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Facing the challenge of tech transformation

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 05 Oct 2022

Finance teams must embrace finance transformation or face becoming obsolete, warns former Microsoft Finance Director Oliver Deacon. He shares his vision of the technologies that will shape the jobs of tomorrow.

UK finance teams are up to 10 years behind US-based leading tech companies in the adoption of tech that will change the face of finance with a host of new jobs that place accountants at the commercial heart of the business.

A staggering 60% of the jobs in finance today will not exist in 10 years’ time, but only one in 10 of those affected are aware of the dramatic shift they face, warns Oliver Deacon, a former Microsoft finance director turned executive coach.

Despite the huge potential for technology to transform finance teams and strip away many of the transactional elements of the job, progress is slow, Deacon warns. “Anything that a machine can do is going to go away. But most finance teams are just five to 10% of the way through this journey.” 

Deacon says that when he moved back to the UK from his Microsoft US finance role three years ago, he expected most UK finance teams to be between three and five years behind the bleeding edge of finance transformation. “In reality, it’s seven to 10. It’s a long ramp to take finance organisations from where they are today to where some of the world’s leading organisations are.”

And yet finance teams must evolve or face becoming obsolete, Deacon warns. “The traditional stereotype of an accountant – the bean counter, ‘finance says no’, the person who’s more focused on the budget than the commercial side of the business – they’re dinosaurs. We have to evolve,” Deacon says. 

Deacon predicts that two distinct camps of roles will emerge; on the one hand, highly technical roles involving expertise in areas such as data and analytics, machine learning, Python, R and SQL. On the other, those that fall under the banner of the people side of finance, with activities focusing on deep analytical and strategic thinking, influencing and negotiating, and project management. “There’s a group of finance generalists who like moving stuff around in Excel. It’s not technically challenging and they don’t really have to talk to anyone. They are the ones who will struggle.” 

“The good thing is that we’re going to have much more time for interesting value-add work. It’s going to be harder, but more rewarding, more interesting, more engaging and more fulfilling for most of the people in the profession.” 

Deacon’s view is reiterated by the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Future of Jobs report, which highlights a shift away from data entry and administration towards finance roles requiring expertise in data analysis, AI and big data.

The future of finance tech

Deacon doesn’t believe that the changing role of finance will result in teams getting smaller outside of accounts payable and accounts receivable. However, the roles of accountants will be underpinned by investment in new technologies to boost productivity and add greater value, Deacon predicts. “In small organisations, we're already seeing a pivot away from complex systems to ones that can be used easily by anyone.” 

The stellar rise of Xero over just a few years is a taste of things to come, he says. “This incredible platform does for finance software what Apple and Google have done for the software industry broadly. They’ve enabled and empowered lots of different people to come together around accounting software and allow businesses to make huge progress with their numbers without costing them an arm and a leg. That will come at an enterprise scale and everything in between.” 

Deacon believes that enterprise resource planning (ERP) vendors will be forced to shift from their traditional high-margin, on-premise models to lower-margin, cloud-based alternatives. “These big vendors will find new business models that enable these systems to be used by everyone. Cloud-based systems enable organisations to take advantage of big data and advanced statistical techniques that enable better business decisions.” 

Meanwhile, robotic process automation (RPA) – in Deacon’s words “like an Excel macro for anything” – will transform productivity by recording finance processes and running them over and over again, often in the middle of the night. 

However, organisations will need to address the poor quality of their finance data to reap the benefits that new technologies have to offer, Deacon warns. “The first thing we need to do is normalise and standardise our data – but out of all of my clients, just 2% of them are interested in this step, so that’s a big challenge. Technologies such as Alteryx and Datarails can do a lot of the data cleaning but they won’t fix your data at source.”

Despite a voracious appetite to automate processes, reengineering of processes will inevitably be required, Deacon warns. “Many processes are over engineered. A terrible process is still a terrible process in the cloud, so we need to clean our data, automate our processes, get it all into the cloud, and then the magic can happen.”

Common mistakes 

However, an organisational culture where people are afraid to take risks is not conducive to technology transformation, Deacon warns. “You need to make sure that there’s the right culture coming down from the top.” The biggest mistake CFOs make on this journey is making assumptions about what the problems with finance are. “Once you start engaging with people at junior level, that is when the flywheel turns much faster,” Deacon says.

Organisations serious on embracing technology to transform finance need to carve out a meaningful chunk of everyone’s time to make this happen. “One thing that leaders can do is say, these are all the things we’re not going to do for six months while we focus on transformation instead. 

“If you’ve got a team of more than 30 people, take one person on your team and make their whole job the transformation. That is the single step that will make the difference to cleaning your data, automating your processes and selecting technology.

“You need somebody that the rest of the finance team is going to listen to – it could be because they’re an expert, because everybody likes them or because they are passionate and can create a vision. But they have to want to drive change.”

• Oliver Deacon, together with Coca-Cola’s VP for Finance Strategy and Transformation Mike Clark, will present Technology, trends and the future of finance at TECH Live on 17 October 2022. Click here to find out more and to book your free place.

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