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Has Artificial Intelligence improved your finance department yet?

Has Artificial Intelligence improved your finance department yet?

  • Jamie Black
  • 15 February, 2018
  • Finance Evolved
  • minute(s)Finance has always utilized technology. From the humble abacus (2700 - 2300 BCE) to adding machines (1642 CE), to today's PCs.  The last 40 years have seen even ‘Moore’ (excuse the pun, couldn’t resist) spectacular technological advancement, as discussed in our Tech for Execs: Ignorance is not bliss article. The questions we tackle here are what will the future bring, how disruptive will this change be for the finance department and what can we do today?  Future Technology - Artificial Intelligence (AI) In short, AI refers to a device that perceives its environment and takes actions that maximize its chance of successfully achieving its goals. This definition is intentionally broad as AI could refer to a software application designed to perform bank reconciliations or Terminator robots. When we think about AI in terms of software, one guide is that the application can do things that it was not specifically programmed to do. It learns based on the outcome of previous events. There are two categories of artificial intelligence: 1) Narrow AI Narrow AI is focused on one very specific topic. Still, in its early stages, we can already see developments in narrow AI. AlphaGo Zero is a computer program that taught itself the board game Go by playing against itself. Within days it was better than the best Go-playing applications which themselves beat the best human Go players. Then in 4 hours it taught itself Chess and could beat the best Chess programs in the world (the ones that beat the best humans). Finally, it taught itself Shogi (a Japanese version of Chess played on a bigger board) in 2 hours and was better than the world's best Shogi program. Some other interesting examples: Google's self-taught Go playing AI crushes the best human player, AI in Tesla will predict your destination, MIT's autonomous cheetahs figure out how to navigate obstacles entirely on their own, Boston Dynamics SpotMini locating, recognizing and opening a door, Amazon's use of AI to improve their business processes 2) General AI General AI (sometimes called Artificial General Intelligence or AGI) is a hypothetical machine that exhibits behavior at least as skillful and flexible as humans across a broad set of topics. This is the Hollywood sci-fi that many people immediately think of. Should AGI become a reality, it promises to change every aspect of our world fundamentally. Many experts in the field are in fact worried that it will lead to disaster. To learn more, I recommend an excellent Ted Talk by Sam Harris (below) or Nick Bostram's excellent book on the topic.    AI & the finance department What will AI (narrow or general) mean for the finance department? In the near term, repetitive and time-consuming tasks are being automated at an accelerating pace driving massive improvements in efficiency. These advancements tend to be less risky and relatively low cost and thus are immediately appealing. The benefits are enormous, freeing your team from the mundane, repetitive work allowing them to tackle the difficult, often more rewarding tasks that they may not have time to tackle today. As the technology improves, analyzing data and making decisions based on this analysis are also likely to be automated. We expect that the move to rely on AI for these most complex and difficult tasks - the ones that require years or decades of experience in humans - will be initially slow and cautious. Nearly all studies suggest that the entire finance function (like many others) will be entirely automated by AI exclusively or a human-AI hybrid. The process has begun. Recent research indicates 46% of CFOs in large companies already use narrow AI in some role in their organization and another 30% are investigating its use. Today's Technology - Robotic Process Automation (RPA) For decades finance departments leveraged spreadsheets and more recently databases. These technologies allow for simplistic automation such as calculations or manipulating manually defined groups of data. While basic, this automation has allowed finance departments to complete larger & more complicated tasks with fewer hours of investment. RPA takes automation to the next level and can be considered a pre-cursor to AI. The three characteristics generally associated with RPA: It does not require programming skills on the part of end users, It does not require complex, disruptive integration with existing systems, It is designed to be managed and even implemented by a business user, Some simplistic examples: data analytics & monitoring systems that check thousands of variables in the way it’s been taught, against the benchmarks that have been provided. When exceptions are identified appropriate individuals are notified automatically and escalations occur at pre-determined intervals. automation of reconciliations between any data sources with automated adjustments when common deviations (think bank charges in the context of a bank rec) occur. automated modification of language in your MD&A based on the significance of an identified variance. So if the variance between actual and budget is greater than a predetermined threshold, entire sections of the report turn on and standard analysis is performed, automated analysis of documents to find violations of integrity, automated balancing of amounts across large complex documents. Take advantage now It's clear that technology has, does & will continue to influence the role of finance. While the exact timeline may be difficult to predict, the importance of continuously evaluating and embracing technology is indisputable. It is likely that many of the tools you use today include RPA functionality that is not being utilized. Further, you can expect to see a lot of narrow AI tools specifically targeted at finance in the very near future. Spending a bit of time to leverage these tools can provide your finance department with significant benefits at a very low cost.
AI is coming and it will dramatically improve your finance department's efficiency. It is already starting and many of us don't know it yet.
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Is your finance department prepared for these 5 colossal changes?

Is your finance department prepared for these 5 colossal changes?

  • Jamie Black
  • 29 March, 2017
  • Finance Evolved
  • minute(s)Perhaps the biggest failure of corporate governance today is its emphasis on short-term performance.   Corporate Governance 2.0 - Harvard Business Review You may not realize it yet, but your organization is in the early stages of being hit by massive, interconnected and occasionally opposing global changes. These changes are likely not going to reach full strength for 10 or 20 years. None the less, it will take time, planning, and some hard work to get prepared. If these changes turn out to be as big as predicted, being ready may mean the difference between an organization that prospers and one that perishes. In our blog series "Finance Evolved", we consider major trends & forces and how they may affect the finance department to aid in your planning & preparation. Here are the big 5 looming trends: 1) Demographics The population of North America is aging in a way not seen before. This will cause havoc for businesses, governments and the economy generally. 2) Skills Recent surveys reveal gaps between the finance skills required by organizations and those possessed by entry-level management accounting and finance professionals. As the pace of change increases, the successful individual finance professional and the successful finance department will need perpetual skills development.  3) Productivity Despite technological improvements, the pace of growth in productivity has been slowing globally since the 90s.  This has already impacted wages and may contribute to income/wealth inequalities and job insecurity in the future. 4) Budgets We see increasing levels of pressure for finance to accomplish more, faster with stagnant or decreasing budgets.  Given the other big forces in this list, there is every reason to believe that this pressure will intensify. 5) Technology To say we are living in a time of rapid, continuous technological change is a cliche. There are signs that while the current rate of technological improvement may be slowing, the effects may well be poised to more dramatically affect the finance department than ever before. Be ready for the future Train & mentor staff - The difficulty you have today finding qualified, appropriately skilled staff is going to become much worse. Your best bet is to retain and develop your current team. Document & standardize - Expect the loss of a significant percentage of your most experienced, knowledgeable workforce in the next 2 decades. Without excellent organizational supports, this will come with a consequent decline in organizational productivity. Plan ahead - Governments at all levels will see reduced revenue growth and increased expenses, further straining budgets. You can expect reduced governmental services and/or increased taxation.  Streamline & automate - Organizations of all types will be under growing pressure to increase productivity. Software and automated systems are your best tool to do more with less. Upgrade your skills - The requirement for greater productivity will mean that your value will be increasingly tied to your ability to lead, to streamline, to automate and to improve. Conversely, if your skills are primarily data entry/bookkeeping, you are likely to be automated into the unemployment line. Do you have the skills to leverage technology to help you address the dramatic staffing, efficiency, and budget challenges we will see in the next 10 to 20 years? Watch for future articles in our Finance Evolved series which will dive deeper into these topics and explore additional strategies designed to aid the transition to world-class finance organization.
To function effectively & efficiently in the coming decades, your finance department must plan for these 5 major changes right now.
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