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Digital transformation: 8 lessons from European finance leaders

Leaders shared at a recent event what they had learned from the pandemic — from the benefits of automation to the need for bold decisions.
Andrew Harding, FCMA, CGMA, is chief executive–Management Accounting at the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants, representing AICPA & CIMA.
Andrew Harding, FCMA, CGMA, is chief executive–Management Accounting at the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants, representing AICPA & CIMA.

Over the past year and more, European finance professionals have helped guide their businesses through the COVID-19 pandemic. They have played a key role in supporting their organisations to first navigate the initial shock and panic and then reset their strategies in response to events.

At a recent Money Talks roundtable, hosted virtually by the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants (AICPA & CIMA), a panel of European finance leaders discussed the challenges they faced during the pandemic. They also shared their lessons learned and explained how digital transformation had helped their businesses to reimagine their futures post-pandemic.

Their key learnings were:

1.  The crisis has highlighted efficiency opportunities. Using digital tools to run meetings and workshops drives efficiency because it saves employees’ time and reduces travel costs. Homeworking has also resulted in many organisations’ choosing to scale back their real estate footprint.

2.  Automation can help drive profitability. The finance leader of an airline group explained that linking the company’s operational system with its accounting system had allowed it to create a real-time P&L for each flight, enabling the business to undertake quick analysis and allocate airplanes, pilots, and crews to profitable routes. This will help drive profitability for the airline once travel restrictions are eased in the future.

3.  Sell the benefits of digital transformation to drive culture change. It is essential that finance professionals bring leaders and colleagues with them on the transformation journey. They can do this by involving the business in decisions around new systems and explaining how the systems will help them in their work.

4.  Don’t put off bold decisions. During a crisis, businesses may be cautious about taking investment decisions. In doing so, however, they could miss out on opportunities to better serve their customers and grow their markets.

5.  Maintain the agility, flexibility, and pace to adapt to fast-changing circumstances. Going forward, finance teams should look to maintain the agility and creativity they demonstrated during the COVID-19 crisis. They also need to support their companies’ efforts to innovate — for example, by developing new products or services or selling directly to consumers when they previously used indirect channels to market. Agility requires finance teams to make decisions at a rapid rate, without necessarily having access to solid financial analysis. Increasingly, they are spending less time on forecasting and more time analysing different scenarios and the implications of these for the organisation. Many organisations have completely stopped doing three-year plans. One finance leader described the new agile approach of finance professionals as “adapt to win” and indicated that at the moment progress is more valued than perfection.

6.  Engagement underpins productivity in remote teams. By having a weekly check-in with the members of their team, finance leaders can help to maintain morale. Celebrating wins — for example, at the month close — is also a good way to keep people engaged. To avoid overload, people should be encouraged to separate their work and home lives. One simple way of doing this is to change clothes at the end of the working day.

7.  Establish an agreed protocol for running an online meeting. Many finance professionals had little experience with videoconferencing prior to 2020 and were initially reluctant to switch on their cameras during meetings. One finance leader suggested that a good approach to online meetings is to ask everyone present to switch their cameras on at the start and when speaking. Communication within teams can also be improved if people are encouraged to hold non-business-related meetings, such as virtual coffee times. Collaboration tools, such as Miro, can help finance professionals work together more effectively.

8.  Remote working offers opportunities to recruit from a broader talent pool. Finance teams can now recruit staff from smaller cities and towns in their countries and even from other countries, depending on the sector they operate in. In financial services, data protection regulations can make it harder for organisations to recruit staff from overseas.

Rise of the chief value officer

The roundtable highlighted that as well as advancing digital transformation, the pandemic has served to accelerate the transformation of chief financial officers into chief value officers. Increasingly, finance leaders are expected to take a holistic view of all the value generated by their organisation —  both financial and nonfinancial — and this trend is likely to accelerate further as the recovery gathers pace. By taking fast and bold decisions, they’re able to grab opportunities.

Andrew Harding, FCMA, CGMA, is chief executive–Management Accounting at the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants, representing AICPA & CIMA. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Oliver Rowe, an FM magazine senior editor, at Oliver.Rowe@aicpa-cima.com.