Chief financial officers (CFOs) face a daunting list of digital priorities for 2021, from the implementation of advanced data analytics and robotic process automation (RPA) technologies to accelerating digital skills among their teams.

A Gartner survey conducted in October also reveals that most CFOs are not confident in successfully meeting their highest priority digital objectives for the coming year.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has forced CFOs to abruptly assess both their organizations’ and functions’ current digital capabilities, and they have clearly found many areas lacking,” says Alexander Bant, chief of research in the Gartner Finance practice.

“Next year will be about accelerating digital investment timelines from the pace of a multi-year marathon to a 12-month sprint. However, most CFOs aren’t sure they will successfully cross the finish line in many of these areas.”

Gartner’s survey asked CFOs where they will spend more time in 2021 compared to 2020, and where they anticipate difficulties in achieving their goals.

Among digital priorities, the top three areas for greater investment of time were all also accompanied by significant levels of doubt among CFOs, with half or more expecting it to be difficult to achieve their top digital goals.

While 82% of respondents indicated that advanced data analytics technologies and tools were a top priority, nearly as many, 78%, expected it to be difficult to successfully achieve their goals in this area next year.

Many CFOs are seeking to revive stalled growth investments while optimising costs to better reflect new business realities. Chief among these realities are meeting new customer preferences shaped by the pandemic, including greater expectancy for speed, multichannel delivery and always-on availability.

“CFOs face dual demands in funding the broader digital enterprise, while also ensuring their own function is equipped with the tools, technologies and talent for successful transformation,” says Bant. “Fortunately, many digital priorities, such as RPA, should also be supportive of CFOs’ cost optimization goals, at least long-term.”

CFOs should put a primary focus on identifying the investments that will drive positive business outcomes and enhance employee performance within new hybrid working models. CFOs will need to reassess how to measure business performance in this environment while also encouraging new business models that support digital growth.

Bant suggests accelerating the use of RPA to free up team member time on repeatable and transactional tasks. Advanced digital analytics technologies can help finance organisations deliver insights at scale and create long-term competitive advantages.

Attracting the digitally savvy finance talent required to maximise value from analytics and automation may be more feasible in light of a newly open and remotely available global talent pool.

“Most CFOs have by now conducted small-scale experiments in either RPA, artificial intelligence (AI) or advanced analytics technologies, and they have seen the potential for significant ROI,” Bant says. “Now the key will be achieving scale with these technologies while ensuring that CFOs have the talent in place to run an always-on, fully digital business.”