The 3 Elements That Will Define the Future of Accounting

Next-generation finance professionals face an increasingly complex set of expectations. Philippa Lawrence, vice president and chief accounting officer at Workday, describes what successful accounting teams will look like going forward.

The accounting team of the future will require three things: a growth mindset, analytical skills, and the right technology. That’s according to Philippa Lawrence, Workday’s chief accounting officer, who shared her view of what effective finance teams will look like going forward.

As Lawrence works toward achieving a zero-day close within Workday, she said automation has forced finance professionals to evolve.

“We’re not here to process anymore. We’re really not even here to reconcile anymore,” she said on an episode of the CXO Spice Talk video podcast earlier this year. “We’re here to sit and understand the numbers, partner with the business, add value, and identify issues.”

For the next generation of accountants to achieve those goals, they’ll need more than traditional finance skills, Lawrence added.  

Technology savvy has just become a basic skill for a CAO—and it’s really for any senior finance executive, for that matter,” she said.

A Growing Need for Future-Ready Finance Skills

While Microsoft Excel experience was a longtime feature on resumes for finance roles, that’s no longer enough, Lawrence said. “That skill set of just processing transactions or even just Excel has really faded into the background.”

Due to the growing automation of routine tasks, today’s accounting teams will need soft skills in addition to numerical literacy. The ability to communicate—and collaborate with other business functions to create value—is also important, Lawrence said. In essence, finance professionals will need skills traditionally associated with front office roles.

“Technology savvy has just become a basic skill for a CAO—and it’s really for any senior finance executive, for that matter.”

Philippa Lawrence Vice President and Chief Accounting Officer Workday

“I’m talking to the business partners, understanding the business, trying to drive great insights, using our analytical knowledge—one of those very important skills for accountants,” she said. “Now we’re in the front office, and it’s a change in mindset. . . . To go where no accountants have gone before and try and figure out the best way to automate something, the best way to support the business, and anticipate needs.”

Lawrence said her ability to deliver timely, accurate, and relevant information to the business and to the CFO remains paramount. “What has changed is our expectations,” she added. “What is timely with digital acceleration? That’s the expectation—and may I say, demand—that we get data sooner.”

The CAO’s role is to support the CFO by ensuring they have the timely numbers to do their job in the most effective way, Lawrence said, adding, “As a CAO, I don’t just own the numbers, I have to understand the why behind the numbers. That’s where the fun starts.”

That perspective comes from strong partnerships within the business, from knowing the sources of data, and from developing ways to extract important information from the data using flexible data models.

Finance Transformation Creates New Expectations

Lawrence described keeping an eye on both financial and operational metrics, especially at the outset of the pandemic when some customers needed extra flexibility. 

Combined with a dynamic risk scoring based on systematic weighting of credit risk scores and customer collections data, her team was able to identify which accounts needed attention and prompted representatives to reach out and say, “Hey, what can we do to help?” 

“We’re here to sit and understand the numbers, partner with the business, add value, and identify issues.”

Meanwhile, several processes, including accounts payable, accounts receivable, days payable outstanding, and days sales outstanding, have been almost completely automatic. 

“I’m very proud to say that 98% of our journal entries are automated,” Lawrence said. “I’m now diving into that 2% to make sure that we can get as close to 100% as you could.”

Watch the full episode “CXO Spice Talk: Next Generation Accountants.”

Hear more from Philippa Lawrence and other Workday leaders at Workday Rising, September 12-15. Sign up to virtually attend sessions and network with others by choosing one of our digital paths for the conference.

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