How AI can help transform finance professionals into strategic influencers

Gordon Stuart Profile picture for user Gordon Stuart September 7, 2021
Finance teams using artificial intelligence (AI) are outperforming their peers — and many professionals look destined to become strategic 'influencers'. Gordon Stuart of Unit4 shares the new research revealing some intriguing shifts within businesses.

Business person chooses the steps for influence in finance AI © Alfa Photo - Shutterstock
(© Alfa Photo - Shutterstock)

Like many other professionals, finance teams have experienced major change during the storms of the past year or so. Organizations have relied on them to steady the ship, shore up funds, and forecast towering waves and deep troughs.

As a profession, the evidence suggests they've done an excellent job for their companies. New global research among finance professionals shows that 81% believe their overall company performance has been strong in the past 12 months. And it's noticeable that those adopting AI are doing better than their peers.

According to the research — Finance, AI and the future of decision making — mid-size organizations that have adopted AI already are much more confident about the future. Professionals at these firms are significantly more upbeat about the strength of their company's overall performance, leadership, cashflow, profitability and order book. Overall, they're around 40-70% more confident than their peers on these issues. They've discovered that AI isn't a threat, it's an opportunity. AI — the use of smart tools such as machine learning, predictive analytics and robotic process automation to replace manual tasks — doesn't just make their job more straightforward; it makes it better. Something profound is happening to the finance role itself.

Finance and AI are a great fit

Tech analysts often quote a key McKinsey Global Institute prediction from a few years ago that intelligent agents and robots could replace as much as 30% of the world’s current human labor by 2030.

But new jobs will be created too. The World Economic Forum estimates that by 2025, 85 million jobs may be displaced by a shift in the division of labor between humans and machines. However, 97 million new roles may emerge that are "more adapted to the new division of labor between humans, machines and algorithms".

And it seems that many finance departments are shifting in this direction. The research found that 70% of professionals have some AI knowledge, and half of them say their finance department uses it. The momentum is building too, as three-quarters of those not yet using AI expect to do so in the next year.

So what difference is it making to their jobs? On the one hand, the automation of spreadsheet-heavy manual reporting is freeing up capacity for team members that had previously been buried under the sheer weight of disparate information. This frees up their time and they benefit from high-quality data.

For example, one of our customers is using AI within our FP&A tool for revenue forecast per outlet on a daily level and also to forecast personnel hours. The new functionality results in time savings and more efficiency of the process compared to previous manual method.

Harnessing AI tools is also helping to elevate the role of finance teams. Increasingly, they now have the time and ability to become involved in the bigger picture of business strategy and decision-making.

The standout opportunity with AI

In the study, 83% of finance professionals expect to be increasingly involved in strategy and decision-making within the next two years. And it's clear that AI will play a significant part in their ascent, especially when it powers their financial planning and analysis (FP&A) tools.

With the latest tech, professionals now have a greater ability to interpret the data and deliver meaningful insights for their organizations — across a host of areas. Whenever there's a subtle trend, a blip, or a surge in the numbers, they can add commentary to bring the story to life with context, reasoning, predictions, and business choices.

Increasingly, this will propel financial professionals into the role of influencers for their organizations, adding richness and an extra dimension to boardroom discussions around strategy especially.

What comes next? 

Many financial professionals are anticipating change. Over 80% expect their finance teams to enhance their skill sets in the next two years. And most of these expect to focus on AI, machine learning, coding, analytics, and data science capabilities.

However, many won't need to become programmers or data scientists to use AI in powerful ways. As finance systems have advanced so much, intuitive tools exist to propel finance professionals into strategic influencer roles today.

The bigger transformation required is more about how financial leaders and executives, in general, understand the potential of AI — and how far it can reach. In the report, 45% of finance teams expressed concerns about integration with existing systems. But the greatest return can be achieved when AI inhabits an environment where your finance system is integrated seamlessly with your enterprise resource planning (ERP) software.

With the right systems, FP&A tools, and AI, you can analyze large and complex datasets efficiently and accurately — from within your organization and beyond. Operating in real-time, you can then get unsurpassed visibility and actionable insights.

It’s possible to pinpoint industry trends and understand how they could impact your organization. You can also see how to protect your business against risks and capitalize on new opportunities.

Research suggests that many finance teams can see the potential — and are ready for change. Now's the time for business leaders everywhere to seize the initiative.

Explore the report

Download the Finance, AI and the future of decision making report. Its research involved 1,760 decision makers working within finance departments in Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Singapore, Sweden, the US and the UK. Professionals surveyed worked at mid- sized companies with 100 to 9,999 employees.

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