Five years in five months

August 2021

What will the future finance function look like? Clive Webb offers up
some thoughts and makes some predictions.

Many PQs may have heard the term ‘five years in five months’ of late. And that’s because the finance profession, as a whole, has been significantly tested and dramatically evolved, due to the pandemic, with organisations looking to their finance teams to plot a path of financial stability in challenging business conditions.

So how have accountants succeeded during these challenging times?

Successful organisations in the current environment have had to learn to thrive on change; to adapt to shifting environments; to embrace the opportunities offered by technological innovations – the effective use of data being at the top of the list.

These organisations focus on integrating finance skills and knowledge throughout the decision-making process.

Finance leaders also must ensure their teams are aligned closely to the purpose of the organisation. They need to create a finance function that serves the organisation better in a constantly disrupted world. There is a reality that change will come, so it is important to reflect on how prepared we are for that change and this is explored in a new report in association with PwC we launched recently called ‘Finance Functions: Seizing the Opportunity’.

Our research reveals four key areas of focus which have enabled finance teams globally to succeed in these challenging times.

1: Relevance: To remain relevant, finance needs to fully embrace technology and all its possibilities. Cloud-based enterprise resource planning systems will liberate data allowing a greater level of insight to be generated, while at the same time creating capacity in finance teams.

2: Data and technology: Finance has arguably become ‘institutionalised’ around the shared services, business partnering model and dealing with short-term issues given the focus on quarterly and monthly reporting targets.

Real-time information has been essential during the pandemic. Much of cyclical focus is simply a consequence of systems not being able to talk to each other – as we move to a more continuous cycle of reporting finance will increasingly be expected to look at the future rather than the past and think strategically, rather than tactically. Exploiting the data, both financial and non-financial available to us.

3: Skills and careers: New roles and new skills are needed in the finance function. There has been a growing realisation that the successful accountant of the future will have extensive interpersonal skills to complement their deep technical knowledge. The need to be able to interpret the data and tell the story are fundamental.

4: Innovation and collaboration: In the coming years, the finance function will need to focus on improving the risk, technology and analytics capability of their people – as technology begins to rapidly evolve. Finance needs to increasingly work across organisations, informing the conversation. We will need academia and industry to work effectively together to understand these future skills (agility, innovation and collaboration) needs and plan for those needs through the programmes on offer.

The importance of well-being

Most finance teams have seen increased workloads during the past 18 months and many have contributed to their company’s success. Many have also overcome challenges, but the unrelenting demands of the last year have placed a strain on the mental health of finance professionals globally and the report warns that they must ensure their own wellbeing if they are to remain valuable.

Those interviewed in this global survey reported teams were feeling fatigued and jaded, having worked harder in the last 12 months than they have ever done before. Adapting to 100% remote working has also proved difficult and draining for many. New ways of working are beginning to emerge that increase productivity, collaboration and employee engagement.

What’s the opportunity for the future?

Finance teams have a real chance to develop a more strategic role across organisations if they capitalise upon recent successes. To ensure continued post-pandemic success, the report suggests six key recommendations for all finance professionals to consider within their roles.

1: Redefine the focus of finance to include broader performance metrics for natural and human capital.

2: Invest in technologies that can be used to create and support an enterprise-wide data model.

3: Use predictive analytics based upon this model to drive more holistic business decision making.

4: Enhance business partnering and analytical skills to ensure that finance can fulfil this new role across the organisation and continue to improve collaboration both across it and with external parties.

5: Drive for greater efficiency, productivity and standardisation across processes and common platforms.

6: Through these actions, establish finance as the central point within the organisation for achieving sustainable and responsible growth and enhancing the reputation of the organisation.

• Clive Webb is ACCA’s head of business management