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Is Automation Killing Finance?

FP&A Expert Kerman Lau

What’s up with all the chatter about automation and artificial intelligence (AI) being job destroyers?

Take the often-cited Oxford University study, for example. It suggested that 47% of people employed in the U.S. are at risk of being replaced by machines, and 35% of jobs in the U.K. may similarly be threatened. Hitting even closer to home for us finance types are ominous headlines such as this one in Wired last February: “Robots will soon do your taxes. Bye-bye, accounting jobs.”

Automation replaces work, not jobs

Except for that sci-fi movie directed by Steven Spielberg, I can’t speak too much about AI. But from my view as vice president of finance at Adaptive Insights, I see a different future evolving out of automation. It’s a future in which automation replaces certain work, but not entire jobs. And the work it replaces is primarily that which has long limited and frustrated many finance pros—manual tasks that kept them from delivering maximum value to their colleagues and organizations.

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The automation shift that is now in motion boils down to this: By automating manual, slow, disconnected spreadsheet-based planning, budgeting, and forecasting processes, finance increasingly will be able to spend far more time leveraging data than compiling it. As finance pros become less tethered to mundane data collection and time-intensive spreadsheet tasks, data accuracy will increase, and we will be free to emerge from our offices and cubicles to collaborate more and bring added strategic value and insights to business partners and senior leaders.

Automation is about adapting to change

This is not just pie-in-the-sky speculation on my part. Amid the gloomy automation narrative, there are also voices—and research—that echo my view on where automation is going, particularly when it comes to finance. For instance, a recent survey sponsored by recruiter Robert Half concludes that automation will create more finance jobs than it kills. The survey found that 86% of Australian CFOs agreed that workplace automation will cause a shift in required skill sets in finance, rather than elimination of jobs altogether. The firm stated automation will be more about “adapting to change—which in turn leads to new opportunities.”

I couldn’t agree more with that statement, in large part because my own experience affirms it. Throughout my two-decade finance career, I dealt with the frequent frustrations that plague finance. I spent too many days swamped in low-value manual tasks or hamstrung by the need to navigate and negotiate through IT for more advanced reporting and data requests.

Set it and forget it

It was only when I arrived at my current role that I realized the full potential for automation to be your ally, not your enemy. The ability to tap cloud solutions to “set it and forget it” for many routine tasks and reports allows me to spend more time analyzing and communicating the story behind the numbers. Case in point: Creating a pretty sophisticated scenario model that may have taken a week or more relying on traditional tools can be developed in an afternoon. That time saved can, in turn, be redirected toward assessing the impacts of that model and their potential ripple effect across different departments of the organization. Armed with these data and insights, finance is then positioned to collaborate with business partners to assess the best ways to plan and respond accordingly.

Beyond being more satisfying and challenging work, this change sparks another shift that bodes well for finance over time. It starts to crack the stereotypes of finance as back-office number crunchers while putting focus on how we can be strategic partners. We’re no longer just churning out spreadsheets, but rather delivering data and insights that can drive better decision-making, provide greater clarity on the challenges ahead, and drive better business results.

The bottom line as I see it: The automation future as it relates to finance will be largely what we make of it. View yourself as a victim of the technological evolution and you certainly increase your chances of becoming one. However, if you take charge of your own destiny, embrace the change, and look for ways in which automation makes you better, then you’re onto something.

You will soon find that as your work changes, your job shifts in unexpected and important ways—ways that are more engaging and challenging and will most likely drive your career forward, not destroy it.

This post was originally published on the CPA Practice Advisor website.

Watch the webcast “Elevate the Role of Finance In Your Organization”

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