CFOs no longer view Microsoft Excel as the most important skill for their financial planning and accounting staff. Instead, adaptability to new technology is the most desirable trait in new hires.

Two years ago, 78 percent of CFOs rated Excel proficiency as the most important skill within their finance team, and that percentage has dropped starkly to 5 percent this year, according to surveys conducted by Adaptive Insights. In new hires, Excel skills still rank low, with only 7 percent of CFOs viewing them as desirable. The sharp drop-off suggests how quickly technology options for automation are growing. While Excel is a heavily automated program, new technologies that leverage both automation and machine learning or artificial intelligence (AI) are coming to the forefront quickly.

More than 40 percent of CFO respondents said that the biggest driver behind automation in their organizations is the demand for faster, higher-quality insights from executives and operational stakeholders. Excel remains one of the most commonly used programs in accounting, over all firm sizes, but the need for increased automation has led finance executives to seek out more robust programs, and staff who can wrap their heads around this expansion into new technologies.

Increased automation frees staff to spend more time on value-added tasks like analysis, respondents said; but lack of time remains one of the biggest barriers in deploying new technologies — another reason technology-minded staff are desirable.

“We’ve seen CFOs increasingly take on the role of chief data officers in their organizations,” said Jim Johnson, CFO at Adaptive Insights, in a statement. “At the same time, CFOs recognize the limitations in the way they manage and analyze data today and know it will only get worse with the proliferation of more systems with siloed data. That's why Excel skills aren't ranked as a top skill any longer. Proficiency in Excel is a given today. The new skills finance leaders need are those that can use technologies to access, analyze, and amplify data for insights to better manage the business.”

The vast majority of CFOs — 89 percent — believe that AI software will have an impact on the finance function in the next five years. Executives see the technology being able to help them more easily surface insights and suggest plans of attack, but they don’t see the technology ever replacing human staff. Rather, AI is viewed as a tool to help finance more strategically and accurately guide their businesses.

One respondent noted that the capabilities of AI will be able to relieve FP&A staff of the fatiguing process of performing “what-if” scenarios based on large amounts of data, saying, “AI is having the ability to assist, not replace, humans."

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