What are the skills needed for Finance in business? One of the biggest challenges for the Finance and Accounting profession, Finance professional, and Finance functions in general, is around skills. And whose responsibility is it to create the career pathways, the learning opportunities, and to ensure the right skills, mindsets and behaviours, prevail?
In my last 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, 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 requirements of 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.
Where are the young accountants going to get experience?
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.
Doesn’t that create a 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”?
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 end result 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 at 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 financial analysis qualifications, reporting, business management, qualifications.
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 meaning that the entry level is more specialist?
How do we cope with the fact that these are generalizations, 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.
Be intentional about tools
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.
I said in my last 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, 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.
Be intentional about skills
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 last article, not just in the “how to”, but in the best practice.
And, probably most importantly, we need to recognize 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?
Take ownership of your own personal development
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.
What tools should you train yourself in?
Coming back to what I said above about “best practice”, this is all about logical, structured, thinking, relating to modelling, analysis, query and database design, and reporting and visualization.
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.
And learning with the new free add-ins – 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.
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 my free mini course may be useful – How Finance Can Drive Business Performance.
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.
I’ll be speaking on “The DNA of the future CFO” at the AICPA-CIMA Finance Transformation conference in London on 3-4 September. Find out more here: https://aicpa-cima.knect365.com/finance-transformation-london/
This article is part of a loosely connected series aimed at framing that talk.
Other articles include: