Excel is not enough. Automation skills are key for finance staff.

Once upon a time, if you asked a finance leader which skill they valued most in their staff, many would have said Excel.

Times have changed however. Finance departments are now expected to analyse large amounts of data and provide rapid and meaningful insights, calling for new tools and new skills to use those tools.

Excel out of fashion for CFO’s?

Percentage of CFO's who think Excel is most important skill for their staff

Just two years ago, 15x as many CFO’s would have placed Excel skills at the top of their priority list for their staff compared to today. CFO’s now prioritise adaptability to new technologies.

This trend can be attributed to the rising importance of data analysis for company growth. Around 85% of CEO’s (source) believe the surest way to profitable growth is in their finance departments ability to analyse data and produce meaningful insights. This is supported by the fact that the best performing companies spend, on-average, 20% more time on analysing data (vs gathering) (source).

The modern finance professional is now expected to collect and combine data from across the business, analyse that data and produce insights for business units that ultimately lead to growth through sales, marketing and product innovations.

Data is expected to be combined and collected, analysed and to produce insights.

Can all this be achieved with Excel? Probably, if time is not of the essence. If all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail. In order to meet the expectations being placed on them, effective finance teams are turning to new technologies, including automation, which replace or supplement their Excel spreadsheets and augment their processes – allowing them to accelerate their data collection, focus more of their time on analysis and produce the meaningful insights that the business craves.

New tools, however, are not enough. You need staff who are capable of making the most of the new technology in order to truly benefit. For some companies, this means hiring new people, and for others, leveraging what would be otherwise the under-utilised skills of existing staff.

Given that finance has to automate to keep pace with the changing landscape, what does this mean for staff and their skills?

Automation – the must have finance skill.

Historically, the finance team was expected to focus on monitoring risk, respond to regulatory demands, produce accurate numbers and keep costs down. In order to do this, staff needed:

  • Subject matter expertise in areas such as financial and management reporting, tax, etc.
  • Knowledge of the various systems being used such as SAP, Oracle and CRM.
  • Excel skills in order to collect and assemble their data.
  • An ability to accurately follow existing procedures.

As mentioned above however, with a shift in focus towards data analysis and business insights, finance staff must develop automation skills. Whilst the skills of old are still useful (and required), a new suite of skills and traits are needed to enable a high-performing, automation-ready finance team:

The 6 skills are: Logical thinking, technical skills, data analysis, process analysis, solution design and project management.

In order to be effective automators, staff need:

  1. Logical thinking: Staff must be able to understand and break-down any process into a simple series of steps.
  2. Technical skills: Staff should have exposure to some kind of programming (such as writing macros) and advanced Excel formulas to ensure they can understand the existing data and models that they need to automate.
  3. Data analysis: Staff need to be comfortable with tools for combining, analysing and visualising data such as SQL and Business Intelligence if you desire meaningful insights from your data.
  4. Process analysis: Staff must be able to form a deep understanding of the processes, data and stakeholders and have an ability to elicit requirements and communicate with people.
  5. Solution design: Staff should be able to sketch out the digital “future state” of their process using tools like process diagrams.
  6. Project management: Staff will need to manage the delivery of their automation projects and manage the expectations of any stakeholders.

Important: You don’t need someone who is an expert in all six of the skills listed above. However, staff should be comfortable in each skill and be willing to learn and adapt as required.

The question for many CFO’s is, “where do I find people with these skills”? You may not need to look too far – a good place to start would be in your own backyard.

Where do you find automation skills?

The skills mentioned in the previous section can easily be learned by staff that a) are willing and have the right attitude, and b) supported and encouraged by their leaders to do so. For example, online training course providers offer services for as little as $30 per month with video courses specialising in process analysis, requirement gathering, project management, SQL, coding and more. Examples include Lynda.com and Udemy.

It is likely that people with these skills and traits already exist in your company – either within finance or across other parts of the business. These people are typically systems accountants, business analysts and actuaries. Look for people who:

  • Have a reputation of being a valuable member of other successful projects – particularly anything to do with process improvement or re-design.
  • Are known to automate regularly, using macros, scripts, SQL, etc.
  • Are enthusiastic about change and improving the way things are done.
  • Have a good understanding of existing processes, data and systems.

Conclusion

What was once an arena dominated by Excel and procedures is no more. The finance world is changing from back-office support to a driver of corporate strategy.

While this change is undoubtably good for the CFO and finance staff, it will require a rethink of how finance works if it is to meet the expectations being placed on them. Automation will become a key tool for any finance department looking to outperform their peers and automation skills will prove vital.

Finance teams need to acquire skills around logical thinking, technical competencies, data analysis, process analysis, solution design and project management. The good news is that these skills can easily be learned and are most likely already present in your team or wider company.

Having the right skills in the finance team is a key challenge facing CFO’s who want to automate, but is just one of the many challenges that must be overcome in order to deliver your automation. Click on the image below to learn more about how finance leaders can conquer organisational hurdles to make automation a reality.

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