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Agility in the Finance Function – the New Imperative

Oct. 22 2020 by Gary Simon , Chief Executive of FSN & Leader of the Modern Finance Forum for CFOs - FSN Publishing Limited

Performance Management

Agility has been a buzz phrase in the boardroom in recent years, popularised as a solution to unrelenting disruption, market change and disruption. But the turmoil of the last six months has reenforced the true value of agility in the finance function. FSN’s soon to be released research, “The Future of Automation in the Finance Function” provides, possibly for the first time, empirical evidence that finance functions that were transformation leaders heading into the Covid era were hugely more agile in the face of such a market shock.

But what is agility? Agility is a broad-brush concept embracing, for example, the ability to quickly pivot customer engagement models, implement new supply chain strategies or redefine workforce deployment. In a strategic sense, an organisation’s agility is a measure of its responsiveness to change, but agility has also taken on a new potency and resonance within the finance function.  

During the recent crisis, organisations have had to reshape their financial forecasts in an instant, change their workflows to accommodate home-working and reconfigure the way that they make operational and board decisions. Regrettably, many organisations could not do this. As businesses shut down or adjusted to lower sales volume, their forecasting systems could not contract. Many reverted to spreadsheets. Staff based at home were locked out of on-premise financial systems and other personnel could not access vital documents stored away in office cabinets and archives.

What have we learned? First and foremost, process automation is the prerequisite to agility. FSN’s research shows compellingly, that automation leaders who had completely transformed their core financial processes heading into COVID outperformed those organisations that had neglected to automate. The size of the gap between those that had automated and those that hadn’t was across almost every measure and process. For example, 62% of finance functions that had completely transformed said they were able to make urgent changes to core processes when home-working compared to just 25% of organisations that had barely automated at all. Similarly, when it came to responding to new and changed information requests, 62% of automation leaders could achieve this without delay compared to just 35% that had not made significant process improvements.

So, if agility is the new imperative in the finance function, how do we achieve it? There are three clear pointers to the way forward, namely;

  • standardise core processes in preparation for automation
  • redesign processes, but taking care to take an enterprise-wide (cross-functional) view of the need
  • automate using modern cloud-based applications to maximise accessibility, enhance automation and reduce reliance on spreadsheets

However, agility is not only the mantra for finance systems going forward, it is also the watchword for how best to introduce systems change. The next couple of years are almost certainly going to be challenging, with limited resources, continuing disruption and new methods of working. As Fabrizio Tocchini, Global Head of Innovation at CCH Tagetik says, agile implementation methodologies that allow for the gradual implementation of systems and pre-packaged applications that help to accelerate implementation are the order of the day. You can watch my recent interview with Fabrizio here.

The final lesson is not to leave it too late. The business case for automation could not be more compelling because it builds organisational agility and makes it more resilient to market shock. Whatever the obstacles, enlightened organisations are making their move now.

Download here the latest “The Future of Automation in the Finance Function” report to learn more.


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