Digital transformation and its growing impact on the finance function

By Robert Half on 31 October 2019

Ten years ago, no one could have imagined how quickly digital transformation would penetrate the financial markets.

But with the rise of digitisation, artificial intelligence, machine learning and many other disruptive technologies introduced into the workplace, the role of the finance professional is (and continues) to evolve.

So what does a digital future hold for the finance function?

To answer this question, Robert Half, in partnership with Protiviti, organised an event at the Tower Club in Singapore for CFOs and senior finance professionals. The event was hosted by Matthieu Imbert-Bouchard, Managing Director of Robert Half Singapore, along with guest speakers Goh Seng Ti, General Manager, Finance & Administration of Isuzu Motors Asia Limited, and Marek Kosmowski, Head of Digital & Innovation Southeast Asia of Protiviti.

The push for artificial intelligence into finance

Robert Half regularly conducts market research into local job trends in the workplace through an independent research firm that surveys CFOs in Singapore, which was shared that evening by Matthieu.

The report found that 86% of CFOs in Singapore are about to, or have already, implemented some AI technologies within their organisation. Many are also introducing technologies such as robotic process automation, fraud detection, forecasting, process mining, natural language processing, and chatbots.

Given that many local companies are already on the digital transformation bandwagon, the bigger question was why? Why were these CFOs driving these initiatives? What is the desired outcome they wanted to achieve?

Tech has permeated into the finance function

Their response was simple – to increase efficiency and productivity. That means having better systems in place to help with decision making, but it also means having individuals with the right skillsets to implement these processes.

Another reason raised was that human errors have always been a concern in almost every aspect of the workforce from controllers of finance to the accounting process, right down to sales and the frontline. Utilising RPA systems can reduce such errors and allow businesses to forecast more accurately.

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How is the finance function embracing digital transformation?

The financial workforce requires candidates with the ability to not only interpret data, but also the technical 'know-how' to use the tools available. Robert Half survey results revealed that while financial roles in demand have remained relatively the same year-over-year, the critical functions and skills in-demand have changed over time.

Matthieu shared: “The standard prerequisite of having an ACCA or CPA, with a Big 4 and commercial experience, coupled with major ERP knowledge still holds. But today, this same individual must have the ability to partner effectively with the business, make sense of the data, and present this to the management team in order to help them drive better business decisions. They must be good at communicating, presenting, and be equipped with strong EQ in order to manage stakeholder expectations, potential conflict, navigate cultural differences and manage virtual teams.”

Seng Ti supported those points as he added during his segment that the role of the finance department has evolved, and organisations are expecting senior finance staff to move from operational and analytical excellence, and take on strategic business partners roles.

For example, finance staff are not expected to churn out numbers and reports, after all, robots or automation have allowed finance functions to produce accurate figures and present data in a cohesive manner.

Given these changes to the market, companies are finding it harder to decide what to prioritise when it comes to talent management. Already, there is a clear imbalance between supply and demand, especially in a country such as Singapore with its smaller human resource pool. Thus, making finding the right talent all the more challenging.

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It’s all about serving a purpose

To help explain the role of these digital changes, Marek asked the audience, “How many of you have a robotic vacuum cleaner at home?”

After hearing some responses, he then followed with, “Why do you have a robotic vacuum cleaner?”

Amidst the answers given, he explained the rationale for his question. Every single digital transformation that takes place must serve a purpose. From CFOs to the financial executives, the purpose of the change is vital.

“Many CFOs and financial executives today are talking about going digital, but most of them have no idea what they want to achieve,” said Marek. “Instead, by taking a step back and focusing on the purpose, suddenly, the vision becomes more explicit. Because by knowing what to push for, it becomes easier to drive the digitisation of governance, functional transformation, execution, and other financial processes.”

The same idea holds when recruiting financial professionals. Companies need first to identify what their purpose is when finding the right individual for any position within the finance function.

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What companies need to do

As the war for talent in Singapore continues, this has led many CFOs to prioritise their candidate search, whilst fostering a strong talent pipeline by introducing new measures that start from the top. Companies can implement initiatives that upskill and invest in upgrading their employees’ skills, so they stay relevant in the marketplace.

If companies want their finance function to have the right skillsets to support digital transformation, then it starts by providing the right platforms and resources to continuously adapt to change in the workplace.

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