What skills will you need in the future?

Here's a guide to growing and developing finance teams in a time of tumultuous change.
Future skills

Some say the fourth industrial revolution is upon us. As intelligent machines increasingly take over routine tasks, new technologies and interconnectedness across the global economy are forcing organisations to consider new business models as old ones stand to be disrupted.

Add to this global factors such as political uncertainty and sustainability concerns, and organisations everywhere are seeking to transform how they do business. Not surprisingly, finance leaders are a vital part of this change and are looking for new ways to lead and train their teams to support businesses in the current environment. Roles such as finance and legal are being asked to think and act more strategically within and beyond their own departments, according to Philippe Schneider, researcher and co-author of the report The Future of Skills: Employment in 2030, which was produced by global innovation foundation Nesta and learning company Pearson.

As traditional competencies no longer suffice, this article explores some of the additional skills and capabilities that finance professionals might need in the coming decade or so.

Looking into the future

"Finance today is a partner in the business. It is no longer about just keeping the records and presenting data and learnings based on what has happened in the past. Shorter business cycles need finance to come in much earlier," said Priyaranjan, vice-president and head of business operations at Sasken Technologies Ltd., based in Bengaluru, India.

While finance teams have long worked with other business functions on budgeting and forecasting, they are now expected to go further by identifying the numerous variables that affect outcomes and constructing predictive scenarios that drive business strategy. "Rather than the traditional lag indicators, we try and build lead indicators that influence the business," explained Priyaranjan.

At Sasken, for instance, the finance and operations team is working on a model that combines the company's hiring patterns, future demand, skillsets required, and related variables. The model will help the business optimise cost by attempting to improve the pace of the hiring cycle.

So why, other than a comfort with numbers, are predictive analytics falling under the purview of finance? "It is because the impact of these numbers is best understood when quantified in monetary terms — when you talk about how much money one gains and how much money one loses," Priyaranjan said.

Takeaway: The finance professional of the future is knowledgeable about analytics, has business acumen, and is a good strategist.

Leaders and collaborators

Organisations have always relied on finance to keep sight of financial markers as other business functions negotiated the ups and downs of the business cycle. But the more central role finance is moving towards will require teams not only to understand the various business functions, but also to collaborate — and communicate — more frequently with colleagues in other departments.

"The need for collaboration skills extends outside of the organisation, too," observed Tim Hird, executive director, Robert Half Management Resources at Robert Half in Menlo Park, California. CFOs and other financial leaders must be able to work effectively with their counterparts in other companies, including customers and managed services providers. Communication and change management are key here, he added, as is the ability for managers to convey to their teams how best to work with external consultants.

As the finance function transforms, leadership and creative thinking will also be much-needed attributes, according to Vanessa Dawkins, FP&A lead for Europe, Middle East, and Africa at Johnson & Johnson in the UK.

"Leadership is a state of mind, a behaviour," she said. "Let us look at integrating a new business into the organisation. As a finance professional, we are looking for someone with the capability to take full ownership, maintain a holistic view of things, and drive the project to success.

"There is also a need for the finance professional to step up and be more innovative," she added. "Predictive analytics needs people that are creative, that have the skills to navigate through the tools available and develop insights that are going to add value back to the business."

Takeaway: The finance professional of the future is a strong collaborator and a good communicator, takes ownership, and thinks out of the box.

Complementary knowledge areas

As professionals are required to be more well-rounded, research is finding that skills and knowledge areas not commonly associated with finance may help keep finance teams more relevant.

The Nesta report recommends that seeking and nurturing skills in science, philosophy, sociology, and anthropology could have the greatest impact on demand for finance professionals by 2030. While a scientific approach would be a definite asset in an environment that requires framing and solving multifaceted problems, those other subjects would help develop a number of skills that transfer in an environment that is increasingly globalised and complex, and where managers and investors will require more timely and meaningful sources of information than traditional accounting information, said Schneider.

"Unlike more technical skills, they are less likely to become obsolete and can adapt to new opportunities. For example, philosophy gives students a rigorous grounding in critical thinking and the ability to deal with ambiguity; sociology and anthropology, meanwhile, can provide students a macro perspective as well as deepen cultural awareness," he said.

Takeaway: The finance professional of the future is a good critical thinker, culturally and politically aware, and able to deal with ambiguities.

From here on

While a third of finance leaders interviewed in a 2016 Robert Half UK survey said finance professionals of the future needed to develop leadership skills, nearly half said that greater knowledge of financial software was important in the next five years. A separate Robert Half survey of CFOs at US-based organisations found that nearly 60% of them invested in training their teams in technology. At the same time, nearly 55% spoke about soft skills. "There's more to this than the specific tools," Hird observed of technical skills. "Finance functions will need staff who are naturally curious about technology, embrace changes, and help colleagues adapt."

Besides regular training programmes, multinationals are also facilitating interactions for finance teams with experts outside the profession and organisations to bring in different perspectives. The hope is this leads to a culture of digital agility, collaboration, and creativity. "Finance leaders should encourage and reward external and lateral thinking," said Dawkins, who thinks career sabbaticals can also help finance professionals freshen their perspective.

Additionally, finance leaders are starting to hire from varied backgrounds, such as history, hotel management, or engineering. "We don't screen based on finance degrees anymore. We want a diverse mix — not just language, culture, and background, but diversity of thought," she said. "We need to make sure we are recruiting innovators and analysts. It is not just about being a better accountant anymore. It is about being better read, more educated, open-minded, about being able to deal with different sorts of people, a wider set of capabilities."

Takeaway: Finance leaders are hiring from nontraditional areas and investing in both conventional and unconventional programmes and workshops to prepare digitally agile and well-rounded teams for the future.

Shilpa Pai Mizar is a freelance writer based in the UK. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, a senior manager for FM magazine, at Chris.Baysden@aicpa-cima.com.


CGMA worldwide research project unveils the future of finance

By Martin Farrar, Ph.D.

Change is the new norm in many organisations and particularly for the finance function. However, because organisations do not often discuss the issues with one another, there is currently no clear vision of how finance is evolving — and what skills finance workers need to prepare for the changes that are coming.

To help organisations and finance staff prepare for the future, the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants has undertaken a worldwide analysis of how the finance function is changing.

The project is using interviews, roundtables, and surveys to answer the following questions:

  • How will the future be different for your organisation?
  • What are the drivers of change for your organisation?
  • What are the implications for finance?
  • How should finance prepare for the changes?

After conducting more than 300 interviews on the future of finance, the Association has documented the emergence of four key themes. Those themes are:

  • The changing role and mandate of finance.
  • Changing technology and finance.
  • The changing shape of the finance function.
  • Changing competencies and mindsets.

The Association is further investigating these themes through roundtables, a global survey, and stakeholders’ feedback. Once the research is complete, the Association will have a composite picture of the future finance function. Then it will be able to drill down into the inner workings to highlight the changing tools and techniques that will be required in the new world of accountancy and business.

The emerging themes represent horizon-scanning exercises for the finance profession. The Association will introduce new concepts to some or reacquaint others with a familiar language, depending on how far progressed an organisation is towards building the finance function of the future.

By sharing the findings, the Association aims to provide and empower finance professionals with new competencies and growth mindsets to help their organisations create and preserve value and to widen the remit of finance to cover a broader range of management information, generating new insights and business solutions.

The findings will be shared in a variety of formats, each peeling back layers of insight revealed in the interviews. The findings from the research programme are expected later this year. Contact future.finance@aicpa-cima.com for enquiries and to sign up for updates on the research project.

Martin Farrar is associate technical director–management accounting for the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants.