It is the nature of the job these days: Most CFOs and accountants are adept at using sophisticated software, and are among those leading tech adoption across their organisations. But as technology develops and diversifies at a rapid pace, hard-pressed finance professionals are seeking new ways to ensure they keep ahead of the game, both as part of growing companies and as individuals.
Maintaining technological savvy is a career, and business, imperative. Fall behind and lose out.
FM magazine spoke to some experts to find out how finance professionals and departments can up their performance in adopting and adapting to new IT.
Seek progress, not perfection. “One of the problems that finance professionals have with technology is they expect it to be perfect,” said Sydney-based Kuba Tymula, CEO and managing director of Harris Partners, a tech-focused consultancy. “One of the first things that we try to preach when we come to clients is that it’s not about being perfect — it’s about starting.”
The saying that no battle plan ever survives first contact with the enemy is worth bearing in mind, according to Tymula. Complex tech projects often run into hitches. And this maxim applies as much to adoption at a personal level as at a corporate one.
It is best to start with the simple analytics tasks, rather than to bite off too much. Initial lessons from successes and setbacks can then be applied later in the tech roll-out. Tymula is an advocate of agile planning, allowing departments to “sprint” in new developments for two or three weeks, so they can take stock, address issues, and adjust plans to suit.
Commit to change. In a fast-moving corporate world awash with technology, it is easy for finance departments and companies as a whole to adopt new tech in a burst of enthusiasm, but then fail to implement it fully as attention moves on to the next big thing or day-to-day tasks.
“It is really critical to build on initial progress,” said Ben Younkman, senior innovations manager at Village Capital, a US-based venture capital firm focusing on early-stage entrepreneurs. “This requires cohesive messaging and reinforcement by the management team, as well as aligning incentives to promote tech adoption.”
At Village Capital, usage of the collaboration software Slack was inconsistent: Some used it for everything, others avoided it. But the CEO made a management decision that all internal communications should go through Slack and personally promoted its use.
“Within a week everyone was using it. You have to follow through and ensure there’s accountability,” Younkman said.
However, before committing, ensure that the new addition is relevant and worthwhile. “You have to make sure that technology solves problems without shifting the pain elsewhere in the company,” Younkman says. “There’s a level of tech burnout — you need to consider whether specific tech is worth adopting.”
Support learning. While the tech world may seem baffling in its variety and complexity to some, help is at hand. A wide and growing range of resources can help finance managers and their colleagues learn how to adopt and deploy the software most relevant to them. These include massive open online courses (MOOCs), YouTube tutorials, podcasts, blogs, and how-to websites.
“There’s a lot of quality content that is either free or at a low price point,” Tymula said. “Podcasts and radio shows are underappreciated in some circles, but can be great if you don’t have time to read, or need something to listen to on the way to work. The key is to embrace lifelong learning — rekindle the intellectual curiosity that you had in your early 20s.”
Engage with sector experts. Engagement with specialists need not be entirely through the ether, however. Interacting with tech experts both within and outside the company can help CFOs and their teams get up to speed rapidly.
“I’d suggest reverse-mentoring with young trainees who can help senior colleagues learn the ropes,” said Brussels-based Gaspard Metzger, associate director at research and advisory company Gartner. “Then there are team-learning expeditions to discover and learn about products, or participation in hackathons to see in practice how you can use technology to solve challenges. Short courses on AI with tech futurists are also available.”
Tymula recommended that financial management professionals attend tech conferences and other events to engage with experts who can help provide insights on adoption. This will give them a better idea of what technology is available and “the sort of questions they should be asking”, as well as an understanding of “how their businesses can operate in this new world”.
However, as Younkman noted, management urging employees to learn about tech and attend relevant events requires them to carve out time from the work schedule. Merely expecting colleagues to take on development activities in their own time is unlikely to be as productive, and the way learning is encouraged is also crucial.
“People start but don’t follow through,” he said. “You need to set aside time and money. Group learning tends to increase completion rates and adoption.”
Showcase role models. One option that management in finance departments have to boost IT take-up across a company or division is to hive off a team that will be first adopters, road-testing new technology and acting as trailblazers for colleagues. The aim is to create centres of excellence that can be replicated more broadly.
“Showcasing results is very important,” Younkman said. “You can explain to the rest of the company, ‘here’s the rationale for what we’re doing.’” Choosing teams and individuals who are respected and influential can be useful; Village Capital applied this methodology to help a logistics company revamp its internal funding processes in a controlled environment, and then apply the new process company-wide.
Harris Partners also champions teams or departments as “fishbowls” that can demonstrate the success of new tech and novel approaches to the rest of the business. For example, a finance department of a hotel company Tymula was working with saw the results Harris was having with another division and started to copy the approach.
— Andrew MacDowall is a freelance writer and risk consultant based in France. 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.