What organisations need to build a digitally enabled and talent-rich finance function

May 08, 2021 11:59 AM

As the digital culture evolves, CFOs at some point in time will have to invest in hiring specialized individuals in the form of Data Analysts, Machine Learning Engineers, Business Analysts and Data scientists to bridge the skill gaps within teams.

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By Ramamoorthy Rajagopal

The last decade has seen the world around us change rapidly with the advent of digital technologies which have transformed our day to day lives. The recent COVID induced lockdown has brought all of that to vivid life and demonstrated the art of what is possible, along with a potential glimpse of how the future might evolve. Looking inward within an organization, Digital technologies have permeated across most functions and Finance is no exception. However, the pace of adoption across Finance functions has varied with most organizations stratifying the lower to middle part of the spectrum. The most common element for this slow process is the lack of digitally savvy Finance talent.

As we look into the future, the definition of what we call ‘talent’ in the Finance function is going to rapidly evolve with a premium being placed on those who understand data and data structures, business insights and are good storytellers. In essence, future finance ‘talent’ will need to someone who can consume & translate a large amount of data and communicate the output in an engaging way for real people to drive actions in the real world. 

But many CFOs today are increasingly seen struggling to build a team that can embrace and adapt the pace of digital change, largely because of a “Digital Knowledge gap” in their teams. This is reflected in the team’s lack of an understanding on how to apply and leverage disruptive technologies for maximum benefit. 

While the world of Digital skills is extremely broad, within the realms of the Finance Function they can be broadly categorised into four large areas:

  1. Automation – Process Automation through VBA, RPA etc., 
  2. Analytics and Insights – Data crunching to identify risks and opportunities
  3. Business Partnering – Communicating results for real world actions
  4. Emerging Technologies – Changing the ways of working i.e., blockchain, chatbots

The starting point for any digital change must begin with the CFO establishing the Digital Agenda for the Finance function. For it to be effective, the Digital Agenda should be closely aligned to the organisation priorities and on what is expected from the Finance function. Once established, the digital agenda will further identify the skills needed in the short, medium and long term and seek to plug the same by up-skilling the existing team members and focus on wider recruitment for specific skills. 

CFOs will need to lead the digital agenda from the front, be it in terms of investments towards training & development, external hiring as well as sponsoring “Pilot Projects” that can demonstrate this success. These Pilot projects should be driven by digital advocates who lead the natural working team to identify, define and implement small scale digital solution, with the CFO financially incentivizing a successful outcome. 

Financial Automation such as Robotic Process Automation solutions are perfect examples of “Pilot Projects” given their low costs, quick deployment time and the ability to directly impact the day-to-day work of the team. These RPA projects can be expanded to provide team members an opportunity to explore real ideas, implement solutions and see first-hand, the impact of embracing digital skills. 

The success of the Pilot projects should be leveraged as catalysts to invoke curiosity which are then addressed through training & development, thereby leading to more digital projects, eventually resulting in a gradual change in the organisation culture to fully embrace the digitalisation. 

As the digital culture evolves, CFOs at some point in time will have to invest in hiring specialized individuals in the form of Data Analysts, Machine Learning Engineers, Business Analysts and Data scientists to bridge the skill gaps within teams. They would work in conjunction with the Finance team to interpret data, address challenges, identify and solve business problems. CFO’s need to periodically review their digitalisation plans with specific emphasize on creating exposure to the impact of the new digital technology, developing a strong foundation in digital fluency and incentivise adoptions across their teams.

While most Finance and accounting teams will not evolve into data scientists, they will need to undergo regular training & development to understand the key concepts of Data and Data sciences to communicate with data scientists in their own language. As technology continues to evolve, this becomes increasingly important to avoid the creation of a new “digital divide”, creating new impediments in leveraging benefits. 

The rise of digital technologies within the Finance team, can be expected to transform traditional finance roles, but at the same time is likely to create new opportunities for finance professionals. Among these, the two most prominent roles that I expect are: a) Data Controllers and b) Data Business Partners. 

With more and more business decisions being based on Data, the Data controllers will play a pivotal role in ensuring accuracy and authenticity of data akin to Financial Controllers. On similar lines, Data Business Partners will combine business skills with strong technical skills and interface between decision makers and data scientists. 

Finally, with most things based on technology, the importance of ongoing education and training cannot be adequately emphasised. As CFO’s looks to raise the level of digital skills in their teams, they need to prioritise training in three key areas namely:

  1. Programming skills (going beyond Spreadsheets) 
  2. Data visualization tools (going beyond Presentation) and 
  3. Developing a logical and critical thinking mindset. 

(Ramamoorthy Rajagopal is the Finance Director, Tesco Business Services & Tesco Bengaluru. Views expressed are his own.)

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