CFOs eye tech investments to attract, retain talent with AI/ML skills

Chief Financial Officers (CFOs) are apparently eager to invest in technology to help attract — and keep — finance talent and workers with artificial intelligence (AI) and machine-learning (ML) skills, according to a new survey.

Financial services and human resources software vendor Workday last week released its latest Global CFO Indicator Survey, which indicates that nearly half (48%) of CFOs plan to invest in consumer-like interfaces to attract future finance talent within the next five years — and 57% say they now want AI and ML skills in new hires. 

Workday conducted the online survey of 267 CFOs in Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, the US, France, Germany, and the UK. It was sent to organizations with 500 to 5,000+ employees.

CFOs are focusing on fresh skills in new hires to enrich the workforce. The survey found 40% of them are prioritizing analytics and data-storytelling skills in new hires – skills they weren’t looking for five years ago.

Workday
“Finance outperformers” or data-confident CFOs, are those who are sure of their abilities to  transform data into insights. Underperformers are those who didn’t rate themselves as confident about their data abilities. 

AI allows CFOs to spend less time combing through spreadsheets and numbers and more time explaining what big data means in terms of business value, according to Philippa Lawrence, Workday’s chief of accounting.

CFOs are looking for employees who not only can employ AI/ML to get information from data, but also communicate the importance of that data. “What we see very clearly in this survey is [that] what CFOs are looking for in terms of skills is being able to tell that story,” Lawrence said. “If you can’t tell a story about the data, no one’s going to listen to you.”

One in five organizations will double down on AI to boost delivery of business insights, according to Forrester Research. This year, the use of real-time systems infused with AI is expected to increase 20%, “removing the latency between insight, decision and business results,” Forrester wrote in its Predictions 2022: Artificial Intelligence report, released last October.

Forrester defines AI software as either software platforms that are used to create AI applications or apps that employ AI functionality such as machine learning, computer vision, and natural language processing. The AI market includes vendors that provide tools and platforms AI teams can use to create highly customized solutions for almost any use case. The list of vendors includes Cloudera, Dataiku, DataRobot, Domino Data Lab, dotData, Google, H2O.ai, IBM, MathWorks, Microsoft, RapidMiner, SAS, and TIBCO.

The AI software market is expected to grow from about $25 billion today to $37 billion globally by 2025, according to Forrester, with a significant portion of AI software sales to other software vendors. (In other middleware software categories such as database systems and integration tools as well as in applications like BI and analytics, up to 10% of revenues come from sales to other software vendors.)

Fifteen percent of non-tech firms are expected to include design and testing talent in their AI teams to create AI-infused products as the technology grows in use, according to Forrester.

“Two years ago, only the tech elite invested in design for their AI efforts,” the report said. “In 2022, many non-tech companies will follow the lead of Adobe, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Netflix, and Salesforce and appoint design leadership for AI projects.”

CFOs are embracing greater data management capabilities and upskilling teams to avoid the data skills gap; 58% of those surveyed by Workday rated their ability to transform data into insights as “excellent” — putting them into a group Workday refers to as “data confident” CFOs.

CFOs and accountants, however, are woefully behind other business leaders in using technology with “consumer-like” interfaces such as mobile apps that serve up information and data points from spreadsheets and databases.

“What’s important to us is having a technology that’s easy to use, hence the ‘consumer-type’ technology. If you can use something easily, then my profession can then concentrate on the higher level, fun stuff and not trying to find things,” Lawrence said.

According to Workday’s survey, 48% of respondents indicated they’re actively investing in consumer-like interfaces for finance-employee tasks, including those that automate accounting, reporting, and financial planning and analysis (FP&A) processes. By streamlining workflows this way, employees can focus on strategic tasks and boost productivity, Workday’s report said.

“Of the CFOs prioritizing this, a striking 99% agree that technology updates will become even more important for both attracting and retaining employees,” according to the rerport.

Lawrence, who’s been an accountant for 30 years, said in the past she had to manually scour data sets and analyze them as best she could; the task was never efficient and often involved disparate data systems and data sets that  didn’t always agree with each other.

“We don’t have fully integrated systems — and I’d turn up with maybe some sort of ‘it might be this’ for the CFO,” Lawrence said. ‘That, for CFOs, is simply not going to work anymore.”

The COVID-19 pandemic, Lawrence said, has changed CFO expectations. Today, they want reliable data fast.

“Being able to use AI and ML to help us identify anomalies and unusual trends helps us to analyze the data, so now we can figure out what that data is actually telling us,” Lawrence said. “Now I have the capability to drill down and say, ‘Hey, I think there’s something in this area of revenue and it’s coming from this country, this city or this [business].”

Attracting, upskilling, and retaining talent remain top priorities among those surveyed.

Among top skills CFOs seek in new employees is data governance and management (78%); data science and visualization (71%); and environmental, social and governance (63%). Risk analysis also scored relatively high among desired skills, with 60% of respondents saying they need them.

Even as they focus on technology, CFOs are not losing focus on the need for diversity and inclusion (D&I) or environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG), from an investment and support perspective. In the survey, CFOs identified D&I (31%) and ESG (25%) as the top two emerging areas with the biggest gaps to address.

“I say this almost on a daily basis, that this is a great time to be a finance professional. We’re not stuck in the back room anymore,” Lawrence said. “Technology is empowering us to use the skills we trained for. It’s filling in the blank, and I’m so glad CFOs are now looking to invest in these skills and technology.”