The global economy continues down an unpredictable and dynamic path, upsetting the best-laid plans of organizations. These plans need to change faster and more frequently than ever before, on strategic and tactical levels. In response, chief financial officers are increasing their forecasting frequency to keep up with the pace of change impacting their business, all while they battle rising inflation and a tight talent market.
The CFO must also unlock the investment they've made in staff by providing them with tools that automate mundane, low-value work. “CFOs are fully aware that inflation drives up the cost of hiring and maintaining talent,” explains Karlo Bustos, vice president of professional services for Board International. “They must provide an environment where things aren't hard to do, in a very manual-based function such as invoicing collection activities, building out financial plans, and making financial models.”
For CFOs to mitigate the expense of hiring talent and the manual nature of many tasks, they need to provide an environment of automation, collaboration, easily shared data, and enabling technologies. “Being proactive in automation is understanding the business,” he says. “CFOs are more inclined to invest in automation technology to deliver value, so that they can compress some of the inflationary pressures they have on their internal cost structure.”
That perspective was shared by Wayne Slater, director of product marketing for Prophix, a performance management software provider. “Only by doing this can they move them away from the manual, repetitive tasks of gathering data and building reports and transition them to a higher, pro-active state to provide strategic insights and a single view into their financial truth,” he says.
Slater explains that by implementing purpose-built solutions that can centralize an organization's data, enabling the easy collection, analysis and reporting of financial data, CFOs can start to free up staff time to focus on higher value activities.
The result is that staff are freed from building and updating multiple, complex, and unconnected Excel worksheets by having access to things like visual dashboards, reports, and flexible data analysis tools.
All of this can be easily accessible through a web browser which simplifies deployment and minimizes demands on IT.
Build a Cross-Functional Automation Game Plan
“As important to investing in an automation solution is the need to first identify how this sort of strategy can solve issues in business areas outside of the office of finance,” Slater says.
Slater explains that establishing an alignment of how business problems from other functional areas can be solved -- from marketing and logistics to HR and IT -- will help formulate a unified agreement on how automation can benefit the organization and expedite its rollout.
Bustos adds that finance leaders need to take inventory of where their team is spending the most time and stack rank them by priority and by value. “If there is a team of 30 people involved, that may not be productive. Stack ranking priorities gives a perspective on what's going to drive the biggest value,” he says. “It’s important to realize everyone's maturity curve is going to look differently.”
He says companies need to be mindful about what they see and what they hear in relation to what other companies are implementing. Asking questions like, “Does it apply to my business?” and “Are we at that point in our maturity lifecycle?” will prevent companies from getting ahead of themselves.
“I highly advise every finance executive to really take into account that automation is not an implemented technology,” Bustos says. “It's understanding the process, as well as its impact. It's training those individuals for that new process and monitoring that process to ensure it's doing exactly what it is expected to do, and then doing the entire change enablement downstream.”
Reducing Costs, Boosting Efficiency
John Alves, CFO at Gluware, a specialist in intelligent network automation, explains that automation is a way to reduce costs, improve efficiencies and productivity and strengthen controls (i.e., mitigate human errors) without adversely impacting deliverables or timing of deliverables.
From his perspective, automation is a good strategy at any time but in particular during times where pressures are placed on cost structures (i.e., inflation) and the need to maintain levels of capital, liquidity and profitability. “Intelligent technologies like robots, AI and process mining are game changers,” he says. “These technologies have enormous operational and strategic value.”
Alves explains that operational value comes from process improvement and cost reduction through simplification and reduction of manual tasks.
Strategic value comes from the data, predictive modeling, and strategic insights which enable a CFO and other chief executives to better connect the front and back-office systems.
Automating and simplifying complex operating environments allows for increased profitability and a seamless integration of key technical and business systems and processes.
“Any workflow that involves human input or interaction is game for automation. Finance back-office and month-end close is undergoing RPA, while sales can automate around orders to cash process,” Alves says.
He says Gluware is implementing third-party tools to better automate and strengthen controls around purchasing and disbursements. “Network DevOps can de-risk the entire NetDevOps process through automation,” he adds. “There are countless examples of automation opportunities within an organization.”
Clear Goals, Solid Project Management
While most organizations can benefit from automation, Alves says clear goals and solid project management are essential to reap those benefits.
This means CFOs should seek to build global cross-functional teams with strong leaders as well as process and requirement SMEs from both business units and IT, including development, network, security, and platform teams. “These are key to strategy building as well as rapid implementation,” he says. “C-Level executive sponsorship is essential to any large-scale initiative.”
Bustos points out deploying an automation strategy is not a push of a button, and it's not something that can be rushed. “CFOs may want to take stock of what they have, and it's very important for a new CFO to make an assessment of what the company currently has implemented,” he says.
This will give them the opportunity to leverage other technologies that haven't been utilized to its full capability, or a procedure or process that hasn't been fully ramped out to the larger organization that can drive value. “That's where automation really starts to come in -- when you know exactly what you're trying to achieve,” Bustos says.