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Hello, financial world: The CFO and artificial intelligence


Johannesburg, 30 Oct 2020
Read time 4min 50sec
Aaron Harris, CTO, Sage.
Aaron Harris, CTO, Sage.

Does artificial intelligence (AI) pose a threat to different types of employment? 

In South Africa, with an unemployment rate of over 30%, these concerns are valid. Yet, AI is a broad church of different applications. Automating checkouts at supermarkets for efficiency can be counterproductive, as shoppers often enjoy interactions with sales staff. 

If a CFO is still manually gathering data and pouring over the figures one line at a time, they are wasting an enormous amount of their capacity and professional potential.

Only one in 10 CFOs believe AI will take their jobs. This ratio may contradict popular belief, but many of the findings in Sage and World Wide Worx’s CFO 3.0 report exposes misconceptions about financial professionals. CFOs are not only favourable of AI - they are also upbeat and supportive of digital transformation and wired into data analytics. 

Around two-thirds of South African CFOs spend more time analysing data than collecting it, suggesting extensive use of well-designed and automated processes.

In the financial world, AI is squarely becoming a performance enhancer. Many mundane manual tasks could be done better through automation. Automation is a foundational driver of more advanced AI, and CFOs are very attracted to the resulting efficiencies: the report found that most senior financial decision-makers (90%) are comfortable with automation performing more of their day-to-day accounting tasks in the future, and 40% believe that AI and machine learning will improve forecasting and financial planning.

Inculcating AI’s benefits

Yet myths and misconceptions also prevail. CFOs can play a massive role in dispelling these, which we will touch on in a moment. But why does AI have such a maligned reputation? We can blame science-fiction for some of that - after all, we’ve all heard the 2001 and Terminator references. Yet on a practical level, there is still much ambiguity around the concept.

Aaron Harris, CTO for Sage, said one reason for the misperception about AI’s impact on business and labour is that SaaS companies too often speak in technical jargon.

“We talk about AI and machine learning as if they’re these magical capabilities, but we don’t actually explain what they do and what problems they solve. We don’t put it into terms that matter for business leaders and labour. We don’t do a good job as an industry, explaining that machine learning isn’t an outcome we should be looking to achieve – it’s the technology that enables business outcomes, like efficiency gains and smarter predictive analytics.”

CFOs gain considerably from those outcomes, which include continuous analytics and organisational performance monitoring, anomaly detection for security and fraud, and process automation. AI can materialise at different levels and with different capabilities. And AI doesn’t need to be an advanced guru with an eye on the future. It could only focus on specific tasks (scan e-mails to identify invoices) or enhance experiences (auto-adjusting user preferences by monitoring behaviour).

The CFO should champion AI

Companies are eager to gain benefit from emerging technologies such as AI, but such projects are inherently risky due to their complexity. If a business doesn’t have a shared vision and strategy, it rarely overcomes those issues to realise actual value from the investment.

That shared vision comes from business leaders, generally the CEO and CIO. Yet, as Sage’s research indicates, CFOs are very bullish about digital technology - 87% of CFOs are now playing a hands-on role in digital transformation. And they tend to apply it in very business-centric ways. Or to put that differently, few leaders in an organisation can connect the dots between practical challenges and technology as the CFO does. CFOs can guide and reassure employees about the business’s automation strategy and the potential for upskilling.

Evolving from a traditional management style that relied on intuition, to a more contemporary one based on data-driven evidence, can be a culturally disruptive process. Interestingly, driving a cultural change wasn’t a concern for most South African CFOs, with 73% saying their organisations are ready for more automation.

“The future world is a world of connections,” says Harris. “It will be about connecting humans in ways that allow them to work at a higher level. It will be about connecting businesses across their ecosystems so that they can implement digital business models to effectively and competitively operate in their markets. And it will be about creating connections across technology so that traditional, monolithic experiences are replaced with modern ones that reflect new ways of working and that are tailored to how individuals and humans will be most effective in this world.”

Fortunately, the CFO has an ally. The software- and platform-as-a-service (SaaS and PaaS) markets increasingly offer turnkey access to such technology. It is much easier today for a business professional to see if their needs are met by a technology catered through SaaS or PaaS, and then scale or change as needed. 

The cloud era has opened technology doors to CFOs, replacing their reputation as being cautious about digital modernisation among its biggest supporters. Their appreciation for data, insights on processes and business aptitude makes the CFO a natural ally of AI, and a champion bringing the digitisation message to the rest of the organisation.

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