“It is a highly automated process, from baking bread all the way through to the packaging of the product and putting it into the freezer,” Marshall said. “And automation has enabled us to produce 1 billion sandwiches per year—and we hope to more than double that ability.”
Mike Spencer, vice president and CFO at Honeywell Connected Enterprise, agreed about automation’s ability to unlock human potential. “It generates conversation because once you prove you can move something that folks thought was a huge obstacle, it starts to generate other ideas within the ecosystem, which is super productive,” he said.
Spencer added that adopting a “growth mindset” in understanding the role of automation to operate at a higher level is one of the toughest challenges for finance workers. “This is about advancing the overall agenda for the company and starting to utilize your talent in a more proactive way vs. just being a data processor,” he said.
Eileen Tobias, CFO at Komodo Health, said the transformation journey is different at an early-stage company, adding that its challenge was leveling up its existing technology. “Systems that worked when we first started, the tools that we put in place the first year we were in business, are not the right ones for us now—and they’re certainly not going to be the right ones for the next seven to 10 years,” she said.
Thinking About Talent for the Future
The ideal finance worker today has to do more than their counterparts of the past, said Kelly Gast, senior vice president and CFO at Bayer. While accounting and analytical skills remain important core components, future finance teams will need people who will look beyond topline numbers to imagine what lies on the road ahead.
Gast said she has looked to hire people who have experience in systems management or data management, along with a link to finance, then expose them to various teams throughout the organization to help them develop a broader perspective. The effort is making slow, steady progress, aided by the testimonials of people who find the value in such experiences, she added. “People see that, and they want to engage and try to be a part of that going forward.”
In addition to traditional accounting and finance-related skills, the right mix of talent at J.M. Smucker includes people with operational, statistics, and data analytics acumen, Marshall said. But softer skills are in demand, too.
“We’ve been working with our individuals and teams to ensure they have the storytelling acumen, that we understand the levers and drivers of the business, not only yesterday but also tomorrow and beyond,” he said. “This mindset really comes from a focus of bringing a group of individuals together that are very diverse in thought, mind, and, candidly, body because that’s what we need in order to move these organizations forward.”
Intellectual curiosity is another important element, Spencer said, adding that data automation is just one part of preparing for the future: A strong skill set must include the ability to interpret data in order to gain deeper insights.
“What I found to be one of the big differentiators, frankly, between the upcoming leaders and those who can’t quite make it is the ability to really ask the second- and third-layer questions to look at a set of data and say, ‘What is the data really telling me? I don't quite understand it. Let me ask another question. Let me answer the question,’” he said.
Looking a Decade Ahead
When considering long-term organizational needs, Marshall predicted that two overarching themes will dominate the finance function: continuous close and AI-driven forecasting.
Continuous close, he added, means that end-of-month activity will instead take place on a rolling basis during the accounting period, with automation helping to enable the process. Additionally, forecasting will evolve from a monthly, quarterly, or annual basis to a multiyear basis that can also take into account variables to simulate different outcomes in the future.