From gatekeeper to innovator: How finance teams are using technology to drive strategic innovation

Chief financial officer (CFO) and finance teams are typically known for their fiscal duties – accounting, expenses and financial planning – that help ensure an organization is compliant and runs smoothly for long-term financial health. Over the past few years, the role of finance teams has drastically evolved to include driving innovation. During the pandemic, CFO guidance was critical to keep organizations running – by closely monitoring revenue and expenses and at times, making tough business decisions. Now, these teams are being asked to expand their role to become futurists and play a leading role in transformation. To learn more about this evolution, Microsoft conducted a survey with US finance leaders to get their perspective on the future of finance.

In Microsoft’s new Economic Guardians of the Future report, we examine how financial teams and leaders are working today, the challenges they’re facing, and the role of technology in their day-to-day lives. What we found is that CFOs and their teams are facing a new, urgent directive: striking the right balance between strategic innovation while protecting the long-term financial health of their organizations – all during an uncertain economic climate.

Striking the right balance: Economic guardian and innovation driver
In our research, we uncovered that most finance leaders feel they are being asked to deliver on conflicting objectives – to accelerate the pace of innovation while also ensuring brand trust and mitigating risks. They must both reduce costs and increase growth to deliver short-term profit and long-term vision and corporate purpose. Despite their reputation as risk-averse adversaries to innovation79% of finance leaders believe that to meet future needs they must play a significant role in owning business innovation and empowering transformation across the organization. Now more than ever CFOs and their teams are focused on transformation and the future.

We’re already seeing this evolution in customers we partner closely with. London Stock Exchange Group’s (LSEG) CFO Anna Manz’s role goes beyond performance management and driving an efficient function into delivering the big strategic decisions. Most recently this included LSEG’s collaboration with Microsoft to empower financial markets with next generation data, analytics and workspace solutions. It is challenging LSEG to think about how they can work with customers and develop products differently, and it’s crucial that a cross-functional team including finance understand the scale of the opportunity and the capability to execute. Combining LSEG’s unparalleled depth and breadth of financial data and analytics and deep knowledge of financial services, paired with Microsoft’s technology and embedded Microsoft office workflow, creates a tremendous opportunity to bring critical transformation in the financial services industry.

Drive employee satisfaction through AI and automation
While finance teams are being asked to take on more than ever, they are not seeing incremental increases in people resourcing. Striking the balance between automation and an organization’s most important asset — its people — is key for the future of finance.​ Doing more with less isn’t about overburdening an already taxed workforce, it’s about augmenting human capabilities with automation, enabling employees to move business forward.​ Eighty-two percent of finance leaders found AI and automation very important to help evolve their team’s role to support their organization’s strategic goals. Implementing AI and automation can free up valuable time for finance teams to focus on work that drives business strategy and modernization.

As finance professionals seek more ways to work smarter, not harder, low code automation tools remove IT barriers. Empowered with automation and AI, people are more connected, collaborative and ready to tackle more strategic work.

Agility and innovation are crucial when facing the unexpected
Business agility is essential, and finance teams are doubling down their efforts to keep up with shifting markets. Organizational health has become increasingly dependent on connected data, efficient processes and action-oriented insights that facilitate agile, data-driven decision making.

Microsoft’s Economic Guardians of the Future report found that 88% of financial leaders feel overwhelmed by their organization’s data. To address this need, Microsoft is announcing the first of many new capabilities in Dynamics 365 Finance: Business performance analytics which empowers finance professionals by equipping them with faster reporting and analytics. This new capability streamlines financial reporting by centralizing data from multiple business workstreams into an easy-to-use interface. Powered by Dataverse, this enables capability users to create and share personalized reports, and get secure, near real-time access to critical financial information. With improved visibility, finance teams can make informed decisions and provide timely financial insights to business leaders.

But this product advancement couldn’t be done without our customers’ partnership. Robert Walters, a global recruitment and talent management company, is a prime example of how innovative technology and agility helps CFOs drive strong cross-functional partnerships and digital transformation. Robert Walters partnered with Microsoft to replace their entire finance platform, all during the pandemic. The results? An on-time, in-budget success, which led to streamlining the delivery of information to teams, enabled real-time data visibility, and in one specific instance an annual cost savings of 150,000 pounds. By utilizing innovative technologies and fostering a strategic partnership between the CFO and chief information officer, the company effectively unifies data and information, driving faster, data-driven decision-making. With this hyper-connect business approach their recruiters have the information they need to drive better outcomes for recruits and clients.

Empower your workforce by prioritizing job fulfillment, collaboration and faster innovation
It comes as no surprise that employees want to spend less time on repetitive and transactional tasks, and more time working as a team to drive better business decisions.

At Microsoft, we’ve been on this journey for years, transforming our finance operations using our cloud-based products including Azure, Excel, Power Platform, Dynamics 365 and Teams — something we call Modern Finance. But this goes beyond technology. We are reimagining what is possible and that required a cultural shift to reevaluate our processes, alleviate pain points, foster a culture of learning and innovation, and empower our people to do their best work. One highlight is that we have many citizen developers on our finance team who are leveraging low-code technology to transform business processes. These initiatives have saved us over 977 hours of manual labor annually, with over $25 million in savings and a huge boost in productivity.

When we combine people, processes, and tools — this is where the real magic happens. Don’t underestimate the importance of culture, how to build a team and a culture that allows learning, sets the pace of industry-wide transformations and encourages innovation.

Modern Finance is here to stay
We are living through a period of historic economic, social, and technological change, but for all the uncertainty we continue to see in the world one thing is clear: Business leaders are turning to finance and innovative technology to help them do more with less, to navigate the unexpected and emerge much stronger. Financial transformation is a journey, not a destination.

Tags: AI, Azure, Dynamics 365, Excel, Microsoft Teams, Power Platform

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