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Advantage takeaways: how technology is expanding the role of finance

A few weeks ago, at our Advantage conference in Las Vegas, I was asked to lead a session on the technology-driven expansion of the CFO role over the past few decades. I was honored to team up with someone who’s followed this trend closely – Jack Sweeney, the executive producer of the CFO Thought Leader Podcast. He helped guide an insightful discussion with three highly experienced finance leaders who’ve certainly lived this evolution in their own careers: Ben Luety, CFO at Seattle Indian Health Board, Kote Lomidze, the Chief Financial and Administrative Officer (CFAO) at World Learning, and Michelle Naus, CFO at Tri-County Mental Health Services, Inc.

We focused not just on how finance leaders should react to the changing landscape, but how you can look ahead to proactively capitalize on digital technology for the betterment of your org, your team, and even your career. Specifically, we zoomed in on three key aspects KPMG emphasizes in their Future of Finance article around the disruption of finance: 1) extreme automation, 2) insights and analysis, and 3) service delivery. Read on to glean tips about compelling innovations and ideas we heard from our diverse panel of experts.

Extreme automation drives extreme productivity

To kick things off, Kote Lomidze shared how World Learning set out to eliminate manual tasks in a broader sense. After he and his finance and IT team automated standard processes, like time and expense tracking, they challenged themselves to think beyond the obvious. He reflected, “We realized we had a lot of paperwork around hiring and onboarding/offboarding employees. So, we looked at different solutions, and ended up actually rolling up our sleeves and designing the automation themselves.” Using Sage Intacct’s platform services, World Learning built a workflow in which managers submit a hiring requisition to a job portal where people can apply, and from there their personal data follows them through the whole recruitment phase. If they are eventually hired, Sage Intacct automatically triggers payroll to onboard the new employee for a specific start date, notifies IT when their computer needs to be ready, alerts the office manager for their desk and phone to be set up, and even tells the travel manager if they need a travel account.

“This eliminated inefficiencies in our processes, so we could get new hires productive from day one. Over the past few years, we’ve also started seeing other benefits of the automation that we hadn’t even imagined,” noted Lomidze. “For example, with three years of data from onboarding several hundred employees through this process, I could see it took seven days for someone to get properly set up, so we dissected that to find further efficiencies.” After identifying that five days were typically spent on computer configuration, the team started preordering 3-5 laptops they could always have ready with standard configuration, which took onboarding down to 2 ½ days.

Ben Luety next described how Seattle Indian Health Board repurposed Sage Intacct’s Projects module to automate quarterly federal grant reporting; slashing a 4-day process down to 20 minutes. Michelle Naus also shared benefits Tri-County Mental Health Services achieved by moving accounting to the cloud and streamlining duplicate data entry between their electronic medical record (EMR) system and the HIPAA-compliant Sage Intacct solution.

The consistent theme across all three of our real-world finance leaders was clear: technology has enabled them to look at automation beyond the traditional and well beyond their typical realm of responsibility. By automating processes that touch multiple parts of the business, finance and accounting expand their positive influence to become a true partner to the business. The technology is there; be the leader to capitalize on it.

Insights and analysis enable a front windshield view

Next, Ben Luety dove into the value of data visibility, saying, “A big part of my role as CFO is to look ahead through the car windshield and partner with our controller, whose role is to look in the rear-view mirror. I’m analyzing everything that’s coming up as quickly as I can to help prepare the organization for the turn in the road that that may be coming.” Sage Intacct serves as the Health Board’s single source of truth so everybody in the organization is reading off the same playbook, and it provides visual graphics and charts to help the board and executives immediately hone in potential issues. With complex operations spanning five divisions and 140 grant-specific cost centers (each with their own budgets and differing project start- and end-dates), this is no easy task.

Real-time project dashboards show the organization’s program managers how much they have left to spend on their particular grant or contract before the actual project period ends, including federally negotiated indirect rates, expenses currently sitting in A/P for the next month, and more. When they see a grant’s underspent, they can easily move resources around to get it back on track. Luety added that Sage Intacct automatically emails weekly reports to each member of the health board’s leadership team, with project over/under updates for every grant in their purview, ensuring the data is at their fingertips even if they don’t remember to check their dashboards.

Once again, a notable point was clear; technology has enabled the delivery of information proactively to decision makers around the organization. This critical component of providing a quality service, or product, to customers, clients or patients puts finance in the driver’s seat to lead the way.

Service delivery reinvented – from accounting to talent and operations

Expanding on the value that key insights can bring, Michelle Naus described finance’s role in supporting major changes to healthcare service delivery. Her organization was required to quickly adapt both their patient care and revenue recognition models as the industry started the transition from fee-for-service to value-based care. Tri-County was selected as a demonstration project for this federal initiative, which meant that Michelle’s team had to quickly rethink every aspect as to how they collected and recorded revenue. No longer was it on the straightforward per-visit basis enough; they had to now support an outcome-centric model. She explained, “Rather than just focusing on whether we’ve provided a service, we’re now thinking about the quality and outcomes, and whether people got better after being served. That’s totally different thinking from a normal healthcare accounting function, where you just verify which service was provided, report the revenue, and move on.”

The organization embraced new technologies around tele-health, video conferencing, and more real-time, multi-provider care enabling a shift in its care model, and at the same time the finance team found new ways to capture and book the revenue correctly. Tri-County also leverages Sage Intacct to track important non-traditional data sets, such as patient outcome ratios (helping secure half a million dollars in annual quality incentive bonuses), and even employee wellness metrics (which brought down their insurance costs). This sophisticated use of data and technology actually changed Naus’ approach to hiring. “It used to be, I’d just make sure they were good at the basic tasks of their role, but now I ask candidates bigger questions, like have you ever built a new workflow in a system? Are you open to learning new technologies?” she said.

Finance and Technology: better together

Kote Lomidze wrapped things up nicely with his thoughts about how accounting mindsets are changing at World Learning. His organization is constantly analyzing student data to make sure they enroll the right mix of students, while making it easier for people to apply (keeping in mind that Millennials look for more instant gratification). Lomidze realized, “Analyzing big data requires certain skills to extract insights, and my FP&A team was well-positioned to look at all that incoming student data because they had relevant experience with financial analysis. Basically now when I’m recruiting for our finance team, the main thing I need is for them to be good with data.”

Clearly, all of these opportunities to expand the role of finance stem from technology advances that permit delivery and interpretation of massive amounts of relevant, valuable data. It was illuminating to hear how these highly successful CFOs are leveraging their technology choices to not just manage, but initiate and drive deliverables, and success for their orgs, their team, their customers, and yes, even their careers.