The game-changing impact of automation with Jas Brar, CFO of Microsoft UK

Wondering what the future of finance looks like through the eyes of a tech titan?

We sat down with seasoned CFO Jas Brar as he revealed the key learnings from his impressive fifteen year career at Microsoft UK, and what’s keeping him at the forefront of next-gen digital transformation in finance. 

Looking back to look forward to finance transformation

Hailed as somewhat of a panacea for business challenges, fever-pitch hype around automation might have you tempted to place the future of finance entirely in the hands of robots.

To this, Brar has a word of caution: holding out for the perfect tool to achieve a halcyon state for the digital finance function might be a quick way to stagnate.

“Despite the many changes and opportunities we’ve seized, I don’t think we’ve ever reached a desired state per se,” he says. 

“I’ll never stop asking how finance can provide further value for the business. It’s a question that should always be asked day in, day out.”

This timeless approach to digital finance transformation has kept Brar’s team in pursuit of progress over perfection.

Nevertheless, one answer in particular to the value-add question has served him well in his career so far:

“For me, it’s that data is the oil of the business. I speak to customers ranging from the public sector to the gaming industry, and everyone’s at different stages of that journey. But ultimately, realising your data objectives will be what makes the finance function the engine of the business.”

A snapshot of the past at Microsoft reveals just how far processes have evolved on that front. Brar references the early days of debating data accuracy which pale in comparison to the present:

“They were such time-consuming conversations! We’ve made leaps and bounds since then to ensure a single version of truth accessible to all” he says, citing the power of data lakes in Microsoft’s own powerhouse data-cloud platform Azure as key to driving this change:

“When it comes to data, we have all the right plumbing in place to unlock time to value so much faster. Having real-time information at our fingertips allows us to spend more time thinking about outcomes, and less time worrying about whether data is accurate or not. Everyone gains time back as a result.”

The making of an AI revolution at Microsoft

The chicken-and-egg dilemma is that while automation frees up time, time is needed to implement automation. So where to begin?

“In my opinion, finance ops is as good a place to start as any. Fifteen or so years ago, outsourcing was very much in vogue, so it’s an area that’s always gone through periods of transformation.”

At Microsoft, that looks like an enviable range of modern finance tools, from chatbots for answering queries about compliance, cost centres and travel expenses, to next-gen machine learning in forecasting. Brar also credits Microsoft Power Automate for further boosting productivity across the business through a seamless system for automated workflows.

But alongside larger strategic rollouts of shiny new automation tools, Brar has learnt a thing or two from team members who have taken matters into their own hands to reduce inefficiencies:

“It’s all about fostering creativity. Recently a member of my team developed a pretty cool investment application which we’ve since scaled across a number of different markets."

"A lot of good ideas have come from people within the organisation organically, which we’ve then been able to mainstream at Microsoft as a result.”

A little imagination applied to the possibilities of automation goes a long way, and makes digital finance transformation a team effort to help - not hinder - the day-to-day running of your business: 

“Using automation to improve processes is always a key objective of ours across the team, but ultimately it should be allowing the team to add more value to the business elsewhere.”

Tackling tech scepticism 

As a bastion of tech disruption, you might be forgiven for thinking the Microsoft workforce is fully enlightened to digital finance transformation. But even the big players fall foul of that pesky human resistance to change.

To combat this “start small and scale up” says Brar, and be sure to lead with a people-centric approach:

“Small early wins are key for driving confidence to bring the right stakeholders along for the journey."

"A lot of the time it’s difficult to have everything mapped out long-term. At the beginning, look for the low-hanging fruit you can take advantage of instead.”

Striking the right balance between technology in finance and a human touch is top priority at Microsoft, even down to the language they use to describe new tools:

“We’ve released a few products intentionally tagged as co-pilot to highlight the need for human responsibility and understanding alongside tech augmentation. Technology, people and processes all go hand-in-hand. It shouldn’t be that you bring in technology and then the human side disappears.”

In fact, Brar wagers the real failure of digital finance transformation is in a poor people strategy for the adoption of new tech.

His advice for keeping the digital doubters onside?

“Firstly, communicate the vision. Secondly, give people the resources they need to embrace that vision so they feel empowered to adapt. We can all benefit from learning new skills and ideas - who doesn’t get satisfaction from that? But you need to provide people with the opportunities to do so, and equip them with the tools to succeed.”

Trailblazing finance transformation leadership

While Brar may be top dog in the UK, he stands shoulder-to-shoulder with a number of tech visionaries at Microsoft.

Being able to lead alongside the likes of Amy Hood and Satja Nadella (CFO and CEO at Microsoft respectively) means more to Brar than just bragging rights:

“People like Amy Hood put the foundations in place for the cutting-edge transformation we see today. They’ve shaped the lens through which we prioritise all our finance projects, with the ultimate question being: will this unlock value for different parts of the business in some shape or form? If the answer is yes, it gets bumped up the priority list. That’s their mindset and it’s become all of ours too.”

But it’s not only about keeping a shrewd analytical mind. Brar cites Satja Nadella’s empathy management approach as equally impactful on his own leadership style:

“Empathetic leadership is essential for being a strong finance business partner and understanding the trials and tribulations of the business. You’ve got to be able to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes and really feel what people are going through to help unlock what comes next.”

And while Microsoft may be a pioneer in the finance transformation space, Brar is keen to stress that inspiration isn’t a one-way street in his pursuit for continuous progress:

“We’re constantly learning from others. Keep your eyes open for what you can pick up from other organisations, and make that a consistent, intentional thought process."


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Olivia Wing, Customer Success Manager, GENCFO

Olivia is an author at GENCFO as well as being the Community Success Manager. Read her articles on everything from events, agility, hot topics in finance and interviews with key finance and accounting industry figures.

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