Technology & Innovation

8 tips to help asset management CFOs lead on digital transformation

Many asset management firms are late to the digital transformation party. These tips will help asset management CFOs lead transformation in their firms.

Asset management CFOs face a stiff challenge in leading digital transformation across their organisations. Many of their firms are digital wallflowers, only using technology in tentative and isolated ways.

A survey by platform provider Kurtosys showed that 44% of asset management firms still have no documented digital strategy.

Meanwhile, consultant McKinsey ran a global survey of 300 asset managers and found only 20 creating value through digital strategies by, for example, reducing long-term costs, increasing revenues and improving investment performance.

CFOs tasked with leading transformation need to help their firms join the digital party with a confident splash. Here are eight tips for how you can do it.

1. Don’t focus on cutting costs

McKinsey says the small number of asset management firms that have reached digital maturity are driving value in areas such as new client acquisition, customised investment advice, research, portfolio management, middle and back-office processes, distribution, and client engagement.

For your asset management firm to catch up, you (and your team) need to improve your understanding of the next generation of technology and how it can reinvent the business, then lead efforts to build it into every area.

Simon Winter, finance transformation director at Standard Life Aberdeen, says: “We aim to put the building blocks in place to better support the business with quicker, more relevant financial information, then to add extra value in supporting the wider business.

“If you focus transformation just on cost cutting or technology, you won’t succeed.”

2. Bring staff with you

Many employees at asset management firms are still hesitant and yet to embrace technological developments fully. Some worry about their role becoming automated.

To keep them engaged, you must align the digital strategy with the needs of the workforce. The team should develop and upskill together, rather than via a top-down change.

You and the leaders at your firm must show those who will use the technology that it will empower rather than subjugate or replace them, and free up talent to focus on high value activities.

Communicating this people-first awareness and culture, sharing knowledge and timelines on strategic developments, and explaining the significance of the changes will minimise the perceived threat and fear of the unknown.

Christopher Argent, digital finance transformation consultant and managing director at Generation CFO, says many finance leaders sponsoring digital transformation projects start by “telling” staff what to do and saying the technology opportunity is “coming whether you like it or not”.

He adds: “But traditional, hierarchical business models such as asset management are all about people and collaboration.

“So make sure behaviour change is at the heart of your business and digital transformation strategies.

“There is no point starting digital transformation if no one will adopt new ways of working or use new digital tools and data.

“So this is not fluffy stuff. It is the difference between successful engagement and failure. Also, transformation is big, but people change one day at a time, so think small.

“Prepare for a long journey, building people’s capabilities over time.”

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3. Put people in full-time transformation roles

Winter says you can’t do a large-scale transformational programme “off the side of people’s desks”.

He adds: “To support this, my role has changed from COO finance to full-time finance transformation director, freeing me up from other responsibilities.

“Many organisations struggle with the speed of decision making. But we’re changing almost everything we do, so we need our key people in full-time transformation roles.

“That enables them to make decisions quickly and move through the design. It also shows others how important the transformation is.”

4. Focus on the right data and analytics tools

Winter says data strategy must be a core part of any digital transformation, alongside the system strategy. Centralisation is also key.

“If you spend a lot of money on a new enterprise resource planning (ERP) system but do not have a ‘single source of the truth’ in centralised data, you’ve failed,” he says.

“Centralisation reduces the amount of manual manipulation and reconciling data needed.”

This is particularly important for asset managers as they are using data and analytics as critical sources of competitive advantage across every aspect of their businesses.

Digital leaders in this sector devote a much larger share of their discretionary investment spending to data-related projects – 35% more than the average, according to McKinsey.

But many firms are off the pace. According to recent report by Sage, CFO 3.0: Digital transformation beyond financial management, 70% of finance leaders still make decisions based on gut feel rather than data.

And according to a report by Boston Consulting Group (BCG), most asset manager leaders recognise what data and analytics can do but many have little idea of how and where to invest. They lack the IT resources, data architecture, talent, and cultural readiness to implement changes at the required scale.

Leaders know that not acting could seriously undermine the business within five years. But BCG’s research suggests that only 20% to 30% of asset managers are pioneers in this area, investing with conviction for a broad range of uses.

To join these leaders, you and your team need to do more than just buy technology. You must focus on talent, change management, and choosing the right data and analytics tools.

The number of data sources and startups claiming to offer game-changing technology is a challenge, says BCG. So firms must develop informed relationships with third-party providers and distinguish what is valuable.

One approach is to start with a few high-impact, narrowly focused uses of data technology. Such projects create momentum and secure investment for the next steps of hardening IT infrastructure and assembling teams to build more powerful uses.

This is also a crucial area for CFOs because if they lead the move towards data insights and analytics, it will allow them to shape the strategy of the finance function and eventually the whole business, says the Sage report.

This will transform finance leaders from historians to visionaries. They will be responsible for predicting the direction of the business, uncovering hidden opportunities and closing gaps within an increasingly data and insight-driven organisation.

5. Upgrade your skills and technological know-how

It’s important for you to keep improving on your technological knowledge and skills – and this is especially important considering you work in financial services.

According to Sage, 78% of finance leaders across sectors say they need knowledge and resources to make emerging technology transformational. The same percentage say they view technology literacy skills as essential to the future of their department.

But this proportion increases to 86% for finance leaders in the financial services sector.

Meanwhile, 77% of finance leaders say they will be unable to provide insights if they do not invest in financial management technology.

So you need to equip yourself with the skills and resources essential to the future of your financial department and to the changing industry. These include a full complement of business, analytical, data and cloud technology-related skills.

You must not underestimate the size of the change. With the right systems and skills in place, your finance team can operate more strategically to advance the business.

6. Embrace the cloud

Finance leaders are aware of the benefits of the cloud in centralising data to increase cost efficiencies, flexibility, integration and security. The next phase will be for you to further embrace cloud-based technology and create a nimbler and more cost-effective finance function.

These tools minimise the need for hardware and storage, providing more scalable and easily automated processes.

According to the Sage report, the wider consideration for some CFOs has been how cloud technology fits with their existing business infrastructures. But this is where you can be most effective – by enabling a connected operating environment that provides greater automation and better real-time insights.

Winter says Standard Life Aberdeen’s mantra is “adopt don’t adapt”.

He adds: “Moving to the cloud forces you to adopt [new systems and ways of working]. Transformations have gone wrong in other organisations because people have adapted the system to their traditional processes.

“They used to work out what their current processes were and what their new ones would be and map the process improvement opportunities.

“These days, moving to the cloud means your future processes are fixed by the system. You just need to work out how you get from where you are today to those systems.

“So to achieve transformation, we must change the old ‘adapt’ mindset. We need to adopt an out-of-the-box system, not customise it for our needs.”

7. Prioritise recruitment

Demand is soaring across financial services for expertise in technological areas such as data and analytics. Some asset management firms are taking the initiative in recruiting and retaining the right people and helping them deliver.

For example, they are opening centres close to large pools of expertise such as Silicon Valley. Others are developing career paths, pooling resources to create talent communities, deploying agile methodologies and fostering collaboration and a culture of innovation.

Winter says: “We’re going through the recruitment journey now. If we get our data model and systems right, the skills we need will change significantly.

“Will all the same people be in the function today compared to two years’ time? Probably not. A large percentage of the jobs people will do in future don’t currently exist.”

8. Lead from the front

In many companies, the CFO will lead the digital change effort together with the CEO. Argent says asset management CFOs need to “walk the talk” of digital transformation by creating learning projects. He points out that you’ll also need to role-model new ways of working with real projects with demonstrable return on investment, before scaling.

“Consider this an opportunity to be an entrepreneur, create a startup and grow a whole new asset within the business,” says Argent. “Spend 50% of your time on people, the rest on the programme and technology.

“Think way past newsletters, posters, team updates and training. Build a community internally, learn from peers externally, add context around the change in the industry and challenge status quo mindsets.”

Evolving from a traditional management style that relies on intuition, to a more contemporary one based on data-driven evidence, can be culturally disruptive.

The Sage CFO 3.0 report reveals that 63% of finance leaders believe their businesses are not yet culturally ready for more automation. But leading from the front will help to create the right culture for transformation.

To achieve this, you must acknowledge your role in delivering and shaping digital strategies in an increasingly disruptive landscape.

It will be a huge feat. But with the right culture and technology, you will likely be heralded as a visionary of the future.

Editor’s note: This article was first published in February 2020 and has been updated for relevance.

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