Digital fitness was a requirement for most management accountants even before the COVID-19 pandemic transformed the way people work, but digital skills are becoming even more in demand day by day. Finance professionals who are digitally proficient will not only be more effective in their work, but also better able to weather the economic storm already underway.
PwC’s COVID-19 CFO Pulse Survey, published on 27 April, found that 32% of finance leaders across all industries surveyed say their company expects layoffs over the next month. Respondents who are looking at where to lower spending say they do not want to cut investments in digital transformation, customer experience, or cybersecurity and privacy, implying those areas will continue to be among the most essential. There is also likely to be a more urgent embrace of digital technology, as 40% of CFOs responded they will accelerate automation and new ways of working going forward.
Based on these survey findings, it follows that finance professionals who want to make themselves invaluable should gain or improve their proficiency in areas such as data analytics, robotic process automation (RPA), enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, remote working capabilities, and even core programs like Microsoft Excel, according to experts.
“I believe this pandemic is going to rapidly change how accountants work,” said David Bergstein, CPA/CITP, CGMA, cloud consultant with Intuit in Orlando, Florida. “It's been coming a long time, but there are still people who chain themselves to their office desktop. This is going to open up eyes to how they can work differently and remotely.”
Those who have transitioned to remote work due to the pandemic may find they have a bit of surplus time now that they don’t have to commute to the office. Paul McDonald, senior executive director for Robert Half, who is based in Los Angeles, suggested using that extra time to invest in yourself and take advantage of online learning platforms to gradually improve your digital fitness in these key areas:
Increase your data analytics skills. Data analytics skills have been of increasing importance for finance professionals over the past several years. In a 2019 Robert Half survey, 86% of CFOs responded that business analytics skills are mandatory for at least some accounting and finance positions.
Bergstein agreed that the future of accounting is analytical and advisory. And with the way things are changing moment by moment due to the pandemic, management accountants must have access to the most up-to-date information at all times.
“Especially if you're a managerial accountant and you’re working with businesses to make decisions, you want real-time information,” he said. “You’re looking for more detailed information, and you’re looking to be very agile so that you can make decisions on the fly.”
McDonald pointed out everyone can increase their proficiency and knowledge of data analytics and other related topics through scores of available e-learning platforms, many of which are open-source. In addition to online courses offered by universities around the world, here are a few e-learning options:
- Alteryx: Data analytics webinar
- BlackLine: Guide to analytics for accounting
- Coursera: Applying data analytics in finance
- edX: Data analytics courses
- Udacity: Investigating data through machine learning
- PwC: Digital Fitness app
- AICPA: Data Analytics Certificate programmes
- CIMA: Data Analytics Certificate programmes
“It’s very available for those who want to learn, and since many CFOs are demanding it, it’s better to be ahead of the curve and study up now,” McDonald said.
Deploy automation and machine learning. Management accountants will need automation and machine learning skills more than ever due to reduced revenues and a shrinking workforce. Organisations across industries, including healthcare, insurance, government, retail, banking, and transportation, have been suddenly inundated with customer demands as a result of COVID-19. Technology like RPA can help deal with the onslaught without sacrificing customer service.
Bergstein recommended automating as many repetitive, mundane tasks as you can so you can spend your time analysing and making decisions about the best way to improve the status of the organisation you’re working with. Here are just a few of the online learning programmes that cover RPA:
- LinkedIn: RPA, AI, and cognitive tech for leaders
- UiPath: RPA training platform
- AICPA: Robotic Process Automation Learning Program
- CIMA: Robotic Process Automation Fundamentals for Accounting & Finance Professionals Certificate Program
When used effectively, RPA not only can help reduce your workload, which is crucial during a crisis, but also reduce the risk of human error.
Perfect your remote working capabilities. The PwC survey found that nearly half of companies across all industries surveyed are planning to make remote work a permanent option in roles that allow for it. While remote work isn’t feasible for every role, companies that already had flexible work arrangements in place prior to the pandemic have had an easier time adjusting to the new reality.
“I think this is a forced test of what could be for many companies,” McDonald said. “As a result, there could be more appetite for remote working arrangements after the curve starts to flatten and offices reopen, but only time will tell.”
With more people working from home than ever, management accountants need to know how to present well in a digital format.
Companies that offer remote work options should have cloud-based ERP, available virtual private networks (VPNs) to ensure cybersecurity, and strong digital team communication.
Finance professionals are communicating more than ever through screens, which means it’s also important to figure out the best way to present yourself through videoconferencing applications. If you’re new to applications like Zoom, it’s worth familiarising yourself with the technology. During remote meetings it’s best to eliminate any potential distractions for your colleagues or clients. Try to keep background noises to a minimum, position your camera at eye level, and avoid distracting background clutter. If you don’t want to bother tidying up, you could always try using a virtual background.
“If you're going to do a video call, make sure you have a nice stage, so to speak, one that’s clean and organised,” McDonald said.
Finance professionals may also want to set up a proper home office and create a work schedule they can stick to in order to do their jobs effectively from a space that often comes with more distractions than a traditional workspace.
Get to know your ERP. Many companies use ERP systems to automate back-office functions related to technology, services, and human resources. Cloud ERP systems have become invaluable as a result of the pandemic because they provide around-the-clock access to business tools and functions and collaboration across a single system, allowing companies to continue day-to-day operations while many employees are working remotely.
If you are not familiar with some aspects of your company’s ERP system, McDonald recommends spending time getting to know the software better. Every system should have tutorials online; just search for yours and allocate a small chunk of time each week to mastering any features unfamiliar to you.
“If you’ve never had time to dive into some of the deeper aspects of that ERP system, this could be a good time,” he said.
Brush up on the basics. RPA and data analytics may be the buzzwords of the moment, but it’s also worth brushing up on everyday platforms like Excel.
“We do a study every year, and Excel is the primary tool that is sought after,” McDonald said. “Macros and PivotTables in Excel are being demanded at all levels.”
McDonald recommended checking your skill level with the platforms you use on the job daily and forming a plan on how you can fill any knowledge gaps you may have. The CGMA Competency Framework guide and tool might be useful in developing an understanding of the future of the finance function.
Here are a few resources for mastering the basics:
- Coursera: Excel Finance Courses
- Lynda.com: Excel: Management Accounting
- AICPA: Advanced Excel: Practical Applications for Accounting Professionals
- CIMA: Advanced Excel: Practical Applications for Accounting Professionals
“It's incumbent upon individuals to figure out which platforms you don’t know yet, which platforms your company is using, and how you can take advantage of some of the time you have at home now,” McDonald said.
For more news and reporting on the coronavirus and how management accountants can handle challenges related to the outbreak, visit FM’s coronavirus resources page.
— Hannah Pitstick is a freelance writer based in the US. 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.