Whilst many finance departments are embracing the benefits of technology, the digital era is leaving many finance professionals fretting over the impact of artificial intelligence (AI) and other innovations on their present and future careers.
They may have a point: A 2017 McKinsey study shows that by 2030, 50% of the time spent on work activities in the global economy could be saved by automation. In addition, Jobs Lost, Jobs Gained: Workforce Transitions in a Time of Automation predicts that 75 million to 375 million individuals may need to switch occupational categories over the next 12 years due to automation. This change is happening around the globe.
“The big drive in South Africa is to simplify and automate companies’ workflows and make sure that manual, repetitive tasks require less human intervention,” says Wynand Smit, CEO of INOVO Telecom, a Cape Town-based contact centre and business services provider.
The drive to automate processes by replacing humans with machines, and the unforeseen changes that automation will bring to the workforce, can be anxiety inducing for many. However, it is not all bad news, as digital innovations are also expected to create millions of new jobs, including in the fintech sector, and these innovations have the potential to enhance people’s current jobs, according to McKinsey.
To calm fears and encourage employee engagement, it is important for managers to openly engage with their finance teams about the present and future role of technological changes in their workspaces whilst focusing on the advantages of technology, particularly for staff, and putting effort into ongoing training to keep employees relevant.
Make it personal
According to Smit, managers can assuage fears about mass retrenchments of humans in favour of machines by engaging with their finance teams about how technology can amplify their own potential whilst enhancing how they spend their time at the office. Show them the personal benefits, for their career and time, that technology offers them.
Talk to your staff about how digital technology and innovations can help them become better at their jobs. Automation, in essence, gives finance professionals the opportunity to focus on their core tasks, particularly those that machines cannot perform. “To make internal decisions based on data captured by machines, one will still require human professionals,” says Smit.
His comments are echoed in Deloitte’s third quarter 2018 CFO Signals survey. Some 63% of participating North American chief financial officers predict that the “time allocation of the finance workforce in three years will shift toward analysis, prediction, and decision support”.
So, for example, instead of a predominant focus on routine admin and compliance tasks, professionals will be freed up to better assist with scenario planning and revenue management. Understanding that technology has the potential to make their jobs more focused on the intellectually engaging parts of their work can help calm empoyee fears.
Glenn Gillis, managing director of South African animation and augmented reality business Sea Monster, agrees. What is known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution is a workforce liberator, he says, not a threat.
“Automation will help financial professionals drive the car looking out of the front window instead of glaring out of the rear-view mirror,” Gillis says.
New jobs in new sectors
Show your finance teams that digital innovation creates a host of new job opportunities in new sectors. When talking about technology with one’s finance team, one should not just focus on which jobs may be lost, but on which ones could be gained. Whilst innovations such as AI may force people in certain sectors to move into new occupational categories, the above-mentioned McKinsey report also suggests that technology will create millions of new opportunities in the next two decades.
These include up to 50 million global positions in the technology sector, including the fintech industry, according to McKinsey.
“Even with automation, the demand for work and workers could increase as economies grow, partially fuelled by productivity growth enabled by technological progress,” the McKinsey report’s authors write.
Help your teams work with technology by offering them consistent and ongoing training opportunities. According to Darlington Onojaefe, researcher and lecturer in Business Management Services at Cape Peninsula University of Technology in Cape Town, managers need to train their finance staff to ensure they remain on the ball in the face of technological change.
“The very people who need to work with these newly deployed technology systems will require training to get the necessary skills to stay relevant,” he says, noting that this benefits finance employees. “Training and new skills make one more valuable.”
Although he agrees, Smit says he thinks that training should not necessarily revolve around how to operate newly deployed technology systems. In most cases, financial professionals will not be directly operating those, he says. “Most automated processes happen in the background. Cloud-based software, for instance, generates invoices automatically,” Smit explains.
“Where training is needed is in managing the processes that can’t be fully automated. There will also be training requirements in terms of staff’s changing roles and their new responsibilities.”
— Miriam Mannak is a freelance writer based in South Africa. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.