Digital transformation - who will make it?

Data analytics, automation, AI – these trends all feed into the overall story of lower value accounting tasks being done by computers, freeing up time for accountants to provide more insight to businesses. However, while this destination may be clear, I am always struck by the practical difficulties involved in making this kind of transformation. This was particularly the case last week, when I was at the AAA Accounting is Big Data conference in New York, and meeting with some business members working in the vicinity. Indeed, the case study exercise in the conference focused on whether various companies would ‘make it’ through a digital transformation or whether they would fall to younger, nimbler, more digital-savvy competitors.

Data is at the heart of many organisational problems here. So many companies have data spread over a multitude of systems and speadsheets, typically as a result of mergers and acquisitions, or decentralised systems planning and organisational structures. The effort required to turn such disparate data into a resource that supports quick, cross-functional analysis is enormous in practice and beyond many companies. This provides a great advantage to new companies who have built themselves in digital ways, often in the cloud and using highly automated software.

Transforming finance and accounting functions is also challenging in practice. There is a big difference in the skills required for activities such as transaction processing, reconciliation and reporting, and those required for data analytics, automated environments and flat, highly collaborative digital organisations. Some technical skills can certainly be learned but, speaking to members last week, there is a much wider transformation needed, for example:

  • Challenging and working with management on their information needs, rather than just providing more data and reports
  • Influencing and collaborating with others across the organisation to drive performance improvements
  • Being able to work out the key business questions that data can help with, or having the technical skills to work out the answer

Underlying these challenges is the ability and willingness of individuals to change. Is there a sense of urgency? Can many accountants move away from their comfort zone of spreadsheets and reporting of historical data? And can the teaching profession change quickly enough to incorporate these new skills into education programmes?

So we shouldn’t under-estimate the real challenges of transforming successfully into a digital model. These themes will come our strongly in our forthcoming report on big data and accountants in China, and they reflect experience here in the UK too. Furthermore, not everyone will ‘make it’, even among those with a great vision of their final destination.  

What is your experience of this kind of transformation and how can businesses, finance functions and accountants ‘make it’?