Automation in finance: Get your team ready
Emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and blockchain will radically transform how companies view and perform finance and accounting functions in the very near future.
Some global companies and large banks are already automating finance and accounting tasks like reconciliations, accruals, and journal entry. Although the technology is still several years away for many companies, it is simply a matter of time before automation is the rule.
However, before the automation revolution fully manifests, innovators will need to communicate and promote a profound cultural shift within the accounting and finance profession, and employees will need to develop a new, more flexible view of their work, according to two leaders in the profession.
Robert Giglietti, GE operational controller, and Harry Bains, global transformation leader at NBCUniversal Media LLC, spoke about the challenges and rewards of implementing new technologies and processes as part of a PwC webcast called “Emerging Technology for Your Finance Function”.
GE and NBCUniversal are both engaging in “transformative journeys” as they introduce new technologies into their finance functions. The two companies, which have different needs, structures, cultures, and implementation plans, are at very different places in their efforts.
GE is in the fifth year of its transformation, having already built a new, streamlined technological infrastructure, and is now refining processes, according to Giglietti. NBCUniversal is just starting, according to Bains. Yet both are finding common challenges and offered similar advice to companies launching automation efforts.
“The number one challenge is stakeholder buy-in. It is convincing the stakeholder of the value of the transformation,” said Bains. “We’re spending a lot of time getting the message out to the organisation and driving the cultural change.”
For NBCUniversal, that meant convincing stakeholders both “upstream and downstream”, according to Bains.
“How does this offer headquarters more visibility and more insight into what’s going on?” he asked. “And how does this benefit workers in their favour? How do you make people’s lives better?”
Giglietti and Bains agreed that the first step to stakeholder buy-in is executive support and energy.
“The way that you get started is making sure management at the top speaks,” said Giglietti. “The only way to get it done is management commitment. It can’t be optional.”
For Bains and NBCUniversal, that meant “a lot of roadshowing” and making sure the CFO was in front of different constituencies within the company to signal that the effort to automate and transform came directly from the highest levels of the company.
The second step toward stakeholder buy-in was demonstrating to employees the benefits of automation, Giglietti said. For GE, that meant showing employees that the new technologies would free them up to focus on more rewarding parts of their work, like analysis and creative problem-solving, as opposed to manual data entry.
“You have to be transparent about where you want to go and get everyone swimming in the right direction,” he said. “It’s about how we communicate the future career path to our employees in a different kind of operating model.”
The emerging technologies require both a new way of thinking about the role of finance functions and a realignment of a company’s culture, according to Bains and Giglietti. Drawing parallels to the seismic changes in accounting and finance brought about by the introduction of Excel in the early 1990s, they suggested that accountants, financial professionals, and executives now have to look at problem-solving and innovation not as small, incremental units but as paradigm shifts.
“You have to push people not to fix what you already have but to eliminate problems and processes,” said Giglietti. “That mentality shift is really hard when you are trying to drive big transformation.”
That process is ongoing for GE but improving as employees acclimate to and understand the benefits of new systems, Giglietti said. NBCUniversal is still experiencing growing pains as it ramps up its efforts.
“Folks are naturally change resistant,” said Bains. “We’re learning that the hard way.”
It’s about people
The bells and whistles of technology often get the most attention, but according to Bains and Giglietti, it is human capital that will drive the technological revolution within finance and accounting. The cultural and practical shifts caused by automation will require that successful workers be more innovative, driven by “intellectual curiosity”, and open to change.
“It’s about being a change agent. Are you going to put your hand up to do things differently?” asked Bains. “More and more, that’s what we are looking for.”
— Drew Adamek is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Ken Tysiac, an FM editorial director, at Kenneth.Tysiac@aicpa-cima.com.