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The Digital Finance Function

Digital and technology advances are profoundly transforming the finance function from a number cruncher to an enterprise data and analytics powerhouse. Disruption is taking place at alarming levels and for CFOs, it is no longer a case of whether they should respond to this change or not but rather how and how quickly. They need to be able to make sense of this digital economy, drive economic value and improve business decision making.

Internet of Things (IoT), Big Data and Analytics, Machine Learning, Cloud, Robotic Process Automation (RPA), Security Threat Intelligence, In-memory Computing, Mobile and Artificial Intelligence (AI) are all enabling businesses to:

  • Transform their supply chains.
  • Anticipate the future, mitigate risks and take advantage of opportunities.
  • Deliver efficiencies, accelerate business growth and improve profitability.
  • Redefine their operating model, become more agile and responsive to changing market conditions and customer expectations.
  • Get closer to existing and potential customers, understand their needs and wants and create unique experiences and solutions.

In order to realize the above benefits and digital’s full value it is imperative to change the organization’s finance operating model and adopt new ways of working.

Investing in digital is a strategic move rather than a technological issue. Many digital investments fail to take off from the ground because management view these an expense and not an enabler of strategic success. There is therefore an urgent need to change this perception. For instance, embracing digital technologies can help finance apply advanced analytics tool sets to volumes of structured and unstructured data, make sense of this data, and produce real-time reporting and business insights.

Changing the perception that investing in digital is an expense requires finance to develop an activist mindset. CFOs must build a strong business case for embracing digitization, help business leaders understand what the digital advances mean for their business units and determine the appropriate strategies and capabilities needed to respond.

Important to note though is that not every organization has a use for every digital technology in the market. You need to identify and select a tool based on the specific needs of your business. Thus, CFOs must develop a coherent digital finance strategy that is aligned with the business strategy. Technology alone is not the answer to your business needs. In order to experience real digital transformation, the business must also have the right support systems in place, from the optimal talent mix to the appropriate operating model.

Furthermore, for finance to successfully embrace digital technologies and making a positive impact to the business, the function must quickly adapt its skills set around digital and IT innovations. Artificial Intelligence and RPA are taking over many routine and rules based accounting and finance roles. This means finance professionals must move beyond their traditional historical reporting role to a more predictive analytical and business partnering role.

They need to sharpen their analytical capabilities, ask the right questions from structured and unstructured data sets, turn the analysis into commercial insights and drive business strategy across economic, market, competitor and customer perspectives. Today’s finance professional has to be more collaborative and strategically focused, engaging with the business and delivering insightful advice.

As data and analytics continue to transform businesses, it is no longer advisable for the finance organization to fill up with accountants only. In order to exploit to full potential the internal and external data the business holds, finance must be made up of diverse teams with different skills sets (Data Science, Analytics, Statistics, Behavioural Economics, Systems Thinking etc.) to encourage creativity and debate.

With digital opportunities also comes threats. The number of cyber incidents is growing exponentially thereby increasing the risk to the business. Phishing emails, Trojans and other multiple virus attacks are some of the security challenges that CFOs have to deal with on a continuous basis. Because the finance function is normally the custodian of sensitive information within the business, it is imperative that the CFO is on top cyber security. You need to have answers to the questions below:

  1. Do you know where your information is at all times?
  2. How the information is stored and kept safe?
  3. Who might want to steal it (disgruntled employees, criminals or hacktivists.)?
  4. How can intruders gain access to the information?
  5. What is the financial impact of a cyber-attack?
  6. In the event of a cyber-attack, do you have a clear and credible contingency plan?

It is therefore critical that finance takes the lead in assessing and advising the Board on all cyber-security matters. You need to identify the most valuable assets that differentiate your business and are in most need of protection.

There is no doubt that digital and IT advancements are reshaping the way we live and work. Organizations that are quick to embrace these changes and make innovation an every day part of their business will more than likely reap benefits in the long-term.

Because of its analytical capabilities, finance is best positioned within the business to drive the digital transformation agenda and act as a reliable source of analytic insights since the function is able to connect structured and unstructured data from various sources and produce reliable insights from its analysis.

I welcome your thoughts and comments.

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