Finance Teams Must Adapt to Working With Machines

With automation having replaced many low-level workers, the white-collared set is now worrying about their own fate. But should they be?
Laurent ArveillerJuly 9, 2018
Finance Teams Must Adapt to Working With Machines

Laurent Arveiller

It’s been said that people are slow, sloppy, brilliant thinkers, while machines are fast, accurate, and stupid. But that’s not the case anymore – at least not for the machines. Machine learning, artificial intelligence, and blockchain have put some people at odds with the sweeping changes that business transformation ushers in.

There’s no doubt that widespread automation, with machines doing things faster, has displaced many blue-collar jobs. Management teams and economists alike have largely accepted it as the price of progress.

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But now machines appear to be working their way up the white-collar food chain. In fact, according to a recent study of 2,500 C-level executives, 56% of businesses have already implemented AI or plan to do so in the next year.

It makes some people uncomfortable. They’ve jumped to the conclusion that their jobs will inevitably be replaced by intelligent machines, in the same way many manual workers lost their jobs to mass production.

Of course, much of this is fear-based. It should be part of a CFO’s job is to dispel the myths and assumptions about a dystopian triumph of machines over humans.

The truth is somewhere in the middle: White-collar workers of the future will collaborate with cognitive capability. But while these technologies will impact all of us, they’re far more likely to be used as augmentation tools than to push us out the door.

Within my own team I have many experienced people, some of whom have worked in the finance department for 15 to 20 years. I always tell them to think about their current jobs now compared with 10 years ago. Are they happy about the evolution made possible by technology? Almost invariably they answer “yes,” because they got rid of boring and repetitive tasks to focus on helping the business to grow.

There’s no reason that will be any different with the likes of machine learning, AI, and blockchain.

Fear can be fueled by ignorance. That’s why I believe CFOs have an obligation to make their finance teams responsible for their own learning, so they stay relevant and can master the future of their job first-hand. Revisiting the above-referenced study, 74% of respondents said that upskilling existing staff is vital for success in the next three years.

When managers see only what they immediately need from their teams, they typically consider that any additional learning and development activity should be on top of team members’ existing jobs, in some cases to be squeezed in on their own time.

For me, learning is part of the work itself. Including learning activities in each team member’s annual objectives has proven to foster a learning environment, change mindsets, and empower employees to take charge of themselves.

About a third of business leaders polled are planning to make significant investments in AI — between $500,000 and $5 million —over the next 12 months. Making finance teams accountable for learning what that means for them and their specific jobs will make them feel empowered to take charge of their own activities and ultimately do more for themselves.

Investing in automation is becoming an easier and easier decision from an ROI point of view. And eventually, innovative technology may well replace some of your headcount.

But if you don’t invest in your people today, you will miss some great opportunities: avoiding some of the costs involved in decreasing headcount, and helping the business grow by re-deploying capacity where your CEO ultimately will see value.

The future of your finance teams will be less about whether intelligent machines can do elements of their job better than they can, than about how well they can adapt to working with the machines.

Laurent Arveiller is CFO of South Europe and Francophone Africa for SAP.