Why Finance Cannot Afford to Lose Sight of Digital Transformation

When they occur, crisis events like the COVID-19 pandemic rightly soak up the attention of firms. But to implement a truly agile response to black swan events like these, organisations must not overlook the long-term importance of digital transformation.

Robert Douglas, Europe Planning Director at Workday Adaptive Planning, explains how effective digitalisaiton has been a lifeline for finance teams in the wake of the pandemic.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, chief financial officers (CFOs) around the world were thrust into uncharted territory. All previous plans went off the table, and businesses’ ability to make rapid and data-driven decisions in the face of uncertainty have been put to the test ever since. Agility took on a new meaning in the age of COVID.

In a recent survey, hundreds of CFOs around the world were asked to share what their priorities have been in the immediate response to the pandemic and how they will change over the next year. Predictably, cost containment and workforce planning has been front of mind for many in the short term. However, looking a year ahead, the implementation of digital transformation will be a growing priority.

As finance looks at how it can improve the way in which it can assist executives throughout the organisation with quick and confident decision-making, the implementation and use of sophisticated digital technologies will indeed play a key role. While finance has been slower than others at embracing digitalisation, COVID-19 has made the importance of it abundantly clear and is acting as a catalyst for much needed change.

The case for digital transformation

More than half (54%) of CFOs currently report that their organisation has implemented some aspect of digital transformation. This includes moving IT infrastructure to the cloud, automating nonstrategic tasks, establishing a ‘single source of truth’ through data optimisation, and using predictive analytics powered by artificial intelligence.

The benefits of making these changes are clear, with around three quarters of CFOs overseeing a digitally transformed finance team being confident in both their teams’ capacity to carry out all critical finance functions (79%) and the accuracy of their two-year P&L forecast (73%). Only around 40% of CFOs from less digitalised organisations say the same.

While finance has been slower than others at embracing digitalisation, COVID-19 has made the importance of it abundantly clear and is acting as a catalyst for much needed change.

Digital transformation also gives finance teams the agility needed to operate in the current climate. The strengthening of data accuracy and automation of much of the analysis means that teams can more easily lay out multiple future scenarios for the business and help executives devise strategies for how to adapt to them as early as possible. While not everything can be predicted or planned for, the time it takes to readjust to surprises is shortened. As important, it underscores the great divide between organisations that have embraced digital transformation and those that have not.

Why the lag?

In terms of what has slowed down digital transformation for many CFOs, the prioritisation of crisis management in the face of COVID-19 is just one piece of the puzzle—many would have been stalling anyway.

When asked what is hindering digital transformation in their businesses, the two leading roadblocks are lack of skills and internal resistance to change. While overcoming both of those obstacles might be challenging, the good news is that CFOs have it in their power to do so.

CFOs need to work closely with HR to determine how to acquire the necessary skills to use modern financial planning software and strike the optimal balance between recruiting new staff and reskilling current employees. At the same time, it is crucial for finance leaders to set a positive example, by experimenting with new technologies and empowering employees to proactively highlight areas of inefficiency or untapped value that can be improved by establishing news ways of working or investing in new solutions.

The time is now

Transforming the finance function is not an easy task, but now more than ever it is necessary to both bolster productivity within finance and prepare the organisation for unforeseen challenges. Thankfully, almost all finance teams that have not digitally transformed their ways of working over the past year plan on doing so over the next. This will benefit their businesses and make the economy overall more robust in its response to crises.

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