Finance pros adjust to digital reality and COVID

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Financial professionals, including accountants and company controllers, have needed to burnish their technology skills during the novel coronavirus pandemic as they work remotely with their colleagues and clients.

A new report from the Institute of Management Accountants and Deloitte’s Center for Controllership is based on a survey of nearly 800 finance and accounting professionals conducted shortly before the pandemic spread across the U.S. However, it indicated that many technology capabilities are sorely needed. More than three-fourths (75.7 percent) of the respondents said their company’s accounting processes are either largely manual or still require considerable manual effort. In addition, 73.7 percent of the respondents indicated that emerging technology has positive impacts on finance and accounting functions. Meanwhile, 43.9 percent of the respondents said the most difficult skill sets to find are both technology and accounting skills.

“Our hypothesis going in was there‘s a lot of technologies coming out over the years,” said Beth Kaplan, a managing director at Deloitte & Touche LLP. “Sometimes people think of them as shiny toys, with digital automation, bots, blockchain, all kinds of enabling technologies, and we’re seeing what impact all that has had on the controllership environment. One of the surprising elements that came out of this is that about 75 percent of skills are still somewhat manual or pretty manual, which was sort of my hypothesis, because controllership is bringing in information from disparate sources, trying to apply Generally Accepted Accounting Principles on it, and trying to make sure your data is right. You have all the data from regulator reporting to internal reporting, and we use enabling technology to help you get some of the way, but it’s clear that there’s still a long way to go.”

The report discusses topics such as workplace evolution and companies’ recruitment strategies, along with career paths for controllers and how they can advance by learning to use technologies such as data analytics and data science. “There is a lot more emphasis on having data-savvy or tech-savvy individuals within controllership, which is a natural thing,” said Kaplan. “When you start adding tools and technologies, you need to have that. There are some organizations that do have data scientists. One organization I work with has just hired a data leader. It’s really an end-to-end view. When people think of data, they think it’s sort of like voila. You can put out all of these pretty visuals and that in itself will bring you insight. You can have all these pretty PowerPoint slides, but if the data is not good, the insights may not tell the right story. If the data is hard to get, you may not have all the data you need to tell the story.”

She sees the need for better data governance. “You need the right data, and you need to be able to access that data,” said Kaplan. “Let’s say you want to look at customer data, like how much is someone spending with us. Well, suppose your company is made up of three companies that came together, which is not unusual, and given our current environment, there will be a lot more of that. Well, how hard is it then to go into all of these systems if they haven’t been integrated or they’re not sitting in a common place, to go get that data?”

The survey also asked about what technology investments the respondents would be making in the future. “Speaking about data analytics and visualization, or budgeting and forecasting from data, right now only 10 percent of the respondents answered that they have already implemented the technology, but it’s encouraging that almost 40 percent said they plan to implement it,” said Kaplan. “The good news is that there’s an intersection between the need and the desire and the action.”

In addition to technology knowledge, problem-solving skills are essential. “When you think about it, it’s an evolution,” said Kaplan. “In our survey we talk a little bit about how we’re going to evolve away from transaction processing into more analytics. More questions need to be asked. We need people who can look at disparate data to bring insight. I can do that if I have an analytical bent. If somebody is saying what’s the debit, and what’s the credit, not that it’s not important, but you’ve got to get beyond that. Some of the skills that come up often, even in the field, are having those analytical skills and communication skills. It’s one thing to run tools that give you the analytics, and it’s another thing to be able to interpret them, which requires business acumen.”

The report also discusses physical workspaces, like open-plan offices, which are undergoing changes now with the pandemic to accommodate more social distancing. The report polled finance and accounting professionals prior to the outbreak of the pandemic in the U.S.

“The responses were in November and January, and then we had all these workplace changes,” said Kaplan. “We had 64 percent saying they were working from home. Somebody had more of a crystal ball than the rest of us. The whole world is doing that now. I think, if anything, that’s just accelerating those conversations. I'd call it the global experiment. When you thought about working from home back in January at that level, you’d think of high-tech companies, right? But not some of your normal-culture companies, where if you don’t show up, you’re not working. But overnight we became a global work-from-home experiment, except for those that needed to be on the front lines. I think it’s really accelerating because people are saying, now that the genie is out of the bottle, do we push it all back in, or do we use it as an opportunity to rethink the workplace? Controllership has definitely proven that people can be productive. Is it sustainable full-time? That’s the question, when it comes to culture, performance management, community, families and the like.”

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