As finance roles change, technology know-how becomes ever more important.
There’s little question that finance roles are changing. Flatter company structures, offshoring and globalisation call for a new set of skills for those working in finance, particularly the CFO. Soft skills are increasingly important, as is digital know-how.
Sara Watts, a finance professional in the technology sector, is a strong proponent of technology as an enabler.
Watts spent more than 28 years at IBM, most recently as CFO for Australia and New Zealand. Today she is the University of Sydney’s first Vice-Principal (Operations), with direct responsibility for four of the professional service units that support the university's operations: Campus Infrastructure and Services, Finance, Human Resources, and Information and Communications Technologies.
"We might realise the impact technology has on the way we do our own day-to-day work, but not the effect it has across the whole organisation," says Watts.
Watts acknowledges that finance roles are changing and predicts CFOs will be taking on leadership roles outside their comfort zones and be encouraged to use technology more prolifically across their organisations.
A study published in late 2013 by the National Institute of Economics and Industry Research
(NAEIR) looked at the impact of early technology adoption on individual enterprises.
It predicts that by 2025, just 12 years after the study’s completion, the leaders among companies that embraced new technology adoption will have a combined market cap of $379 billion across four key industries: financial services, mining, retail and telcos.
"It's very compelling research: it shows how the way we react and act on technologies will affect the value of the companies we work for," Watts says.
"My advice is to take a plunge into the unknown". – Sara Watts
"Part of this will be using the data that we, as finance teams are collecting – using big data on a daily basis to provide analysis for the business, rather than just reporting what happens," she says.
Another expectation will be that companies look to automate as far as possible. They will also look for other technology-based advantages, such as boosting buying power by centralising purchasing decisions onto one platform.
"It might mean moving into shared services arrangements with similar companies in your own industry," Watts suggests.
The role of the C-Suite
She points to the rise of the chief procurement officer and the chief marketing officer, noting that these roles now help shape the buying and delivery patterns for organisations.
"There is an intersect within the C-suite that hasn't really happened before.”
Watts acknowledges that asking the CFO to think in a very different way will require people who are subject matter experts to sometimes abandon their comfort zones and tackle something new.
"There will be calls to change the way we, as CFOs, act and interact within the C-suite, and the insights we take out to the lines of business.
"It comes down to how, as finance leaders, [we] help our fellow business leaders make strategic decisions.
"My advice is to take a plunge into the unknown. There's a lot more capability in your team than you realise.
“Often your new recruits, be they interns, graduates or hired from other organisations, bring capabilities, knowledge and skills that we can learn from as CFOs.
"That means you have to allow for that knowledge to not only trickle down but trickle up occasionally and be open enough to have a conversation about ‘how can we do things differently’ here," Watts says.
"What finance professionals need to think about is how to apply some of these new technologies across the organisation they’re working for."
"Don't be afraid to ask your business leaders about what they'd like to see from the finance function and work out how to deliver it."
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