The future of finance will rely on data science

Finance workers will need skills that are not typical of their roles today. There will be a move towards data.

Data science is the most important emerging role, with statisticians and data security professionals reported as second and third; according to Workday’s survey of 670 CFOs and senior finance leaders.

Emerging roles in finance:

  • Data scientists
  • Statisticians
  • Data security professionals
  • IT delivery specialists
  • Behavioural scientists
  • Systems specialists
  • Roboticists (finance automation)

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Data analysis needed

Technologies — both mature and emerging — are transforming the function of finance. Just like every other industry.

Cloud computing can reduce costs, improve productivity and increase efficiency, while artificial intelligence and blockchain can provide real-time data analytics, make predictions and help streamline processes such as reconciliations.

“Companies are looking to use data in different ways and create new business models,” says Naved Qureshi, partner and vice president at Genpact. “Finance needs to transition into a much more digital and rapid service to support the business.”

But having the right technologies is never enough. There are a number of other factors. Perhaps the most important — finance leaders will need right talent to be able to use technology effectively to serve the business.

As finance shifts more into a business partnership role, the need for data analysis skills will grow, and prompt the creation of new roles within finance.

According to an Accenture report, while traditional finance roles will evolve, newer roles will become more important, such as data scientists, scenario planners, market makers and social/behavioural scientists.

An EY study also highlighted critical skills for the future finance team, with 57% of respondents saying that building skills in predictive and prescriptive analytics was critical for the future, while 55% noted the importance of improving digital technology skills in areas such as mobility, cloud and SaaS.

“It’s going to be important to have some sort of data science skills, or at least a general understanding,” says Qureshi. “If you’re going to do cognitive automation for predictive analytics, you’re going to need some statistical skills inside the organisation to interpret the data.”

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The early movers

Some finance teams are already moving in this direction. Lena Shishkina, head of finance, EMEA and APJ at Workday, says that she realised the importance of financial data when she joined the company: “So, I built a group called Data Science and Management.” She adds that a colleague who is trained in finance has decided to do a master’s course in data science.

Finance leaders are also focused on developing these skills on their current teams. “I might slowly bring in someone like a data scientist,” explains Rick Rodick, CFO at TELUS International. “I’d rather repurpose or utilise my existing finance team first to see what they can do with better tools, and then maybe we can see what value data scientists can bring.”

These changes in finance comes alongside a more general broadening of digital skills across the organisation, explains Bill Briggs, CTO at Deloitte. “We’ve been telling the technology folks for decades, ‘You have to become more business savvy and speak the language of the business’. We’re now seeing this interesting shift towards saying that the business needs to be more technology savvy.”

The robots are coming

According to Workday’s study, respondents reported that roboticists are the least important emerging role in finance. However, this is likely to change as technologies such as artificial intelligence and robotic process automation (RPA) continue to evolve.

“A lot of people are talking about RPA just from an efficiency standpoint, but a few are taking a step further, exploring artificial intelligence in areas such as FP&A and forecasting early warnings,” says Qureshi. He notes that RPA can bring a 70% reduction in manual work, while artificial intelligence can generate 15 to 20% productivity gains. He adds, however, that the real business case lies not in productivity, but in “the better decisions you’re going to make.”

RPA and artificial intelligence could also free up finance teams to do more value-added work. Another report from Accenture predicts that the use of robotics will automate or eliminate up to 40% of transactional accounting work by 2020, allowing finance teams to spend much more time on decision support, predictive analytics and performance management.

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The search for talent

How should finance leaders be preparing for these emerging talent needs? According to Rob Dicks, financial services industry leader for human capital at Deloitte, it’s about thinking through how to balance new and emerging skill sets with more traditional roles in finance.

“It’s common for clients to look at the finance function and feel like they need more of everything — more analytics, more data scientists, more people who are thinking about how to program the bots,” he says. “But they also recognise they still need to do statutory tax reporting, so balancing the need of all finance skills and expertise is important.”

When predicting future talent needs, Dicks says that finance leaders should assess at a sub-function level, such as accounts payable, accounts receivable, tax and investor relations.

“Many accounts payable functions include significant processing and repetitive tasks,” he continues. “So that’s an area where RPA, cognitive, and machine learning can come in. It won’t feel like you need more of everything when you start to get more specific about which area of finance you’re talking about.”

Finally, having conversations with existing staff about the future is important.

“We need to be open about how technology changes impact the team,” says Robynne Sisco, co-president and CFO at Workday. “Some finance professionals may be concerned automation will make them replaceable. CFOs should drive strategies that clearly communicate to team members that by automating administrative parts of their jobs, they will not eliminate their roles, but instead will be given new and more interesting work that will help them develop and stay challenged.”

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Nick Ismail

Nick Ismail is a former editor for Information Age (from 2018 to 2022) before moving on to become Global Head of Brand Journalism at HCLTech. He has a particular interest in smart technologies, AI and...