How to Rethink the Finance Talent Profile

By Nilly Essaides
July 22, 2018

Finance professionals are already feeling the impact of new technologies in the workplace. That’s only going to get more pronounced. According to The Hackett Group findings in our 2018 Key Issue study, the adoption of robotics process automation (RPA) will surge 12.7X in the next two to three years. And that’s just the robots. There’s AI…deep learning…data visualization…and the list goes on. Combined with the rapidly changing competitive landscape where new business models pop up as if out of the blue, there’s pressure on finance professionals to upskill. But upskill to what?

In our study, we found only 50% of finance organization even have a talent strategy. And 40% have yet to imagine what the digital new roles are going to look like. They’re going to have to figure it out, fast. “Given that digital transforming is still emerging and intensifying, we are yet to see the full impact,” told me Irena Barisic, the CFO of the Brookings Institute in a conversation earlier this year.

“Clearly, we will see more manual functions being replaced by smart automation.” According to Barisic, finance professionals will need to adjust by acquiring additional analytics and data science skills to be able to leverage the outputs that smart technologies produce.

“Finance professionals must be able to place what smart technologies deliver in a business context, and then utilize technology to drive a better conversation with senior leadership,” said Barisic. “They need to have good interpersonal skills, like influencing and negotiating, so they can interact effectively with their immediate partners and industry peers.”

A Brain Storming Exercise

How will finance roles be different in five years? Last year, Jean Furter, just before he left the role of VP Treasurer at the data and networking products company Brocade, decided to find out. I talked with Furter a couple of months ago. When at Brocade, his approach was to challenge his team to imagine what their jobs will be by 2023-2025. “What the analysis produced was a wake-up call,” Furter said.

His team concluded that “with the advent of smart algorithms, 90% of current jobs in treasury will be eliminated.” Whether it’s five or eight or 10 years, there’s no question that digital transformation will affect finance roles,” he said. “The best leaders can do is work with their teams to prepare them for what’s inevitable. Our team shifted from being a potential ‘victim’ of circumstances to being part of the change process.”

The brainstorming exercise helped Furter develop a shortlist of competencies that will be critical as more finance roles are touched by technology:

  1. Flexibility. He called this characteristic “riding the tsunami”, i.e., finding opportunities where others see problems. It’s a commitment to embracing the new path.
  2. Intellectual agility. Finance staff will have to navigate new areas like working more closely with the business, straying from the traditional finance focus.
  3. Imagination. Furter said that “You don’t need a PhD in statistics.” Finance should be rethinking and using scenario planning to understand how things would work if… For example, what if there are no banks around? Going through scenario analysis can help finance professionals rethink their roles and imagine how they may look like in the future.
  4. Self-awareness. Finance professionals will need to find their niche. They may not be interested in cybersecurity, but curious about modeling. “You have to plan ahead and consider multiple scenarios,” Furter said.

While Furter’s initiative may not have yielded precise definitions of what finance roles will become, it planted ideas. “That created immediate benefits in terms of thinking of new ways of how to do work or the possibility of leveraging new technologies,” He said. He recommended other finance leaders to conduct similar exercises. “You benefit from the process, not just the end goal,” he said. “The most important thing is creating the right mind set.”