO acquires knowledge on different types of attacks, impact on brand value, how to prevent the attacks, and also how to respond in the unfortunate event of an attack. Also, when the CFO has detailed knowledge of cyber security, (s)he is able to lead the discussion and provide training to the board so that they get working knowledge and understanding of cyber security to provide appropriate oversight.

Map and classify your organization’s data. In a world where companies are operating more than one financial and operations system, with each system containing sensitive stakeholders and financial performance information, risks abound. You need to understand how your organization’s data supply chain functions as well as how the information flows across your entire network of systems. Developing this understanding will help you take a digital inventory of your data and locate critical information in need of most protection since it is impossible to protect everything.

Carry out regular vulnerability assessments. It is common practice to install antivirus or any other form of software to protect ourselves from an attack. Unfortunately, this is not enough. Cyber security goes beyond installing software hence the need to assess any weaknesses and risks attached to your systems. One way of doing so is employing the services of ethical hackers who will actively try to intrude or penetrate into your systems and recommend effective internal controls. It’s important to be proactive and continuously evaluate current detection tools.

Build cyber security into the culture. One way cyber criminals make their way into company systems is via employees by sending them click bait emails. In the event that an employee lacks knowledge of cyber attacks, by clicking on the link he or she is exposing the entire group to a destructive attack. Educating and training employees on cyber matters helps build awareness. Additionally, employees should be encouraged to share information about a breach, this improves the organization’s ability to detect and respond to attacks of a similar nature. Although the CFO carries the overall responsibility of reporting to the board on cyber security issues and initiatives, it is still everyone’s job to detect and report possible attacks. Thus, cross-functional collaboration is necessary.

Don’t ignore third party risk. Business partners, vendors and other third parties hold important data on behalf of the company. An example would be where your company has outsourced specific Finance functions to a low-cost service provider, or you have engaged a marketing agency to handle your product marketing strategy. If this data is to fall into a wrong pair of hands, your company will have to answer for that. Why? Because the company is accountable not just for data stored in-house but also data held by third parties. CFOs must therefore regularly conduct an assessment of third party risks and evaluate third party’s data management processes. This will shed light on whether the third parties are protecting data with same rigour as their own company.

Develop an incident response plan. Data breaches occur even to the highly secured organizations. What is required is having a response plan developed before the breach takes place to avoid making panicky and bad decisions. The plan should define what is considered a cyber security incident, and provide a clear guide map or process steps to follow when an incident happens. Also, the plan should have clear decision-making guidelines including a robust communication framework. You don’t want to find yourself scrambling to assign roles and responsibilities in the heat of the moment. Regular practice and testing of your response plan is a must. This will inform you in advance if your plan is usable or overly complex.

In conclusion, the mere fact that your organization has not been subjected to an attack doesn’t mean that you should shelve all efforts to secure your systems. As long as you use devices, mobile, social and back-office technologies that are connected to the Internet, you are a perfect candidate for a data breach. Don’t let ignorance act as a catalyst for your downfall.

How Finance Can Improve at Influencing Business Decisions

These days the pressures and challenges a business faces are constantly changing and the finance function, along with the organization as a whole, must be ready to adapt.

Finance must act as a navigator and support business leaders with information and analysis about the organization’s position and course, contribute to strategic decision-making and enterprise performance improvement.

In other words, finance must partner more with the business and help create value.

To fulfill these new responsibilities, it is important for finance professionals to acquire a new blend of skills that will enable them to partner more effectively with other business areas and exert greater influence on the company’s strategic and operational decisions.

In order to remain relevant and become better at influencing business decisions, finance should do the following:

1. Embrace a forward-looking and commercial view of the business

Influencing business decisions goes beyond tracking and reporting the numbers (traditional financial reporting).

At the core of effective decision support is developing a deeper understanding of the drivers of these numbers and making these numbers work for the business.

Unlike conventional finance teams that focus on historical numbers, effective business advisors take a forward-looking and commercial view of the business and provide strategic insights based on industry and macro-economic trends and competitor dynamics that drive better business performance.

They combine various enterprise performance management (EPM) techniques and methods to examine business performance, interpret and explain to decision makers what the numbers mean for the long-term success of the organization.

It is this understanding of what is required to be effective in the role that differentiates successful effective business partners from the less successful ones.

2. Remain close enough to the business and its operations

Finance is increasingly being called upon to provide decision support on key strategic and operational decisions.

Thanks to automation, the majority of routine accounting processes are now automated and streamlined, leaving enough capacity for finance to focus on value-add activities.

Effective business partners have extensive business acumen that extends the realms of the finance function.

For example, they have a clearer understanding of sales, marketing, R&D, supply chain, and production, which enables them to proactively and confidently support these business areas.

They have a natural interest in the business and how the different parts of the organization fit together to complete the puzzle.

They are also inquisitive with a desire to understand a broad range of commercial and macro-economic issues and the implications these have on business performance.

Effective decision support professionals also have higher levels of credibility and trust with business leaders.

They are able to engage in extensive dialogue with decision makers, challenging constructively their assumptions and decisions to ensure the business is managed in the long-term interests of all stakeholders.

It is through these engagements with business leaders that effective finance business partners have managed to build a reputation for themselves and secured senior management business partnering buy-in.

3. Develop and improve on the soft skills necessary to fulfill the role

In addition to the core finance and accounting skills, key decision influencers also possess commercial insight and strategic thinking combined with influencing, communication and leadership skills.

Commercial insight enables them to stay abreast of developments in their company, industry and the wider economy. These insights in turn help the organization to proactively seize opportunities and mitigate any new threats.

Communication skills are essential for effectively presenting financial data and the decision it supports to non-finance people.

When invited to the decision table, effective business advisors are able to listen attentively to the ongoing dialogue, interpret correctly different scenarios, influence current choices and challenge management thinking to drive better decision-making.

In today’s dynamic environment, repeatedly asking key performance questions and challenging the status quo is key to making effective and reliable strategic and operational decisions.

Not every finance professional is destined to be a strategic business advisor. Some finance people are interested in the technical matters and therefore prefer working under SSC and COE models.

However, where the strategy and structure of your organization allows collaboration and views finance as a co-pilot, it is important that business leaders conduct a skills analysis gap to determine the skills currently available and those that are needed to build the business in the future.

This will help you strike the right balance between recruiting to bring new skills and developing existing finance team members to become effective co-pilots.

4. Know who your internal customers are

Effective finance teams have clear knowledge of who their internal customers are, and they are constantly working to ensure that the needs of these customers are met.

For example, the stakeholders that other finance professionals (such as business controller, financial accountant or reporting accountant) represent are different from those served by the business analyst.

Knowing who your customer is helps you focus your efforts only on those tasks that are critical to them and capable of adding value.

It is foolhardy to have a business performance analyst spend the majority of their time, say on account reconciliations, instead of on providing objective and independent analysis of how the business is performing and advising managers on what decisions must be made to improve performance.

5. Focus on continuous improvement

Transforming finance into an effective decision support function is not a once-off project with a start and an end date.

Instead, this is a continuous process aimed at focusing resources and finance talent on activities where they can have a real impact.

It’s important to have a set of performance measures that are monitored and evaluated against goals in specific decision areas, as this will help you to monitor progress, highlight performance misses, and determine ways of improving.

Since the decision influencers are always close to the business, it’s also important to regularly seek feedback from business managers to see if they are meeting their expectations.

Becoming great at influencing key business decisions is not about the title one holds, rather, it is about continuously adding strategic and operational value to the business.

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.

Rethinking the Annual Budgeting Process

Human beings are creatures of habit. Once they have mastered certain habits, especially bad ones, it is extremely difficult to let go. Even though we are fully aware that the immediate, medium-term or long-term consequences of our bad behaviours are dire, we still cling unto them. Could this be because of our ignorance or maybe lack of understanding of what is at stake?

The annual budgeting process has been around for a very long time, and organizations across the globe have been using budgets to allocate scarce resources, monitor and manage performance. In a perfect stable world, the annual budget process works. Unfortunately, a stable economic environment is a thing of the past.

Volatility is the norm today

In the majority of organizations that operate an annual budgeting cycle, the final budget is fixed in nature, covering a specific time period. Finance executives and business managers spend a significant amount of time inputting and debating the final budget. As soon as the final budget figures are agreed, IT department uploads the budget on the company’s accounting and finance system. Nothing changes after this, except comparing actual performance to budget.

The challenge for many finance executives is which approach to use to prepare the budget. Base plus or zero base? Many make the grave mistake of using prior year’s actuals as the base for formulating the current year’s budget and then make arbitrary adjustments. This approach is acceptable in an environment where market conditions are stable, predictions are easy to make and key budget assumptions remain valid for the entire budgeted period.

Unfortunately, volatility is the norm in today’s global economy. Increasing global pressures, uncertainty, ever-changing consumer behaviours and disruption are all rendering initial key budget assumptions invalid by the time the final budget is completed.

The result is often an outrageously inaccurate budget with little management commitment and minute relevance to the organization’s strategic plan.

This new dynamic global economy calls for modern approaches to budgeting, planning and forecasting. Organizations need to be adaptive, ever ready for unpredictable events and quickly responsive to changing marketing conditions.

In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman talks about the Knowing Illusion.

The core of the illusion is that we believe we understand the past, which implies that the future also should be knowable, but in fact we understand the past less than we believe we do.

What we see is all there is. We cannot help dealing with the limited information we have as if it were all there is to know. We build the best possible story from the information available to us, and if it is a good story, we believe it.

Paradoxically, it is easier for us to construct a coherent story when we know little, when there are fewer pieces to fit into the puzzle.

The fact that we think we have a clearer understanding of the past does not automatically mean that we are capable of comfortably predicting and controlling the future. Learning from the past is a reasonable thing to do, but it is also important for us to understand that this can have some dangerous consequences.

If we lack knowledge of all the information there is to know, the limited information we have on past performance can mislead us during budgeting and planning processes and negatively affect future outcomes.

Link Budgets to Strategy

Despite the widespread challenges of the annual budgeting process and prominent rise of the beyond budgeting proponents, the annual budget still has a place in the hearts of many finance executives.

They are not yet ready to ditch the budgeting cycle completely, it is too risky for them to run the business without a financial plan.

Rather than ditching the budgeting process entirely, implementing driver-based budgets and rolling forecasts can help organizations address the challenges of the traditional budgeting approaches.

Although most of the variables in the budget are financial, it is important to also take into consideration non-financial information as this is key to developing an understanding of business performance drivers and constraints.

Very few organizations make an attempt to link budgets with their strategy, in fact the planning process is influenced more by politics than by strategy. Leading organizations are using the Balanced Scorecard to strategically allocate resources.

Linking budgets to strategy helps management and their subordinates identify the organization’s critical success factors and how they relate to the KPIs used to measure company success. This in turn, will help them design initiatives needed to close the gap between current performance and desired performance.

Aligning spending with strategy also helps fund only those initiatives deemed strategic and with the potential of propelling the organization forward. This is in direct contrast to the base plus and zero base approaches which allocate resources on the basis of chart of accounts line items, resulting in the funding of non-strategic initiatives and wastage of resources.

Implement rolling forecasts

Compared to traditional budgets which cover a fixed period, rolling forecasts allow organizations to get a vision of the future and support improved decision making. By using rolling forecasts, the company will be able to project performance four to six quarters ahead.

Each quarter the plan is reviewed, and key decision makers are able to understand problems, challenges and trends sooner than later, and change directions or fund strategic projects based on current economic conditions. Instead of reacting to changing business conditions, executives will become more proactive in their approach.

One of the advantages of rolling forecasts is that they are driver based. Drivers help eliminate detail when creating a realistic expectation about the future resulting in managers focusing on what is vital for the success of the organization.

With time, the drivers are evaluated to determine if they are still a key predictor of higher performance. If not, new drivers will be identified and selected for monitoring.

As volatility and uncertainty continue to increase, organizations need to be prepared always in order to navigate successfully towards the future.

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