CFOs and Heads of Finance from prominent firms in Kuala Lumpur gathered at the Ellis Dinner to discuss and share experiences on the changing role of financial leadership. The dinner was hosted by Blackline, which as a provider of cloud software that automates and controls the entire financial close process understands the need to discuss how the role of the CFO and finance function is evolving.
Automation has been undoubtedly a driver of growth over the past centuries, if not millennia. Inventions like Henry Ford’s assembly line automated some tasks but created a significant demand for additional jobs over several years—making the adjustment process manageable from the viewpoint of organisational structure. At the speed of change we are experiencing right now, however, we are not in control anymore. Many executives see the jobs they oversee being quickly automated and find themselves unable to turn this into a growth opportunity, and not just pure cost minimisation operation. As technology disrupts the finance function, CFOs need to reassess their role to make sure their companies can, besides surviving the ongoing wage of digitalisation, use it to gain competitive advantage.
“It’s not about automating work; it’s about reimagining it.”
Good management is not enough to survive anymore. As an attendee pointed out, the CEO of Nokia reportedly said in a press conference that, “we didn’t do anything wrong, but somehow we lost.” Nokia’s case reveals the importance of rethinking the responsibilities of the CFO in the current technological landscape. As traditional audit and accounting tasks are automated, CFOs should reconsider their priorities. While mastering accounting tasks is still indispensable, automation should be used as a way to spend less time on clerical duties and instead focus on growth and innovation.
This matter is particularly important for the finance function as it often sets the limits to how far a company can experiment and take risks. Guests commented on how we must find a new way to measure value in a business and beyond the traditional financial metrics. Finance labour should be reallocated from straightforward tasks to matters such as measuring intangibles such intellectual property or R&D and, especially, communicating their value to investors and other stakeholders. The finance function can help materialise innovative ideas generated in any division in an organisation into a tangible result. Executives who see automation as a way of merely replacing jobs are missing the point of the digitalisation revolution.
“We need to celebrate transformation.”
Kodak’s inability to embrace new inventions led to its staggering downfall, as a guest at the dinner pointed out. Research on the digital photography technology and adoption curves allowed Kodak to estimate that they had roughly ten years to prepare for the transition–but they still failed. By helping cultivate an innovative corporate culture, CFOs can use their power within an organisation to prevent things like this happening. They must encourage risk-taking and even celebrate failure. CFOs can achieve this by taking on the role of “value communication.” Fear of repercussion for financially unsuccessful inventions sniffles innovation and makes companies prone to a Kodak-style fall.
Automation has freed, rather than replaced, a lot of labour in the finance function. This positions the CFO as an agent for change in an organisation that can promote a culture of continuous innovation.
CEO & Country Head Malaysia & Brunei at BNP Paribas Asset Management
CFO at Brahim’s Group
CFO at Prudential Assurance Malaysia
CFO at Celcom Axiata
CFO at Jaya Grocer
CFO at Microsoft
CFO at Axiata
CFO Malaysia and Brunei at Zuellig Pharma
Director at Axiata
Executive Director of Tax at BDO Malaysia
Finance Director at G4S Malaysia
Head of Finance, Accounting and Controls at Standard Chartered Bank
Head of Corporate Finance at Sapura Energy
Head of Finance & Corporate Audit at Maxis
Head of Regional Digital Financial Services at Axiata Digital Services
Managing Director at Accenture
Senior Finance Manager at Westports Malaysia
Senior Managing Director and Head of Corporate Finance at CIMB