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5 steps towards the future of finance

Technology underpins finance’s role, but CFOs also need to consider data governance, managing change, and championing the move from cost to value.

It comes as no surprise that James Miln, ACMA, CGMA, senior vice-president for Finance and Investor Relations at Yelp, the US crowd-sourced business reviews publisher, is a tech advocate.

On a recent Journal of Accountancy podcast interview, "Why a CFO Needs to Wear Two Hats", at the end of the Future of Finance Summit in Nashville, Tennessee, in the US in December, he said: "Finance needs to have the tools at our disposal to better help make decisions around how we create value, and technology really underpins that."

Miln, who co-presented at the summit and has a CV that also includes stints with Unilever, Yahoo, and eBay, said: "To be a great finance business partner and value partner, we have to understand those technologies."

At Yelp, fundamentally a cloud-based technology company, artificial intelligence and machine learning models are used, he said, to "help us project data on traffic, on business, on retention, on acquisition that can help inform our forecast models".

He said moving ERP systems to the cloud and connecting it to other applications "where we can get insight into our providers, our customers, our vendors, and what's going on within the operations of our business" creates opportunity for the business.

As well as technology, Miln highlighted four further areas discussed at the summit that finance leaders need to champion.

Data governance. Miln stressed the critical role of data governance. "When you think about data and this huge amount of data that's out there, data governance is key," he said.

"From the CFO down, [it's important to have] a point of view on how we store, use, keep the quality high on the data that we have in the business and understanding … data engineering and data science."

Finance, he suggested, can "own more of that" while looking for opportunities to partner with colleagues working under the chief technology officer or chief information office within an organisation.

Cost to value. When it comes to managing cost, Miln said finance leaders often feel a need "to lead by example and being very careful about the budget and … championing opportunities to save cost". He added: "But we have to flip that … to value. Let's move from cost to value."

Trust. A "huge part" of Yelp's customer proposition is about trust, Miln said. "As a finance leader and as a finance team at Yelp, we have to understand how to value trust," he explained.

There are other elements of the business — such as engagement, employee diversity, inclusion, supply chain, data centre environmental impact — that were traditionally viewed as intangible, he said.

"Today, we know that people make decisions based on … where the company is on those and how effective we are at managing them and driving value through those. I think finance needs to be a value partner on that journey."

Managing change. The summit discussed the difference between managing change that you know is coming and that enforced upon you, such as the global pandemic. Miln said: "Are we ourselves and our teams and our profession, are we training people to have that adaptability almost built in?" He added: "Sometimes when you have a crisis … you're able to drive change even more effectively and more significantly than you ever thought."

Two hats

CFOs need to wear two hats, Miln suggested: "On the one hand, there's a lot of what we've done traditionally that is important and critical to the business and needs to continue around governance, compliance, sort of our stewardship." But, he said, there is "that other hat, which is about creativity. It's about the future. It's about uncertainty, and it's about embracing that."

— To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Oliver Rowe at Oliver.Rowe@aicpa-cima.com.