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How to embrace the AI revolution in finance and accounting

There is no question that the finance function is undergoing significant change with the rise of AI (Artificial Intelligence). New technologies are transforming the role of the traditional accountant by streamlining and automating tasks that were previously quite manual in nature. At the same time, there is an increasing demand for data analytical roles that are more commercial in nature. It’s no longer just about presenting the numbers but being able to add value to them.

While we have seen finance functions become a lot smaller as a result of these changes, far from being something to fear, it presents an exciting opportunity for the traditional accountant to add value to the business beyond just ‘number-crunching.’

This trend will only continue to grow and those who embrace the changes that new technologies present will be better positioned for success. So, just how far reaching is the impact of AI and what can you do to ensure you are on the front foot in your career journey?

Change is the norm – embrace it, don’t fear it

“The norm now [in business and in the finance team] is to be in an environment of constant evolution and change,” says Stephen Moir.

“We are seeing that already with the finance teams that we work with. Back in the day, you’d have 15-20 people in an average finance team. The automation of processes has now resulted in a significant reduction in the size of these teams,” he explains.

This is reflected in the numbers, as we’ve seen decreases in the number of traditional accounting roles advertised over the past 12 months – particularly in the areas of accounts payable/receivable, supplier on boarding, procurement and expense management roles.

But as we look to the future, the focus will be less on reducing roles and team sizes, as it will be on upskilling people for the future, says Stephen.

“A lot of the structural change has already happened, so there’s not likely to be a large cull in personnel. The focus will now be to upskill the people who remain in these leaner teams.”

The first step, he believes, is to adopt a growth mindset. Don’t think about whether technology is going to replace your job and your skill set, but how you can use the technology to your advantage.

As Moir Group’s Financial Controller, Kelly Patti explains, there is benefit in doing this: “The faster you can get the numbers, the more time your organisation has to think strategically about those numbers.”

Taking control of your career

This increased focus on accountants and finance professionals to be more strategic, forward-facing and commercial in their approach, also requires an extra set of skills that go beyond just the technical.

“Soft skills are much more important than they ever were,” says Stephen Moir. “Collaboration is a key strength required to get ahead, being visible in the company, helping people to understand the data you are supplying and being able to take them on the journey with you.”

“While there may be many finance professionals who are uncomfortable being more visible and present in the company, it is increasingly becoming a requirement of the role, in order to have a bigger impact,” Stephen adds.

Moir Group’s Manager, Permanent Recruitment, Newton Soares believes the key is knowing how to: “effectively use business intelligence tools, and work with data warehouses to produce meaningful insights that will assist in the strategic decision-making process and boost business performance.”

People who can make the data manageable and meaningful are highly sought-after. According to Craig Saundry, Senior Manager, Business Intelligence and Analytics for CHEP Australia (part of the Brambles Group) the ability for accountants to “read, work with, analyse and argue with the data” will be even more important as AI becomes more pervasive and prevalent. He believes that, “it’s a skill which empowers all levels of workers to ask the right questions of data and machines, build knowledge, make decisions and communicate meaning with others.”

One area he sees taking off is in ‘augmented analytics.’ This is a process whereby AI systems can provide a ‘predictive analysis’ of the numbers (i.e. your customer data) in order to provide key insights on what challenges are ahead (for that week, month, etc), so that you can be more efficient and effective in your work, and reach your commercial/business objectives sooner.

According to Craig, it “democratises data in a fraction of the time, removes any data bias and promotes quick insights,” so that people can be more proactive in their work (rather than reactive) and tackle issues before they even arise.

AI, data analytics, finance, accounting

Upskilling for the future

So how do you upskill for the future? We have already seen the impact of AI across all levels in accounting from the junior to the more senior roles.

In order to best position yourself for success, there are some key technical, commercial and soft skills that will ensure you are able to effectively capitalise on the opportunities AI presents.

Junior finance and accounting roles

Roles at this level are evolving beyond just processing, data entry and management and will require new skill sets:

  • Technology and data analytical skills will be particularly favourable for graduates.
  • Experience with accounting software such as Intuit, OneUp, Sage or Xero will be an advantage; along with knowledge of cloud computing programs like Microsoft Power BI.
  • Effective communication skills are critical, as the traditional finance role will be required to communicate more widely with the business and work with a variety of different stakeholders.
  • Being able to explain your workings, ask direct questions to extract information, and share information clearly are skills you will need to succeed working at this level.
  • Working in a smaller team may also mean you have more exposure to other areas of your business, for instance sales, purchasing and manufacturing. For this reason it’s essential that you’re able to work collaboratively and well with others.

Mid-level finance manager roles

Roles at this level are the most likely to be affected by these changes. We are already seeing increases in roles that are purely focused on the data, such as: Commercial Accountants, Data Analysts and Management Accountants. Some of the key skills and attributes required at this level now include:

  • Systems knowledge – this is critical as you will be required to interpret and provide your insights to the data to make improvements at this level. This may include, but not limited to: an understanding of ERP such as SAP or Oracle, Hyperion for analysis and financial reporting, and expertise in dashboarding and software systems such as Microsoft Power BI.
  • Translating financial information to insights and an ability to communicate this effectively will be key (a term now being coined as ‘data science’).
  • Managing expectations of stakeholders will also be key as the finance team increasingly plays a larger role within the business.
  • Understanding the needs of your stakeholders, managing their expectations and being responsive to business needs will mean you will develop good partnering relationships with your colleagues and have more of an impact.
  • An ability to influence is also important as you progress your career.

Senior Executive/CFO roles

Automation is slow to climb the corporate ladder, so the impact is not as significant on these roles directly. However, there is an increased need to demonstrate leadership in the face of change associated with these shifts in function.

  • There is a stronger focus on organisational transformation and creating a culture of positive change.
  • Emotional Intelligence is vital to strengthen relationships with staff and board members.
  • Developing others, teams and contributing to organisational effectiveness are also key requirements of a senior level financial manager.
  • Taking people on a journey with the numbers and the ability to “tell a story.”
  • Being highly visible within the business and having a thorough understanding of all levels of the business to ensure finance supports growth objectives.
  • Using the data to drive positive change and transform business operations.

Check out our infographic to see the impacts of AI on finance and accounting roles in 2019.

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