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Finance leaders highlight AI skills shortage

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 15 Jan 2024

Resilience and efficiency is at risk as CFOs warn finance teams don’t have the necessary skills to embrace new technologies.
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Finance executives around the world admit their teams may lack the required skills to adopt new technologies to streamline financial processes, including artificial intelligence (AI).

In a new study by BlackLine, senior finance staff said the current shortage of talent in finance and accounting (F&A) could be exacerbated by a lack of skills in these new technologies, placing further strain on the skills gap.

An overwhelming majority of finance executives in the report said that cloud computing (80%), generative AI (78%), and new kinds of AI (76%) were critical for improving business resilience.

A third of those surveyed (34%) said the ability to use new technology was a core skill. However, more than a quarter (28%) said not having the right skills on their finance team today or the ability to develop them would be a problem for the adoption of AI and other new technologies.

Therese Tucker, Founder and co-CEO of BlackLine, says: “Financial automation technology is now a necessity for F&A departments. While there is understandable apprehension in the adoption of emerging technologies, therein also lies a valuable opportunity for F&A leaders to enable the upskilling of their teams through automation.”

Most finance leaders in the study said their company does not have enough team members with deep technical knowledge to identify and resolve complex accounting issues. Bringing these skills into finance teams was proving particularly difficult. Nearly two-thirds (64%) struggled to recruit and retain enough skilled finance professionals to fulfil internal control responsibilities.

Only around a third of respondents said their finance team had sufficient skills when it comes to strategic thinking (35%) and the ability to analyse data (34%). Even fewer (29%) said they currently have the skills to be able to use new technology or software.

Bridging the skills gap

Peter Wood, CTO at recruitment company Spectrum Search, says finance teams often lack a blend of technical skills such as a deeper understanding of how these technologies impact financial processes and decision-making.

He recommends a mix of targeted training and focused recruitment to help finance leaders and their teams adapt to fresh challenges.

“It's about integrating these capabilities into financial strategy and operations,” Wood says. “Upskilling existing staff through targeted training programmes is a vital step. These programmes should focus not only on technical skills, but also on how to apply these technologies in financial contexts. Additionally, hiring talent with these specialised skills can inject immediate expertise into the team.” 

He also suggests deeper collaboration with tech companies and academic institutions to provide practical insights and cutting-edge knowledge as another approach. Ultimately though, he says it’s a question of fostering continuous learning.

“Cultivating a culture of continuous learning and innovation within the team is essential. This encourages ongoing skill development and helps the team stay ahead in a rapidly evolving tech landscape,” Wood says.

If they haven’t already, finance leaders need to identify specific skills gaps by assessing current capabilities against the requirements of AI, experts say. Once identified, the gaps can be filled through a combination of internal and external training.

Failure to embrace the challenge could lead to a fall in efficiency and competitiveness. Finance teams that don’t grasp the opportunities for automation, improved accuracy and greater insightful data analysis may struggle compared with their peers.

BlackLine’s Tucker says: “Business leaders must continue to proactively embrace available technologies to reduce time spent on manual tasks, cut down on errors in financial data and provide visibility that will help them make faster, smarter, and more informed decisions.”

Executives and finance leaders highlighted five key benefits of AI in the BlackLine study, including enhanced audit capabilities, the ability to process large volumes of financial data at high speed and improved accuracy and compliance, as well as better forecasting capabilities

US survey respondents showed the highest confidence, with 91% saying that AI could effectively prepare finance and accounting departments for disruption. Strikingly though, confidence among European respondents was lower, with percentages ranging from 72% in the UK to 57% in Germany.

Barriers do, however, remain in the effective adoption of AI technology. The most commonly identified in the study was training AI models to interpret complex financial data accurately. Trusting the AI outputs and ensuring robust governance to stop the potential misuse of AI were also key concerns.

Mike Polaha, Senior Vice President of Finance Solutions and Technology at BlackLine, says: “As the business landscape becomes increasingly complex, organisations with skill-ready F&A teams will possess a competitive advantage. Those fluent in the use of emerging data, analytics and AI modelling technologies will be able to garner business insights that can better serve broader organisational functions, such as sales, HR, and IT, helping them to seize opportunities and evade potential disruptions. 

“Now is the time for F&A leaders to build the skill set of their existing workforce to future-proof their operations and strengthen their organisation’s resilience.”

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