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Unilever chief auditor Christian Kaufmann explains how digital transformation is sweeping across the company, with the finance function playing a pivotal role.

Christian Kaufmann’s digital awakening hit during his previous roles as CFO and vice president of three different markets for Unilever: firstly, Russia, Belarus and Ukraine; then Turkey, Central Asia and Iran, and finally Europe.

“When I first heard the word ‘digital’ in a finance context,” Kaufmann, now Unilever’s chief auditor says. “I scratched my head and wondered, ‘What is this?’ I looked up what some very bright guys had described in research papers, and they told a great story. But there were no real-life reference points because no one had implemented anything.”

During his stint in Turkey, Kaufmann and his team began to take advantage of robotic process automation (RPA), gradually working out which use cases it answered concerning task complexity. As Kaufmann explains, that involved breaking down some initial pockets of puzzlement and resistance: “People started to go through the typical change curve – accepting that there is something coming, then starting to see lots of value.”

Reverse mentoring

To smooth his own, personal change journey, Kaufmann was an early adopter of an increasingly popular technique in leadership circles as an effective means of helping long-serving professionals quickly pick up novel systems and methods: reverse mentoring.

“I worked with my first reverse mentor on digital topics when I was in Russia,” he explains. “Much younger than me, and with a marketing background. He helped me get a clearer sense of how we, as a company, interact with the outside world. Then in Turkey, I worked with one from the local university. He showed me how the younger generation uses technology to communicate and interrogate data. I found that fascinating. I learned so much.”

He notes: “I also harnessed reverse mentoring in Europe, by asking a bunch of younger managers to train the CFOs of all the different Unilever companies in a focused session. That was unbelievably good fun. I could see the pride that the young managers took in their superior knowledge, and collaborative learning led to high adoption rates.”

Digital transformation must never be about technology

One point that Kaufmann is keen to stress is that digital transformation must never be about technology for technology’s sake. “You have all these wonderful resources now – Power BI, artificial intelligence (AI), predictive tools, RPA, even blockchain,” he says. “But in the end, one thing holds true: you still need to visualise the data that emerges from these tools in such a way that people will be able to make use of it. You want to turn the data into information, and the information into action.”

At the dawn of the COVID-19 crisis, fast-moving consumer goods (FMCGs) moved considerably faster than usual – testing supply-chain resilience to the limit and highlighting the close relationship that consumers have with their preferred, day-to-day products.

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While the global rash of panic buying was undoubtedly an extreme event, it showed how vital it is for FMCG players to attune to the shifting sands of consumer behaviour. And as one of the sector’s largest firms, Unilever had already begun to modernise its processes with that very point in mind.

“There are so many channels through which consumers want to source products,” says Kaufmann. “It’s not ‘one size fits all’ anymore, and Unilever has to react to that.”

Kaufmann sees the finance function as critical to boosting Unilever’s reaction speed. “We are seeing exponential growth in consumers’ use of retail apps, for example,” he notes. “As finance people, we want to help drive decision making. So, we need to understand how our business is interacting with its customers and vice-versa. At the same time, we must transform our own function to make sure we are current, and we are also doing that.”

Agile working methods

To support the digital changes that are unfolding across his department, Kaufmann has taken up agile working methods – particularly when it comes to meetings. “Two months ago,” he says, “I started to implement what’s known as Lean Coffee: a technique for running meetings without a formal agenda. At the beginning of a meeting, you brainstorm a set of potential talking points, then take a vote on which ones to pursue. After that, each item is discussed under a strict time limit of, say, five minutes.

“You end up covering more topics in the set time than you would in a standard meeting, with a far more engaged group of people. After five weeks, I asked my team, ‘Do you want to continue with this? It’s a bit strange not having a set agenda.’ The verdict was unanimous: they wanted to carry on with Lean Coffee.”

Already, the AI-based analytics tools that Kaufmann’s team is using have ushered in dramatic improvements. “Historically,” he explains, “audit worked on the principle that you take a sample of invoices and check how they’ve been processed through the organisation. But a company like Unilever has hundreds of thousands of invoices in any given period. So now, with our technology, we are able to check them all – not just a sample – and take a detailed snapshot over a certain period of time.

“As well as giving us greater insight, this has helped us do our jobs better and ensured that we can make more of a difference for the greater good of the firm. Rather than merely fishing in the lake, we check the entire lake.”

Sustainability mission

Kaufmann grasps that the scrupulous oversight of an efficient auditing function is key to helping Unilever fulfil its sustainability mission – a significant reputational touchstone on which the firm is itself externally audited.

“When I talk to graduate trainees or candidates who want to work here,” he says, “nine out of 10 say that they’ve applied because of the way Unilever is approaching the sustainability challenge. So that sense of purpose is very powerful for attracting new talent.”

How, then, does Kaufmann define his purpose? “I’m a lighthouse,” he says. “My purpose is to help people and organisations to find their harbour.”