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Kevin Collett has learned some clear lessons as to why transformation projects fail. He’s seen it happen with his own eyes. In his next role, he plans to apply that learning to adopt relevant technology successfully.

Most transformation projects will face a lot of internal resistance to change, he explains, which can hinder and even kill off a project. It doesn’t help that so many of the experts in RPA, AI and digital finance talk about these technologies in such a vague way. “It’s a real problem right now, the lack of clear use case examples of what people should be doing with all this technology.”

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The two stages of digital transformation

For a transformation project to work, it needs two successive stages. The first is to understand your end target and how you can measure your progress.

The second step is to review the quality of your people and make sure they buy into your vision for the digital finance function. This is a big ask. It’s impossible to over-communicate on transformation projects. You need a nucleus of people to drive the process alongside you, but you have to convince them that the project is worth doing. However, the fact of the matter is that if you’re able to automate or mass upload, say, the recording of bank transactions, it will take less time and resources than if someone manually keyed in the data.

“People that work in finance are not stupid,” says Kevin. “They know the result of any finance transformation project is probably less work for them to do. Making a project successful when we rely on people who are concerned about the future impact on their career and remuneration, that’s a really difficult thing to do.”

Getting people on board

Getting people on board basically breaks down into two approaches: carrot and stick. The carrot is the promise that by getting involved in the project, they can secure their futures, be more desirable for future jobs, learn new skills and have the opportunity to do different higher-value work. The stick is simple: engage with this process, or we’ll find people who will. That message can (and should) be softened, says Kevin, but that’s what it boils down to if you strip the softer language away. He reiterates the need for champions on your team to help with this softening and to bring along more reticent team members.

“I would actually put the person who is most technologically inclined and enthusiastic in a senior position. Let’s say it’s the finance manager, looking after the people doing AR and AP. I will make sure that they’re really keen on using technology because it’s at that level where you need someone to reinforce what you’re doing and adopt the habit of fully utilising technology.”

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Transformation doesn’t just happen at a strategic level, says Kevin. It needs to be at a tactical level with the head of finance and operational with the finance manager. It also needs to be reinforced every day, he says. “It needs to feed into performance reviews, pay rates, training and project opportunities. It needs that level of joined-up thinking to make sure that people understand that it is fundamental to being successful in the role.”

The selling point

For everyone in the organisation, the critical selling point is the ability to do more work with the same amount of people and the removal of the worst parts of the job. Kevin cites an FP&A team that he managed, who would spend several days copying and pasting data from one Excel file to another for the budget and forecast. It was tedious, and no one ever checked the work.

“It’s very difficult to stay motivated when you’re doing that level of work regularly, especially when you are an experienced professional. The promise of removing that tedious work through digital technology and creating more interesting tasks is critical in winning people round.”