Digital technology is not only automating finance functions, but also has the potential to grow business using artificial intelligence
Digital innovations are causing major disruptions at many established companies and forcing all aspects of an organisation to modernise quickly or face being left behind. From the advent of advanced artificial intelligence to cloud computing and blockchain, the finance function is ready for transformation.
As part of this process business leaders are recognising the importance of using automation solutions to transform finance functions. Most financial executives currently expect automation to cut costs and reduce the need for laborious manual data entry tasks, but intelligent automation technologies can go further to create value and add to the top line.
“Financial professionals will start to look more closely at the vast potential for business growth created by the use of robotic process automation to capture data and intelligent analytics to interpret it,” says Carole Murphy, head of business process outsourcing business transformation services at IT consultancy Capgemini.
“This will include using data to get closer to the supply chain – automation can allow a finance professional to identify trends in customer profitability for example, and use this to both better understand their challenges and provide educated counsel,” she adds.
As digital solutions become further ingrained in the finance function, cyber security should be accepted as a high priority in all firms to ensure risks are kept to a minimum. Attitudes towards the finance function will need to change as adoption of a new digital ecosystem will require the cyber-security and finance functions to speak the same language.
“The technical language of security teams often goes over the head of the finance department and they need things explained in a way which easily translates into their risk-modelling processes,” says Matt Middleton-Leal, regional vice-president UK, Ireland and Northern Europe at CyberArk.
As long as employees who are responsible for digital security can speak the language of finance chiefs, according to Mr Middleton-Leal, they can operate within frameworks, which they understand, and make sure any transformation programmes are fully protected against a range of cyber threats.
It is vital that any transformation project involves the finance department early on in the planning process
“Equally, CFOs [chief financial officers] and FDs [finance directors] must take the time to engage with security teams, to ensure that they understand the risk profile of any business changes,” he says. “Whatever the initiative, it will undoubtedly have cyber security at its core, because finance and cyber-security functions are now so closely intertwined and critical to sustaining business operations.”
Technology certainly plays a central role in transforming an organisation’s finance function, but without considering the impact of corporate culture on transformation projects they are doomed to fail.
Kathryn Moran, partner and head of outsourcing at chartered accountancy firm haysmacintyre, says a fear of change is usually present around the adoption of anything new and it is vital that any transformation project involves the finance department early on in the planning process.
“Their views and opinions should be listened to and they should be among the first people in the organisation to be briefed on the opportunities such a transformation offers them in terms of development of new skills and profile within the organisation,” she says.
Developing the finance function takes more than just the finance department. Encouraging collaboration between employees in different sections of the workforce can help connect the finance function with the wider business and stop finance existing as a walled-off, isolated division.
“Introducing this transformative finance function is by no means an easy task, particularly for older businesses with defined processes in place. Factors such as lack of leadership endorsement or absence of incentive for employees to buy in to a new culture can hold back success,” says Karen Clarke, Northern Europe managing director of business planning company Anaplan.
To avoid this, Ms Clarke points out that senior executives need to lead by example to stop employees falling into habits associated with detached departments. “When it comes to embracing change across an entire company, however small, a bottom-up approach will simply not work,” she concludes.
CASE STUDY: FORD
Car manufacturing giant Ford approaches transformation of its finance function differently than the norm. Rather than viewing finance transformation projects as a one-time event, Ford uses its One Ford initiative to standardise processes across the organisation, so the finance function works in a united front. When former Ford chief executive Alan Mulally investigated profit-forecasting systems at the company, he found the metrics were calculated differently in each region, leading to a fundamental change in procedure. While the company believes that innovative technological solutions are vital to make financial transformation a success, they also consider effective governance to be essential. Kathryn Moran, of chartered accountancy firm haysmacintyre, agrees that implementing new technology will often require a cultural change too. “Internal communication is crucial, both to the finance team and the rest of the business, around the adoption of a new digital ecosystem and also beyond. Communication about what the system does, why it has been put in place and how it should be used should be clearly articulated,” she says. “Businesses should also consider identifying champions at all levels who are enthusiastic about the new digital ecosystem. These champions can be key to the success of a business transformation.”