As CFOs embrace the digital transformation of their function, they must make three key mindset shifts to achieve fully autonomous finance, says Gartner.
During the opening keynote from the Gartner CFO & Finance Executive Conference, Gartner experts outlined the path to autonomous finance. Gartner defines autonomous finance as a finance function partly governed, and majority operated, by self-learning software agents that optimize front-, middle- and back-office operations.
“The most common obstacles we hear from CFOs about the journey to an autonomous function are things such as insufficient budget, or an unprepared data environment, or a lack of skills,” says Dennis Gannon, vice-president, research in the Gartner Finance practice. “These are all very real challenges, but they are fundamentally addressable. However, without the right mindset from leadership it won’t matter how much talent or budget CFOs throw at digital transformation.”
Finance functions have been automating their processes for many years but this, in fact, carries a lot of unhelpful baggage because automating a function is a different thing to autonomising a function.
“Automation in finance brings to mind simplistic, machine repetition,” says Gannon. “It’s not typically associated with full delegation of a process; it is seen as automation of the easy things, and it leaves behind a patchwork of tasks to be done by a human to keep the whole process working.”
While most CFOs believe autonomous finance will become a reality within the next six years, few are making progress toward it. Finance leaders must accelerate their journey toward autonomous finance or risk falling behind. They must make three key mindset shifts to succeed with autonomous finance.
Shift 1: Experiment Broadly
“The finance function sees itself as the gatekeeper for responsible spending, and that often translates to narrow experimentation with technology: waiting for proven use-cases before scaling up,” says Gannon. “But the best way to realise value from technology investments that lead to autonomous finance is broad experimentation from the outset.”
For example, organisations with the broadest number of pilot programs in their first 12 months of AI investment generate double the number of AI-applications in subsequent years. Pilots don’t all have to be big bets, but broad experimentation yields unexpected benefits and synergies and realises value faster than a more tentative approach.
Shift 2: Put More Trust in Technology
“CFOs tend to see technology as a tool, but rely on people to make decisions,” says Gannon. “Even when the evidence shows that technology makes better or more accurate decisions, people are still reluctant to trust it.”
“Algorithm aversion” often manifests as holding technology to a higher standard than humans. For example, CFOs report the maximum acceptable variance for a traditional financial statement forecast generated by humans is 10%. Yet the maximum acceptable variance for a technology-generated forecast is 5%.
Shift 3: Lead from the Front
“Finance employees see their CFOs announcing exciting new technology investments and touting their transformational potential,” says Gannon. “But they also see CFOs displaying little practical knowledge about the applications of these technologies and keeping an arm’s length from their use.”
Fewer than one in three CFOs said they invest significant personal time learning about technologies for autonomous finance and their applications. What leaders say has much less impact on employee behavior than what they do. Employees don’t change because leaders ask them to. They change because of how leaders behave.