Agile Finance in a Digital World


In this transformative era, we accept change as the only constant. But that doesn’t make the unrelenting pace of change—the sense that the present immediately vanishes as the future keeps arriving—any easier to handle.

It happens in our personal lives and our professional lives. For CFOs and other finance professionals, it makes the job of growing, protecting, and transforming business much more difficult.

Our world has obviously gone through dramatic change before. In fact, many view this latest wave as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, in which emerging technologies—such as artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, and robotic process automation—more tightly bind our digital and physical worlds.

In our offices, humans increasingly work alongside bots, processes play out in near real-time without human involvement, and data—and the insights it holds—is becoming our most valuable asset.

Technology, however, is only the undercurrent, or perhaps the driver, of constant change, with many other factors playing a role as well. Increased globalization and connectivity are playing out against the rise of nationalism and populism, in which borders don’t vanish but reassert themselves despite the global nature of business.

Risk and compliance requirements are on the rise with ever-increasing government scrutiny. Demographic trends give us a workforce with four generations working side by side, all with different ideas and technological skill sets, and all tasked with implementing new strategies in new markets with new tools.

This places significant pressure on CFOs, whose tenure is decreasing in a role increasingly filled by those who come from outside the finance function.

According to a recent EY survey, many CFOs come from other companies, with only half of new CFOs promoted from within. One CFO described his role to me as “Secretary of State”—a diplomat charged with managing varied stakeholders with wide-ranging objectives, while trying to add value as leader of the finance function.

The remit of CFOs is evolving from traditional operations to true business partnership, speaking to the changing nature of business and the world we inhabit.

In the past, companies could take a wait-and-see approach, and being second mover was often a wise choice, as the first mover frequently carried more risks than rewards. That was then. This is now. Many CFOs know that “wait-and-see” while the competition moves ahead is not a strategy—it’s a way to fall behind.

As an example, at EY we placed a bet on robotics and automation in our back office, investing heavily on what was then a very new technology. We now have thousands of bots in production, freeing up our back-office professionals to handle more value-added work.

We have hundreds of data analytics practitioners and data scientists in our ranks, and are already moving on to the next level, where we are applying these technologies to client service. Our competition is doing the same, but any company that took a wait-and-see approach back in 2015, with hopes to find more clarity on emerging technologies, is still stuck on the starting line while its competitors are off and running.

But it’s natural for a CFO to be cautious to some degree. This is part of the DNA of every CFO, and for good reason. My recommendation is to look for innovative technology providers that are on the cutting edge of new thought, but who can also show a track record of success, with a focus on helping customers become more agile, insightful, and cost-effective.

I believe cloud-based solutions have a strong advantage in this area, and so do companies that understand the suite of digital technologies being applied to finance and accounting today. A focus on managing risk, especially the risks of the digital age, is also important, and many leading technology providers have made this a core part of their offerings.

For over 10 years, BlackLine has offered a suite of purpose-built solutions that have evolved to stay relevant in the digital age. The platform covers the month-end close, reconciliation, and reporting processes from an automation and controls perspective—innovation that is proven to be powerful.

For example, EY and BlackLine teams helped a major life insurance and financial company define and establish controls that focused on automation to support a lean finance and accounting team. The engagement covered balance sheet certification and reconciliation, close management, and automation of the cash, intercompany and clearing account matching process.

Automation was designed to support a smaller team, which provided greater visibility into the close process, as well as improved data integration and management with SAP S/4HANA.

But at the end of the day, even the best tools won’t make up for leadership and decisiveness, both from the CFO and the overall finance function. Now is the time to embrace the transformative digital age, leverage the power of digital technology, and build an agile finance function that is adaptable, insightful, and cost-effective.

Attend EY’s session at InTheBlack on Tuesday, November 13 in Las Vegas to learn more about how your organization can maintain a high level of trust while driving insight in a cost-effective manner.