Well before the great enterprise digitization boom of 2020, organizations that were driving forward in their modernization roadmaps were increasingly faced with a problem.
Although the adoption of digital platforms and automated solutions can drive efficiencies in the back office, teams are increasingly facing data fatigue. For finance departments, professionals now have troves of valuable data at their fingertips, but they may not know what to do with it or how to make sense of it.
For Craig Schwimmer, chief financial officer of human resources and employee onboarding solution provider StaffGlass, the onset of the pandemic came in the midst of ongoing efforts to migrate toward digital, automated processes. With work-from-home requirements accelerating those efforts, the organization was able to remain resilient despite the disruption. Yet it also introduced new challenges for remote finance teams who had to reframe how they brought value to the enterprise in an automated ecosystem.
The Digitization Push
Like so many other businesses, StaffGlass was already making progress in its digitization efforts when the pandemic hit, which only accelerated such initiatives.
“We were in the midst of shifting accounting systems when [the pandemic] happened,” Schwimmer told PYMNTS in an interview. “We were going from what I’ll call a partial digital environment to a complete digital environment.”
Although there is immense value in a fully automated back office, the dramatic operational change created new friction points, particularly when it came to communication. No longer were team members positioned physically close to each other, and with communication lines shifting to phone calls and video conferences, the process of holding discussions over complex topics became difficult.
“The challenge of communication in a remote way is very different in the finance sector because you’re dealing with a lot of granular things,” said Schwimmer. “In a 30-minute call, you may not be able to figure everything out.”
A Proactive Data Approach
In order to use limiting communication channels effectively, finance professionals are now tasked with taking the data they have at their disposal as a result of digital transformation and presenting it to leadership in a meaningful way.
On one hand, said Schwimmer, automated financial workflows have cut down barriers to accessing information. Among the biggest shifts he said StaffGlass has seen in its back office is that professionals like himself no longer have to go out in search of data; rather, information is automatically presented to him.
On the other hand, however, that visibility into data can actually hamper a more transparent view into what’s happening with company financials.
“In a strange way, it brings efficiency to senior people, but the challenge is, what’s relevant data, and what’s not?” he said. “What I say to people is, ‘Don’t give me data, give me information.’”
Implementing financial technologies that could not only support automation, but promote data integration and provide meaningful insights, became paramount. Financial planning and analysis (FP&A) initiatives are now centered around the cross-sharing and integration of data between platforms in the back office, allowing finance teams to present not just data, but insights upon which decisions can be made.
Back To Basics
Although automated and digital financial technologies have empowered finance professionals to shift from manual data entry to more value-added operations, these tools have also brought challenges to hiring and mentoring talent in the finance department.
Schwimmer likened it to the shift from calculation by hand to calculation by machine.
“Once everyone went from doing it by hand to the calculator, people forgot how to do basic arithmetic in their head,” he said. “You’re bringing people on remote, and they don’t understand a lot of this data that’s coming at them. They don’t have that granular, long-term appreciation of where that information came from and what it means.”
Financial automation has introduced a new paradigm of how finance professionals operate within their organizations, and in the drive to access actionable insights, finance teams need to retain the fundamentals in order to obtain the most value from the deluge of digital data.
Schwimmer said he’s taken on the role of mentor within the back office in order to help younger finance professionals make sense of the information at hand. Thanks to automation, it’s easier than ever to access key metrics and develop reports, but identifying what data to use, and what those reports actually mean, has perhaps never been more difficult.
At the onset of the pandemic, Schwimmer said organizations everywhere shared a “collective sense of fragility.” But as businesses found their footing amid the disorientation, they were able to adjust operations to remain productive.
Now, he said, the focus is on the long term and how to shape finance professionals into experts that can extract the most value out of newly digitized operations.