Hiring focus shifts to finance productivity

As finance functions become ultra-efficient, companies are concentrating on making them more productive, with a range of skills implications.
Team productivity

CFOs in the UK are investing in finance transformation and automation to meet increasing business demands. Finding employees with the right skills is key to this shift.

For example, 46% of businesses are planning to create new teams to tackle digital transformation, according to Robert Half’s 2018 UK salary survey.

Other research by the staffing company shows that 68% of CFOs believe that finance automation is set to drive recruitment strategies. Additionally, 81% of companies are now recruiting to reduce the digital skills gap.

As such, professionals with technological expertise and experience in specific finance systems are especially sought after. But other skills are also in high demand, with companies looking for candidates with data analytics (42%), communication (40%), or problem-solving (37%) skills.

More companies are recruiting junior accounting and finance professionals and looking to support their development. Heavy investment in IT and analytical skills training aims to help implement digitalisation and automation over the next 12 months. Half of CFOs surveyed said that they planned to make this their main focus.

“Automation is taking away labor-intense and time-consuming tasks, allowing the finance function to become much more efficient and productive in meeting operational objectives,” said Matt Weston, managing director of Robert Half UK. “Digital processes will support 47% of employees in taking on more value-add work. This is allowing finance staff to become more integral to decision-making processes, including forecasting and planning.”

More automation in financial modelling and reporting allows finance staff to do more meaningful work and develop more fulfilling careers, Weston said. But automation means they will also need more soft skills to collaborate and communicate effectively with the wider business.

As well as increasing the need to upskill, digitalisation has also created new roles aimed at improving productivity, he said.

“Finance have moved out of their silo to a seat at the top table,” Weston said. “The finance function’s insights contribute to strategic decision-making.”

More with less

The Robert Half findings could imply that businesses are requiring finance functions to do more with less, said Aubrey Joachim, FCMA, CGMA, owner of consultant Leading Edge Change.

“This is possibly happening because increasing automation and machine learning is driving down costs and increasing output volumes, which is productivity,” Joachim said. “For example, natural language capabilities are used to generate automated reports, and blockchain and distributed ledgers are also having a significant impact.”

Joachim said finance leaders therefore need to explore opportunities to exploit technology to improve process speeds, eliminate tasks that don’t add value, and focus on the quality and value of outputs.

“This means they need to recruit people with technology and automation skills such as writing algorithms to process standard tasks,” he said. “They also need highly analytical skills to support decisions insightfully.

“The technological skillset may not necessarily require a finance background — it is more about process and coding. The latter skillset will require finance professionals with an analytical bent.”

Productivity challenges

The move towards greater productivity in the finance function presents both opportunities and challenges.

Integrity of management information is a key aspect of productivity as the business will not allow you to be business partners if this integrity is lacking, according to Andy Wilkes, ACMA, CGMA, who owns a consultancy in Tonbridge, UK.

“The moves to increase financial information integrity and automate more basic financial processes have freed up time for business partners to perform their role of strategic sparring partner for the business,” Wilkes said. “This can create challenges as the skills required to assess and maintain financial data integrity are significantly different from those required to communicate and build relationships with operational colleagues.”

Some finance functions may need to consider whether their business partners have the skills, knowledge, and experience to carry out this extremely challenging but rewarding role.

“Historically, salespeople would throw orders to finance to process and invoice,” Wilkes said. “But in an environment of [volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity], there is a need for operational sides to work more closely with finance to look at ‘what if’ analyses, business case development, incorporating risk, financial contingency, and even managing financial fraud.”

Finance’s role is no longer solely about producing information that can be trusted. “It’s now also about how to use that information to the optimum,” Wilkes said.

In the UK, the recent collapse of some companies, such as construction giant Carillion, has highlighted the importance of effective management of finances at all levels in the organisation, he said.

“IT implementations must be getting better and enabling businesses to take advantage of additional reporting functionality sooner — although I haven’t seen many finance executives smile when I mention IT implementations on my courses,” Wilkes said.

Individual focus

Low productivity is an issue that extends beyond the finance function. It is one of the main factors undermining growth in economic output in many of the world’s economies, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Managers will be switching their attention to improving productivity in individuals as well as the overall company, said John Trimbos, director of Trimbos Training, a management training consultancy in the UK.

“This may stem from organisational efficiency going as far as it can, so the logical next step is to improve people’s performance,” he said. “The Robert Half survey highlighted significant skills shortages. But it also raises the question of skills training and retention.

“Providing a more diverse career is one element of staff retention. Also, senior managers should be trained in coaching, mentoring, and supervisory skills to help them manage people better. As the survey says, building a happy and productive team leads to lower staff turnover — and lower recruitment costs.”

Kush Shukla, the CEO of UK-based training and coaching firm Arivu, said poor productivity can often come from not finding the right team fit.

“We sometimes try to fit square pegs into round holes and fail to see that the round pegs are already in our teams but never given an opportunity,” he said. “Step back and ask, ‘Who’s in your team, what they would love to do if they had the chance, and is there a gap they could fill?’

“Ask yourself, ‘When did you last take 20 minutes out to strategise your work and your team, and get a better return on your actions?’ If all managers did this regularly, rather than just doing the work, then imagine how productive we could be.”

Tim Cooper is a freelance writer based in the UK. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Neil Amato, an FM magazine senior editor, at Neil.Amato@aicpa-cima.com.