For many businesses, organizational agility has been top-of-mind throughout 2019, particularly as digital transformation remains high on the agenda of C-suite leaders. How do you react to uncertain market conditions when change is the only constant? How do you build the tools and processes that will allow your business to deliver new digital products and services? And, of course, all of this happens against a backdrop of continuous innovation.
Recently, I was lucky to get some time with Katie Rooney, chief financial officer at Alight Solutions, a leader in benefits, payroll and cloud solutions. She talked to me about how she is thinking about achieving organizational agility from the perspective of a finance leader.
To dive right in, do you think financial planning is dynamic enough, or is there work to do to embrace more continuous models of planning?
I’ve definitely seen a move toward a more dynamic approach. Even at Alight, we used to conduct business planning as a once-a-year process. Now we are constantly evolving our thinking and planning 12 months ahead. Earlier this year, when we were less than halfway through the year, we were already thinking about 2020. Given the economic environment, you have to continue to evolve your plan and have the right tools and processes in place to be able to refine plans as the market evolves.
Do you think most finance functions are flexible and fluid enough from a process perspective to support business today?
As the next generation moves into the workforce, we’ll start to see the adoption of more flexible processes in the finance function. As a result, a more agile workforce will emerge as attitudes towards people, technology, and process change, and I believe that finance will benefit directly from that change. Things change fast in business and finance has to be at the heart of helping the rest of the organization react to that change. That inevitably means moving people and money across the business as demand dictates. To do that, you need flexible processes that legacy technology systems just don’t have. It is crucial to have a workforce with an innovative, agile mindset paired with domain expertise from experienced finance professionals in order to achieve that level of flexibility. You need to push people and get them out of their comfort zone if you are going to innovate across finance.
You gave a nod to it in your last answer, but do you think that as tech such as, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), become widespread, finance professionals will be less from traditional accounting backgrounds and more from data science disciplines?
I think about this a lot in my current role, and there are two sides to the story. What we will undoubtedly see is that finance professionals will need to continue to develop analytical thinking as a core skill and capability. And, that approach has to be rooted in data. In terms of how we’re staffing our finance teams we’re not going out and hiring data scientists, but we are looking at how those skills could be utilized across finance and the broader business.
We have to understand how we leverage data science skills across the organization to deliver insights back to the business. In short, I continue to value accounting and finance skills in our finance practitioners, but I think businesses have a role to play in diversifying skillsets and helping all employees become more analytical and data science-oriented.
One of the key components of organizational agility is the ability to make faster decisions, which means the need to move decision making closer to the customer. Do you think finance leaders are empowering their teams to make decisions, or is hierarchy and top-down management still a barrier to that?
I think there are always going to be both types of management in existence. We need to empower stakeholders at a more local level as we see an increased demand on finance to leverage data and provide insights to be better business partners. As the traditional stewards of the numbers, that can be hard for finance. But it is a changing landscape, and that shift is taking place. For example, we ran an offsite where we spent a lot of our time helping our partners develop analytical thinking and helping them to take ownership and accountability at a lower level so that we can move with speed to help businesses make decisions. There’s a healthy tension, but it’s heading in the right direction.
That empowerment is a step forward, but obviously shouldn’t be a license for chaos. How do you free people up but put the right controls and measurement in place for the digital world?
It’s a crucial component, and I think where digital is concerned you have to develop close partnerships across key functions, such as finance, HR, and operations. You have to build a mindset where people understand you are moving quickly and making different investments, but control is still a central component. You’re building a culture of change, where process and technology will shift constantly. Having the partnerships in place so that everyone understands and feels free to talk about the risks that come with change is absolutely key. Digital transformation is a different beast, and you need to understand how process and technology impacts risk.