September 28, 2021

What can CFOs expect in a landscape transformed by Automation and AI?

Qinthara Fasya | 1 September 2021

Victor Ng, Regional Vice President, Asia

BlackLine

It’s no surprise that artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and automation are transforming how we work, live, and play. This applies to finance professionals as well, and will become increasingly relevant as COVID-19’s continued influence causes them to become more focused on financial scenario planning and stress testing. However, there are several hazards and factors to consider as we come closer to completely accepting automation.

Technology will inevitably be used to take over time-consuming, repetitive duties now performed by finance experts as organizations speed their digital transformation path. When done correctly, it will be utilized to supplement rather than replace the abilities of these specialists. DigitalCFO Asia spoke with Victor Ng, Regional Vice President, Asia, BlackLine who shares more about how finance professionals can benefit in the move towards automation.


Keeping up with the Automation Trend

The role of accurate, real-time financial reporting has never been more apparent as companies try to move from crisis mode into recovery. Finance professionals are increasingly tapped on to provide financial insights for scenario planning as companies map out plans in preparation for the economy’s eventual rebound. Yet, poor visibility and a lack of access to real-time data is a major challenge across the board. Less than a third (29%) of respondents globally are confident that the financial data they use for financial analysis and forecasting is accurate, according to a survey by BlackLine and Censuswide. 

The lack of confidence stems mostly from the lack of visibility, as the finance function continues to rely on clunky spreadsheets and outdated procedures to process financial data. Finance being a mission critical function has to catch up with digitalization, and they have to do so quickly. 

Leveraging automation will be key to achieving this. Many tasks within the finance function can be streamlined with automation, which allows financial data to be processed with greater accuracy and time efficiency. This gives finance professionals greater visibility into real-time data to derive key insights for the business. Freed from tedious administrative tasks, these professionals can move on to tackle higher-value tasks, such as forecasting and strategic planning for the business. 

Risks that CFOs should consider – when it comes to digitalising

As CFOs champion digital initiatives within their organizations, they need to consider the risks which arise with digitalization. These risks can be collectively referred to as digital risks. While digital risks are common across different sectors, finance functions within organizations can be particularly susceptible given the sensitive financial information they work with. 

Among these, cybersecurity risk is a concern and CFOs would need to ensure that financial data and systems are safeguarded with the appropriate security measures. Having a centralized, secure and reliable cloud platform to manage the entire accounting and finance lifecycle can be a way to mitigate these risks. 

The lack of appropriate planning can also be a risk. In the rush to embrace digitalization, some do not critically assess the relevance of the new technology to their business, and whether they have sufficient resources to implement it. CFOs need to plan ahead and map out their digital roadmap in the context of overall business goals, as well as conduct budget planning and resourcing to ensure success. 

Ensuring that technology augments does not replace human capabilities in the future of work

As companies accelerate their digital transformation journey, it is inevitable that technology will be leveraged to take over time-consuming, rote tasks currently performed by finance professionals. When done right, it will be used to complement the skills these professionals have, rather than replace them. A successful transformation would see finance professionals spending very little time producing numbers, and more time deriving insights and adding value to the business.

Leadership must recognize that this transition to the role of a strategic advisor often presents a difficult behavioral shift for many finance professionals, many of whom have spent decades focusing on transactional work. Many suddenly find themselves needing new skills such as analytical abilities, business acumen as well as relationship and communication skills, which may not have been cultivated extensively in their previous roles. To help these finance professionals transform alongside their role, organizations need to invest in upskilling initiatives and empower them with hard and soft skills. Also, providing clear solutions and processes to help these professionals better engage with their new stakeholders in the business will be crucial. It is only by bolstering their capabilities that organizations can help these finance professionals successfully become strategic advisors of the business. 

The Automation and AI landscape – what can finance professionals look out for

Finance professionals can expect to gradually move away from just focusing on transactional work to work that requires further strategic planning. According to a survey by the Institute of Singapore Chartered Accountants (ISCA), the finance function will witness an increase of 80% finance-related tasks executed by machines. In the next five years, we can expect greater adoption of technologies like RPA, AI, advanced analytics, Big Data and blockchain, with finance tasks becoming increasingly automated, consolidated and procured as a service through a managed-services provider.  

Solutions which leverage machine learning or automation such as unified cloud solutions will enable the centralization, automation and orchestration of key control activities from a single browser or interface. This will result in reduced time lag between data captured and the process of collating and analyzing the data. Automation of data entry will also free up time for talents to pursue higher skilled, value-adding functions for the business. These time savings will allow finance professionals to analyze and make decisions quickly.

Furthermore, financial professionals can look forward to having the opportunity to further their skill sets given the growing demand for talent with tech skills in finance. A pilot employment outlook survey by the Monetary Authority of Singapore found that tech-related roles are leading hiring demand, accounting for 880, or 49 percent of the 1,800 new jobs financial institutions in Singapore are planning to offer between July 2020 to July 2021. Against this rapidly changing business landscape, finance professionals need to be open to continuously learning and adopting new systems and technologies to ensure they remain competitive. In addition to familiarizing themselves with new technologies, they should pick up skills required in their new strategic role, including analytical abilities, business acumen, as well as relational and communication skills.

Beyond these skill sets there is an urgent need to move towards providing insights through data analytics to stakeholders, and offering input to machines. This entails embracing data analytics tools and being able to transform financial data to concise and decision-driving insights that drive business forecasts. This will be critical as financial data will be available on demand through self-service portals and as an output from AI in the near future.

BlackLine in assisting CFOs transform finance functions

For today’s businesses, the key transformative technology is cloud-based process automation, which boosts accountants’ productivity and agility by removing the constraints of time and space. BlackLine’s approach is one of continuous accounting, where accounting is embedded into daily tasks to capture data in real-time, rather than waiting till the month’s end to reconcile all transactions. This not only reduces occurrences of human error through manual data entry, but also frees up accountants to take up more strategic tasks. BlackLine’s Accounting Cloud solution helps CFOs achieve this. This is a single cloud solution that enables accounting to centralize, automate, and orchestrate manual processes such as reconciliations, journal entries and period-end task management from a web browser. 

Ultimately, once continuous accounting is implemented, finance and accounting organizations are free to embark on the type of transformation that best suits them.

About BlackLine

BlackLine was founded in 2001 and has become a leading cloud software provider which helps automate financial close and accounting processes. Companies come to BlackLine (Nasdaq: BL) because their traditional manual accounting processes are not sustainable. BlackLine’s cloud-based solutions and market-leading customer service help companies move to modern accounting by unifying their data and processes, automating repetitive work, and driving accountability through visibility. BlackLine provides solutions to manage and automate financial close, accounts receivable and intercompany accounting processes, helping large enterprises and midsize companies across all industries do accounting work better, faster and with more control.