“When routine tasks can be automated and new data insights generated from connected processes, finance teams can be unleashed to focus on what matters most: identifying where the next growth markets are and how to capitalize on them.” — Safra A. Catz, CEO, Oracle
In January 2019, Oracle and the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants released a report entitled Agile Finance Unleashed: the Key Traits of Digital Finance Leaders.
The study of more than 700 global finance leaders found a clear correlation between technology adoption and revenue growth—but revealed only 10% of finance leaders believe their teams have the skills needed to support digital transformation.
So how do you create a digitally-savvy finance function? I had the pleasure of attending a series of roundtable discussions with Oracle’s SVP Finance and Head of Corporate FP&A, Matt Stirrup. Matt addressed questions from the audience of senior finance professionals. Here are some of the highlights of those conversations.
Q. Why are only 32% of finance leaders embracing digital?
A. Research has revealed that finance is still a cost center and not a value generator. Many CFOs have done very little to reduce or optimize their operating costs. Really, there are two reasons for this. First, complacency: CFOs are happy with the status quo. They have limited time and the time they do have is spent on basic risk and compliance blocking and tackling. And second, there’s a lack of awareness about how these emerging intelligent technologies can be used to their true value. Many CFOs are not worried about adopting digital technologies, they are waiting to be disrupted rather than being the disruptor. They don’t invest in the training and development of their employees to use these emerging technologies. They don’t build their influencing skills and communication skills to maximum effect with their business. One telling statistic: there’s very little adoption of artificial intelligence. In fact, only 11% of CFOs have deployed AI at scale and 56% have really done nothing.
Q. What makes digital finance leaders different?
A. A number of things are needed: curiosity in the technology, an appetite for continuous change, comfort with changing course and direction if needed, and collaboration—the future of finance has to be cross-functional. We found that digitally savvy CFOs have a number of common traits. They have a digital-first, cloud-first mindset. They are quick to meet their customers’ expectations. And they are looking to disrupt their own sectors rather than be disrupted.
Q. How (and why) are you embracing digital?
A. We’ve been working very hard at Oracle, using our own technology to simplify processes and automate analysis and reporting so that we can spend more time with our business leaders. This is about automating routine tasks and using enterprise-wide data sets to understand patterns and trends and predict possible future outcomes. The more I can do this, the more time I can spend with the Office of the CEO, helping them understand the trends of our business, the more data-driven their decisions can be.
Q. How can we use technology to make our existing platforms smarter and mitigate the risk that comes with shifting to a new platform?
A. How do you transform where you have a technology platform and you need to add to it without disrupting the business? What we have done is move all of our technology to the cloud. Over the past few years, Oracle’s business model has transformed from selling on-premises software to selling cloud software—and we have adopted that internally. What that allows us to do is maintain the underlying platform, to keep the lights on, and at the same time review what’s coming down the development path. Emerging technologies are added into the cloud software and can be adopted as and when we want.
Q. Cybersecurity is top of mind today, so we need to be careful about the risk of introducing new technologies. How do you get an organization to a level of comfort with emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning quickly and safely?
A. We have combined AI, ML and chatbots to help us run our expense process. The idea is we’re changing the employee’s experience, introducing them to new technologies, and making control of the process much more reliant on machine learning and less reliant on human beings while, crucially, keeping human controls.
If an employee wants to process an expense item today, they can use their phone to take a picture of the expense receipt and send it via an SMS message. The technology will structure that data so that it can be ingested into the system and, during the chat experience, it ensures the capture and accuracy of all data. Automated processes handle the submission of these expense items into expense reports for onward approvals and payment, ensuring correct payment to credit card providers and employees alike. Employees are also able to use email-forwarding to process certain electronic email receipts and have the system capture and structure the data as if it were via SMS messaging. Whether SMS messaging or email-forwarding there is a common downstream flow throughout.
The AI piece really helps with the approval process. It will learn manager habits as to what they will and won’t approve, looking at patterns at user and line of business levels. Averages and outlier data anomalies will feed the AI, drawing an approver’s attention to the exceptions rather than just the norm, giving approvers the data they need when they need it.