Finance Indaba Conversation examines how to get the most out of people and technology

CFOs discussed how to balance automation and human interaction, and the advantages of robotics.

The future is already here. Remember when you used to watch the Matrix or Star Wars and think artificial intelligence (AI) was something that would happen in the future? Over the last 18 months, thanks in part to the Covid-19 pandemic, digitisation has been fast tracked.

In the world of finance however AI has been in development for years and increasingly more CFOs are introducing software into their departments to help take over mundane and repetitive tasks.

At a Finance Indaba Conversation sponsored by CaseWare, Theuns Holthousen, business executive – Africa markets kicked off this important discussion with a brief presentation in which he emphasised the importance and value of technology in supporting CFOs.

Panellist Mary-Anne Musekiwa, CFO at Coronation Fund Managers said the past 18 months has taught us all is that the future is not far off: “As accountants we have built in conservatism when it comes to new ways of doing things,” she said. “We like to thoroughly investigate our options before adopting anything new, but even we can’t ignore digitisation.”

Mary-Anne said she relies heavily on the advice of her IT department, who she describes as passionate. “I am not tech savvy, but I am fortunate enough to have a team of people who are able to explain products to me in layman’s terms. I view them as knowledge experts who can help improve the business and our functions.”

Amanda Ndlovu (pictured), vice president for finance at Renault South Africa, can attest to the power of AI. In March 2020, a bot was introduced to take over certain finance functions and immediately, she said, processes were improved.

“When done manually the same functions would complicate the reporting process and take days, whereas a bot takes hours,” she said, adding that her team now have more time on their hands to expand their skills set. “It has allowed people in our teams to learn different aspects of finance because their time has been freed up and they are not spending days on mundane tasks.”

Mary-Anne said it’s important that CFOs are not driven just by cost and the bottom line, but can see the bigger picture when it comes to introducing robotics into the business systems. “It’s important that we are client-centric in our thinking. We must ask questions like: Is it going to make them more efficient? What am I able to improve from a customer point of view? When you answer those questions, you can justify the cost of spending,” she explained.

But while digitisation has advantages, not everyone is jumping on the bad wagon. Brad Wentzel, CFO Douglasdale Dairy, said the introduction of new technology is often more challenging for smaller businesses and more must be considered. “In the SME environment things are different. We have not implemented robotics because we are quite cognisant of impact it will have on our labour force. We understand the advantages and how it will open capacity for individuals and add value to projects. We are looking forward to implementing it one day. Our business is like a glacier, we do things slowly,” he said, laughing.

Besides assisting with mundane tasks, AI is also important for data collection for reports used by various stakeholders, said Amanda. “The advantage of technology is its ability to create one version of the truth and to customise it, so it has what people need. Different people look at data differently, and because of that what happened in the past is that you ended up with siloed information.”

But while technology is a game changer and its advantages can no longer be denied, you still need people, said Mary-Ann. “Technology without people will never be successful. You need to take people on the journey by using change management principles to go through the process and introduce new technologies.”

In conclusion, the panel agreed that the modern CFO is more diverse than traditional bean counter because they see the entire picture, but they can’t be expected to know everything. “Make sure you have very smart people around you. Be thoughtful of who you surround yourself with so they can help you grow and empower you with information,” said Brad.

In the breakout room
After 45 minutes, the panel discussion was divided into two breakout room sessions, featuring the panellists. There was a diversity of industries in breakout rooms, with participants discussing their company’s case and how they’ve dealt with change, communication and introducing new programmes.

Lionel Billings, CFO of the Coega Development Corporation, went into detail about how the parastatal dealt with technology integration that involved the introduction of laptops, modems and virtual meetings due to working from home, and then finally going completely paperless. “We are now 95 percent paperless. We transferred every single document that would be required by the Auditor General for audits to soft copy. We are very proud of ourselves, but Xerox is most probably not happy with us because we are no longer using their printing machines.”

For some consulting firms the move to remote working and digital was less jarring. Nolubabalo Wayiti, finance manager at Robust Consulting says because they have offices around the country, the team was already used to virtual meetings and communications and so working remotely did not affect the business. The next technological step the organisation is taking, she said, is going paperless.