VIEWPOINT

IMPACT OF NEW TECHNOLOGIES ON FINANCE FUNCTION

FINANCE DISRUPTED

LEE THONG TAN

IMPACT OF NEW TECHNOLOGIES ON THE FUTURE OF FINANCE

There should be no doubt that today’s business world is on the cusp of another revolution – a technological revolution, and one that is upending traditional business strategies and disrupting the status quo.

Businesses have to embrace technology and digital innovation. Many companies are now feeling the full effects of digitalised services and platforms, with artificial intelligence, machine learning and cloud computing being some examples of the technologies proliferating in the workplace. With very significant differentials in performance, cost and efficiency, these digital technologies have transformed how we work and are underpinning a wave of digital transformation within the workplace.

It is often said that digital transformation is not so much driven only by the companies in which they are utilised, but also by the increasingly digitally savvy customers and consumers who are served. Today, customers and employees alike expect a whole new experience in how they engage with businesses, and it is their journey that dictates the transformation strategy. With the world’s growing obsession with the latest technology and applications revolving around the desire for an easier and less complex life, the experience of the user is at the heart of digital transformation.

This is especially true for Asia Pacific, the fastest growing and most dynamic region for business anywhere in the world. While there have been varying pace of digital adoption across Asia Pacific, many companies from the region are now setting the pace globally in technology-led business transformation.

Today, customers and employees alike expect a whole new experience for how they engage with businesses, and it is their journey that dictates the transformation strategy.

FINANCE FIRST

Technological disruption is affecting many corporate functions today. In particular, it has strongly impacted the important role of finance. Innovations in technology and business management processes are creating greater opportunities for finance practitioners to add value to their organisations but are also demanding more attention, technical prowess and strategic understanding from them.

Many professionals in finance, using technology, have expanded the possibilities of their roles, which is inherently already vast. “Finance”, after all, is a very broad term used to refer to any number of activities revolving around financial planning and reporting. The finance function is often associated with the gatekeeper of company funds and cash flow and plays an important role in both the day-to-day and strategic long-term planning of many organisations. It is also one of the most integral corporate functions inherent in any company, and its remit can extend to include other functions such as human resources (for matters with payroll), compliance and procurement, and even strategy.

As we have seen with countless examples in the past decade, the disruption brought about by digital transformation can be ruthless. For the future of finance, it can be quite a bleak affair – evolve, or risk being left behind.

This is especially the case in larger and more complex companies whose finance teams are often subject to greater scrutiny in financial reporting and compliance than their smaller-sized counterparts. Yet, these large companies are also the ones that are more likely to have analogue finance systems, often as a result of cumbersome legacy systems that are so entrenched in the way of working.

To better understand the changes taking place in the finance function of companies in Asia Pacific, Workday commissioned a three-part survey of 337 Chief Financial Officers (CFOs) and financial leaders from large enterprises in Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong and Singapore. The selection for the survey was limited to only Vice Presidents, C-suite executives and Directors in audit, compliance, accounting, financial planning and finance. In the second iteration of the study, Workday aims to examine the real impact felt by finance leaders and large companies in Singapore and the region as economies and companies digitally transform, and what it takes for them to continue to thrive and deliver results in this changing environment.

MIXED RESULTS

The findings are interesting because the headline figures concur with mainstream world views on the prevalence of digital transformation in the business world, yet a closer look raises many other questions about just how well Singapore finance professionals are managing in this regard. An overwhelming majority of finance leaders in Singapore (94%) said that their companies were driving digital transformation, and four in five were prepared for digital transformation. Over three in five said that their teams have adopted digital transformation initiatives in the past 12 months.

These figures corroborate and highlight just how effecting meaningful transformation has become such a high priority for many companies today. Workday’s research into this shows that digital transformation has had the most positive impact on customer satisfaction, according to four in five (82.3%) respondents. Enhanced availability of data and insights (79%) is a close second, followed by market competitiveness (72.6%), which again reinforces the belief that companies use these cutting-edge tools to improve customer experiences and increase speed and agility in garnering insights (Figure 1).

Figure 1

However, many are realising now that digital transformation presents both opportunities and challenges alike. For instance, almost a fifth of finance teams said that they were unprepared to embrace digital transformation. The results also show that many firms which adopted digital transformation initiatives in the past year or so saw positive results but worryingly, over a quarter are not seeing any positive effects brought about by digital transformation. In a technologically-enhanced and digitalised country such as Singapore, which has ranked extremely highly in recent gauges of digital transformation across Asia Pacific, this should be of some concern to business leaders.

THE HUMAN TOUCH

The impact of these new technologies and digital transformation will be felt not just on the corporate level but also on a human level, as there will be increased focus on the evolving role of the employees and how they will adapt and thrive in this new environment.

The findings also suggest that there will be a changing emphasis on the skills required for finance professionals to succeed in the future. Many respondents also believed that digital transformation will ultimately have a significant impact on the finance team’s collaboration with other business departments (54.5%), increase the focus on data-driven insights (54.5%) and drive change in skill sets required by CFOs and other finance professionals (49.5%) (Figure 2).

Figure 2

In a fast-moving environment with lots of evolving data and collaboration between different business functions, it is also no surprise that Analytical skills (25.7%), Risk Management (16.8%) and Leadership (15.8%) are cited as the top skills for finance professionals to have in the future (Figure 3). This reflects the far-reaching impact of many digital transformation projects today, where changes are rarely isolated in one department or function. Across the entire organisation, different teams must pull together in the same direction, often led by finance, which means better communication and a pressing need to see the bigger picture.

Figure 3

Another interesting revelation is the seeming contradiction to traditionalist views on jobs displacement caused by digitalisation. Some 87.1% of finance leaders believe that the maturation and advent of more technologies in artificial intelligence and machine learning will increase the headcount of finance teams over the next three to five years. From a business perspective, the ongoing war for talent and constant skills shortages in crucial technical roles are making roles that encompass both technology and finance ever more important to finance teams. Only 12.9% believe that the rise of new technologies will lead to a reduction in headcount.

THE FUTURE OF FINANCE

Ultimately, while new technologies have proliferated in the finance function, the fact remains that technology is just an enabler of digital transformation and not a means to an end. This was reflected in the responses of Singapore finance leaders with only barely more than half (52.5%) believing that new technologies in artificial intelligence and machine learning will significantly affect the role of the CFO and the finance function. Singapore was also the only country surveyed where a slight majority believe that these technologies will affect the role of CFOs and the finance function. Finance professionals in the other countries surveyed did not recognise the potential impact and change within the sector.

It is important for finance leaders to be aware of and manage digital transformation well. As the custodians of a company’s financial well-being, finance leaders will have to champion the cause of strong, digitally transformed workplaces. This will allow their teams to reap the many benefits that digital transformation can offer. While many companies are actively investing in transforming their finance teams to enable future innovation and streamline efficiencies, the main barriers to organisations being fully digital will be less about technological constraints and more about the lack of digital vision, strategy and workforce readiness. Finance leaders should take note of how the tides of transformation ebb and flow, and see where they can generate the most value for their companies.


Lee Thong Tan is Regional Financials Lead, ASEAN & North Asia, Workday.