Global Finance Leader Study: Data Science Is Most Important Expertise for Future Finance Team

As technology redefines how work is done, finance leaders are having to rethink what constitutes finance talent. The successful finance workers of the future will need skills that are not commonplace in the function today. What are the emerging roles and skill sets of the future finance function?

Our global “Finance Redefined: Workday Global Finance Leader Survey,”—which gauged the views of over 670 CFOs and senior finance leaders around the world—points to data analytics as the key driver of talent needs. According to the survey, data science is the most important emerging role for the future finance function across North America, Europe, and Asia Pacific, with statisticians and data security professionals reported as second and third. Respondents reported roboticists (that is, people responsible for automation within finance) as the least important emerging role:

  1. Data scientists
  2. Statisticians
  3. Data security professionals
  4. IT delivery specialists
  5. Behavioral scientists
  6. Systems specialists
  7. Roboticists

Data Analysis Needed

Technologies—both established and emerging—are transforming the finance function. Cloud computing can reduce costs, improve productivity, and increase efficiency. Artificial intelligence and blockchain can provide real-time data analytics, make predictions, and help streamline processes such as reconciliations.

“Companies are looking to use data in different ways and create new business models,” says Naved Qureshi, associate partner, finance transformation at IBM. “Finance needs to transition into a much more digital and rapid service to support the business.”

But having the right technologies isn’t enough. Finance leaders also need the right talent to be able to use them effectively to serve the business.

As finance shifts more into a business partnership role, the need for data analysis skills will grow, and prompt the creation of new roles within the function. According to the Accenture report, “Meet the Finance 2020 Workforce,” while traditional finance roles will evolve, newer roles will become more important, such as data scientists, scenario planners, market makers, and social/behavioral scientists. An EY study, “Is the future of finance new technology or new people?,” also highlighted critical skills for the future finance team, with 57 percent of respondents saying that building skills in predictive and prescriptive analytics was critical for the future, while 55 percent noted the importance of improving digital technology skills in areas such as mobility, cloud, and SaaS.

“It’s going to be important to have some sort of data science skills, or at least a general understanding,” says Qureshi. “If you’re going to do cognitive automation for predictive analytics, you’re going to need some statistical skills inside the organization to interpret the data.”

Some finance teams are already moving in this direction. Lena Shishkina, head of finance, EMEA and APJ at Workday, says that she realized the importance of financial data when she joined the company—“So I built a group called ‘Data Science and Management.’” She adds that a colleague who is trained in finance has decided to do a master’s course in data science.

Finance leaders are also focused on  developing these skills on their current teams. “I might slowly bring in someone like a data scientist,” explains Rick Rodick, CFO at TELUS International. “I’d rather repurpose or utilize my existing finance team first to see what they can do with better tools, and then maybe we can see what value data scientists can bring.”

These changes in finance comes alongside a more general broadening of digital skills across the organization, explains Bill Briggs, CTO at Deloitte. “We’ve been telling the technology folks for decades, ‘You have to become more business savvy and speak the language of the business,’” he says. “We’re now seeing this interesting shift towards saying that the business needs to be more technology savvy.”

The Robots are Coming

According to the “Finance Redefined” study, respondents reported that roboticists are the least important emerging role in finance. However, this is likely to change as technologies such as artificial intelligence and robotic process automation (RPA) continue to evolve.

“A lot of people are talking about RPA just from an efficiency standpoint, but a few are taking a step further, exploring artificial intelligence in areas such as FP&A and forecasting early warnings,” says Qureshi. He notes that RPA can bring a 70 percent reduction in manual work, while artificial intelligence can generate 15 to 20 percent productivity gains. He adds, however, that the real business case lies not in productivity, but in “the better decisions you’re going to make.”

RPA and artificial intelligence could also free up finance teams to do more value-added work. Accenture’s “Finance 2020: Death by digital” report predicts that the use of robotics will automate or eliminate up to 40 percent of transactional accounting work by 2020, allowing finance teams to spend much more time on decision support, predictive analytics, and performance management.

Preparing for Talent Needs

How should finance leaders be preparing for these emerging talent needs? According to Rob Dicks, financial services industry leader for human capital at Deloitte, it’s about thinking through how to balance new and emerging skill sets with more traditional roles in finance. “It’s common for clients to look at the finance function and feel like they need more of everything—more analytics, more data scientists, more people who are thinking about how to program the bots,” he says. “But they also recognize they still need to do statutory tax reporting, so balancing the need of all finance skills and expertise is important.”

When predicting future talent needs, Dicks says that finance leaders should assess at a sub-function level, such as accounts payable, accounts receivable, tax, and investor relations. “Many accounts payable functions include significant processing and repetitive tasks,” he says. “So that’s an area where RPA, cognitive, and machine learning can come in. It won’t feel like you need more of everything when you start to get more specific about which area of finance you’re talking about.”

Finally, having conversations with existing staff about the future is important.

“We need to be open about how technology changes impact the team,” says Robynne Sisco, co-president and CFO at Workday. “Some finance professionals may be concerned automation will make them replaceable. CFOs should drive strategies that clearly communicate to team members that by automating administrative parts of their jobs, they will not eliminate their roles, but instead will be given new and more interesting work that will help them develop and stay challenged.”

For the full research findings behind the “Finance Redefined” global study, read the report here.

About the “Finance Redefined: Workday Global Finance Leader Survey”
We surveyed more than 670 finance leaders across the Americas, Europe, Asia Pacific, and South Africa covering 10 main sectors from September 2017 to January 2018. Over one-third (38 percent) came from large organizations with more than $1 billion annual revenues, with 35 percent between $500 million and $1 billion, and 27 percent between $250 million and $500 million. Over one-third of respondents were CFOs, finance directors, or chief accounting officers/controllers, and the remaining were drawn from senior finance roles, such as head of financial planning and analysis or vice president of financial operations.