By Andy Burrows
What are the skills needed for Finance in business in the next generation? One of the biggest current challenges for the Finance and Accounting profession, the individual Finance professional, and Finance functions in general, is around skills.
It’s not just a problem of what skills are needed for the future. But whose responsibility is it to create the career pathways, the learning opportunities, and to ensure the right skills, mindsets and behaviours, prevail?
In an earlier article, I looked at what’s really happening in Finance in the realm of automation and technology. I argued that it need not be all about RPA and AI, as the media and software companies would have you believe. There are plenty of other tools we already have in the toolbox, some are more robust and stable, and some are much lower cost. Automation isn’t new in Finance, and RPA is just the new kid on the block (and that would make AI a babe in arms!).
But what I want to point out in this article is that the increased use of technology and automation tools over the last 30 years, which continues now through new tools such as RPA, is changing the skills required of those working in the Finance function.
The days are quickly passing where it is sufficient to get a degree in anything, qualify as an accountant, and then pick up using Excel and ERP systems on the job. Technology skills are becoming increasingly essential, and confusingly diverse.
So, here’s what I see as one of the main pinch points (in my humble, yet experienced, opinion):
Automation has removed many many manual tasks already. And whether it’s RPA or something else, automation is going to continue to remove the more manual jobs in Finance.
But here’s the problem...
When you’re training as an accountant, one of the things that goes with getting qualified is getting a certain amount of experience in an accounting job. And which are the jobs we do to get that required experience? The most manual, junior jobs… the ones that are increasingly disappearing through automation!
Doesn’t that, long term, create a shortage of people coming into Finance? How do you get people to be qualified accountants, analysts and Finance business partners, if you haven’t been able to bring them “through the ranks” because there are not enough junior jobs available?
I know some would say, “yeah but accountants are going to be automated out of existence!” But that’s naïve. Even if you automate something, you always need someone to know what the automated solution is doing. If you have a system automating accounting tasks, we will always need accountants to understand and control what the system is doing.
But the upshot is probably similar.
Are we going to find business Finance functions having to recruit non-accountants? If so, how do we ensure we get the base level of financial acumen that we take for granted because we rely on the accountancy qualification?
Are the accountancy bodies going to have to overhaul entry requirements and curriculum? Are accountancy and business degrees going to become more of an entry requirement, so that CIMA, ACCA, ACA, CPA, etc can branch into qualifications in reporting, financial analysis, data science, business management.
Is that going to drive an increasing divide between the audit profession and Finance in business? We have always had the same basic training as accountants. Is automation going to mean that the entry level is more specialist?
How do we cope with the fact that these are generalisations, and there are big differences depending on the kind of business you work in?
The whole education continuum for Finance and Accountancy could be under review, because we are eroding the most junior career steps. Add to that the complexity that each business, large and small, is navigating these changes in their own way.
It doesn’t make it easy for someone looking at a career in Finance and accounting!
So, here’s my attempt to simplify this and focus our minds on the key questions and issues to consider, both from a personal career development and from a business Finance function perspective.
Firstly, we in Finance need to be all the more intentional about using the right tools for the right jobs.
The number of different solutions available has multiplied. And therefore, before we go off to buy the newest thing, we should think whether we’ve already got something that can do the job. Otherwise we’ll end up spread too thinly (too many things for people to learn) or spending an inordinate amount of time learning about new tools (rather than using them).
I said in my earlier article that we need to make best use of our older tools, and revisit our approach to front end user-configured/programmable automation. RPA is just the newest type of front-end automation. It is more powerful than application-based macros and scripts. But it is also more expensive. And it suffers similar issues of reliability/stability, and “key person dependency”, because it’s equally affected by application versions, GUI changes, security settings, etc.
But being purposeful and intentional around systems isn’t just about making best use of what we’ve got. It’s also about having a vision and strategy for what we want to provide for the business, and choosing the best ways to deliver that.
Second, CFOs and Finance management need to be more intentional about the skills we need in Finance.
If we are going to have certain tools, we need to make sure people are trained in them – not just at initial implementation, but as and when people leave and new people come in. And as I said in my other recent article, not just in the “how to”, but in the best practice.
Probably most importantly, we need to recognise that some of these skills are now core skills in Finance. For too long we’ve generally assumed that as long as people have an accountancy qualification and some experience using Excel, they’ll be fine!
It means that CFOs need to have a commitment to training and coaching their team in those technological skills, rather than just an assumption that we’ll just recruit bright people. It needs to be part of the operating model of the Finance function. Perhaps that means making it mandatory to get some sort of certification in Advanced Excel and VBA or database design?
Thirdly, Finance people increasingly need to develop soft skills and non-accounting skills earlier in their career.
This is the flip side of the above.
For Finance professionals in my generation, we started by getting our technical accounting skills, and then through various means we would develop soft skills (such as leadership, coaching, influencing, persuasion, change management). This is what Andrew Jepson describes as “the accountant’s paradigm” (in his book, Compliance to Commercial), where accountants after qualification become rusty in technical accounting but more influential in the business through experience.
Nowadays, increasingly, the pressure is for accountants to develop quicker into those roles of business partnership and influence, because there simply aren’t enough roles available to have people sitting in them getting experience.
Many Finance commentators talk about this problem as if it’s a direct result of RPA and AI. I don’t entirely see it as such a direct link. But the effect is the same.
And it’s not just soft, interpersonal type, skills. It’s business acumen. It’s business strategy, performance measurement, analysis, risk management, stakeholder management, and so on.
As others have noted, it creates more decisions for Finance people to make in their career, and potentially earlier in their career. Specialise in technical areas such as data analysis/science or systems, or drive more towards business partnering.
So, we need “the profession” (the qualifying bodies – CIMA, ACCA, ICAEW, etc) to be coming out more clearly with solutions.
And we need CFOs to be thinking through these issues carefully and explicitly in their Finance Transformation programmes.
But also, Finance people in general – qualified accountants and trainees - need to think more carefully and intentionally about CPD (Continuing Professional Development).
Are the accountancy bodies going to be able to give you training and certification in all the various technology tools you’re going to need? No. Are all CFOs going to heed my advice above, and provide the training/coaching? No. Are those skills going to differentiate you in your early career, and give you job satisfaction and security? Yes, definitely!
So, you have to take more ownership of developing these skills for yourself.
But how can you do that? Thinking of the technology side, what tools should you train yourself in? There are so many!
Here’s my view. It’s probably best to initially seek out principles of “best practice”. This is all about logical, structured, thinking, relating to modelling, analysis, query and database design, and reporting and visualisation.
And the easiest training grounds for those are Microsoft Excel and Access. Keep pushing your skills, and along the way you can pick up VBA and SQL. This is going to ground you in good practice and principles around automation, such that you should be able to easily pick up particular RPA solutions. It’s all fundamentally about logical, efficient, design.
And learning with the new “free” tools such as Power Query, Power Pivot and Power BI means you will have the principles (of structuring data, query design and analysis) that are applicable to any of the CPM and Business Intelligence tools. My view is tool-specific knowledge and skills is self-teachable once you have some practice in that kind of thing (a bit like getting your first BMW or Mercedes after learning to drive a Fiat Punto!!).
And, of course, that’s not the end of the story. You will also need business skills, communication skills, and influencing skills, to progress on from that. You need to move on from being able to automate and analyse, to see where that fits into business performance management. You need to be able to explain figures to non-Finance people, and help them to make business decisions.
That’s where staying in touch with blogs and following people on LinkedIn is really helpful.
And in fact, it’s why I set up Supercharged Finance - to serve this need. So, I’d urge you to join the Supercharged Finance mailing list to stay in touch with the material – ebooks and online courses – that I develop. My recommendation, though, would be to do that first of all by downloading my free white paper, How Finance Can Drive Business Performance. Use the following link:
Technology, and automation in Finance, raises some fundamental questions that the Finance and Accounting profession needs to get to grips with. Questions about skills, development and career pathways. Questions about purpose.
Ultimately, within business, skills around Finance automation, RPA, reporting and analytical tools – even accounting and financial modelling – are just foundation pieces for Finance business partnering, which is the purpose that binds it all together.
As I always say, the purpose of Finance is to drive business performance.
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