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Picture: SUPPLIED/SAGE
Picture: SUPPLIED/SAGE

Artificial intelligence (AI) changes everything we know about financial management. Just as cloud computing broke every software development and customer service rule, AI is the next wave of disruption, and it brings radical change.

Addressing AI anxiety

A common narrative around emerging technologies such as AI, machine learning and robotic process automation is the anxiety and fear that they’ll replace humans. In SA, with an unemployment rate of over 30%, these concerns are valid.

But if we dig deep into what we can do with AI, we learn it will elevate the work that humans do, making it more valuable than ever.

Sage research found that most senior financial decisionmakers (90%) are comfortable with automation performing more of their day-to-day accounting tasks in the future, and 40% believe that AI and machine learning will improve forecasting and financial planning.

What’s more, two-thirds of respondents expect emerging technology to audit results continuously and to automate period-end reporting and corporate audits, reducing time to close in the process.

The key to realising these benefits is to secure buy-in from the entire organisation. With 87% of CFOs now playing a hands-on role in digital transformation, their perspective on technology is key to creating a digitally receptive team culture. And their leadership is vital in ensuring their organisations maximise their technology investments. Until employees make the same mindset shift as CFOs have, they’ll need to be guided and reassured about the business’s automation strategy and the potential for upskilling.



Six benefits of AI — in layman’s terms

Speaking during an exclusive virtual event to announce the results of the CFO 3.0 research, as well as the launch of Sage Intacct in SA, Sage chief technology officer Aaron Harris said one reason for the misperception about AI’s impact on business and labour is that SaaS companies too often speak in technical jargon.

“We talk about AI and machine learning as if they’re these magical capabilities, but we don’t actually explain what they do and what problems they solve. We don’t put it into terms that matter for business leaders and labour. We don’t do a good job as an industry, explaining that machine learning isn’t an outcome we should be looking to achieve — it’s the technology that enables business outcomes, like efficiency gains and smarter predictive analytics.”

For Harris, AI has remarkable benefits in six areas:

  • Continuous analytics and organisational performance monitoring: “Machine learning lets us analyse all the data flowing through the business, to start to understand trends. We can then enrich those trends with external data and start to forecast the direction things are going in. As soon as something changes, we can notify decisionmakers and push insights to them about the areas of the business they might not have been paying attention to.”
  • Anomaly detection: “With real-time insight into what’s happening in the business, you’ll be confident that the numbers are accurate. In understanding trends and trusting the numbers and the processes, it’s easier to identify the outliers; to know when something has happened that needs a human to review, to understand if it’s right for the business.”
  • Continuous security monitoring: “It would be foolish for any tech leader to believe that they are impervious; that they’ve made all the investments they need to make and covered all their bases. It’s a tech race. We can use AI to fight cybercriminals because it can continuously monitor and find patterns that look like attacks and to warn you ahead of time when there are threats.”
  • Recommender systems: “AI learns your way of working and what you care about. Then it adjusts the user interface to reflect those preferences.”
  • Process automation: “AI doesn’t just automate the repetitive, rules-based work that humans do today. It creates new digital business models — based on your way of working — which ultimately leads to digital transformation.”
  • Conversational AI: “As AI evolves, we’ll be able to reach more people, irrespective of their skills or training. A digital assistant, for example, will guide you through the software, rather than you having to learn a whole new system at once.”

Digital culture champions

Evolving from a traditional management style that relied on intuition, to a more contemporary one based on data-driven evidence, can be a culturally disruptive process. Interestingly, driving a cultural change wasn’t a concern for most SA CFOs, with 73% saying their organisations are ready for more automation.

In fact, AI holds no fear for senior financial decisionmakers: over two-thirds are not at all concerned about it, and only one in 10 believe that it will take away jobs.

So, how can businesses reimagine the work of humans when software bots are taking care of all the repetitive work? 

How can we leverage the skills of humans, like collaboration, contextual understanding and empathy?

“The future world is a world of connections,” says Harris. “It will be about connecting humans in ways that allow them to work at a higher level. It will be about connecting businesses across their ecosystems so that they can implement digital business models to effectively and competitively operate in their markets. And it will be about creating connections across technology so that traditional, monolithic experiences are replaced with modern ones that reflect new ways of working and that are tailored to how individuals and humans will be most effective in this world.”

New world of work

We can envision this world across three areas:

  • Digital experiences: Consistent experiences across platforms, apps and services that recognise new ways of working and the need for humans to collaborate, to make decisions, and to partner with AI to keep the business running smoothly.
  • Digital networks: When thinking about digital business models, we need to rethink the relationship that the business has with its employees, customers, suppliers, financial institutions and regulatory bodies. Where can we digitise workflows and deliver digital capabilities?
  • Digital journeys: We need to curate a journey that allows humans to work more strategically and effectively in the world. The digital journey must offer a seamless, unified experience across every interaction.

Sharing knowledge and timelines on strategic developments and explaining the significance of these changes will help CFOs alleviate the fear of the unknown.

Technology may be the enabler driving this change, but how it transforms a business lies with those who are bold enough to take the lead.

This article was paid for by Sage.

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