In the first of a weekly series, Generation CFOs digital finance gurus Chris Argent and Mark Cracknell, answer questions from the GenCFO community

What are the best additional qualifications required to keep the current finance professionals stay relevant?

Chris: If someone’s qualified as an accountant, they’ve got plenty to be getting on with, without going back and learning data science or how to program. They need to focus on the art of the possible rather than the actual hard skills because the likelihood is you’re going to partner with someone. You’re not going to learn it yourself.

Mark: I would agree with that. It’s more about understanding what’s out there, what it can do for you, and how others can help you help to deliver it.

Chris: There’s a bit of a Venn diagram to it: understanding the art of the possible, understanding the business priorities, and your core skills. You are in a privileged position in finance because all the doors open for you.

Mark: The only kind of formal thing you probably could do is around understanding data. At the very least, you should understand data and databases in a very basic way. That would be very useful; it gives you an idea of how to take data from one place to another or how to consume data.

How do we best use technology to meet our ever-increasing workload?

Chris: Take a digital-first approach. Invest in technology before you invest in more people. Look at the processes you can automate. It’s more complicated and feels a bit unknown, but it’s got to be your priority. We’re doing it at GenerationCFO the moment. We’re growing and looking at the tools we can use: how can we use the CRM better? How can we use Slack better? We’re doing it from a marketing point of view, but the finance team needs to follow the same process.

Mark: As you said, Chris, we’re coming back to the same old story: it’s all about automating the basic processes, which are low value and consuming time.

Chris: This is not even a consideration to the younger generation coming in. When we were learning to be accountants, we expected to be an accounts assistant, a junior accounts manager, an accounts manager and so on. People coming into accounting and finance now don’t want to do fin ops – that’s for robots, right? It’s going to accelerate because the younger people coming in don’t even see that as a viable job. Gen Z are purpose-led and project-led, and they want to do valuable work.

Mark: Once you’ve got that automation done, it’s about thinking: ‘how I do something clever?’ Could I use predictive analytics to speed up my role? Can I use AI to analyse data? You’ve got to leap from that basic stuff to that sexy stuff.

If you’re taking a digital-first approach with your basic processes, where do you start?

Chris: I would always say: what’s the priority for the business? If you’re risk-averse, I think financial close is a really good place to start because it’s totally within your control. If it goes horribly wrong, it has minimal impact on the rest of the business and there is a real benefit to you. One up from that, you probably want to look at AP, because it’s still within your control. It might have a massive win for you. As you sort of go on that journey, you can start going into analytics and other, more advanced tools.

Mark: The biggest benefit is going to come from the FP&A area, where you’re releasing high-level staff for other tasks. If you’re automating AP and AR, you’re releasing lower-level staff who can’t necessarily take you further on the transformation journey.

How has lockdown increased or decreased Finance function transformation?

Mark: In terms of the original crisis, it really highlighted the weaknesses within the finance team. The big area that I saw was in budgeting, forecasting and planning. Teams just couldn’t deliver multiple-scenario modelling at the speed and granularity that was required by the organisation. It exposed weaknesses which we all have to be dealt with.

Chris: Totally – the whole scenario planning piece was exposed. We did some research in May: people told us that they put their transformation projects on hold. The mindset was: let’s manage our working capital. But in the same survey, respondents said the priority for finance transformation had gone up. People realised how important these transformation projects can be to the business. We haven’t done a follow-up, but I would hope that the upside of the crisis is that people are putting those button priorities up there, and are looking seriously at transformation.

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