By Kimberly Ellison-Taylor, Chief Executive Officer, KET Solutions
We all know that the pace of change is only getting faster; fortunately, it hasn’t caught us by surprise. The best and brightest minds in the accounting profession have been talking about emerging technologies, talent management, evolving business models, and the future of you-name-it for years. Our colleagues have been paying attention, but many were waiting until they “needed” to make changes. After all, business was doing great. They had no idea that we’d be facing an unprecedented environment: a public health crisis, natural disasters, geopolitical unrest, and economic uncertainty—all at the same time.
These events did what reasoning and examples could not: they sped up the need for greater insight, preparation, responsiveness, and execution across business operations and technology. As a former chief information officer, I know all too well what happens when your disparate systems don’t capture the data you need to improve decision making about business strategy, finances, operations, and risks. I also know what happens when you don’t have a reliable source of truth, with various systems generating different reports that take hours and hours to reconcile. Left with little choice and lots of work, end users will create their own systems of record that promote errors and inconsistencies. Manual approaches to data analysis that leverage lots of staff hours are ineffective; they don’t enable mid-quarter corrections based on emerging trends or market changes; and there are fewer and fewer team members who want to do the manual work.
While there are many things we can’t control, we can start with the end in mind by anticipating the questions we need answers to and ensuring that we have the right systems in place. I learned very quickly that you can’t report what you don’t or—even worse—can’t collect.
When the words “uncertain” and “unparalleled” are used in the same sentence, the need for better analytics is usually the topic of the next sentence. I couldn’t agree more. In daily hybrid zoom/conference room meetings, analytics wins hands down as the key capability to steer the organization around huge landmines. How to proactively respond, adjust, and thrive when the usual models no longer apply is the multimillion-dollar question. It’s ultimately the difference between organizations that gain competitive advantage, and those that maintain the “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it” approach. Even if this approach worked in the past, speed to insight is the new battle ground.
The ability to collect, analyze, monitor, report and share actionable data is not a “nice to have” in an employee’s labor market. Modern technology is an essential recruiting and value proposition message. Emerging technologies like machine learning and AI-driven analytics not only provide faster speed to insight, they can also unearth correlations that would be easy for humans to miss among the mountains of data available to the average business. The World Economic Forum (WEF) has estimated the amount of data in the world in 2020 was 59 zettabytes—and predicts growth to 175 zettabytes by 2025. This number is even more staggering since most of us wouldn’t know that one zettabyte has 21 zeros.
The good news is that we can learn a lot from all this data about how to better engage with our clients and analyze new market offerings down to granular levels. The not-so-good news is that we don’t have the analytic skills needed within our teams to get the most out of all this information. Data collection doesn’t equate to insight—or even make it actionable—if the team lacks critical analysis competencies. In January 2020, the WEF noted that, “The world is facing a reskilling emergency. We need to reskill more than 1 billion people by 2030.” The pandemic served as a catalyst for digital transformation, but with each technology step forward, the skills gap grows. Emerging technologies are emerging faster than ever, and a culture of continuous learning is non-negotiable.
The need to update skills for finance professionals has never been greater. However, the analytic skills needed to assess customer experience, business results, and revenue opportunities won’t happen overnight. To bridge the gap, data-driven analysis powered by AI will become the norm across the entire finance organization. Fueled by machine learning, tomorrow’s analytics will move beyond what happened to explain why it happened, forecast what’s likely to happen, and make a recommendation based on that forecast. Working together with business unit and department leaders, finance team members would identify not only what’s working well but, just as importantly, why it’s working. In other cases, the team would be able to make recommendations that would adjust service and product lines that need improvement, and answer C-suite and board questions about margins, expenses, revenue and more. Greater insights into finance and operations increase the competitiveness and strategic focus of the overall organization.
Bringing the existing team on the transformation journey is a win-win. With the convergence of the war for talent, the great resignation, and retirements, businesses can ill afford the expense and time delays of employee turnover. In a fierce labor market, skill set investments will improve retention, increase morale, and enable better performance. AI-driven analytic capabilities will enable better decision making, encourage innovative initiatives, and empower a cross trained, highly skilled team to focus more on revenue generating processes.
One way to get started is to check out the Agile Finance Transformation Certification developed by AICPA & CIMA and Oracle. A few additional recommendations:
New technologies and processes alone won’t transform any business. Analytics about the strategic initiatives, people, revenue forecasts, organizational performance (by business unit and service/product line) and new market offerings are also required. People transformation is just as critical to leverage the full capabilities of the new analytics. After all, even the best technology can’t overcome ill-equipped team members or legacy processes.
The insights gained from new systems are only as robust and insightful as the team’s critical analysis competencies. A team that is well positioned for change and anticipates the future is vital to boost competitive advantage, improve customer satisfaction, and attract new team members. Organizations can’t always know what’s around the corner, but with analytics and an upskilled team, they can be prepared.