Business hand shaking a green digital hand working as partners.
World | Trends

The future of finance is digital

Are we all about to be replaced by robots? Well, no—but some of our more robotic finance tasks will be. And, that’s a good thing

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Technology has had a profound impact on many fields, and forced industry leaders from publishing to retail to the automotive sector to rethink the way they go to market—and the value proposition they hold dear. It has also instilled a certain amount of fear about what the future might hold.

Grant Abrams would know. Abrams is a partner, Finance & Performance Management Services, at Deloitte in Ottawa, and works with CFOs to become strategic partners to their business, as well as helping them to become more efficient and effective organizational players. One of those ways is making sense of the increasing automation of finance.

As Abrams puts it, the “fear factor” in an organization really comes down to generational differences. “Those that have been around for a while may see it as a bit threatening—in particular from a personal career perspective, because they’re feeling exposed and not knowing enough about the latest technology,” he notes. “With Millennials, it’s quite different. They’re digital natives, and all of this stuff comes pretty naturally to them. They often feel a lot of excitement around it—and maybe some disappointment that the organization they’re working for is not further along.”

No matter the generation, however, it’s clear that organizations have to embrace change: technology, by definition, is a disruptive force. But that disruption can be a very good thing, especially for a high-value profession like finance.

Grant Abrams speaking at The ONE

Grant Abrams works with CFOs to become strategic partners to their business, as well as helping them to become more efficient and effective organizational players.

“Technologies like cloud, in-memory databases, analytics, cognitive, robotics and blockchain, provide significant opportunities for organizations to automate processes, explore massive amounts of data that hadn’t been possible previously and to do it quickly and effectively,” says Abrams. It also presents challenges to finance professionals, he admits. “There will be an increased demand—and higher expectations on them—to become a true business partner in their organization. So they need to become very client-centric and agile in their approach, because the technology is changing so quickly.”

Abrams highlights three technologies that he believes will have the most impact on the finance professional: analytics, robotics and cognitive. “In our personal lives, if you think about it, we’ve got access to information all the time,” he says. “You can pretty much grab your smartphone and ask Siri a question and 99 per cent of the time you’re going to get a pretty accurate answer. People are expecting that kind of information availability at work—and that’s what analytics can provide.” By robotics, Abrams clarifies, he doesn’t mean physical robots, but software that can do recurring tasks like a human does in corporate systems. ”As long as it’s rules based, robots can be taught to do that work—and they can generally do it better than humans because they do exactly what they’re told.”

Cognitive technologies are the real game-changer, thinks Abrams. “It’s really a collection of technologies like machine learning, natural language processing and speech recognition. It allows for more advanced insights and analytics perspective, and more advanced process automation, because you’ve got the machine learning aspect of it as well.”

For those who still fear what the future might hold—and this dread of being replaced by machines—Abrams says simply: don’t. While he acknowledges that the skill set of the finance professional in 2020 or 2025 will be different—with a much greater emphasis on “technology, data science, and deeper understanding of the business itself that you’re in”—he thinks that leaders who remain agile, adapt and take a lifelong learning approach to their career will succeed.

“The digital disruptors of these new technologies really don’t take away from the value that finance professionals can add—it really augments their value,” he argues. “I like to use the term, ‘Taking the robot out of the human.’ If you can free up time of the humans—to be doing the work that they enjoy and that really differentiate us as humans, like doing analytical work and being creative and applying judgement—then finance or finance professionals still have a lot of value to add. Stop processing transactions—and look at analyzing the spend, and understanding what is driving costs, etc.”