Are Robots Changing the Face of Finance?

The increasing noise around automation software, robots and AI can sound both intimidating and far-fetched at the same time. Chris Astle is the CEO and Founder of Think Forwards, and prior to this was Chief Finance Officer of Allergan’s International Markets, a global pharmaceutical and medical devices company. Here he shares his thoughts around the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for the profession.

MS: Chris, two of the hottest topics in business and finance automation at the moment are ‘Robots’ and ‘Artificial Intelligence’. They’re almost used interchangeably, but I understand they’re not the same. Can you explain the difference?

CA: ‘Artificial Intelligence’ is arguably a bit more attention-grabbing in the headlines! But fundamentally, Robotics in finance means cutting-edge automation; sophisticated software which can be programmed within boundaries to, for example, code an invoice, or to receive a sales order and process it, and then match the payment to the order when it comes in. It’s all within clear parameters.

The way I understand it, artificial intelligence requires some ability of the system to self-learn and adapt. AI is probably not in the mainstream finance profession yet; but it’s coming, there are some interesting early applications in this field.

Chris Astle, CEO & Founder, Think Forwards

MS: What sparked your interest in this subject area?

CA: I’m a qualified accountant and a finance professional with a background in science. I’m really excited about the latest technologies and innovations, especially ones that are readily available here today that can help my team or my clients work better, faster and smarter.

I think if you’ve got a good piece of software that will take away mundane, day-to-day tasks, which are prone to human error, then that’s a fantastic enabler of the finance team to move to areas where they can add more value.

MS: Everybody’s talking about robotics now. Before that we were talking about business partnering. Do you think there’s a link between the two?

CA: I absolutely do. The value-added business partner seemed to have been the goal of many for quite some time. However, when I talk to people about this journey, they feel like they’re held back by their day job, by the sheer volume of day-to-day finance responsibilities.

The profession has two choices to get to this end goal. One is to ask for increased investment to create a dedicated team of business partners, which is never a popular request in board room!

The alternative is to use technology to enable people to become free to focus on value-add analysis, focusing on the outcomes and implications rather than producing the data. Technology will be the enabler of many to move into becoming a value added business partner.

MS: Some people might see the introduction of technology as a threat. Do we have a reason to be scared?

CA: If we do nothing then it will become a threat. CEOs may assume the finance department won’t need as many heads once automation software is implemented and seek a cost saving. Indeed, a recent report by Deloitte found that more than half of all roles today in finance could be replaced by such software. That is a major disruption to the profession, we will require fewer accountants in the near future and the roles that remain will be much more geared to either business partnering or accountancy software programming.

However, I am a true believer in the value a business partner can bring to a business. I encourage finance leaders to get ahead of this technology revolution and turn it from a threat into an opportunity. They need to be able to demonstrate that implementing the software will liberate resources which can be unleashed as business partners rather than simply a cost saving opportunity.

The value to the company of an integrated, commercially-minded, savvy financial business partner can be immense. They add real value, allowing businesses to unlock hidden value and help drive sustainable sales and profit growth.

MS: What’s the best way to keep yourself up to speed with technological developments and how your competitors use it?

CA: That’s such a key question, everybody’s so busy, but we all need to recognise just how disruptive technology is going to be to the finance profession, and making time to keep up to date is essential.

Finance teams are typically staffed to do the day to day work and not to overcome significant change projects and so getting outside help from an advisory company can bring rapid results as they will have already benchmarked the available tools and software and can help both select and implement. They are usually happy to come in and discuss free of charge so this can be a quick win.

Another quick win is to attend the conferences that are aimed at CFOs/FDs such as the CFO Agenda. The exhibitors and sponsors include the innovators we’ve been discussing, and they will happily demonstrate their technology. It was by seeing those demonstrations that I realised the value and the potential revolution for the finance industry by using them smartly. And at the same conferences, you can network with your peers and discuss what have they done and what results did they see.

Then there’s LinkedIn, the Finance Director magazine and the Financial Times; almost every day there’s an article about the opportunity of using the latest technology.

MS: Does the emergence of robots and new technology alter the behaviours you’re looking for when you’re hiring?

CA: As important as technology is, it’s still all about the people. When we’re talking about business partners, having the “business partner DNA” and mindset is something that comes naturally to some people but can be challenging to learn this. Therefore, a good strategy is to seek out those to whom these skills come naturally as a first step. Very sharp financial acumen is critical, but so is being able to apply it and to be able to understand the business, the competitors, and what’s going on around the products of the company — and to be able to think on their feet.

Being able to hold your own in complicated commercial discussions with the business, and speaking in the language of the people they are partnering, is important, as is having an adaptable approach to problem-solving and forming healthy working relationships.

MS: You’ve left Allergan and you’re embarking on your own venture. What are you going to do?

CA: I have established Think Forwards, an advisory practice which is founded on the principles of robust financial business partnering combined with the latest technology. I am drawing from my own experience of working in industry as a commercial finance leader and in implementing cloud based accounting and reporting systems, together with my passion for working with others to help them to achieve real, tangible results. The team at Think Forwards is supporting businesses and their finance teams, to plan, develop and implement real change that will help optimise their operations and achieve sustainable growth. We also want to help enable the finance profession to evolve into value added business partners through our training and accreditation programme, and in turn work together to drive their businesses forwards.

Clearly the evolution of the finance profession, and the role they play in business, is inextricably linked with technology and so we will work with businesses to understand how to use the latest technologies to free up their time to be able to add real value. I sense that the finance profession knows this opportunity lies ahead but due to the demands on their time hasn’t been able to embrace it, and I want to help them get ahead of the curve and stay there.

MS: Chris, thank you for your time.

CA: It’s been a pleasure talking with you on this.

Marcus Shah
Associate Partner — Interim Management — Finance
T: 01753 303 600
M: 07852 102 922
E: Marcus.Shah@etonbridgepartners.com