By Ivgen Guner
A few weeks ago, I was privileged to sponsor a master class in digital finance technologies, hosted by the Financial Women of San Francisco (FWSF), an organization dedicated to advancing the success of women in finance in the Bay Area. The goal of the master class was to help female finance professionals reimagine finance processes using emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotic process automation (RPA), and digital assistants, with the ultimate goal of accelerating their careers in the industry.
Joining me to share their expertise in these areas were Delphine Bernard, Global Head of Finance Operations at Uber; Jessica Ross, Senior Vice President of Finance, Office of Transformation at Salesforce; Krithika Bhat, Group Vice President, Oracle Applications Lab; and Christina Kite, Vice President, Global Business Strategy and Analytics at Oracle. These women represent a welcome trend within finance today: women leading through disruption by investing in digital technologies and data-savvy talent to create highly-efficient, effective finance functions.
As a founding member of Oracle Women's Leadership (OWL), women and diversity in finance has always been a passion of mine, because we know that diverse teams deliver more innovation and better outcomes. I am also passionate about digital finance transformation, having reshaped my team of 1,000+ FP&A professionals from a simple reporting group into a strategic business partner using data-driven insights and predictive intelligence to help Oracle evolve its business model in the cloud. It was truly a gift to be able to be able to share with attendees the lessons I’ve learned over the course of my career leading Global Business Finance at Oracle about how to marry technological innovation with organizational excellence to excel—especially during disruptive times like those we are experiencing today.
The Key Traits of Digital Finance Leaders
As a framework for the Master Class in Digital Finance Technologies, we explored recent research Oracle sponsored with the Association of International Chartered Professional Accountants, that examined the new agile finance operating model and the key traits of digital finance leaders across three pillars:
Delphine and Jessica brought deep expertise to our discussions around what it means to be an agile, customer-first finance function. For Delphine, agile means working to quickly leverage technology to democratize access to new ways of working, such as bots, so that everyone on her teams can use them to deliver better outcomes for Uber customers. Delphine has spearheaded the use of agile scrum methodologies to iterate quickly, building 13 bots in just 6 months’ time, and is now looking at IoT to enable all of Uber’s finance systems to work together.
For Jessica, finance agility at Salesforce also requires having a holistic view into data and a customer-first approach to transformation. “When we think about digital transformation, we think about three pillars,” said Jessica. “We think about the customer. We think about integration. And we think about analytics. From an integration perspective, that means taking all of your data sources and pulling them together to create one holistic view.”
To set the stage for our discussions, we first heard a presentation on digital finance technologies by Krithika Bhat, whom I refer to as my “internal CIO.” In her role as Group Vice President of ERP at Oracle Application Labs (OAL), Krithika is responsible for helping us transform the finance function. In recent years, Krithika led Oracle’s migration from our legacy, on-premises finance applications to Oracle ERP Cloud and Oracle EPM Cloud. Having left legacy systems behind and re-engineered our finance processes, OAL is now starting to use advanced technologies—such as AI and machine learning—to bring more efficiency and intelligence to the business. Krithika grouped Oracle’s use cases into 4 categories: recommendations, predictions, pattern recognition, and anomaly detection.
Her first example of a recommendation use case was a pilot implemented internally at Oracle. Using machine learning algorithms, Oracle ERP Cloud can look at employee expenses and make a recommendation to the employee’s manager whether to approve or review an expense. The algorithm continuously “learns” from manager responses which types of expenses can be approved and which need further review.
As her second use case for recommendations, she talked about how Oracle ERP Cloud can combine its own supplier data with external business and company data and categorize suppliers to help optimize the procure-to-pay process. As an example, the system can make recommendations on which suppliers are candidates for negotiating additional discounts for early payment.
Another internally piloted use case at Oracle involves prediction. Machine learning is used to predict which actions a user may want to perform, and an intelligent home page with the appropriate icons is rendered to that user.
ERP Cloud will also support another use case for predictions in the future. For invoices that are not matched to purchase order, the accounts payable department must manually enter the account information. Machine learning will be used to predict/default the account based on historical data, thus reducing labor intensive (and hence error prone) work.
To illustrate a use case on pattern recognition, Krithika talked about a machine learning project underway internally where intelligent document recognition will be used to capture attributes from documents that are part of the order booking process. This reduces friction caused by manual data capture and increases touchless processing.
Krithika’s final category, anomaly detection, involves audits and fraud prevention. Oracle has had rules-based audits for many years, but rules need to be continually maintained. With machine learning, the rules will live in models which evolve all the time based on previous actions. That means that our team will not need to maintain them; the rules literally write (and re-write) themselves. Rather than spot-checking random transactions, the model can advise a manager or employee if something falls outside the norm.
Krithika also talked about how conversational agents extend the applications beyond the desktop. Her team is an early adopter of a feature in Oracle ERP Cloud: they have rolled out a chatbot for expenses. Employees can snap a picture of a receipt and text it to the chatbot. The bot “reads” the receipt using intelligent character recognition, categorizes it and presents the details in a text message, asking if the details are correct. If the employee selects “Yes,” they’re done. The transaction is touchless, and the conversational interface makes it simple, thus enhancing the employee experience.
Operational excellence is a multi-faceted thing that I could talk about forever. But what it truly means is making sure that you have the setup right, all the processes addressed properly, in such a way that you're setting up your organization for success.
Once you set up your operations properly, your next step is digital intelligence. At Oracle, my organization is the decision support group for the entire company. We support every line of business on predictive analysis, financial analysis, all management reporting, and business partnering.
We wouldn’t be able to do any of this without the right information at our fingertips. It’s inevitable that we get questions from top leadership, and we need digital intelligence to answer those questions. I challenge my development team to make as much of this information as possible available on my phone. I travel a lot, and I don’t carry my laptop or binders everywhere. When I need information, I want to talk to my phone and ask for it. I want to be able to call up a particular report using the digital assistant Krithika spoke about.
Amazingly enough, that information recently appeared on my iPhone. The beauty of it is, it's very insightful information. It's not just your everyday, backwards-looking type of reporting, but information that you can utilize to really influence the business.
For Delphine, having the right data at your fingertips also promotes greater accountability, because you can’t argue with the numbers. “This year, we started to present numbers to change behavior and push accountabilities to our different business partners,” she noted. “They finally were able to see in real time, every day, what was happening in the business—for example, their travel expenses, or how they were spending money, or how they were tracking budget data. Bringing all the technology together from multiple systems into one solution that you can have on your phone, your tablet, your computer—it really was eye-opening to see how much power numbers can have.”
The availability of digital intelligence goes a long way to providing business influence. With it, you can arm your people to become those influencers. Business influence is what I do, personally, every single day. You must have all of the data available, at your fingertips, to navigate the business and address all the problems.
And it’s not just a matter of addressing existing problems; you must also anticipate questions from your senior leadership, make recommendations and justify them. As my colleague Chris Kite pointed out, “Do the scenarios, anticipate the questions, explain that you’ve looked at other scenarios and explain why you’re not going in that direction.”
Business influence requires more than just technology; it requires the people skills to persuade, convince and instill confidence. “In conversations with our customers, the CFO is emerging more and more as the decision-maker,” Jessica noted. “The CFOs of our customers are asking to spend time with us, to find out what we’re doing to drive change within our finance organization. That’s why, in building our finance transformation office, I have placed an intentional focus on people strategy, change, and organizational enablement. Change is hard; we don't always like new technology. As we're thinking about our finance organizations, there's a huge behavior shift that we’re responsible to help our employees understand and activate in the face of the fourth industrial revolution.”
Building a leading, digital finance function requires a focus on people, processes, and technologies, Delphine added. “You need to change your mindset to help your employees get there.”
As Oracle CEO Safra Catz likes to point out, “It’s not the technology, it’s the sociology” that holds people back from embracing change. When a finance function can change that mindset, they’re already succeeding.
Ivgen Guner is senior vice president of Global Business Finance at Oracle.