The Path to Digital Finance Transformation

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7-minute read

Introducing BlackLine’s New Digital Finance Transformation Leader

Hi, I’m Mike Polaha, senior VP of finance solutions and technology at BlackLine. I recently joined BlackLine after nearly 30 years of service in the finance and accounting profession where I supported—from ideation through execution—two large digital finance transformation programs in a very complex and geographically diverse Fortune 50 organization.

I likewise had on-going accountability for global finance process design, business product solution architecture, and finance data standards to enable and durationally sustain the transformational vision.

The Perspective of Someone Who’s Lived Through It & With It

The intent of this blog series will be to share some of my thinking on these topics, informed by my practical experience of having lived through the digital finance transformation lifecycle. I would like to create a community of practice to expand our collective thinking on how finance and accounting practitioners can continue this evolutionary journey.

My perspective will be different from systems integrators’ because I had to face into and live with the organizational aftereffects of the transformational journey and outcome. This is not to say that I feel my observations are sacrosanct, but more to share my perspective in the spirit of continuous learning, knowing that this space will continue to evolve with its own set of best practices.

I believe passionately that by boldly moving into the future and embracing the transformation, we can deliver a more meaningful work experience for our finance and accounting professionals, while providing a service that is indispensable to our business partners. A true win/win scenario.

So, whether you are a CFO contemplating your own strategy, a practitioner currently engaged in some manner of strategy or deployment, or an associate looking to learn more—I hope you spend some time with me to virtually engage on this topic.

The Aspirations of Transformations

I can say without hesitation that in both transformational programs in which I was engaged, the goals of the effort originated with the best of intentions:

  • To unleash organizational talent by intelligently automating repetitive processes, resulting in an improved employee experience

  • To enable a capacity pivot to providing timely, accurate, and complete business insights and analytics, thereby delivering a more effective service

  • To deliver this refined level of service at a price point that was in line with business expectations and supportable by industry benchmarks

And the Challenges That Follow

Noble aspirations to be sure. But not easily achievable if you find yourself facing systemic legacy system complexity, foundational process disaggregation, and/or antiquated organizational structures and talent models that may need to be addressed to deliver against the transformation aspirations.

Although every finance organization may find itself with some degree or variation of the problem statement noted above, every organization likely must address data quality, system complexity, process variation, and organizational challenges in some way to realize their optimal finance vision.

For the CFO, facing into some combination of this problem statement is enough to keep you up at night. It is difficult to contemplate how to best compartmentalize and sequence the strategy to deliver the new organizational capabilities, while ensuring that the quality and compliance of the existing service is not compromised. To put forward the problem statement with an analogy, “how can you optimally change the tire of a car that is already moving along the highway?”

Putting the challenge aside for a second, I believe it is apparent to most CFOs that the option to do nothing is not overtly viable. Doing nothing will ensure that you risk falling further behind your competition (who may have already invested) or to risk losing the finance and accounting talent war. Accounting and finance professionals, aware that automation of the repetitive has been proven at scale, have been and will continue to migrate to work situations that allow for and enable more meaningful analytical work.

My Migration From Operational F&A to Functional Enablement

Looking retrospectively on my own career journey, it is difficult to fathom that while attending Lehigh University in the late 1980s and getting a C in my Fortran programming class, I would become a dedicated practitioner in this techno/functional workspace.

Truth be told, my migration from operational finance and accounting to functional enablement originated by happenstance rather than design. In the mid-1990s, I was asked by my privately held, German-owned medical device company to lead the finance and accounting integration efforts of an acquired company. The acquired company was in the midst of an in-flight SAP implementation, and it was readily apparent that the optimal strategy to accelerate the business integration was to leverage the integrated technology platform.

I quickly purchased my copy of Hammer and Champy’s Reengineering the Corporation and set off to take the opportunity to reimagine not only our technology stack, but our business processes and their placement, leveraging the aforementioned platform integration as the triggering event.

On a side note, I believed the consultants with whom I was working at that time to be the coolest folks I had ever come across. I marveled at their ability to triangulate the business needs with the technology platform. This sparked my lifelong passion and commitment to the finance transformation workspace focusing on the architecture and intersection of data, process, technology, and organization design.

There was a time that F&A organizations inherently understood they needed these hybrid skillsets, but they didn’t fit neatly into the existing hiring profiles. Fast forward to today, where the evergreen digital technology revolution is allowing principles espoused in the Hammer and Champy book to be realized.

We find ourselves at an inflection point in finance and accounting where this hybrid techno-functional “unicorn” skill set is in high demand and significantly valued by finance and business leaders alike. Congratulations to those of you with these profiles! Like Cinderella on the night of the ball—your time has surely arrived. And, as a reward, you are likely to find yourselves on the front lines of digital finance transformation efforts in one way or another. Suffice it to say, there is much work to be done!

The Path to Transformation

Going forward in this blog, I will share my strategic thinking on digital finance transformation topics ranging from principles of the approach, to the development of the business case, to the execution of the roadmap, through to organizational lessons learned to drive adoption to durationally support the new way of working.

So, whether you are a CFO contemplating a specific course of action, an associate engaged in driving the transformational change, or a practitioner on the receiving end of it all, I believe you will find some useful concepts and thinking to support your respective circumstances.

I very much look forward to engaging with you.

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Watch this on demand webinar Navigating the Bumpy Road to a Successful Digital Transformation to learn the key components of an effective digital transformation business case.