Rachel Wilcox 18 Jul 2019 11:41am

Preparing for a digital future

A groundbreaking e-learning programme designed for ICAEW members is helping to boost understanding of the impact of digital on finance and create the next wave of digital natives. Rachel Willcox finds out more

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Caption: Illustration by Justyna Stasik

With businesses looking to emulate the success of digital disrupters such as Uber, Spotify and AirBnB, it is no wonder that so much is being invested in digital transformation services. In 2017 the global digital transformation consulting market was worth $48.5bn, a year-on-year increase of over 70%, according to Source Global Research.

To put this into context, this equates to a third of all consulting work being carried out across the world. But for all the talk of disruptive technologies driving efficiencies, many finance teams are struggling to work out what it means in practical terms. Deloitte’s most recent Digital Disruption survey found that digital transformation and disruption is one of the top challenges faced by finance leaders. Low awareness and understanding in the business, and the finance function specifically, was commonly cited as a major barrier.

“The profession is becoming increasingly aware that digital is transforming the way finance functions operate,” says Jonathan Levy, ICAEW’s director of product development. “What some people might not quite realise is how quickly and fundamentally things are set to change. For finance leaders, the challenge is how to increase the digital maturity of the organisation, promote a culture of innovation and realise the value of enabling technologies such as process efficiencies and better business insight.” Levy is leading a learning and development project delivered in partnership with Deloitte to help ICAEW members along the digital transformation journey.

Finance in a Digital World (FDW) is a suite of online learning modules to help ICAEW members build understanding of digital technologies and their impact on finance. FDW is intended for finance professionals who have limited experience of digital technologies and their applications. As the rules-based aspects of finance become increasingly automated, the finance function is shifting to a role where it is supporting the business with investment decisions and commercial insight using data visualisation and business modelling gleaned from customer and other data from both inside and outside the organisation. And behaviours such as continuous learning, adaptability, creativity and innovation are growing in importance.

“Historical financial data isn’t going to be that important any more,” says Martin Mogensen, head of digital finance at global agrochemical company Syngenta. “At the beginning we focused on productivity but when we got into it, it was more about how finance can create value using data. The biggest challenges for us were the lack of aligned data and our business finance partnering capability.” The challenge for ICAEW was finding an engaging way to increase understanding of the impact of digital on the profession.

“Using videos, interactive e-learning, animations and real-life case studies, Finance in a Digital World offers members an interactive learning journey where they can learn how finance functions are applying automation, AI/cognitive, advanced analytics and blockchain,” Levy says. David Anderson is a partner at Deloitte who leads the firm’s finance transformation practice and co-chairs Deloitte’s FTSE 100 Next Generation CFO programme.

“Businesses are grappling with big transformational issues, the increasing pace of change and the need to be agile and adaptable,” he says. But while it would be tempting to see technology as the solution, embracing new ways of working, helping teams to be more agile and cross-functional and navigating the challenges of sourcing talent are also pivotal to success. Knowledge gaps in their workforce mean many businesses are struggling to keep up; 72% of respondents to Deloitte’s Digital Disruption survey said they do not believe that their workforce has sufficient knowledge and expertise to execute their digital strategy. And among CFOs specifically, there’s a consensus that their current finance function is not ready. Deloitte’s focus on the impact of digital led the firm to build a physical lab to allow finance leadership teams to look at trends and use cases and develop their thinking.

“ICAEW’s Finance in a Digital World programme is a virtual equivalent of the physical lab,” Anderson says. “This is about raising awareness so that ICAEW members have the confidence to explore areas most of interest.” FDW offers 5.5 hours of e-learning across nine modules covering four categories: Digital Era explores the digital revolution and future predictions for finance; Disrupters focuses on the application in finance of robotics, AI/ cognitive, blockchain and advanced analytics and data visualisation; Impact shows how the role and workplace of finance is set to change including future skills requirements; while Embracing Digital teaches how to successfully deliver digital projects and embed digital transformation.

All modules are available in nonlinear, bite-sized chunks brought to life with case studies and optimised for mobile, making it easy for members to dip in and out, and completed modules qualify for CPD credits. User feedback from the 3,000+ ICAEW members already signed up to FDW shows that the programme is giving members a significant understanding of subject – the blockchain module showed a 90%+ increase in understanding and awareness on completion.

And there is a general excitement about what digital could mean and an eagerness to overcome knowledge barriers. Nigel Bostock, chief executive of Crowe UK LLP, says: “I would challenge whether there’s a full under - standing of the application of these tools for finance or business generally. We all recognise that digital is going to have an impact and we need to apply this to our business but you can waste a long time waiting for the solutions.

When I took over as chief executive 18 months ago, a key area of strategic focus was client service quality, working collaboratively and being smarter and more efficient in how we meet client expectations, all underpinned by technology. Our roles are becoming more advisory and personal contact with clients will be more important but we’re still finding our feet on the skills make-up of our people.”

The cultural transformation needed to achieve a digital one is not one to be underestimated. “Digital natives are customer centric and the infrastructure behind them is agile and adaptable. Then there are digital dinosaurs who have grown up in a linear world with a process-centric way of thinking and often have infrastructure that doesn’t allow them to adapt to customer needs,” Anderson warns. “This is a huge opportunity for finance. Do nothing and it’s a very isolated role and a stewardship function within the business. If you’re a customer-facing organisation and you don’t embrace this, you won’t survive.”

The corporate view: TUI group

Iain Dewson was until recently head of finance academy at Anglo-German travel and tourism company TUI Group, responsible for training and development for 2,500 finance staff across 40 countries, including an enterprise rollout of ICAEWs Finance in a Digital World. He is now managing director of financial learning and development consultancy The Finance Academy.

“Over the last five years the whole digitalisation agenda has become a bigger part of people’s thinking. For example, TUI’s internal managed services provider responsible for delivering finance, HR and IT shared services is running a pilot using a robot for data matching to clear down reconciliation. “This isn’t about replacing people, it’s about freeing them up to do more interesting, value-added work. The question is how we transition culturally to a more modern way of working and how we bring our colleagues on this journey. The challenge is providing the right amount of training and support so everyone can understand what their jobs will look like when a machine takes over part of the process, for example. FDW is a big part of that education and demystifying what’s on the horizon.

“Making it free to members is really important. It’s a great starting point and a way to get people talking and inspired, but you need to take it and run with it. Think about how you can apply some of the lessons learned to your business – then it’s an opportunity to kickstart something meaningful. When it comes to digital transformation, you have a choice: do you want it to happen to you or do you want to make it happen?”