Upskilling in the Finance Function: Continuous Talent Optimization for Tomorrow
Apr 25, 2022 | By Megan Smith
About the Author: Megan Smith is a Director at CrossCountry Consulting and is a certified Project Management Professional (PMP) with over 15 years of experience in finance transformation, ERP and close automation implementation, and project management. She has focused her work in growing, mid-market companies with deep expertise in industries such as SaaS, professional and financial services, healthcare, and private equity.
It’s estimated that teams lose more than 75% of their skills every six years if staff aren’t proactively trained for the future. This is due to the rapid, exponential pace of change resulting from technology disruption, process transformations, and turnover: an inevitable hollowing-out.
Today’s efficiencies are not guaranteed in tomorrow’s business environment.
Managers, directors, and business leaders must future-proof employees’ skill-sets continuously, fortify existing culture to prevent churn, and adopt agile changes to processes.
The finance function specifically must preemptively guard against these phenomena while simultaneously upskilling staff to make more strategic decisions on behalf of the business – decisions they previously may not have had a role in.
Optimizing for In-Demand Finance Skills
The finance function of the future does more than transactions and processing. They are strategic cross-functional partners that influence decisions related to massive IT investments, service design, capital markets, employee experience, and more.
Accountants and other finance professionals are finally getting their heads above the sea of data and manual data entry. This new evolution of finance workers must be able to help implement technology solutions that ingest data and then deliver insights and action based on that data quickly.
So what do those skills look like in action?
Digital Collaboration and Administration
Digital channels, self-service tools, and cloud-based platforms power distributed finance and accounting workforces across disparate timezones and device types, enabling collaboration on joint projects and responsibilities. But not all workers are equally enthused or prepared to operate at a high level in a digital-first environment.
Just 25% of respondents to a Salesforce survey of 23,000 workers considered themselves “advanced” in the collaboration technologies now used in workplaces. More than 80% plan to digitally upskill during their career, but there aren’t always clear pathways within the organization to do this.
Professionals hired into positions already equipped with the technical skills and understanding to work asynchronously and through digital ecosystems have a leg up. This includes expertise in messaging platforms, cloud-storage tools, and file-sharing tools. Collaboration on processes once relegated to IT – vendor management, application management, finance software access control, etc. – will also be critical for more senior leaders. Finance leaders must be versed in the lexicons and workflows of other non-finance leaders.
Storytelling and Partnerships
Raw datasets or even early-generation analytics platforms are only as valuable as the labor saved and insights gained. But finance departments mired in legacy accounting systems, spreadsheets, or “bean counting” aren’t incentivized or necessarily trained to produce predictive analytics and data-led narratives: the kinds of stories needed to influence others in the C-suite.
To truly deliver strategy, insights, and value to the boardroom, finance needs to effectively communicate actionable data, build coalitions around its ideas, and help chart the future of the business based on sound risk-reward analysis.
Additionally, as new accounting, ethics, and regulatory standards take effect, the skill sets accountants already have – data-crunching, compliance, and performance measurement – are transferrable to new in-demand movements, like environmental, social, and governance (ESG) and data protection. Finance staff may be able to play a more significant role in these initiatives.
Storytelling allows finance to partner with other functions on more significant objectives and stretch goals to fuel transformation for the entire workforce.
Advanced Automation and Analytics Management
Hyperautomation is the full-throttle movement to automate any and all IT and business processes within the organization – a $600 billion market as of 2022. In the last decade, finance has been a key innovator and driver of automation efforts, including implementing robotic process automation and intelligent automation platforms and augmenting core finance and accounting tasks.
Understanding debits and credits or passing a CPA doesn’t necessarily compute in an automation-first environment. Finance and accounting professionals must also be adept at spearheading or facilitating technology implementations (from experience or individual initiative), sourcing new additions to the finance tech stack, and managing project automation activities.
The ability to advocate for one automation or advanced analytics tool over another adds a new, highly beneficial dimension to the finance remit. Connecting the dots between new technologies that can accelerate financial close and financial reporting, for instance, can help the finance department and the business at large to quickly scale high-value platforms, save on critical resources, and reposition staff into value-add roles.
Skills Optimization: An Internal Talent Incubator
Competitive job markets, mass disruptions, and global digitization have left many organizations struggling to retain top talent or even source high-quality candidates externally in time for crucial company objectives like IPO, M&A, etc.
The shortage of essential finance and accounting talent compels companies to turn inward, growing and evolving an internal workforce for the future. In essence, the finance and accounting teams – and many other functions – must create talent incubators to cultivate a future-ready workforce that can successfully level up and scale the breadth and depth of prevailing and emerging skill sets.
Organizations that internally upskill are more immune to external fluctuations in talent, markets, and competition. A continuous policy of human capital reskilling and evolution is thus a matter of survival.
Below are several ways to make this happen:
Skills Graph Reconciliation and Forecasting
Modern enterprise management software that unites cross-functional organizational data, like finance and HR, paints a clear picture of where skills gaps currently exist.
For example, skills graph technology powered by machine-learning algorithms can crawl and reconcile finance and HR databases that are tagged with appropriate skill sets, job duties, tenure, and other people metadata. It can then identify which skills are most needed within the company, which workers are most closely suited to these skills, and how to efficiently fuel internal mobility.
This type of technology can be specifically useful in finance, which is already rife with multiple streams of internal and external data and has a workforce that needs to quickly develop more internal talent. Armed with this data, leaders can set milestones for skills development, allocate resources more strategically, and forecast ahead of future skills-demand curves.
Cloud-Based Learning Management System
Any form of proprietary or third-party learning management system (LMS) must be user-friendly, self-service, and appropriately configured to the core skills needed within finance. While leaders in an office setting can provide hands-on training, coaching, and seminars, most finance workers will be remote or hybrid.
Funneling credentialization and upskilling through a cloud platform can provide direction, training, and certifications with fewer in-person resources. Plus, it can provide transparency across teams, recognize star performance, and feed into upcoming performance review discussions.
A centralized location to “host,” archive, and plan finance upskilling initiatives in the cloud is a solid foundation on which to build productive talent internally.
Self-Directed Learning Stipends
Not all learning initiatives must originate within the organization. Encourage staff to attend webinars, in-person conferences, local events, higher education, and other industry-specific courses on their own accord. The company can allocate dollar amounts toward particularly high-value learning programs, like advanced analytics, through annual stipends.
This also reduces the burden on internal leaders to be the sole purveyor of upskilling. Leveraging both internal and external programs is key to capturing a wide breadth of in-demand skills.
Always-On Learning Culture
If there’s one throughline evident in upskilling efforts, continuous learning must be embedded into company culture.
When staff is incentivized and expected to participate in and even initiate skills development, it broadly raises the organization's bar. It becomes faster to close skills gaps and easier to allocate staff to greenfield projects, which can result in greater cross-functional collaboration and smarter decision-making all around.
As part of this culture, executives must also be agile to new forms of management. With skills at the staff-level shifting like quicksand, it may require different types of reporting structures or business units. For instance, accounting and finance professionals are now working more closely with (or becoming) project managers, data scientists, web developers, cyber analysts, and more. Will these combinations of teams still report to a CFO, or will they operate autonomously with a soft dotted line into a CIO or other specialized niche?
The evolution of an always-on learning culture might dictate the answer.
As the shelf life of skills declines, finance must move beyond journal entries or file preparation. It must be a nucleus for business strategy, innovation opportunities, and competitive differentiation that serves many functions. As finance conquers data velocity and delivers data insights, its newfound skillsets will power tomorrow’s decisions.