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People, the CFO and the challenges of Intelligent Automation

by Marco van der Hoeven

Without help people can’t keep up with the unstoppable growth of data, from which they try to get meaningful and useful insights. Technology gives us unprecedented ways of making smart and accurate predictions. Rocking Robots talked to David Wray about the most effective way people and organizations can use tools like Intelligent Automation. In this process the CFO plays a key role.

Intelligent Automation is a welcome development for people, who are struggling to process data. “Historically it is people who had to figure out what data is trying to tell us, what patterns we should understand and what relationships there are”, says David Wray, Global Accounting and Reporting Senior Director at Huawei. “It was a very limited process in terms of how it’s been done. And frankly, when you look at the speed of data growth over the last handful of years, people just can’t keep up.”

”The reality is we’re limited in what we can do. So where Intelligent Automation and automation in general is interesting is this now seeing relationships, patterns and correlations we never understood before. From that data people are not only able to make smarter decisions, but are actually able to predict more accurately than ever before. “Prediction is still an art, but it’s more of a science now as well.” That’s where it becomes interesting to see how that’s evolved. And of course, when there’s change, it affects people.”


We’ve got these really great tools that give us this insight we didn’t have, but how do we get people prepared to understand what that data is trying to tell us? But also, is that output even right? This is where you get into this debate about the so called black box. There’s this fantastic piece of AI, but how do I know if what’s inside the box is actually working correctly?”

That is where people get prepared to ask tough questions. “For machine learning there’s a variety of ways it can learn. But a significant part of what it learns generates from what people have historically done, or what people tell it. So our own biases and prejudices end up in the technology. The question then is how do you get people prepared to address that? How will they recognize it? How will they know? That to me is where it gets really interesting when we talk about transformation.”


He continues: “Transformation and innovation mean first of all looking at the fundamental processes we have in place. So before we even begin the conversation about automation and technology we look at the processes. We have to answer a few key questions. The first is: do we even need the process? I see a lot of organizations just automate everything without asking if hey actually even need the processes, or in some way can discontinue what they are doing.”

The second question organizations have to ask is, assuming they have to go on with a certain process, whether it is as efficient as it could be. If the process is inefficient or suboptimal they have to deal with that first, before moving to automation. The final question is which area is most labor intensive and provides the best return on investment.”

Shiny things

This has to fit into the overall vision and strategy.  “But what I typically see is a lot of excitement about what I refer to as the ‘shiny things’, a focus on the possibility or what we think can happen, without doing the more fundamental legwork. Then we tend to have outcomes that don’t end up meeting expectations. So the foundational work ensures that expectations on the investments in technology are met. “

People have to embrace this change. “Humans typically like the status quo. So there has to be sponsorship from the top. Without the sponsorship things will fizzle out and die out. And ultimately, individuals won’t follow along because they won’t see the clarity of purpose. The second part is we have got to take employees along the journey. They need to be part of the change, not have the change done to them. When we just impose change on others the resistance is incredibly strong.”


“And then the third thing that needs to happen, which is really important, is much more communication than is anticipated. Because in the absence of communication individuals will naturally fill the void. And their natural tendency is to fill the void with bad news. The way to prevent this is to communicate more often than we think is necessary. When they see the benefits and have a voice, all of a sudden they get excited, start talking to others and it becomes a self moving machine with much lower change resistance.”

People need to be properly prepared for a digital environment as well. “It is very helpful governments are starting to invest digital skills, so you start to see, for example, programming at a much younger age in children. But if we’re talking about the context of the organization today, then clearly that particular young investment has already gone past. And I think what organizations need to do here is to invest in the digital skills they need. It is a combination of recognizing the need, and actually addressing it. Again, resistance from employees is much lower because they’ve got clarity, they will not be replaced by a machine.


The CFO plays a crucial role in all this. “Not just from an executive perspective to look at the way the investment fits the strategy, but they’ve got to think about the operational nuts and bolts of the company to decide whether there is an infrastructure which is able to deliver. They’ve got to think more broadly than the finance function, bust also supply chain operations, production and delivery. Their role, I think, is a bit tougher, because where most of the other executives tend to think a little bit more vertically the CFO historically has had to think very horizontally.”

“And I don’t think that will change. So for them it’s key to make sure they really understand their business, otherwise something can easily get missed. But more importantly, they have to be inspirational. The CFO needs to look at Intelligent Automation from both a technical and a people perspective.”

David Wray is a passionate transformation and change management executive. He has worked with Fortune 100 companies and individuals throughout the Americas, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. He is the author of The Power of Potential: A Straightforward Method for Mastering Skills from Personal to Professional,

Read more on the CFO and automation at the CFO Experience

See also

Automation in HR: Robotisation without losing sight of the human dimension


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