CFO Dinner reveals why CFOs never need to do a budget again


A group of finance executives discussed the fears and opportunities they face when it comes to AI.

What happens when you bring a room full of CFOs together and ask them about AI? On 22 June, CFO South Africa did just that during a CFO Dinner at the Saxon in Johannesburg, hosted in partnership with Microsoft South Africa.

Kalane Rampai, CFO Aneshree Naidoo

Facing fears

Many of the guests who were still new to their automation journey shared some of the fears they have when it comes to the future of technology.

One example was the move to the cloud, which still poses a security concern for a lot of organisations. And with companies like Twitter and Facebook experiencing 12 hours of downtime, what are the implications of a similar outage from your cloud provider?

CFO Adriana Weilbach

Others were more scared about what the evolution of AI will mean for job security. “With the pace at which AI is currently advancing, what happens when it can start understanding and interpreting analytics too? What happens when it starts delivering insights and forecasts? Does that mean I have automated my people out of their jobs?” one of the CFOs asked.

One of the guests, who was already much further along their automation journey, challenged this:

“You shouldn’t assume that the human will stay the same. We evolve too. Right now, there are external applications for technology, like Apple’s VR glasses. But they’re already looking at ways to embed that technology into our brains, unlocking a whole new world of possibilities and opportunities for humans. Eventually, we’ll be able to drop all of the data that we’ve been storing in the cloud directly into our brains.”

The conversation also brought up old technologies, like floppy disks and cassette tapes, and one guest pointed out how the things that once scared us, eventually became vintage too.

CFO Welela Dawit, CFO Bothwell Mazarura

“AI is incredibly powerful and the way we use it can also be powerful. The single most powerful thing we can provide as a finance function to our business partners is our insights. The value proposition comes in when you can shorten the distance and time between the data and the action. AI does that, because it allows you to consume a lot of information to get actionable insights to drive business enablement and impact,” a CFO explained.

New finance teams

Because of this shift in what is required from finance teams, their make-up has changed quite a bit. One CFO explained that their team was previously made up of many accountants, analysts and P&A managers, with few commercial finance managers. Now, their team consists of all commercial finance managers and one statistics and tax person.

CFO Shoki Ralebepa

“That’s because of how things such as machine learning, data analytics and AI have enabled finance processes to generate insights on a real-time basis off of one single source of information,” they said.

Instead of focusing on reporting, the CFO’s team can now focus on being business partners for the organisation, driving growth and getting involved with deals and investments – “the things finance teams prefer doing”.

The CFO used an example of their statistics and tax manager, who used to spend roughly two to three weeks a quarter on account reconciliations. Now he spends 30 minutes a quarter on reconciliations.

“In turn, they have built up tremendous business acumen and storytelling abilities that have created a whole new runway of opportunities for them,” the CFO added.

Those attending the CFO Dinner were: 

Adriana Weilbach, Telesure CFO 
Aneshree Naidoo, Webber Wentzel CFO
Bothwell Mazarura, Kumba Iron Ore CFO
Caylynne Fourie, CFO South Africa managing editor
Georgina Guedes, CFO South Africa executive community director
Kalane Rampai, Microsoft South Africa MD
KC Rottok, author
Roxane Leita, Investec Life head of finance
Shoki Ralebepa, South African Reserve Bank CFO
Welela Dawit, Microsoft South Africa group CFO


Change isn’t easy

Some of the CFO Dinner guests who had already reached full automation explained that it wasn’t a quick journey. It took more than ten years to get there, and it wasn’t easy. “The important thing was to remain steadfast with the state and management of the data, getting the culture right, and setting the tone from the top around the stewardship of data,” they explained.

Part of the automation journey is understanding the change that has to take place, and equipping your teams and yourself for that transition and that new future. “Not everyone has to be a data scientist or learn how to code. You can help people unlock skills they didn’t realise they had,” one CFO said.

Roxane Leita, Kalane Rampai

They used an example of how they are encouraging their teams to create their own apps and automation using the company’s low-code and no-code solutions. “We encourage people to take risks and to fail, as long as you learn from it and you apply those learnings towards the next thing you go and create. That needs to be a core part of your culture.”

Because of this, the team has gone on to automate some of their forecasting and approval processes.

“They are simplifying their own jobs every day and learning new skills while doing it.”

Another CFO pointed out how finance people are very risk averse and sceptical of change. “Our finance people refused to believe that machine learning could put together a better budget than they could. So we ran the process for a year, and the scariest part was that the machine learning budget ended up being far more accurate.”

Aneshree Naidoo, KC Rottok

The rest of the CFOs around the table were shocked and in awe when they heard that all of the organisation’s budgeting is now done through machine learning.

“When we took the journey seriously, revenue started to grow and roles evolved,” one guest said.

Related articles