The CFO’s automation journey: A marathon, not a sprint

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Experts, including FEM’s Yusuf Bodiat, Momentum’s Estelle and Alteryx’s Russ Mills, discuss the benefits automation holds for CFOs when it comes to planning for the future during a CFO South Africa webinar.

CFOs are increasingly expected to do more with less and it’s vital that they embrace automation so that they add more value to an organisation, unlocking new possibilities and increasing agility, especially in an environment of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.

As Alteryx field CFO Russ Mills put it during a CFO South Africa webinar (hosted in partnership with Alteryx) on 26 October, this enables them to dive deeper into data, allowing for greater insights so that there are more prescriptive actions for business. “That’s where value starts to grow exponentially.”

Momentum finance operations manager Estelle Rudman says, however, that this journey isn’t a sprint: it is a marathon that increasingly provides results. “We’ve seen how redefined finance is affected by multiple things, all of which are accelerated by technology. We need to seek technological solutions to survive this disruption.”

As new finance roles emerge, CFOs must re-evaluate how they upskill existing talent and recruit new employees, Estelle says. “What I’ve seen in winning finance teams are competencies related to technology, business acumen, data, and strategy.”

FEM CFO Yusuf Bodiat concurs with Estelle, adding that CFOs of the past were more transactional, tending to tell people what they already know to a certain extent.

“CFOs of the future are more strategic and are not just planning for what may happen, but also for what you hope won’t happen.”

A key change

Russ explains that these shifts in how we work, while also becoming more automated, means that CFOs can move from spending 70 percent of their time crunching numbers and 30 percent being strategic to the other way around, with consummate benefits for the company.

“How do we improve our ability to see what’s coming up? A forecast, we know, is never going to be a hundred percent accurate but improving forecasts by several points of accuracy goes a long way if you’re in a business trying to predict demand inventory levels, and it positions us when we’re making decisions about the use of cash and capital investment.”

Explaining how Momentum moved into a more analytical environment that enabled it to better give real insights to the business, Estelle said the company partnered with Alteryx and has been on this journey for just over a year. Among the highlights she lists are 98 percent time savings. Everybody can now see the benefit of what is achieved at the end of the month, a process that would usually take five days and is now done on the second business day of the month.

Moreover, says Estelle, the financial services company is seeing cost savings, including R62 million in loss prevention due to automation. Production issues can also be identified and resolved in areas such as IT, she says. “I think it’s just amazing.”

Additional benefits include breaking up silos and, for example, being able to bring business intelligence tools into the finance and auditing areas. “Because everybody is on board, we even freed up a week’s worth of capacity within the BI team because we do data analysis together.”

Bringing everyone along on this journey isn’t, however, always easy. Russ says one of the bigger challenges is how to move people with the team when going on a transformation journey.

“The people and culture piece is not only the most challenging, but it’s the most important to successful change.”

Yusuf adds you need to look at how your decisions affect every other part of the business, including the CIO, HR, and risk teams, while also ensuring agility and culture.

The people aspect

To make this a success, Russ advocates nurturing talent, as well as making the process fun – even, in some cases a bit competitive – while also cultivating a team spirit, so that everyone is on the same page. “We talk about hackathons and analytics events where we do make it fun, and we gamify a little bit for people, and there’s an element of competition in all that.”

Yusuf explains that the FEM team comes together every other Friday to have learning sessions for two hours, which not only helps build culture across the team, but also get buy-in from colleagues when implementing new systems. These times, carved out of diaries, are not too technical and solve everyday problems such as using data in a user-friendly manner in PowerPoint, for example.

Perhaps more importantly, is making it clear that people will not necessarily be replaced, but rather have their skills enhanced, says Esetlle. “The growth opportunities are endless.”

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