Leading CFOs shared practical examples and future scenarios for a world with AI.
In a world where machines are already taking over, many finance leaders are questioning their role over the next decade as digitisation and digitalisation are doing most of their jobs for them. On 5 July, South Africa’s leading CFOs gathered in the glamorous foyer of The Leonardo for the annual CFO Day to discuss what they are losing in surrendering aspects of their jobs and relationships to machines, and whether it's worth it.
CFO South Africa’s executive community director Georgina Guedes welcomed guests, saying: “In the battle between man and machine, I for one hope that the men – and women – win, because I am not sure how to create communities for AI.”
The day kicked off with a live walkthrough of the metaverse with VR creative technologist Dale Deacon.
A self-confessed tech nerd, Dale demoed a fascinating virtual TV studio with a clever and engaging avatar. During this immersive experience, Dale explained how VR is like splitting consciousness between the real world and a digitally created world. He says South Africa has a thriving VR community, which is innovating in various areas from arts and media to agriculture and medicine. He is passionate about getting young enthusiasts to delve into technology and business leaders to do the same
“AR and VR are not just about gaming, but can be used in business as well,” he says.
He adds that business leaders who are wondering how to build something should follow these steps:
- Learn the basics,
- Get to grips with the jargon,
- Do research in your field,
- Select the platform you will build on,
- Build a team, and
- Collaborate with others.
Dale is a co-author of the Africa XR report, which highlights that most people working in the industry are very young - something for employers to think about as they seek these skills for their companies.
“These technologies may sound like science fiction, but are being created by people down the road,” he says.
Mining commodities and data
Exxaro FD Riaan Koppeschaar built on Dale’s comments, by dispelling the idea that tech and mining are not partners, adding that traditionally mining was done where extraction is easy and economical, now all the cheap commodities have already been mined out, more difficult reserves need to be mined. Mining companies are adopting tech to be more efficient and cost-efficient.
Fellow panelist, TransUnion Africa CFO Sharon Naidoo agreed saying AI needs to be a partner to organisations and that technology is making a big difference. “What technology enables locally is the opportunity for SMEs to access financial products and services, financial inclusivity, which is a big opportunity for the underserved, unserved, to use credit for good. Technology can help institutions access populations without a credit history, by using analytics and running data across multiple touch points, which was previously difficult to do.”
Once the CFOs got an idea of how they could use AI and technology to create efficiencies and to focus on the big ideas, tech pioneer Jos Dirkx explained why some good ideas die and how to release team innovation instead.
“If you want a team to succeed, instilling psychological safety is paramount. Without psychological safety in teams, baseline skills don’t matter. Let’s think of practical ways to innovate, not just think about it, but also do it. Great ideas are critical to SA, but the country has been sitting on them for a long time. For some reason the big ideas from smart people aren’t coming to fruition,” she said.
“Stay away from heavy software, keep your software as light as possible. Break down the barriers, get rid of dispersed dashboards and simplify your teams’ lives - this will allow them to explore new ideas and find ways to make sure your business can thrive. Allow your team members the freedom to work with limited barriers so they are able to adapt, create and innovate.”
The big debate
After a decadent lunch from the renowned Aurum restaurant, it was time for the big debate: Will AI sink us or save us? UJ professor of practice and author Steven Sidley, BDO South Africa director of business development Pat Mokgatle and CFO South Africa MD Joël Roerig aired their views.
The real risk, said Steven, is if China gets ahead of everyone else in this game, “China has a completely different set of world views which we find abhorrent and they are - so if they are ahead in AI, it would mean they would also be ahead in geopolitics and that is the big risk.”
It’s clear that neither man nor machine can go without the other, and so it was time for Absa Group FD Jason Quinn, Discovery Group CFO Deon Viljoen, Zeda CFO Thobeka Ntshiza and Afrimat CEO Andries van Heerden to share some of the very real examples of how they are using both people and technology to get the best out of their roles.
“We have invested in value-added products such as telematics, a fuel management system as well as looking into the introduction of AI-driven key locker systems at our national airports as a means to bring technologically advanced customer-centric solutions,” said Thobeka.
For Andries, the issue was more about enhancing skills which have lately proven to be difficult to attain. “On the mining side we are finding a skills shortage so a key focus is skills development and to up our competitiveness. With the recent acquisition of two businesses, the next three to five years are more about execution. Keeping the growth path, developing the needed skills and using the technology to enhance efficiency.”
Futurist Graeme Codrington packaged the day’s theme rather neatly when he asked:
“As we think about tech do we say it is an enabler, collaborator or will it destroy life? If we see it as a binary, human vs machine, it will get us into a bind. AI is a big label and scary. At the moment it should be thought of as Intelligent assistance, we need to be thinking about it as a collaborative tool rather than replacing us. For the next while, jobs will not be taken, but CFOs who use AI will take jobs of those who don’t.”
With these insightful conversations buzzing in their heads, CFOs were more than ready to summit to a higher altitude at Alto234, the highest urban bar in Africa, to enjoy a drink or two and a good catch up with their peers, as the sun set on another successful CFO Day.