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Leadership key to effective digital transformation

From automation to software changes, CFOs and FDs have the ability to champion real change within the function

The impact of coronavirus has created an imminent opportunity for CFOs and FDs to push for a true digital transformation within the function.

“There’s an expectation that it comes from IT and the back office, but actually, more often than not, the ‘champion’ is finance,” says Rachel Seymour, head of product, medium segment at Sage.

According to Sage’s CFO 3.0 report, 70 percent of CFOs hold full responsibility for their organisation’s digital transformation. However, 2020 has overwhelmed finance professionals—not least of which by introducing an extended period of remote-first working.

Swapping boardrooms for video calls, tech-savvy companies were able to bridge this gap; however, those who hadn’t prioritised their digital transformation journeys struggled, according to data from Hitachi.

“Nobody wants to update their technology,” Seymour says. “It’s not a fun thing to do. It’s often expensive, it’s time consuming, but what recent times have shown us is that actually, it creates even more pain if your systems aren’t where they need to be—pain that can really slow down your business.”

To facilitate these changes, finance leaders should create a ‘digital roadmap’ for the organisation to follow. Seymour recommends finding one small aspect of the function to digitise, then using the momentum of that project to keep future digitisation on-track.

“The first thing you need to do is decide what really matters to you,” Seymour says. “What’s causing the biggest pain—not just by way of what’s most important to the business, but what’s taking up the most amount of time?”

Automation has received a great deal of focus in the finance community over the past few years, in part due to its time-saving capabilities. While manual processes are often the first to go when digitising the finance function, it’s important to consider the organisation’s needs before making any changes.

“It’s incredibly tempting to say, ‘Well, I’ve solved for AP, and I feel better’ or ‘I’ve managed to get all of my employees uploading their expenses, rather than handing them over in big envelopes—my job here is done,’” Seymour says. “Actually, the more times you do it, the benefit increases.”

“So take one [process], get it working, get people on board, move on to the next process. And every now and then, you’re going to find that they’re interrelated.”

Prior to making any changes, it is important for leadership to speak with current employees and understand what works, what doesn’t, and where these investments should be placed to provide the maximum benefit. Bring them on the transformation journey.

Understandably, some employees may have concerns about introducing automation—after all, in 2019, 63 percent of CFOs don’t believe their organisation is culturally ready for further automation, according to Sage.

However, Seymour says this is an opportunity for leadership to listen to employees on their bugbears, critiques and concerns, while reassuring them that automation is a job enhancement—not a replacement.

“It’s helping people get over that fear of, this isn’t something happening to you—it’s happening alongside you to benefit you and your role,” Seymour says.

Seymour added that it’s human nature to be wary of change, and certain generations may take to a tech-first workplace easier than others. However, when finance leaders take the time to upskill and train employees, taking the time to accept feedback on the process, a stronger finance function can emerge.

Once these conversations have been had, Seymour advises that leadership reconvenes to create a 12-month roadmap, outlining any changes, their costs and the best to implement them—both remotely and in-person.

From this point, it’s important to maintain momentum across the company until the roadmap runs out—and then consider what else can be changed going forward. While digital transformation will look different company-to-company, finance leaders are uniquely placed to future-proof their organisation, if they act quickly.

“What’s there today is what will be there forever, but push for what’s coming next as well,” Seymour says.

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