Recognising the need to embrace digital finance is the starting point. Knowing how to take the first step towards transformation is an entirely different thing.
What does transformation mean to you? The dictionary definition could not be more concise: a change in something, especially when that thing is improved. But that definition lacks real-world context.
Undertaking a digital finance transformation project can feel like a vast, complex task. It conjures up images of a substantial project with a ‘big bang’ delivery.
It is better to think of transformation as a process of continuous improvement, as opposed to a one-off effort. To maximise your chances of success, make small incremental steps that help you gain momentum and build the confidence of the finance team and the wider organisation.
Decide what transformation means to your organisation. Set a short-term and a long-term vision for the finance team.
Let’s break the process down around the saying: “Start where you are, with what you have. Make something of it and never be satisfied.”
Start where you are
It’s often tempting to dive straight in with the ‘sexy’ stuff, such as AI and advanced analytics, when starting a transformation project. However, you need firm foundations in place before you do so, or it could collapse like a house of cards.
Start by reviewing where you are today. Look at your basic finance processes to identify where you can make improvements. You can often achieve efficiencies through task automation, using technology as an enabler.
The day-to-day processes of Accounts Payable (AP), Accounts Receivable (AR) and expenses can all be fruitful areas for change. Each of these processes consumes significant resources and have largely remained unchanged despite technological advances.
When looking at FP&A processes, I have previously discussed why financial close is a good place to start. It includes several tasks that lend themselves to automation, such as reconciliations. Creating and delivering reports is often cumbersome and is open to improvement. And, as we all know, the budgeting or planning process can be painful and keep us at our desks beyond home time.
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With what you have
All organisations have a sunk investment in technology. In my article, Does finance transformation need to be costly and risky, I champion the leveraging of your current software investment, filling functionality deficiencies with other solutions.
Our biggest asset is our people. There is an understandable fear of change and how it may impact staff, especially as efficiency improvement is synonymous with transformation. Overcome this by adopting a people-first mindset, involving your team in every step of the way. Be transparent and highlight the opportunities to retrain and develop their skillsets and careers.
There is another compelling reason to utilise internal staff to drive transformation. Excessive use of external consultants is a high cause of failure in transformation projects. Use key finance team members where you can, tapping into their knowledge of the processes and promoting buy-in. Use any external resource to provide specific expertise and guidance. Own the transformation process, do not outsource it.
The financial benefits of working with what you have should not be under-estimated. With the tightening of available funds, lower-cost projects will be more attractive.
Make something of it
With a solid foundation in place, it is vital to maximise the opportunities transformation presents. Do not stop at process improvement; this merely promotes the finance team as a back-office function. Look to initiate and deliver real change that elevates your staff to become strategists.
Start with changes that are highly visible to the organisation, showing the positive impact of transformation and encouraging a wider acceptance. Use the time created to perform more in-depth data analysis, adding improved insight into reporting. Use this to promote a trusted partnership with the business. If you have a capable analytics solution, develop and encourage self-service reporting, which is a real change in mindset.
Many businesses felt that the budgeting and planning process was inadequate during the COVID-19 crisis. There are many ways you could improve this. Moving to a driver-based approach or enabling multiple-scenario modelling are examples.
Eventually, you will get to the ‘sexy’ stuff that was alluded to before: the use of predictive analytics in budgeting and planning, AI-driven analytics, etcetera. But, get a solid foundation in place before taking this leap.
Never be satisfied
As we improve and change, we create more time. Transformation is a journey of continuous improvement. Advances in technology will ensure this.
CFOs and finance professionals must stay ahead of the game. Read what your peers are doing. Absorb the latest thinking from industry experts and thought leaders. Keep informed about technology advances and what it can do for you.
Be brave – you will need to make difficult decisions and choices. The crisis has created a fantastic opportunity for the finance team to shine. Do not waste it. Grasp the initiative before it is too late.