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Updating the finance function for the digital era: three questions to ask

With professionals around the world working from home due to Covid-19, the importance of a strong digital infrastructure has never been clearer. But as people return to physical workplaces, this embrace of technology may wane and organisations may not reap the full benefits of digital capabilities. The finance function is strongly suited to enhance both business productivity and employee satisfaction by way of digital adaptation, so finance leaders need to ensure that this high-speed journey is not derailed over the coming year, writes IMA president and CEO Jeffrey C Thomson

A report released this summer by the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA) and Deloitte’s Center for Controllership, From Mirage to Reality: Bringing Finance into Focus in a Digital World, provides action-provoking insights on what finance departments must do to update the way they operate for the digital era.

The report, which is based on a global survey of nearly 800 global finance managers, directors, controllers and CFOs, shows how digital technologies are affecting three areas in the finance function – work, workforce, and workplace – and poses the questions that finance leaders need to ask to successfully transform their organisations.

How is work changing in the finance function?

One of the most-touted benefits of technology in the finance function has long been the ability to automate routine, repetitive tasks, and freeing professionals to do more productive, value-adding activities.

While only a small number of respondents to the survey said they had implemented either robotic process automation or AI/machine learning (3.6% and 1.8%, respectively), more than a fifth said they are implementing or planning to implement these technologies in the near future, or are in the process of doing so. Meanwhile, a comparatively high percentage of respondents have already implemented:

  • Cloud-based accounting solutions (28.2%);
  • Budgeting, forecasting and reporting tools (27.7%);
  • Data analytics and visualisation (10.1%).

So, what does all this mean for the question of how work is changing, or will change, in the finance function?

Organisations are laying the groundwork for transformation by investing in technologies that help accountants better ‘crunch the numbers’, liberating them to spend more time analysing data and thinking critically. In particular, the emergence of data analytics and visualisation enables finance professionals to formulate better insights through less manual drudgery. But then another question emerges: are professionals prepared for a world in which they spend more time formulating insights and contributing to high-level decision-making?

What skills will finance professionals need in the future?

According to the survey respondents, the most difficult skill set to find among finance professionals was a ‘mix of strong accounting and technology skills’ (43.9%), followed by ‘data analytics and modelling’ (35.8%), ‘strong process and consulting design skills’ (35.3%), ‘data science/machine learning’ (33.8%), and ‘data requests, storytelling and presentation’ (30.9%).

These findings present a picture of where professionals need to improve their skills or learn new ones to truly help their organisations move forward. Professional certifications that include courses in technology and analytics can play a role in organisations’ efforts at upskilling their finance workforces. But another relevant consideration is organisations’ ability to attract and retain highly skilled talent in an era when workplace arrangements are changing – trends turbo-charged by the Covid-19 pandemic.

How do we manage the evolution of the workplace?

The top response to this question was that organisations should create ‘more flexible work arrangements’ (54.7%), followed by ‘outsourcing more processes’ (43.6%).

Organisations can make work more flexible in multiple ways: they can allow staff to rotate through different areas of business, they can let staff adopt their own hours outside the traditional nine-to-five, and they can embrace more freedom in allowing remote work.

The latter solution will surely become more prominent in the aftermath of Covid-19. All these workplace changes will need to be supported by a strong IT and cyber infrastructure, requiring more investment in digital technology in the months and years to come, so finance professionals can focus less on repetitive tasks and more on data analysis and insight, and high-level decision support.

If the finance function can successfully refocus along the lines outlined above, it will play an outsized role in organisations’ growth, transformation, and ingenuity in years to come. But it is up to CFOs, managers and other leaders in our profession to seize this initiative.




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