When talking about digital transformation in finance, there’s more to consider than technology. At a roundtable dinner hosted by Finance Director Europe in conjunction with Oracle on 26 April at London’s Grosvenor House, finance leaders from a variety of industries spoke about how digital transformation and cultural change in finance are related.
In an age of cloud-based enterprise performance management (EPM) and enterprise resource planning (ERP), the finance function is experiencing rapid digital transformation. Far removed from the hand-written ledger of the past, today's finance professionals need a wide understanding of their business and the technology upon which it relies.
At the FDE roundtable dinner at London's Grosvenor House, attendees stressed that attracting and retaining finance professionals who are savvy about operational objectives and the advantages of technology is key to digital transformation. Oracle's Mandeep Hansra co-hosted the event, which was chaired by Patrick Fenton, head of financial management UK and partner at KPMG. The senior finance and IT professionals in attendance agreed that the days of silo careers in finance were over, and finance and business units now need to source from a broader talent pool.
Bill Castell, CFO of corporate banking at Barclays, said: "The stereotype of having to be 40 or 50 years old to be the only great knowledge base in finance is changing. The future includes bringing in 23 or 24-year-old coders to give a different insight. The digital age brings the need to diversify the talent to have that comparative advantage."
Hansra, director of business development EPM, UK at Oracle, said: "The days where you just hired a trainee functional accountant are over. You now need to supplement this capability with a data scientist or someone who is able to understand the business itself."
A broader perspective is crucial to digital transformation, including understanding the wider operational objectives of a business.
Jens Madrian, CFO and CCO of Reactive Technologies and the evening's keynote speaker, said: "The finance team must well understand the commercial and operational side of the business, and how it works. If the team is trying to evaluate commercial data, and it doesn't really have a good understanding of it, things will become difficult. So a prerequisite for a proper challenge and support is a good understanding of the underlying commercial business model and its key operational KPIs."
Consider new skills
Other companies are adapting their recruitment practices to include finance professionals who are inquisitive and have an ability to gain a broader view of business. Jonas Ersblad, director of finance for the UK division of Zurich Global Corporate, said that it is important to consider new skills in the company's graduate programme that used to see graduates stay within only one function. These days, he said, things have changed, and they are trying to evolve the graduates programme to take into account the wider skills needed within finance as well as the rest of the company.
He said of these graduates, "We're not necessarily going to place them into just the finance function; we're looking into having them circle the whole organisation to understand what is important on the sales side, what's important on the product side and see where they end up - in finance or not.
With the most tech-savvy professionals often being lured by technology giants such as Apple or Google, recruiters need to make the finance role in a traditional industry more attractive to the right type of people.
"New finance professionals are much more demanding about the environment in which they're going to work," Hansra said. "They want to work collaboratively, have easy access to information, be able to take decisions and be a positive influence in the organisation. They have their own expectations of the environment in which they wish to work."
Castell said: "The key is flexibility, dynamic working and having the attitude that allows people to do three or four-day weeks or cater to those that want to go on a two or three-month career break. You need to understand that there are different priorities at the more junior levels of the workforce. You want their talent."
This desire to accommodate and attract youthful talent should not come at the expense of existing finance expertise.
Madrian cautioned attendees about the possible loss of traditional finance professionals: "Gen Y people simply work and communicate in new ways. Unless we embrace this diversity, see it as an enriching opportunity, and adapt to allow people to work and florish in the way they can perform at their best, the highest quality talent will choose to work at someone else's company or in an industry that's more compatible with the way they want to work. It's the digital revolution in action and there's no reason finance can't lead the way."
Chairperson Patrick Fenton of KPMG added to Madrian's thoughts: "The hardest bit of any transformation is the culture change."
Niall O'Sullivan, SVP finance transformation at Pearson, then spoke about changing existing talent. "To adapt to this new digital age is the biggest challenge. You don't read much about people who have managed to change the culture of an organisation from within. That must be where the real difficulty is. It's expensive and takes a long time to get new talent in. I think trying to change the people from within is crucial."
Companies may try to obtain fresh insight by adapting their existing workforce to make them capable of seizing the potential of digital transformation. It is not necessarily always best to source younger and newer recruits.
Whatever the route, opportunities that come from a shift in culture are plentiful. Hansra added: "A modern finance function is fundamental for an organsiation to exploit its advantage in the market. Planning confidently, turning data into insight and then acting upon it, is crucial. If you have the right data and capabilities, and you plan and execute your business well, you can change the culture of the business. Understanding where you extract more value from the business starts with recognising the way that culture changes, and making sure that it becomes more agile."