Several years before he became an advocate for the digitalisation of the finance function, Chris Argent found himself at the centre of a corporate fraud case. He had spotted signs of fraud in the company foreign exchange accounts. As he dug further, he realised it was being perpetrated by the Group CFO. They had stolen £1.5m from the organisation. Embroiled in a long-running fraud investigation, he was forensically investigating the accounts while trying to rebuild the damage done and do his day job at the same time. It all started to take its toll.
By the end of the process, Chris had lost his mojo for accounting and his mental wellbeing. He didn’t know where his career would go next, but the ordeal had planted a seed about the issues with manual processes and the need to transform accounting and finance. In his opinion, if the company had some levels of automation, integration and third party data in place, the fraud would never have happened.
“I was thinking: why are we putting up with this?” he says. “We were putting up with poor processes, low tech, and finance and accounting being last on any improvement list.”
Chris decided he wanted to be part of the solution, not the problem; focusing on the digital transformation of the finance function. Initially, however, it felt like he was the only one thinking this way. To find like-minded people, he set up the Generation CFO LinkedIn group in September 2009.
“I expected it to be more of a student group, hence Generation CFO – a combination of ‘Generation Z’ and ‘CFO’,” he explains. "My thinking was that, as digital natives coming into the group, they would start the digital shift and grow into the senior positions of tomorrow.”
Chris’s expectations for the group were fairly modest. He thought he might exchange a few ideas with some people, perhaps mentor some young accountants, and develop a bit of consultancy work in the far future. But it grew quickly to 40,000 people. “I realised: I’m onto something here. I’m not alone, and there is a demand to change.”
At the same time, Chris started major digital transformation projects, taking on roles at Amazon, Vodafone and John Lewis over the past decade.
“I could see how it was impacting finance and how it was going much further than the traditional ERP system. It was going to impact everyone, from grad to CFO, from AP to FP&A. I could see how this was starting to create skills and an education gap in our formal, HR-led training. So I started to curate blogs and technology information for the group.”
Chris started by posting short blogs on the LinkedIn group, but soon realised it had its limitations when it came to making a meaningful impact. He set up GenerationCFO.com as a simple blog page, posting his own blogs and reposting research and blogs from other pioneers in the digital finance space.
“People within the community started to ask: how can I get involved? Do you have a course, a forum, or a meet-up I can join?” With the community growing around Generation CFO, it made sense to start branching out. First came the meet-up events, then an expansion of the website. Now GenerationCFO is a content site, a training provider and an events company, putting on regular courses, events and its biannual Digital Finance Function Summit.
Chris understands why many CFOs and finance teams are still debating digital finance rather than jumping into it. There are several skills in digital finance that sit outside of an accountant’s formal training. For senior leadership with many years of experience, it could feel like a big risk or a very steep learning curve. Doing something different could be an opportunity, but it does have its risks.
With talent and technology transformation a core part of all business today, it is time to stop debating and start learning, says Chris. With more focus on lifelong learning and the skills-based economy, accounting and finance professionals need to acknowledge that their learning journey doesn’t end with their qualifications, and being in “business” means being in data with data skills.
“All of us in accounting and finance are made for the digital world, we just don’t know what we don’t know. We’re analysts at heart, that’s why we go into business and accounting. We like to work things out, analyse, process and communicate the findings. That’s what a digital transformation is all about, it would be second nature to everybody in accounting and finance.”
Those people who have been bitten by the digital finance bug are keen to connect with others, learn from each other, as they are thinking the same way about their profession, which is why there is such a strong community around digital finance transformation, says Chris.
“In Agile methodology, it’s what we call a ‘community of practice’, where people come together to share experience, thoughts and ideas,” he says. The finance leaders who join Generation CFO are keen to share, to learn, and are not worried about asking basic and tough questions, as they understand it’s a learning journey.”
As more and more people realise that the role of accounting and finance is changing and that firms and companies need new skills and talent, Chris hopes that Generation CFO will become something for the whole profession. “ We want to be a strong community, providing a rich source of peer learning, which is so underrated in accounting and finance. I want people to read our articles or attend our events and come away inspired to make a real change within their organisations. That really matters to me.’’
Become a member of GENCFO to start connecting.