Louise Wain is head of financial planning and analysis at Eduserv
In the past couple of years Eduserv has contributed many articles to Third Sectoron digital transformation. One of the themes we’ve discussed most frequently is the need for all departments to come on the journey, especially ones such as finance that are currently perceived to just "not get it".
The problem is that digital requires speed and action. Finance, on the other hand, has a reputation for being a back-office function that’s process-driven and not keen on change. The two just don’t seem to fit together.
This is a problem that now needs to (and I’m sure will) be solved by the emergence of a new breed of digital finance professional. Based on my own experience – which has always been about embracing technology and change in my finance role – this is what I believe the digital-ready finance team of the near future will look like.
Finance methods need to change. The way many charities currently budget is too rigid. Data on performance is fed back into the organisation only through monthly reporting. Finance needs to change and be able to deliver feedback on the performance of new digital initiatives as they happen. In the future, finance professionals are increasingly going to be seen more as business advisers that support and deliver business objectives. To get there, they must become interpreters of data and communicators of insight.
One of the reasons charity finance teams struggle to provide timely data is that the IT systems they use are too old and inflexible. Finance teams need to undergo their own digital transformation to rectify this. Adopting a modern, flexible, cloud-based accounting system, for example, will help them deliver better reporting and analytics and be more responsive with insight. It will also help them achieve other productivity benefits, including "anywhere access" and automation of common processes – two cornerstones of business transformation.
Finance staff have always needed some key skills, including an eye for detail, a logical approach and problem solving. To start supporting digital better, they also need to demonstrate the softer skills of influencing and leadership. Finance is in a unique position. It has a broad view across the whole business. Rather than pushing back on new investment requests, in the future it can help to lead digital from the front by always asking "could we do this better and more efficiently digitally?"
Agile development drives digital with its sprints, scrums and fast-paced working. It is very effective at driving charities to be more responsive to the fast pace of change in today’s digital world. The problem that finance teams face is that they find Agile difficult to budget for. The successful finance team will get over this negative feeling by ensuring Agile is free to flourish, but with the right level of controls they are comfortable with.
In the long run, finance needs to talk to IT and digital more, and vice versa. This can be done by various means, including business partnering and arranging regular meetings. Whatever means is chosen, it needs to be done. The role of finance is going to be fundamental to the future of digital. It will be the only function that can truly help charities to manage the balance between speed, cost and risk. It will no longer sit on the outside, but will be at the heart of digital thinking as it moves forward.