“The Future Ain’t What it Used to Be” (in the finance function!)
The champion baseball player, Yogi Berra, who died this year, left a great legacy in his pearls of unwitting philosophic wisdom.
A fitting way to set the tone for the discussion at last month’s The Future of the Finance Function conference, organised by Gary Simon of FSN Elite. Our very own Emma Taylor participated and shares some of the debate and insights from the event.
People and Technology
One of the biggest discussions was about the way innovations in technology will affect everyone working in the finance function. Of course, finance and accounting roles have been one of the ‘early affected’ communities in the world of automation, elimination of duplication, centralisation and standardisation, not to mention ‘labour arbitrage’. There was much debate on the topic that technology will be performing ever more human jobs in the not so distant future – there’s even an app on the BBC site to estimate what the likelihood of automation taking your job is! Whilst simplistic, it indicates that a finance manager is quite unlikely (7%) to lose their job due to automation whilst an accounting administration role is 97% likely to lose their job to automation. Of course, the devil is in the detail, but I think most people would agree this is the direction our world is taking. The calculator is fascinating, although a little scary, and is available here.
Of course, we are well used to this automation journey which continues to challenge and provoke us in a continued shift in the nature and purpose of the finance function. We know there is an inexorable move onwards from simply posting financial transactions and reporting on what has happened in the business, towards a forward-looking advisory function focussed on improving the business. Whilst we continue to drive down the total cost of finance, the make-up of the cost base is changing from financial operations towards financial control and driving future financial performance as true ‘business partners’. This is where collaboration is critical – ‘the back office needs to be in tune with what’s going on in the front of the shop’.
Presenters at the conference shared their own finance function automation and transformation journeys and agreed that they found the most difficult element of change is not to do with the utilisation or implementation of the technology itself, but rather the accompanying mind set change of the people within the organisation, ‘winning the hearts and minds’. There must be an enterprise wide acceptance and commitment to adopting the change to not only utilise the technology but also to achieve its full potential and effect. For automation to deliver on its promise, there needs to be an all embracing vision that the organisation can identify with and commit to. Not always easy when substantial organisational and staffing changes are on the horizon!
Equally important as our technological capabilities is the need to hire and train a tech savvy team who are comfortable adapting to this ever changing finance environment. Recruitment is a big part of this, in particular attracting and retaining young talent from recent graduates. As a recent graduate myself, I would advise to invest in graduates now and reap the benefits. It is a short investment cycle as I am determined to prove! The ‘future’ or ‘new world’ of business is the only one we’ve known, and it is second nature to us. We don’t have to ‘re-program’ our behaviour patterns. We have no knowledge or understanding of a world where data, social media, the cloud and questioning established norms didn’t exist. The new mind set is already ‘downloaded and installed’ ready to be moulded to suit particular business needs. This forward thinking potential should be utilised and nurtured and graduates allowed to be a part of analytical and decision making processes to offer new and different insights. Well that’s my opinion anyway, and I’m sticking to it!
Data Analytics is a hot topic across business and it will come as no surprise that the future finance function needs greater capabilities in data science, Big Data and analytics to perform more effectively in an advisory role. This was echoed by Gary Simon in his presentation by adding the new ‘V’ of ‘VALUE’ to the traditional 4 V’s that Gartner use to describe big data (volume, variety, velocity and veracity).
We know that the amount of data available to the finance function to analyse past and future performance can be daunting. Part of the solution is to understand clearly what problems we are trying to solve and what hypotheses we are trying to validate. Data analytics help us with trends and also with anomalies and outliers that may indicate opportunities for enhanced performance. Whilst we need the tools for data analytics, we also need a repeatable process (a ‘methodology’) and a team that is comfortable with data and the potential for new insights. We need to focus on the exceptions or anomalies we find in the data. These outliers give us a new and powerful insight into our processes and their efficiency and effectiveness.
(For more thoughts on how Big Data and Analytics affects the finance function, there are a number of Consider posts on the topic here.)
The Cloud/Social Media
The ‘Cloud’ was the topic that caused the greatest split in opinion across the audience at the forum. What became clear is that the more people are adopting cloud based technology, the more we question the fundamentals.
But the focus of some of these discussions seemed to be putting the cart before the horse; Surely, there has to be a clear idea amongst stakeholders about what the problem is that you are trying to fix and how you want the process to operate before any discussions take place about which system or underlying platform you want to use to do so.
There were great discussions about the relevance of social media and mobile technology to the finance function. LinkedIn is the newest and most important place to network and can be incredibly influential and effective if you use it well – what greater evidence of this than this conference of multiple FD’s, CFO’s and other members of finance functions, all coordinated via the FSN ‘Modern Finance’ LinkedIn discussion forum which you can find here.
Overall, it seems the finance function continues to experience a whirlwind of exciting innovation in mission, structure, process, technology, skills and behaviours. Automation and collaboration are key ingredients in the ‘new’ finance function and need to be embraced now, to continue to pay off well into the future. It is clear that one of the characteristics that sets world class businesses and their leaders apart from their peers is those who are open to change and prepared to use technology effectively to help drive the business forward.
The way the world conducts business is changing and changing fast. As a crucial part of the success of businesses, finance needs to not only keep up with, but stay ahead of this trend. As well as looking back and reporting on what happened, finance will be relied upon much more to look forward to provide real time business advice and predictions. Automation and process change will continue to be a central theme. I hear they said that 20 years ago too!
So perhaps it’s ‘Déjà vu, all over again’. Thanks Yogi!