Building a finance team to tackle the digital era


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Claudia Pirko outlines five ways to build a foundation of accounting talent fit for the challenges inherent in the digital age.

The accounting sector has experienced seismic changes in the past decade but are finance teams keeping pace? In the era of automation, it’s more important than ever for Australian organisations to find and develop the optimum skills mix.

Australia is home to around 189,000 accountants, according to the federal Department of Jobs and Small Business. More than 80 per cent are in full-time work and they command an average weekly pay of $1400.

Cloud based technology, changes in global regulations and tax reporting and the expansion of shared services models have impacted on the way they work, over the past decade.

Meanwhile, senior management has come to expect finance teams to perform as much more than mere bookkeepers and number crunchers. Accountants and finance professionals are commonly required to be strategic partners within the enterprise; all-rounders who can be called upon to lend their expertise and insight to all aspects of operations.

Disruption in the sector looks set to intensify as automation continues to relieve the profession of a swathe of its traditional tasks.


Managing the transition

Against this backdrop, many organisations face a two-fold challenge. They need to assist existing employees with traditional finance skillsets to adapt to new duties and expectations and ensure staff are provided with opportunities to undertake challenging, non-routine work.

The latter has become more of an issue as millennials continue their rise through the ranks of the profession. As a cohort, they’re more educated than their predecessors – many millennials begin their working lives with advanced degrees in hand – and are typically more resistant to the notion of spending their early career years doing repetitive, transactional work.

Requiring them to do so is not just a poor use of valuable resources. It may result in a revolving door of recruits, if new hires opt to look elsewhere rather than serve out their ‘apprenticeships’ undertaking unsatisfying and unchallenging work.


Old skills and new

Data analysis is high on the list of skills accountants may do well to acquire, as their roles evolve beyond their traditional number crunching.

Becoming proficient in predictive modelling and forecasting – along with the tools used to carry out the data analysis companies increasingly rely on to inform decision making – can make finance folk even more valuable members of the corporate team.

Meanwhile, many in the profession are positive about the prospect of Robotic Process Automation (RPA) relieving them of many of the repetitive tasks of yore.

The term RPA refers to the use of systems with artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning capabilities to complete high volume, repeatable tasks, such as simple calculations and reconciliations.

Research has found RPA can reduce operating costs by up to 80 per cent. Researchers expect up to 40 per cent of transaction accounting work may be performed by the technology within the next few years.


Planning tomorrow’s team

Organisations need to plan and restructure their finance teams to reflect these emerging realities, or risk being caught with skillsets which no longer meet their requirements in the AI-driven automation era.

Here are five ways to build the right talent mix.

1. Create a roadmap

Developing a roadmap that shows how business processes will evolve as automation takes hold will provide clarity about the future direction – for both executives and finance employees.  The starting point should be an audit of accounting and finance functions to identify which roles which will be most heavily impacted.

2. Retain, retrain and realign

As automation relieves finance professionals of more rote tasks, finding higher value assignments for them to complete should become an imperative. Creating individual development plans to help employees upgrade and broaden their skillsets will ensure the organisation helps them achieve their potential and derives maximum benefit from their expertise.

3. Communicate and set expectations

Regular communication is vital during any period of major change. Helping staff recognise the value of automation and working with them to ensure their new roles are well defined will help ensure a smooth transition.

4. Change the hiring mix

Reduced focus on manual accounting and greater emphasis on data analytics and other business tasks calls for a different mix of skills. To avoid recruiting for yesterday’s jobs, organisations’ hiring criteria will need to evolve. Employees who can use data to challenge convention and inform business decision making should be high on the list of desirable hires.

5. Encourage technology leadership

The shift to cloud computing has seen IT departments’ control of technology systems and infrastructure loosen. The onset of the automation era may see their trend continue, particularly as self-service data analytics become the norm in more workplaces. Finance and accounting professionals should be encouraged to take the lead in the move towards machine learning and data modelling and analysis.

Claudia Pirko is Australia and New Zealand regional vice president at financial automation software provider, BlackLine.

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