The digital shift in Finance – the time is now

Is finance transformation easier at a technology company? Or are CFOs facing the same challenges regardless of industry? We caught up with Geoff Roberts, Group Chief Financial Officer at Seek, to get his perspectives.
Seek is a very technology-focused company. You hold hackathons to develop new products and services and are using Amazon’s Alexa to help candidates search for jobs using just their voice. How are you seeing technology change finance work?

Seek would probably be the most innovative company I’ve ever seen. However, the challenge for us in the finance function – and this is a challenge for all CFOs – is that, generally, support functions are competing for capital, for money, with new products and services, things like Amazon Alexa. So, the question is, how do you get the business case up for digital transformation in the finance function?
How is technology changing finance work? It’s effectively helping turn data into information that ensures you make the right decision. For example, we used to get a question from the business: we’d spend a day getting the data, we’d spend the rest of the day turning it into a spreadsheet so we can analyse it, before providing any insights to the business. What technology is doing is automating data entry into a data hub so you can make quicker, smarter commercial decisions. So, we became the business advisor – instead of spending more than 80% of our time on spreadsheets trying to pull the data together to make sense of it, we’re automating it through a data hub.

How do you best harness disruptive technologies in the workplace?

Ultimately, it is people who harness technology. Seek has been growing very quickly as a business. Through acquisitions we were creating ever more complexity. We will remain a very fast growth company but we don’t want to keep increasing FTEs, rather, we want to change the nature of their work.
It’s very common for finance functions to lag behind on disruptive technologies. Seek is an example where you’ve got a very innovative front end but the back-end systems were lagging, which is very common because the finance function always needs to get the business case up.

Until our recent finance transformation to forecast our major cost (personnel), we had about 26 spreadsheets to get payroll and contractors from different areas and it was difficult. Now we are going to get that into the one hub so we can do scenario analysis and what it means.

Part of the reason we were able to get the business case up is by demonstrating the payback, because not only is automation reducing the risk of mistakes, but our FTEs become more knowledge workers than data extractors and manipulators – helping to improve retention and engagement. When I came in we were growing at 15% per annum and growing headcount accordingly. Now, we have held our numbers constant. We have the same number of people but higher talent people, so the business case of automating work pays for itself in not having to increase FTEs as you make more acquisitions and grow the business.

Do you see the type and nature of finance work changing through digital?

I expect we will need different types of worker in the future; we already have a huge pool of analytic experts in our business. Seek employs dozens of data scientists due to the nature of our online business, particularly in the product and tech areas and as a finance function we are working very closely with them. We want them to be able to self-analyse the financial information as they need it and not have to rely on finance pulling it together and then feeding it back out, so it becomes a bit more self-service and you can use tools like Tableau that pulls information from the data hub.

Our team are becoming knowledge workers, people who can extract information to inform complex decision-making, instead of being spreadsheet data extractors and manipulators; the result being higher talented people using their skill set in a more productive way.

The digital shift is probably going to mean a closer relationship between finance and the business units; enabling them to self-source information to answer the questions they need and making it simpler to get the information they require…quickly. The outcome of it is you make the right calls at the right time to grow the business.

In your opinion, what are the top challenges facing CFOs today?

It’s really about growth. And effectively it’s to agree with the Executive what the growth agenda is over the next three to five years, particularly given the quickly changing competitive, regulatory and global environment. Do we have the aspirational targets for the next five years? Are they bold enough? Does everyone understand the levers that drive value to those targets? Do we have the right strategic initiatives to achieve them, and are they aligned? It sounds simple, but it’s not, particularly when you think about how quickly and significantly the competitive or regulatory environments can change.

What should every CFO keep top of mind?

When I worked at Deloitte and was involved with the Deloitte CFO Transition Labs, they highlighted that as an executive, each CFO should focus on three things: time, talent and relationships. For time, it’s picking the five priorities that are most important to drive the business forward and to focus on the important, not the urgent, things. For talent, if you don’t have the right people in your team to drive those priorities you are not going to be able to succeed. And for relationships, it’s actually managing the huge number of stakeholders, whether they be internal – like the CEO, the Board – or external, the investment market and regulators. If you don’t engage with them effectively, you are not going to achieve the five priorities.
It’s very sound advice, that every CFO should keep top of mind.

What is the best piece of business advice you have ever been given?

Again, two things that sound quite simple but I think that’s the power of it. Pick a business that you are passionate about working in. And secondly, understand it sufficiently so you can tell the story of the business first before getting into the figures.

A lot of CFOs are accountants who are all over the figures, but they don’t understand the business in great detail or tell the story of the business as a storyteller which helps connect people in an emotional as well as a factual way.

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