Three developments have combined to accelerate the transformation of the finance function, according to a new survey of North American CFOs by Deloitte.
Technology tools are continuing to evolve. Finance professionals are being asked to learn new skills, often related to such technology. And work is morphing into more project-oriented opportunities.
One result for finance chiefs: the ability to manage large amounts of data and turn those data into insight for the business, said Sandy Cockrell, CPA, managing partner for Deloitte’s CFO program.
“The tools that are available are dramatically advanced from where they were just two or three years ago,” Cockrell said. “The ability to implement artificial intelligence and robotics — those things are overwhelming in some ways to CFOs. In fact, they are having to reeducate themselves on the capabilities of what’s out there.”
Historically, many in the finance function were trained to look backward instead of forward, according to Cockrell.
“The majority of the finance organization was staffed by people who were trained [for] and expected to be driving a car and, for most of the time, looking in the rear-view mirror and making sure everything they saw was accurate, transparent, and correct,” he said.
Technology is reducing the need for constant human scanning of historical data. Such processes can be automated, allowing the employee more time to focus on analysis for the future.
“There’s a necessity to retool part of the workforce and have people driving a car that doesn’t have a rear-view mirror,” Cockrell said. “They’re just looking down the road and using all the tools in that car to see what’s coming up and to look around corners.”
This shift is apparent in CFOs’ expectations regarding the responsibilities of the finance function: 63% project that the “time allocation of the finance workforce in three years will shift toward analysis, prediction, and decision support,” Deloitte’s CFO Signals Report for the third quarter said.
The top three skills that CFOs — mainly from companies with annual revenue of more than $1 billion — listed for helping to develop finance departments were analytical skills, expertise in digital technologies and automation, and core business skills.
Sometimes, those skills aren’t developed fast enough, which can mean that outside workers are needed for specialized tasks. That’s the third development, illustrated by CFOs projecting that the portion of outsourced, contingent, contract, or gig workers in their finance workforce will nearly double from 8.3% to 15.6%.
Plus, Cockrell said, more people, especially digital natives who grew up around technology, are taking on gig work — meaning a la carte projects as opposed to permanent jobs. “It’s not a norm yet, but they’re a lot more accepting of that type of interaction in the job world,” Cockrell said.
A technical and financial edge can be gained through the “rent versus buy” approach to staff, especially if there’s a project that can save an organization money down the road.
Cockrell used the example of a company seeking to improve its monthly financial close process.
“It’s a one-time effort, but the benefits would repeat year after year,” Cockrell said. “That one-time effort may require people or technology that is unique or new. And to get it done, it could require someone that you rent for a month or two that has specialized skills that can help you get it done.”
Confidence drops slightly
In other survey findings, optimism about the North American and global economies and the CFOs’ own companies has declined, but the outlook generally remains healthy. About nine of ten North American CFOs view the economy there as “good”. In the second quarter of the year, 94% felt that way.
Perception of the economies in Europe and China dropped more precipitously. Fewer than one-third of North American CFOs rate the European economy as good after 47% felt that way in the previous quarter. And the number of finance chiefs rating China’s economy as good dropped from 55% to 37%.
Projections for revenue and profit dropped, but they remain well above the averages for the survey, which has been conducted since the second quarter of 2010. Cockrell said the decline in optimism is related to international trade uncertainty.
“There is clearly a concern today about trade and potential tariffs,” Cockrell said. “When you look at the demographic complexion of this survey, they have a right to be concerned, especially with what tariffs might do. … And that’s exacerbated with any of these companies who have any kind of trade with China.”
— Neil Amato (Neil.Amato@aicpa-cima.com) is a JofA senior editor.