It is the responsibility of any business leader to focus resources on the highest value activities. Lower value activities, on the other hand, are to be automated or eliminated completely. CFOs, Finance Directors and Financial Controllers in companies of all sizes have been driving technology projects over the last decade aimed at removing administrative overheads and freeing resources to invest in these higher value activities.
The vision of most senior finance leaders is to have their teams focused on analytical tasks. Tasks that feed directly into strategic planning and decision making, as opposed to spending time on recurring, manual processes. This focus on analysing and interrogating data, rather than simply collecting and organising it, is a key differentiator between high and low performing teams. Automation plays a key role in realising this vision but the other headline consideration, that can sometime be overlooked, is deciding which tasks and jobs help a company move to this higher value focus. And, do the people moving into these new roles have the skillsets needed to fulfil them?
A common challenge
A common challenge faced by most companies is that the time freed up by the removal of slow/manual/administrative tasks, is not always allocated to the strategic/analytical ones they had planned. Instead, one set of administrative tasks is replaced with another. There are a couple of potential reasons for this; the psychology of returning to the familiar perhaps, or maybe the demands of the business mean that as soon one burden is lifted it is replaced before any repositioning can occur.
Traditional finance skill sets
The traditional skills required to be a top finance professional are well established. Gaining accounting qualifications, for example, requires a vast amount of work. It is a competitive field to get into, therefore the bar is set high. When embarking on their careers, accountants will then pick up further skills. Over time, as accounting the professional builds his or her career, developing these skills and rising in seniority, they become established, an expert at the top of their game. Now, senior in their post, they are increasingly being asked to review, remodel and analyse the data they once helped produce. Their job therefore requires skills that are separate from the ones that helped them to succeed through their careers so far.
Analytics skill sets
To excel at the new, analytical, advisory, strategic responsibilities that automation has unlocked, the CFO or Financial Controller will realise that there are new areas of skills required for their team. In our experience, those departments that truly succeed are the ones with broad analytical skill sets to supplement their traditional financial ones. It is important to note that it is a skill set that is required, rather than one, highly refined, skill.
Initially, it is the technical skills that need to be developed. Though a good professional is likely to be highly proficient in some elements of excel from extensive spreadsheet work, they will now need to develop enhanced database and data modelling skills. After this, it is the analytical skills (the core of the upskilling requirement) that need to be developed. Analytical skills involve the ability to read, interpret and understand complex data sets. A good understanding of the business then helps to turn these understandings into actionable insights. Finally, communication skills come into play. Without these skills the value of the new insights may be lost in communication.
What skills do my team need?
A range of jobs and roles exist within the data analysis sphere. In order for a CFO or Financial Controller to understand the skillsets they need on their team, it’s useful to look at the different types of data roles and what skills are needed for each role.
- Business Analyst. A business analyst focuses on turning data insights into business actions and are a valuable addition to any finance team. Business Analysts will need a solid command of database and visualisation tools as well as being good data modellers.
- Data Analyst. A data analyst is comfortable managing and querying large data sets with the goal of answering specific business questions. Data Analysts are database querying experts, SQL at a minimum, with a strong maths and stats background.
- Database Administrator. Valuable data analysis relies on a reliable source of high quality data. Database administrators ensure that all data is managed properly and is available to whomever needs it. Database Administrators have skills covering data design, data security and data recovery.
There are now many ways to both upskill and keep your skills sharp. Aside from traditional degree or certificate-based qualifications, offered by established universities and colleges, there are now a broad range of options to help with upskilling and keeping skills sharp. These include:
Numerous Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) websites have been launched in recent years that make courses offered by Universities such as Harvard and Stanford available in an online format. Some of the most popular MOOCs are Coursera and edX which offer numerous analytics courses including:
- Business Analytics – Wharton Business School
- Data Driven Decision Making – PwC
- Data Analysis Essentials for MBA Success– Imperial College London
Short courses, structured on or offsite, can be a great to gain a deep understanding of a new topic in a short period of time. These courses typically last no longer than a few days and can often be spread over a number of weeks. Short courses in the area include:
- Data Analysis – General Assembly (multiple locations)
- Data Analysis – BitBootCamp (New York)
There are a number of business analysis professional qualifications offered by various bodies. While more of a commitment than an online or short course, they may suit someone interested in building a career in the area. Professional qualifications are offered by the following bodies:
- The KPI Institute
- Certified Analytics Professional Program
- International Institute of Business Analysis
For a CFO or Financial Controller seeking to increase the analytical capabilities of their team, hiring considerations may be explored alongside upskilling options for the current team. When this is the case it is important the person building out the job spec doesn’t simply dust off an old version and tack on a couple of bullet points on data modelling and analytics. Instead they should be looking at the core of what they are seeking to achieve with the new position.
After a review, it may become apparent that the best approach is to go for someone with a hybrid, analytical/accounting skill set, or it might be that the current team has enough of the accounting skills in place already to seek out a pure analytical candidate, and/or a purely technical one. As automation increases the capabilities and strategic input of the team, the business case for greater investment in the department becomes clear. Making sure that this investment, and the subsequent increase in headcount, is deployed effectively, then solidifies the departments position as a strategic business function.
Skills of the future
Beyond analytics, every department in every company in the world is looking at what skills they need to include to stay ahead of (or even perhaps keep pace with) an ever-evolving world. Because of this, the buzzwords of today shape the job specs of tomorrow. The need for a firm to keep abreast of the potential that Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) can bring, means that every department is seeing the need to incorporate data scientists in their teams. It is no longer just the technology department that is seeing these changes, now that the potential has been seen they are being rolled out across a company. The finance and account departments are no different. They too will feel the need to be bolstered by these new skills.
The way forward
The CFO’s vision is clear. Use automation to remove low-value, manual processes and change focus to high-value, strategic, analytic tasks. However, as mentioned earlier in the article, there are traps a department can fall into once the automation is in place. The way to avoid those pitfalls, and to truly see the benefits of automation, is in the preparation. This is the upskilling groundwork done before the newly automated processes are implemented. It is only when the skills gap has been bridged that the firm can truly progress.
This article, written by Conor Deegan – Managing Director of CashAnalytics, originally appeared in the International Accounting Bulletin.