Digital transformation can bring huge opportunities and benefits to the finance function, but it’s not without its challenges.
Digital technologies are already making their presence felt in finance departments around the world – helping their masters become faster, leaner, more accurate and, as a result, more relevant to the wider business.
To get the view on the ground, Svilena Tzekova, Partner in KPMG’s Finance Transformation practice spoke to Chris Field from Board International, Lucy Holden from Microsoft and Daniel Willoughby from Coca-Cola European Partners at KPMG’s Advantage Digital conference.
Here’s what we learnt:
1) Start with a clear goal.
If you don’t have the question, you can’t answer it. Be clear about why you are attempting a digital transformation: is it to simplify your organisation, automate, gain insight or improve your integration with the rest of the business? The answer will determine your path.
2) Artificial intelligence helps human accountants get ahead.
Despite proving themselves to be more accurate and making some tasks redundant, automation and AI gives finance the bandwidth and the insight that makes it a more important player than it was in many organisations. “We’ve gone from bean counters to business partners,” said Board International’s Chris Field. And machines can’t do it all. There will always be a need for human input into forecasting because of the unpredictability of certain events.
3) Get your data right first.
Bad data in, bad data out. One simple example is the need for multinational businesses to standardise definitions such as “what do we define as a sale”? Without that consistency, automating systems to create a global picture becomes impossible.
4) Finance teams of the future will require a different skills mix.
As more processes are automated, finance teams will be a mix of accountants, data scientists, technology experts and process leaders. In Holden’s opinion, she uses her business and strategy training more than her traditional accounting modules. Can you evolve your team’s skill-set sufficiently?
5) Fail fast, learn fast.
Nurture an environment where it’s safe to experiment. If an idea doesn’t work, move on to the next thing. If it does work, share it. Daniel Willoughby emphasised the importance of keeping the pace and moving on, even when faced with inevitable challenges along the journey.
6) Digital transformation gives small teams, big scale.
With the latest digital technologies, smaller teams are increasingly responsible for larger, higher value data sets and transactions.
7) Digital transformation, AI and automation isn’t just a toy for the big players.
Until the very recent past, the cost of a technology like automated demand planning would have been prohibitive. Costs are now falling, cloud solutions are becoming more and more accepted and are becoming affordable for companies with turnovers of £100 million and less.
8) Chatbots bridge the gap between human and artificial.
“It’s getting increasingly difficult to tell where the chatbot ends and the human begins,” said one panellist: chatbots are gaining ground across the organisation by answering simple – but increasingly complex – questions. That frees up staff to work on more value added tasks. Finance teams are even bringing them along to meetings to help. One contributor said her chartered accounting colleagues were building chatbots themselves, despite having zero tech background.
9) It going to be emotional.
Digital transformation impacts finance right across the organisation and it isn’t easy on anyone. “No one who’s been on this journey has found it easy,” said one participant. “It’s big, it’s painful and it’s always tough, but the benefits are amazing”. The lesson is to not be taken by surprise. You’ll need to be aware of, recognise and manage the impacts right from the start.