Mark Cracknell, head of research at digital consultancy firm Generation CFO, sees a frustrating disparity between the way people operate in their personal lives and the workplace.
“People in their personal lives are quite digitally advanced and yet when they go into work it’s back to manual,” he says.
That situation is changing rapidly, however. For one thing, as Generation Z enters the workplace, they’re questioning why operations aren’t more digital and automated. For another, the pandemic has accelerated the digitisation of the workplace and the need for more timely data. “People will be forced down this route,” says Cracknell. “They need to be more cost-efficient. We won’t have any more headcount, but we’ve got to do more. And tech is the answer.”
Cracknell cites NHS Shared Business Services as an example. On a recent Generation CFO webinar, its head of finance and accounting Stephen Sutcliffe said the team wouldn't have survived the last 18 months had they not been in a strong digital position as they entered the pandemic. “They used to have 120 people in their post room, opening envelopes and distributing invoices,” says Cracknell. “By adopting e-commerce, they now do that work with 11 people. They would never have been able to cope.”
Widening the digital skillset
The digital skillset finance teams need is quite wide, Cracknell explains. Not everyone in the finance function will be good at the same thing; team leaders will need to identify the skills potential of various team members and nurture that potential to get the best of their team.
One of the first steps finance functions need to take on the journey to upskilling is to understand what technology can do. Cracknell explains that people in the traditional transactional roles, such as accounts payable and receivable, generally have a lower appreciation of what is possible. However, what they do understand are the limitations of their ERP system and the parts of their role they do not enjoy. When someone explains the possibilities of technology, they tend to pick up quickly what it could mean for them, “but they're not going to be the people who go out and drive the initiative forward.”
On the FP&A side of the organisation, understanding and awareness are reasonable but limited. A lot of their knowledge revolves around what’s possible within Excel or what they have experienced in previous roles. Generally, that’s where their knowledge ends, says Cracknell. “A lot of people haven't got a clue what some of the more advanced technologies have to offer, because they haven't been taught and they do not have time for research.”
The skills needed within the finance function splits into two basic categories. One is more technical, and focused around understanding data; being able to manipulate and read data, knowing how that data is sourced, and being able to draw the right conclusions from it, is essential. This also includes the capabilities and limitations of automation and AI.
The skills that create the most value, however, are more ‘human’ skills such as storytelling, influencing and presentation. “It’s being able to analyse the data and come out with a story behind it. Then to be able to tell that story to management in a way that will influence their decision making.”
Moving away from technical skills
David Anderson, partner at Deloitte MCS, worked with ICAEW on Finance in a Digital World, a training tool for members that helps to build understanding and awareness of the potential of digital technology. He identifies the emphasis on technical skills as a challenge that the profession faces. “When you're moving into a more digital and agile world, things like problem-solving skills, creativity, challenging norms, all of those kinds of things, becomes more important. They're certainly not technical skills.”
Anderson agrees that understanding the team dynamics is important when determining how to upskill the finance function to reflect a more digital approach. It also comes down to how new talent is recruited. “You can start focusing more on attributes and behaviours in an interview process than purely technical skills, which can help to shift the balance.”
Both Anderson and Cracknell outline an approach that involves a mix of new technical specialisms around data management, AI and machine learning, and more commercially minded human skills. It’s not easy to teach all of these skills, but it’s possible. Cracknell recommends a combination of digital education and an element of ‘throwing people in the deep end’ to help them acquire on the job experience.
Intergenerational mentorship, in which young staff teach more experienced staff digital skills in exchange for business acumen and organisational understanding, can also be powerful. Humility among finance leadership is helpful; it’s easier to bring people on the journey if management is on that journey themselves.
Anderson recommends encouraging a general curiosity as well. “You've got to encourage everybody in the organisation to be curious, to seek a base level of understanding and awareness of some of these topics. You'll see a big acceleration in digital transformation as a result of that.”
In an increasingly data-rich and technology-driven world, ICAEW’s Data Analytics Certificate Programme helps finance teams learn to harness and make sense of data and what it means for the business.