Every time you see a survey of senior finance leaders they say they think investing in tech (skills) and people (skills) are important. However, when it comes to prioritizing tech always wins over people. Is that the right choice?
Together with Christopher Argent, founder of Generation CFO and Finance BI and Analytics program lead at Vodafone, BAT, Amazon and John Lewis, I set out to explore this in a debattle between opposing views.
It’s clear that there are limited funds and limited time available. It’s clear that CFOs typically chase cost savings first to increase the effectiveness of the function later. Still, the CEO demands a partner in crime when it comes to creating value and realizing the company strategy. If the CFO can’t do that the CEO will find someone else in the c-suite who can.
Tech and people have different value propositions when it comes to solving the pressing needs of the CFO which is also what makes the choice hard. Yet, let’s get this debattle started!
What’s the #1 reason the CFO should invest in either tech or people?
Chris (on tech): Tech is a powerful enabler of value creation. The ROI on some types of tech is starting to appeal, even to die-hard accountants who are sceptical of new tech. A change in mindset, a deeper understanding of data’s value and an awareness of the tech that’s available out there is all driving change, and the change and value is real.
Anders (on people): People are what will drive value creation. They’re the ones that must take the insight generated from analysis and present to business leaders. Through that, they influence decision-making by recommending actions or challenging solutions coming from business stakeholders. Ultimately, decisions get made which needs people to drive them and follow up on their impact. No tech can do that for you!
Does that mean you shouldn’t invest in tech or people at all?
Chris (on people): Tech needs people, no matter what the marketers tell you. Wholesale automation and role elimination is not the goal, in fact, it is generally accepted that tech is better if you put people at the heart of it. Robots and AI working hand in hand with data literate people is the collaborative goal, not creating a “them and us”. It’s not the film Terminator, if anything it’s more like Transformers with good and bad bots, and the humans always winning!
Anders (on tech): No that wouldn’t be wise either. You need to tech to make the finance function more efficient and likely free up even more resources to invest in people. You also need tech to generate insights through predictive and prescriptive analytics. You might be able to download off the shelf solutions but likely even those come with some sort of price tag.
Why do you think finance leaders so far have chosen to invest in tech over people?
Chris: It’s easier to buy tech, believe the hype and hope it works. We do it all the time at home. We buy the latest tech gadget, upgrade our phones, download an app, believing it works and there is value in it. Why wouldn’t it be the same at work? The issue is, business is complex; people, process and tools all need to be worked on to create a change, and change is hard! Buying a product and asking someone else to implement it is easy, but this approach fails time and again, as business is complex, goals are not always clear and only existing employees can drive and make the change, not the tech itself.
Anders: To me it’s simple. They’re still chasing efficiencies and focusing on the cost of Finance. If we make it a cost game the finance function will always lose. Why should the company invest more in Finance vs. Sales or Marketing when all the finance function does it cut down on costs?
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Do you think that priorities will ever change to put people investments as the first priority?
Chris: I do think people investment will become a priority, but it won’t be a conscious decision by employers, or as I say, “the role revolution will not be televised”, it will come from the steady swing towards hybrid roles and the need for new skills and talent.
I believe this will not lead to the death of accountancy, or automation redundancy, as the talent will come from a combination of upskilling key roles that will lead data and tech projects, a general upskilling in data literacy and digital transformation, and personal learning and knowledge transfer working with 3rd parties and experiencing how they work. It’s a rising tide for all if you are open to getting in the boat!
Anders: It requires one of two things. 1) a complete mindset change from senior finance leaders from that of finance being a cost center to be a profit center or 2) that they get so frustrated with lack of ROI on tech investments because people don’t have the capabilities to realize the benefits that they try the people investment as their last resort.
Of course, in the second scenario, it still won’t be effective because you need to buy into it and do it for the right reasons. The right reason is that you believe people are the missing link in Finance becoming a driver of value creation in the company. Very few finance leaders have realized this so far.
So what should people do while they wait for investments coming their way?
Chris: Manage your own career and map out a route to your personal and professional goals. Assess where your knowledge and experience gaps are and work on closing them. That said, you can’t learn everything in this super-fast world, so see what goes well with your strengths, be specific about what you will learn and learn how to partner with people to accelerate your growth.
Much of my learning has been through working with experts in my field, talking to them, taking their advice and direction on the next steps and regularly checking in with my peers to see if what I am doing is of value to them.
Specifically, in the tech space, I would start taking data more seriously, acknowledge that change is all around us, and learn concepts that will become more commonplace in the future.
Particularly, the Design Thinking approach, the Analytical value chain, Data Visualization skill set and Agile methodology, as highly adaptable data-driven companies enable the business by using the above. Note, I didn’t say, go learn a programming language! Do not do that, unless you are looking for a career change.
Anders: For one, you can become a techie that helps the CFO and management team implement all sort of tech stuff. You might even get promoted for it because that’s what companies value. There’s another way though albeit requiring a leap of faith from your side. You can try to be a business partner and use whatever tech is available to you and create value. Prove the case and perhaps you can start convincing people that this is the right thing to do. It’s a high-risk high reward move.
It’s tech for now but the time will come for people
If there’s one thing Chris and I can agree on it’s that the investments will start to swing at some point from tech to people. We also agree that you need both to succeed. The big question is whether you should jump all aboard the tech train or let others deal with that while you close other knowledge and experience gaps i.e. business partnering?
There’s no right answer to this question in general as it will depend on the individual. As Chris stated, “…you can’t learn everything in this super-fast world, so see what goes well with your strengths…”. Let that be our joint advice to you. Figure out what will work best for your career and then pursue that hard. Don’t try to become a jack of all trades because those won’t win much in the future!
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