Navigating the winding path of finance transformation

Mountain biking and finance transformation: Deloitte's Carryn Tennent enjoys the twists and turns of both.

Finance transformation is more than ‘moving the furniture around’ or installing tools that streamline processes – it’s an imperative for the contemporary finance function, and inherently strategic. For Carryn Tennent, director for consulting and finance transformation lead for Deloitte Africa, a fortuitous exposure to this transformation process almost two decades ago unlocked not only a new career direction, but also a deep passion for the power of finance as a function in a business.

Following her first taste of large scale-finance transformation, together with a few partners, Carryn played a critical role in building a successful niche consultancy, focused on enterprise performance management and finance transformation that was ultimately acquired by Deloitte UK. She returned to South Africa in 2012, still within the Deloitte fold, to lead the finance transformation market offering and consulting capabilities within the African market. 

“Deloitte is recognised globally as number one in finance transformation, which we are very proud of. I believe this is because we offer a full breadth and depth of capability – from setting the finance strategy through to operational excellence, enabling technologies (including robotics and cognitive) and the all-important delivery capability to achieve sustainable impact. It is exciting to be able to walk with the CFO and their team through their full journey, particularly now in a digitally disrupted world.”

The potential is huge – and even more so on the African continent. Rather than focusing on challenges, Carryn prefers to see opportunities – especially where outdated legacy systems still abound. In her view, outdated systems or underinvestment in technologies are opportunities to leapfrog and make bold strides to a better finance future.

It is a worldview that might just be informed by Carryn’s other great passions: mountain biking and being a mom. Both of these seem like natural metaphors for finance in a digital world: navigating a winding path towards an unknown but bright future, leaping obstacles, and raising your game to meet ever-greater challenges. 

Having spent 17 years working in the space of finance transformation, Carryn has seen a significant shift in the role of the CFO and finance: 

“Working with CFOs in the Deloitte Executive Lab provides real insights on these changes and the impact this is having, which differs across industries. At the macro level, while finance needs to continue to be the safe pair of hands at the rudder, it also needs to create value for the organisation through their role as a strategist and catalyst – an important partnership with the CEO to shape the direction and the performance of the business.”

She believes that the day of the strictly technical CFO is going to fade away. “We already see many CFOs who also hold the title of COO, president or something else (such as the emergence of the chief performance officer role). ‘Real time’ is where finance is headed: By 2025 there won’t be a need for a monthly or quarterly close process in my opinion; financials will be closed in real time.”

Along with the role of the CFO we are also seeing significant change in the profile of finance leaders, she says. 

“A qualified accountant is no longer the starting point and the role calls for ever-growing commercial acumen, business exposure and an ability to handle large amounts of data.” 

This is why Carryn believes that CFOs need to start recruiting a different team profile and managing the talent journey differently to embrace the new role of finance. “We will see traditional finance teams augmented with data scientists, cyber experts, forensics, business analysts, technical specialists.”

Consequently, she says, we are also seeing a shift in the number of CFOs who go on to take the CEO role – given the pace of change and near constant volatility that seems to be the new normal in business in the digital age. 

“You need an inherent understanding of financial insights to underpin the rapid decisions that need to be taken in business today, so the people who are thriving these days tend to come from a finance leadership role. This is an immense opportunity for finance, which has traditionally not been the hero of the business story. Today, the CFO is absolutely at the forefront, right alongside the CEO at the helm.”

There is currently a large focus on digital disruption across industries and this is just as true for finance. In responding to the ‘new normal’, Carryn says, finance must embrace digital and technologies to rise to this challenge: “It is no longer a differentiator but an urgent need.” 

 

Carryn cautions against the idea of developing a digital strategy – “there’s no such thing”, she says. “A transformed finance function needs to have clarity on how they add value within the broader business strategy and then how digital enables this. “But importantly, ‘Are you thinking about the next horizon?’” she asks. “If you’re currently behind on automation and on adopting cloud technologies, you’re going to fall even further behind as digital leaders move into AI.”

“We are seeing that any organisations have embarked upon their robotic process automation (RPA) journey. Deloitte have seen how companies have already achieved either moderate or substantial benefits from their work with these technologies. “RPA delivers value for business leaders, with payback reported at less than 12 months, with an average 20 percent of full-time equivalent (FTE) capacity provided by robots.” 

Still scaling RPA is proving more difficult than anticipated, according to Carryn. The key challenges for those who had implemented and scaled RPA that they typically see include:

  • Process standardisation 
  • IT buy-in and support 
  • Integration and flexibility of solution
  • Stakeholder buy-in and expectations
  • Employee impact.

“In terms of the broader digital environment, cognitive technologies are still maturing. The vendor landscape is fragmented and there is still a shortage of talent. Integration with existing systems remains a principal challenge.”

Being surrounded by smart technologies does keep it fresh for Carryn. 

“If I had described today’s workplace to you 15 years ago – using visualised, continuous daily performance management with cognitive analytics running your forecasting, automated processes, paperless finance run by robots with no month end – people would have thought I was stark raving mad. So to have access to that, and to be immersed in the world of these disruptive tools that are becoming ever more accessible and affordable… I absolutely love what I do,” she says.