Automation heralds a new era of finance skills

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Finance professionals have always taken a leading role in helping the business better understand its performance data, says Oracle’s Dee Houchen.

Today, they are also expected to unlock value from this information and enhance the way the entire company operates.

Many companies still have manual finance processes that are extremely time-consuming and which are largely focussed on “housekeeping” rather than innovation. The continuing rise of automation in the back-office is changing all that, particularly with regards to speeding up admin tasks so finance can spend more time spotting and developing new business opportunities.

Finance professionals also need the necessary skills to get the most out of their data, and companies that recognise this are changing their hiring criteria in response. A recent article in the Financial Times highlights how the Big Four accounting firms are rethinking their talent strategies in light of the way technology is transforming the way businesses are audited. These longstanding organisations have started to recruit graduates with strong computer and data analytics skills as they build increasingly analytics-heavy finance strategies.

The modern finance professional cannot just be attuned to the obvious but also be inclined to pursue the unknown and manage the unexpected. Sometimes the business will have a question that requires educated speculation. For instance, a toy manufacturer might want to know if its new action figure will sell better in some markets than others. Other times the boardroom will have questions about sales after the fact. Consider the case of the same toy company that sees its action figure sell much better than projected in a particular market, and that will no doubt want to pinpoint the reason so it can replicate its success elsewhere.

The Wall Street Journal released a report revealing that to get the best out of data analysis, finance teams need a range of ‘soft’ skills such as critical thinking, a willingness to ask questions in the pursuit of value and a whole gamut of people skills in addition to their reporting abilities. After all, it is people who make decisions based on the parameters before them, and who will ultimately shape the finance department’s contribution to the wider business.

The finance team also needs to understand the sociology of the organisation. They need to be skilled in presenting new idea and persuading other lines of business as they work more closely together. Today’s finance professional is therefore more analyst than mere number-cruncher. They need the freedom of lateral thinking to ask the right questions of the data they collect, and the ability to test the validity of their instincts. It falls to CFO and wider business to give them this flexibility. Without it even the most skilled individuals will struggle to deliver on the business’ needs.

The age of “Industry 4.0” has made businesses more technology-intensive than ever, and finance has become instrumental in helping companies capitalise on their technology investment. The automation of traditional processes like accounts reconciliation and financial close has freed up finance executives and their teams to add value like never before.

Dee Houchen is senior director of product marketing at Oracle.

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