Fast Forward Finance: What the Last Year Has Taught Us

We’re well into the swing of 2021, but for many of us, it might feel as if we’re still stuck in 2020. Remote working remains the norm for many businesses, and society isn’t open as usual yet. But that doesn’t mean we have stalled – if anything we’ve seen businesses racing ahead at pace, particularly when it comes to the digital transformation of their operations. In fact, many have had no choice.


Smart businesses are looking to not only survive in unchartered waters, but also to improve their back-end processes. As a result, the role of the finance function – the central hub of many organisations – has been gearing up for a significant shift change over the past twelve months.


You’ve probably heard people describe the pandemic as a great ‘accelerator” – and it’s true. In our recent webinar “The Future of the Finance Function in the UK,” Arif Ahmad, Partner at PwC, spoke about the explosion of demand for automated processes and digital transformation. As he says, “it’s not often we see such a seismic change in demand and it happened almost overnight.”

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We also spoke about how the impact of the pandemic on SMBs is not as widely publicised as that on big B2C brands, which have received a lot more focus in the news, but the trends are the same. Monumental business changes that normally take years to plan and execute, have happened in the space of a few months in many cases.


We’ve seen change ourselves as demand for our travel and expense solutions has not been at full capacity for obvious reasons. But we’ve also seen a big step change from SMBs having to manage supplier invoices and their vendor relationships remotely. As a result, we’ve seen a greater demand in AP automation software to solve the challenge of a paper-based, manual process towards invoice capturing, processing and approvals.


Data for Data’s Sake?


We’re also speaking to businesses who are looking to get smarter with their data. They’ve traditionally spent most of their time on gathering data rather than analysing it – a drain on time and resource your business especially can’t afford in the current climate.


Forward-thinking finance teams have already been using changes in circumstances to focus on getting more from their data and analytics. Fully using the intelligent data that flows in from spend automation tools is essential for today’s finance function, to inform decision making and ensure the right KPIs are in place. Data is only valuable if it flags up what is and isn’t working so you are a step ahead of competitors when things return to a more normal state.


Of course, nothing is going to be quite the same again and facilitating successful remote working arrangements – and the necessary technology infrastructure – should be the finance function’s number one priority right now. FDs and CFOs need to equip employees with tools that make them more profitable, more productive and more purposeful. With hybrid forms of remote working set to be the norm, there are not as many limits to where people can work, so the battle for quality staff is greater than ever. Good people want good systems that work in today’s world, not yesterday’s. And they want to spend their time on meaningful activities that generate revenue for the business – not busywork like capturing and cross checking data.


The Great Equaliser


The rise of remote collaboration has broken down barriers between people, and resulted in new, inventive ways of working. With expense and invoice automation technology in place, employees are able to move away from manual data entry tasks, freeing up time and energy for value-added conversations. This leads to happier, more enthused employees who are more in tune with a company’s vision and who are better able to proactively tackle, rather than simply react to business challenges.


Many CFOs and CEOs, who may have struggled with the idea of remote working in the first lockdown, are now on board with the fact that productivity and collaboration can happen online. Remote working is becoming a great equaliser.


Your Organisation’s Purpose


The pandemic has brought about a whole new meaning to the word purpose, with organisations doing the right thing by not only their people but also their communities around them, whether that’s providing PPE equipment, premises for vaccinations or becoming a ‘net zero’ business.


The finance function has to go on the same journey and the systems in place have to keep pace with that. If you’re a business making a grandiose statement in the public domain about your commitment to your people, your place or your planet, you need to make sure your systems can honour that commitment. As an SMB, your stated purpose, and your ability to act on it, can even impact how private equity firms view you as an investment.


Following the great shift of 2020, digitalisation is only going to accelerate further. Without it, businesses risk being overtaken or left behind. Whilst some changes might not be permanent, the demand shifts we’ve seen are here to stay. As businesses pivot and react, the finance function must be ready to adapt and change accordingly. None of us can afford to sit still.



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