The pandemic has increased digital adoption across all business industries. The finance function must embrace new technology and develop the necessary new skills to maintain its position.
Mark Cracknell, the head of research at digital firm Generation CFO highlights a glaring disparity between how people operate in the workplace and their personal lives. Cracknell explains that in our personal lives we are relatively digitally advanced but when we are in the workplace we regress to manual activities.
This situation is changing and the next generation of workers are questioning why operations aren’t more digital and automated. The pandemic has also accelerated the digitalisation of the workplace and the necessity for more timely data. Cracknell believes that people will have to go down this route, to be more cost-efficient and technology can provide the answer.
Cracknell refers to the NHS Shared Business Services as a good example. On a Generation CFO webinar, the head of finance and accounting said the team wouldn’t have been able to survive over the last year or so had they not established a strong digital position as they entered the pandemic. The organisation used to have over 100 people working on manual tasks and distributing invoices, but adopting e-commerce enabled them to reduce this number to 11.
The digital skills finance team is relatively broad and not everyone working in finance will be good at the same thing. Team leaders will need to be capable of identifying various skills and harness this potential to get the best results. One of the initial steps needed in regards to upskilling in finance is understanding exactly what technology can do.
The skills required within the finance function can be divided into two categories. One side is more technical and focused on understanding data, how to use and read data and generate the right conclusions from it. This includes knowledge of the capabilities and limitations of automation and AI. The skills that generate the most value are the more human-focused skills, including storytelling, influencing and presentation. The key is being capable of understanding the data and creating a supporting story and sharing this information with leaders in a way that will influence future decisions.
David Anderson, partner at Deloitte MCS collaborated with the ICAEW on Finance in a Digital World, a training service to support understanding and awareness of the potential of digital technology. Anderson highlights the focus on technical skills as one particular challenge the industry faces. Anderson explains that as we progress towards a more digital and flexible future, areas such as problem-solving, creativity, questioning the norm all become more important and should not be considered technical skills.
Understanding the dynamics of a team is vital when deciding how to upskill finance with a more digital approach. It’s also influenced by talent acquisition, by focusing on attributes and behaviours, rather than just technical ability.
Cracknell and Anderson describe an approach that incorporates a combination of technical skill sets concerning data management, AI, machine learning and the development of more commercially focused human skills. Cracknell suggests a combination of digital-focused education and ensuring people gain hands-on job experience.
Cross-generation mentorship, where younger staff teach more experienced staff digital skill sets in return for business and organisational skills can be beneficial. Anderson recommends supporting curiosity and encouraging everybody in the business to acquire a certain level of understanding around these industries. The ICAEW Data Analytics Certificate Programme supports the finance team with learning to harness and understand data and how it influences a business.