Many businesses are automating their finance functions in the time of digital transformation. There is certainly a case to be made for this. The time saving alone can save millions for any one business as repetitive tasks are streamlined and analyses processed, which of course all moves to support better strategic decision-making. It is then the purvey of the finance team to interpret and make use of the data for business insights. What is often forgotten is the people behind the automated finance function. This article considers how best to make the change from a people perspective.
The challenge at the moment is that much time, effort and resource go into automating particular processes only to find that the specialists in the field resort to using familiar spreadsheets and ‘work arounds’ when they get back to their desks and business as usual commitments. This is not that the new processes are not easy or better, but that the human dynamics around change are at play. The automation of the finance processes and function can be better managed to optimise the use and impact of these processes.
When working with organisations in this change process, we consider these questions:
- How to best lead teams through the automation of their functions
- The capacities needed to best work with this new way of working in the digital world
- How to set up your teams in the changes for sustainable success
Let’s start with the setting up of the teams for the change project. Often specialists, accountants, financial managers are drawn into the team to develop the new processes. Of course, it is essential to have the subject matter expertise in finding the optimisation opportunities. Digital developers translate this into online platforms before a verification process leads to the new system.
A few things happen along the way. Insufficient attention is paid to why the current system has ‘worked’ and why they ‘stick’. The reasons may have little to do with the process and more do with access to information from other stakeholders or parts of the business. Just completing a relatively simple process often requires a different capacity of negotiating, stakeholder engagement and bartering to gain up-to-date and relevant data as input into the process. So, when the automated process comes along, this step may still be needed by the financial expert.
And so the step is not eliminated in the automated process, which assumes accuracy and availability of data to begin with. This is by way of example to illustrate that the automating of a process does not guarantee its use. Upfront analysis of current processes and behaviours behind these is key, otherwise old systems may just prove to be more efficient after all.
Then we need to consider assuming the new automated process is in place. A process of transition is needed to enable those impacted to transition to using the new system. This could involve upskilling and ensuring that the new process is located in a role, accountabilities and responsibilities and that KPIs and outputs are confirmed. The person will need to see how this change benefits them, build confidence and trust in the process and see what the freed up time can be filled with. Involvement and efficacy are key to settling into any new system.
Often we interpret the lack of uptake of a system as resistance. This is not necessarily resistance, so check the upfront analysis and the involvement and capacity through to implementation. Fear is sometimes lurking behind the non-adoption of new technology. The person may fear that their job will be replaced by the automated system. Needless to say, repetitive tasks will be replaced from manual to automated. But the person’s role moves to analysis and decision-making, interpreting the data to inform decisions for the business, and considering the strategic implications. If a person can see how they are needed and their expertise is valued and contributed, this eases the transition. Check that the revised role enables the person to bring their expertise and contribution forward. We all seek belonging, meaning and a sense of future in our work. So when managing the team and change, have these conversations and engage in how the changes impact each role.
New capacities may need to be built for the expert around digital transformation and data-driven processes. The World Economic Forum, in their Future of Jobs Report (2020), find these to be the top 10 skills of 2025:
- Analytical thinking and innovation
- Active learning and learning strategies
- Complex problem-solving
- Critical thinking and analysis
- Creativity, originality and initiative
- Leadership and social influence
- Technology use, monitoring and control
- Technology design and programming
- Resilience, stress tolerance and flexibility
- Reasoning, problem-solving and ideation
These are all human skills that each person needs to build to be future fit. As subject matter experts, our identity is often intertwined with our roles, as we come to see ourselves as experts. We may experience letting go of holding a technical process as letting go of a piece of ourselves. Yet we are more than ever needed to interpret and innovate, learn, lead and solve problems.
This is our contribution in the digital era: to upskill ourselves and our teams in future-fit capacities. And in these capacities to be adaptive, to work with change and collaborate to find the best way forward for our businesses. This will ease the transition towards building businesses that can be future fit and adaptive to the ongoing changes and disruptions coming our way.
Then we consider how to set up the teams to work with the new processes. It is not fair to set up an automated process and upskill a team member and then not provide them with an opportunity to use these. In fact, it is disheartening and can often lead to demotivation and poor engagement of teams following a change process. Ahead of the digital change, consider how the organisation design and team roles will be set up to maximise the new way of working, the new skills and new processes. The team configuration may change to be cross- functional, closer to the customer internal and external, self-directed and empowered to make key decisions. Consider how the new skills and processes best support the business and set these up for success. The structure and reporting lines could change to be closer to the needs and to enable greater flexibility and speed in delivery to meet the ever-evolving demands of the business.
According to the Business Reporter, the benefits from the automation for finance departments include:
- Automated reporting
- Reduced costs
- Better use of people
- Increased speed
- Improved quality
- Greater consistency
- Better records
But this can only be achieved with the transition of people best utilising the new technologies. In sum, when automating a finance function, the return on investment could be lost if the processes are not adopted or they are not adopted in a way that makes sense to the business. Manage the potential barriers to the adoption of the technology, upskill the finance teams to be future fit and to work with the digital strategy, and consider the organisation and role design to best support the business. Mostly this is a change, and to gain the most advantage from this some change support and change management can go a long way.
Sarah Babb, Partner, Laminar Leadership, Professional Associate GIBS