In today’s dynamic and competitive business landscape, embracing digital transformation has transitioned from being a leadership choice to a mandatory requirement necessary to maintaining a competitive edge. As CFOs, we are not only expected to lead our own internal team in Finance but also to play a pivotal role in driving transformative shifts within the broader team and across our organization as a whole. As such, I believe it is incumbent upon CFOs to help drive this trend, sculpt the necessary changes around business processes that are required, and to qualitatively and quantitatively articulate the benefits of implementation.
In my 20+ years of CFO experience working with top consumer brands, I have seen firsthand how digital transformation can enhance a business, simplifying and improving the way routine but critical tasks are performed. A meticulously executed ERP system, for example, possesses the remarkable capacity to transform the time to complete manual, time-intensive procedures into mere minutes, if not seconds. This ultimately culminates in the availability of immediate and accurate information for stakeholders of all stripes – CEOs, Board of Directors, team members, and even customers.
Within the Finance and Accounting functions, there are numerous applications with rich opportunities for digital transformation, equipping CFOs with better tools to make more enlightened decisions, refine processes, and elevate the overall operational efficiency of their teams and, by extension, the entire organization.
Today we will explore four of these areas:
- Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP)
- Evaluating the Finance Department’s Tech Stack
- Essential Operational Tools within a Finance Team’s Tech Stack
- The Role of AI in Finance
The Bedrock of Digital Transformation: Enterprise Resource Planning
At the epicenter of a shift towards digital transformation resides its cornerstone: a company-wide Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system. ERP systems harmoniously integrate a spectrum of financial processes (accounting, payroll, procurement, and inventory management) into a unified platform. In so doing, ERP systems allow company teams to harness real-time insights, obliterate data silos, and safeguard precision and uniformity across financial data. But a robust ERP system is not only essential for a Finance department; it can also be a catalyst for comprehensive digital transformation changes across the entire business ecosystem. And in addition to the immediate benefits in terms of efficiency improvements, adoption of an ERP framework has a profound influence on business process enhancement at the organization, creating further benefits from this investment in transformative change.
ERP solutions and approaches vary depending on company size. Smaller companies often start off using QuickBooks to manage their bookkeeping and accounting requirements, and then migrating to more robust ERP solutions like Sage Intacct, Microsoft Dynamics, or Oracle NetSuite. These tools become particularly useful when companies experience rapid growth and see an increase in transaction volume, or when they recognize the value of more advanced features and integrations as their needs become more complex. My recommendation? As your organization scales, so should your ERP system. Delaying a switch to a more sophisticated ERP system can have immediate and longer-term negative impacts on your business, from an efficiency and audit standpoint.
Evaluating the Finance Organization’s Tech Stack
An optimized and seamlessly integrated tech stack within the Finance department stands as a flywheel for the organization as a whole, driving efficiency and also supporting company growth. As previously emphasized, the bedrock of this tech stack is indisputably the ERP system. However, the power of the ERP system can be further amplified through strategic integration of complementary ancillary software and supporting tools. The build-out of a comprehensive tech stack serves to deepen visibility into company data and performance, enhancing Finance team bandwidth, and fostering collaborative synergy across the organization.
Here is my own tried-and-tested 3-part framework to evaluate and enhance a Finance Department’s tech stack:
Conduct a Detailed Evaluation of the “Technological Landscape”
This is critical to assessing your function’s technological capabilities and inherent constraints. You want to perform a granular review of the software, hardware, and other technological resources currently in use in the Finance and Accounting functions at the company, and those potentially available but untapped. Scrutinize each component’s functionality, effectiveness, and relevance to your organizational needs. This process should unveil any technical bottlenecks that may be hindering your Finance team’s efficiency or effectiveness.
Identify Tool and System Gaps and Potential Solutions
With the above assessment completed, you can shift your focus to filling the identified gaps within your technology infrastructure as well as identifying any areas ripe for enhancement. Technology gaps could manifest as missing tools, essential features and functionality missing from a tool, or legacy systems that have become outdated due to the evolving complexity of your organization. Also check for any legacy tool/system redundancies as these should also be considered for streamlining and improvement.
Recommend Technological Investments Based on Alignment with Strategic Goals
When making your final recommendation regarding technological investments required, make sure to check whether these investments align with your organization’s overarching business objectives. Any investment in technology should dovetail with your corporate goals as well as fortify your finance team’s operational efficacy, catalyze more informed decision-making, and ultimately contribute to the expansive growth and triumph of your organization. If they do, delineate the budget allocation required to properly purchase and operationally implement each solution. Consider whether recommended investments can be accommodated in the current fiscal budget or need to be slated for the next fiscal period. Determine the timeline, implementation strategy and identify the key stakeholder team members that will need to be enlisted as part of the new deployment.
Essential Operational Tools Within the Finance Team’s Tech Stack
Beyond an ERP, identifying the exact set of tools that constitute an effective Finance tech stack should be a business-specific process but some of the more useful tools many businesses leverage in some manner include:
Financial Planning & Analysis (FP&A) Solutions
A robust and agile FP&A solution is the cornerstone of prudent financial management. This pivotal tool empowers CFOs and finance teams to perform vital functions like budgeting, forecasting, and scenario planning with speed and agility. An FP&A solution allows finance teams to go beyond the capabilities of pure Excel-based planning models. As organizations expand, relying solely on Excel becomes unsustainable, vulnerable to errors, and a bottleneck to agility. A FP&A software solution, on the other hand, emerges as a savior, conserving time and minimizing human error. By rapidly allowing the aggregation of financial data across different parameters, real-time insights can be derived from FP&A solutions that facilitate more informed decision-making, align financial strategies, and pave the way for strategic growth initiatives. Its agility shines through rapid scenario planning, trimming month-end cycles and creating more succinct reforecast and budgeting processes. In fact, my personal experience underscores that a proficient FP&A tool can slash month-end closing timelines by over 50% if properly leveraged.
For enhanced agility, seamless integration of your FP&A solution with your ERP system is key. For example, an FP&A tool can sync with your ERP to deliver real-time planning and reporting, eliminating the arduous task of manually pulling data and reconciling spreadsheets to craft reports used to compare budget versus actuals. With an FP&A tool in place, reports are generated effortlessly and are easily accessible to all department leaders. Armed with up-to-date data and a collaborative interface, FP&A solutions allows finance and business leaders the ability to optimize resource allocation, rein in costs, and foster business growth.
Procurement & Purchase Order (PO) Management Solutions
A procurement management system holds multifaceted advantages for an organization, from spend visibility to budgetary compliance and control at the departmental level. Precision in procurement activity lies at the heart of efficient budget control and management. A purchase order management solution also streamlines the procurement process, from PO requisition to PO approval, to order creation. By centralizing this workflow, organizations can control spending, enforce compliance, and optimize vendor relationships.
For a CFO, cost containment is a perpetual priority. A procurement management system empowers your team with real-time visibility into all procurement activities, allowing Finance to identify areas of cost leakage, negotiate better terms with suppliers, and enforce compliance with budgetary constraints more rapidly. PO systems create tangible time and cost savings as workflows are automated and manual interventions reduced. Better decision-making and less time spent tracking and reporting costs, liberates your finance team to focus on higher-value strategic activities.
Expense Management Solutions
Much like a PO Management Solution, an Expense Management solution offers a suite of advantages for the Finance function. These tools allow for centralization of expense submission, approval, and reimbursement. Centralization not only ensures compliance with spending policies but also simplifies the audit process, minimizing the risk of financial discrepancies and enhancing financial governance. An Expense Management system provides real-time visibility into spending trends, enabling a Finance team to identify cost-saving opportunities, optimize budget allocations, and align spending with strategic goals. And since controlling costs is a hallmark of any financial leader, an expense management system enforces spending limits and predefined approval workflows. This proactive control mechanism prevents overspending, ensures adherence to budget constraints, and minimizes the likelihood of unauthorized expenditures. Further, an Expense Management system accelerates reimbursement cycles, ensuring that employees are promptly reimbursed which enhances employee satisfaction and engagement.
Accounts Payable (AP) Workflow Management Solutions
The incorporation of a streamlined Accounts Payable (AP) workflow management solution yields a spectrum of advantages including amplified cash flow management, control and compliance measures, and a marked reduction in manual data entry. AP solutions optimize the invoice approval process, reducing the time between invoice receipt and payment. This acceleration ensures timely payments to suppliers, facilitating better working relationships and potentially opening avenues for early payment discounts. In tandem, an AP solution digitally automates the enforcement of predefined approval policies, mitigating the risk of unauthorized spending and ensuring adherence to corporate governance standards. By adopting an AP Workflow Management solution, the need for manual data entry, notoriously prone to errors, is notably reduced, if not eliminated. The improved accuracy is disseminated across financial reports, thereby enhancing the integrity of financial data, and allowing for employees’ time to be redirected towards more value-added tasks. Moreover, AP solutions accelerate the time involved in closing the accounts payable monthly cycle and can significantly contribute to trimming the duration of the month-end closing process. All in, the benefits of an AP workflow management solution extend way beyond being a mere invoice management tool. When leveraged properly, this technology allows finance teams the ability to optimize cash flow, ensure control and compliance, improve vendor relations, and drive better accuracy and improved timeliness in the reporting of financial results.
Business Intelligence (BI) Solutions
When integrated with the ERP system and coupled with an FP&A software solution, Business Intelligence tools and interactive dashboards become powerful catalysts for informed decision-making, serving as indispensable digital assets for CFOs, CEOs, and other business leaders. CFOs demand a comprehensive view of financial performance that BI solution tools readily provide as they aggregate data from various sources, offering insights into company revenues, expenses, and profitability. Real-time analytics from these tools allow for on-demand monitoring of KPIs and financial metrics, enabling swift responses to market shifts and business challenges. These tools transform raw data into actionable management insights, guiding decisions across budgeting, forecasting, and resource allocation, ultimately enhancing the precision of strategic initiatives and mitigating uncertainties.
Visual dashboards offered by BI solutions distill complex financial data into intuitive charts and graphs, facilitating quicker analysis and comprehension across the C-suite and department heads. Facilitating collaboration between financial and non-financial teams, these tools enable cross-functional alignment on financial goals through data-sharing dashboards. By embracing BI tools as an organizational value-added solution, CFOs gain the means to navigate intricate financial data, uncover meaningful insights, and propel their organizations toward well-informed, impactful, and forward-thinking financial decisions.
The Role of Artificial Intelligence in Finance
Finally, a discussion of digital transformation at the Finance function could not be complete without a word about AI (artificial intelligence). AI and ML (machine learning) both have remarkable potential in Finance, with many of the aforementioned tech solutions already incorporating them. FP&A, for example, leverages machine learning algorithms for predictive analysis, trend forecasting, and risk assessment. AP workflow tools harness OCR (optical character recognition) to autonomously populate data and streamline vendor payments based on bill and due dates. With optimal deployment of these AI and ML enhancements, human intervention can be minimized to auditing or spot checks.
As companies embrace more data-centric cultures, I expect AI will continue to permeate the corporate technology landscape overall as well as the Finance team’s own tech stack. But while AI can help dissolve data silos between cross-functional teams, I don’t believe it will ever entirely replace the need for interdepartmental communication and business planning, realms increasingly overseen by CFOs.
While exciting tools like ChatGPT capture broad attention, their optimal integration into companies, especially within finance teams, remains uncertain at present. Looking near term, finance teams will likely depend on enterprise-specific AI tools, refined with their own company data sets, to inform and optimize business processes and decision making. This part of the digital transformation story is still evolving.
The potential benefits stemming from digital transformation solutions are profound. Software solutions in Finance can significantly diminish manual workloads, enhance precision, and foster cross-functional collaboration for better and more strategic decision-making. As CFOs, embracing digital transformation is not just a choice, it is a strategic necessity. We should spearhead the advocacy of digital transformation within our teams, orchestrating the allocation of resources to advance the organization holistically. By harnessing innovative technologies within Finance and refining business processes across the enterprise, we CFOs can establish ourselves as genuine strategic collaborators, empowering our organizations to flourish amidst an ever-evolving business landscape.