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Digitally transforming your finance function


Published: 16 Mar 2020 Updated: 21 Apr 2023 Update History

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Latest research on digital transformation shows the importance of small and continuous improvements over massive changes, says Kirstin Gillon.

Technology provides finance functions with many opportunities to do things better. However, delivering digital transformation in practice is challenging. The Tech Faculty’s latest research report, Digital transformation in finance functions: ASEAN and UK perspectives, draws on interviews with CFOs and digital transformation leads to share real-world experience of change in finance functions and highlight common lessons and pitfalls.

Have patience

The digital transformation of finance focuses on two elements – improving the efficiency and accuracy of standard accounting and finance processes through automation, and spending more time supporting businesses with better information and insights.

These improvements are made possible by many areas of new technology, including cloud, robotic process automation, data analytics and artificial intelligence. They build on previous generations of technology such as enterprise resource planning systems. However, transformation doesn’t happen overnight. Most finance functions have evolved over many years, and often have a range of systems and processes in place, supplemented by spreadsheets. Therefore, a lot of groundwork is required to standardise processes and improve the integration of data in order to make the most of new technologies.

This leads to a consistent lesson from the research – the importance of taking an iterative approach to transformation and emphasising small and continuous improvements over a seismic change.

This approach can help to manage the expectations of external stakeholders, who may be impatient for change, and to keep staff motivated. It can provide greater agility to respond to changes in technology and encourages constant learning about successes and failures in practice. It also enables finance functions to get started quickly with changes that will help them deliver more insight to businesses and demonstrate their increased value.

Transformation requires substantial reskilling for many staff and there was strong agreement among our interviewees that accountants needed stronger skills in technology and data. Most interviewees regarded the skill level required as that of an ‘intelligent buyer’ – enough knowledge to enable accountants to work with technology specialists, understand enough of the technical context to ask good questions and challenge assumptions, as well as make good use of tools.

But transformation also requires a significant change in behaviour and culture. To some extent, this is about attitude – the willingness of individuals to change – as well as the capabilities and skills to relearn and adapt to whatever is needed by the business. But our research also highlighted the importance of strong leadership to communicate a vision and empower accountants at all levels to play their own part in the transformation.

Furthermore, digital transformation is intrinsically linked to business partnering: as accountants are freed from some of the more repetitive process tasks, they can spend more time supporting and influencing wider business decision-making.

Demonstrate value

While our research showed great examples of finance functions working with other business areas to deliver more value through data insights, this is not inevitable. As other business areas build their own capabilities around data, finance will need to demonstrate the specific value that it brings. While business partnering is not new, the transactional role of finance functions has enabled them to remain relevant, whether or not they play this wider business role.

As the transactional side of finance shrinks, business partnering becomes essential.

Therefore, many interviewees also felt that there was a need for finance leaders to inject some urgency into securing quick wins, getting started with change and demonstrating the added value of finance to wider business areas.

About the author

Kirstin Gillon, Technical Manager, Tech Faculty.

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  • Update History
    16 Mar 2020 (12: 00 AM GMT)
    First published
    21 Apr 2023 (12: 00 AM BST)
    Page updated with Related resources section, adding further reading on digital transformation in finance functions. These new articles provide fresh insights, case studies and perspectives on this topic. Please note that the original article from 2020 has not undergone any review or updates.