We put Pieter Bensch, EVP, for Africa & Middle East at Sage, in a time machine and sent him to 2025. COVID-19 is a distant memory, but we learnt a lot. Now, here we are, five years later, and it’s a good time to reflect.
Describe ‘business as usual’ in 2025. How does it compare to business as usual in 2020?
The digital transformation of the finance function started gaining momentum in 2020. We were making small, incremental changes to financial workflows using emerging technologies of the time. However, these changes still delivered immense value to the business, especially in productivity and revenue enhancement.
But we had yet to get end-to-end automation right. In 2020, we were eliminating paper and spreadsheets with automated processes. Then we automated workflows with mobile-first technology that enabled self-service functionality from anywhere.
The pandemic forced businesses to take a giant leap into remote working, and I believe this was a significant catalyst that made finance the most hands-off process it is today.
In 2025, we’ve run out of ways to describe the volumes of data we collect and analyse, and the speed at which we process it. It’s unfathomable, really. But the upside is that businesses are in a good place with data. They’re using rich datasets and hyper-automation to drive in-the-moment decision-making and to prepare for what’s coming.
We also used to speak about advanced business management systems. Today, we talk about sophisticated and collaborative systems. They’re ecosystems of devices, tools, networks, robotic process automation (RPA), intelligent business management software, Artificial intelligence (AI), and machine learning. And they all work together – mostly without any human input – to help businesses gain and guard their customers’ trust and to deliver better experiences and value.
What have been the biggest financial technology advancements, apart from hyper-automation, in the past five years?
AI is today what cloud computing was in 2020. It’s not ubiquitous, but it’s widespread, and businesses are comfortable with it. We interact intuitively and confidently with technology through AI, and it’s made solutions and insights more accessible to more people. It’s certainly made the finance function a lot easier and more convenient.
Through continuous, augmented insights, finance leaders make better decisions about where to allocate budget and resources.
This has only been possible due to the advancement of 5G networks that collect and process data at speeds we could never have imagined in 2020. And since it’s reduced the price to connect and operate from the cloud, many more businesses are entirely digital today.
Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) fuel many business ecosystems today. They give business instant access to third-party and highly valuable databases that can enrich their insights and, by extension, their products and services.
APIs bring incredible functionality to financial management platforms. By securely interfacing with external datasets, businesses can run simulations and predictive analysis models faster and cheaper than ever before.
Using Digital Twins, we can test just about anything before investing a cent. You can imagine that this has made innovation a lot more fun and fluid. The low-risk approach of Digital Twinning allows us to simulate even the strangest requests from our customers – and a lot of them, ironically, make our products better. Often, we’ve adapted these improvements into microservices that we’re able to integrate into our other enterprise solutions, like HR and inventory management.
And then there’s blockchain, which has improved many finance and transaction processes through guaranteed data integrity. Trust is everything today, and having an automated record-keeping and governance function that instantly validates transactions has made the finance function simpler and more transparent.
What are the biggest challenges facing finance leaders in 2025?
Finding the right talent to support the business strategy. Ironically, it’s never been easier to access expert skills from all over the world, but it’s also never been more challenging to attract them.
Many businesses have shifted to a more project-based, cross-functional workforce that allows them to dip in and out of the talent pool as needed. For permanent hires, recruitment packages are tailored to the person’s career goals, values, and personal circumstances. Standard contracts don’t exist anymore. Everything is about the personal experience.
Then, the Big Three – data security, governance, and compliance – are still challenges. Cybercriminals use sophisticated tooling and methods to target businesses, and they’re also automating a lot of their work.
As tech continues to evolve, so does legislation and regulations. Requirements change all the time, especially as businesses use bigger datasets. It is where AI and machine learning have really come into their own, with businesses automating the security and compliance function as much as possible.
How has the role of the CFO changed?
CFOs and other senior financial decision-makers spend more time on data analysis, prediction, and decision support. In 2020, CFOs were starting to take charge of digital transformation in their businesses. They had a bigger say in hiring decisions and in supporting remote teams – things they never concerned themselves with in the past.
Today, the CFO’s role spans the entire organisation, with influence over everything from technology and human resources, to business development and strategy. This has made softer, more strategic skills – like communication, problem-solving, and creativity – more valuable than ever because they help CFOs to see patterns across the business.
COVID created a sense of urgency to transform digitally. It resulted in less-than-ideal, short-term solutions. What were the biggest learnings from this crisis, and how are businesses better prepared today?
COVID-19 was the perfect example of failing forward. No one knew what we were dealing with at the time, or the impact it would have. Businesses made the best decisions they could with the information they had. There was no other choice.
They innovated out of necessity, but they also learnt a lot in the process about what worked and what didn’t. The real tragedy would be if they did nothing with those insights or didn’t learn from their mistakes – and those of others. In the end, we learnt a few things, like the importance of a business continuity plan. We also learnt what it means to be agile and why it’s essential to be comfortable with change. And we finally appreciated the value of modern technology and everything is possible if we get out of our own way.
Are we passed the digital transformation debate? What do we talk about these days? What are the trends and predictions?
Yes, thank goodness. We also don’t talk about legacy systems and data silos anymore. Although these are still challenging for some businesses today, we speak more about people-driven technology, and how to integrate better and maintain systems.
Think about the businesses that have a competitive advantage in 2025. What’s their secret to success?
We moved from the digital economy in 2020 to the trust economy in 2025. Competitive advantage comes from putting your customer at the centre of everything you do and every decision you make. If that means shelving a game-changing idea until you’ve figured out the data privacy and trust part of the equation, then so be it.
Nothing is worth compromising your customers’ trust. It’s precious and fragile.
Businesses that act ethically and with integrity, openness, accountability, competence, and consistency are thriving today.
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