The finance function is evolving, and with it the financial workforce. Digital transformation is sparking new ideas about how controllerships can operate and what value they can offer the business.
Amid rapid transformation, finance professionals in many organizations are deploying more automation and analytics to expand their ability to provide strategic insights to business leaders. To some extent, digital transformation was already afoot as organizations embraced increasingly advanced technologies, but the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated it. Now that some finance teams are realizing certain unexpected benefits of rapid changes, new approaches may endure indefinitely to define a new way forward for work, workforces, and workplaces.
“Given the constantly changing technological landscape, a new reality is refocusing finance roles and responsibilities,” says Beth Kaplan, managing director for the Center for Controllership, Deloitte Risk & Financial Advisory, Deloitte & Touche LLP. “Automation is changing the nature of work. With it, organizations are reconsidering many aspects of how and where work is performed.”
Deloitte and IMA® (Institute of Management Accountants) recently surveyed more than 800 financial professionals to gauge the extent to which finance organizations are engaging with automation and advanced technologies to transition away from manual processes. According to the joint Deloitte-IMA report, approximately one-fourth of participants describe their organizations as largely or fully automated, and that result predates COVID-19-related disruption.
In response to the escalating pandemic, many organizations rapidly deployed new tools to facilitate more distributed workforces. In a more recent poll of approximately 5,500 participants in a Deloitte webcast, nearly one-third of respondents indicate disruption stemming from COVID-19 has accelerated the implementation of advanced technologies such as robotic process automation (RPA), advanced analytics, and others.
When the pandemic prompted many finance organizations to adopt virtual work arrangements, controllerships focused significant attention on normalizing operations to complete critical activities, says Jeff Thomson, president and CEO of IMA. This included completing period-closing activities, filing statutory reports, and collaborating with senior leaders to shore up balance sheets.
“Soon after stabilizing, many finance leaders then transitioned their focus toward how they could become more strategic using digital tools,” says Thomson. “Many controllerships are implementing advanced data analytics, digital tools, RPA, and other technologies to gain greater insight and foresight that can help organizations build resilience.”
Controllers’ Digital Transformation Journey
Laurie Bergman, chief accounting officer and corporate controller at energy distribution and services firm UGI Corporation, says organizations can equip their finance functions to help them thrive with investment in technologies and skills to increase capacity. “COVID-19 has given us good reason to focus on technologies that help us reduce costs, improve efficiencies, and increase insights that can be delivered to business leaders,” she says.
Automation technology is one part of an integrated enterprise strategy, says Scott Hurley, chief accounting officer and global controller for Converse Inc. The footwear, apparel, and accessory company is accelerating its commitment to a direct-to-consumer strategy to serve consumers in an increasingly mobile marketplace. Automation is an important element—but not the only element.
“This is a comprehensive digital strategy that requires investment in both foundational technology and advanced analytics,” says Hurley. “Cloud-based technology is driving end-to-end integration of the supply chain to enable business innovation and increase engagement with customers. We find it critical to invest in both foundational technology and advanced analytical tools to activate our business strategies.”
As Converse becomes a more data-driven organization—deploying enhanced forecasting, improving working capital management, and reducing supply chain waste and cost—the effect spans performance and business culture, adds Hurley. “We’re in a position to leverage data access and our functional expertise to help drive strategy and inform business decisions,” he notes.
A consistent data infrastructure is an important foundation for an effective digital transformation in finance, says Ashley Gibson, a manager with Deloitte Risk & Financial Advisory, Deloitte & Touche LLP. For some organizations, this may require initial investment in enterprise information systems such as a modern ERP system to enable automation.
“A transformation journey often is iterative, beginning with steps to produce a clean, reliable data infrastructure while also focusing on technologies that integrate seamlessly to generate value and reduce manual effort,” says Gibson.
New Ways of Working
With digital transformation and significant workplace changes resulting from COVID-19, finance leaders may change the way they manage talent, says Kaplan. RPA and other automation tools, for example, are performing what were once manual tasks while centralizing, standardizing, and streamlining those efforts.
At UGI, for example, finance leadership is giving renewed attention to talent issues such as how to continue employee engagement, development, and succession planning, says Bergman. “It’s important for us to embrace these leadership challenges and ensure we are communicating with all of our employees so they understand how they can be successful in this environment,” she says. “We are accelerating our organizational transparency with more frequent updates to demonstrate our commitment to our employees.”
While UGI has invested in analytics technology, the company also is investing in its human capabilities, says Bergman. “We are refining our competency models to enable us to identify the future requirements for teams, and we intend to invest in our talent by upskilling and reskilling as appropriate,” she notes. “It’s critical that we make these investments so that our finance teams can steer this focus from lagging indicators to leading indicators.”
Adoption of emerging technologies may also aid the movement to a hybrid working environment, says Gibson, with controllerships increasingly embracing a new mix of on-premises and remote work arrangements. In Deloitte’s webcast poll, nearly three-fourths of respondents indicate they expect hybrid arrangements to become more common as a result of the pandemic.
Whether finance organizations achieve near-term digital transformations or longer transitions, finance leaders can improve their ability to provide insights to senior leaders throughout the business, says Kaplan. “The added value that controllers and other finance leaders can offer their organizations derives from providing proactive, predictive insights rather than transactional, reactional, historic information,” she says. “This analytical approach gives finance leaders not only improved understanding but also greater agility to serve business needs.”
—by Tammy Whitehouse, Deloitte Services LP, senior writer, Deloitte Insights for executives with risk management oversight responsibilities