When we think digitalisation, we look at how companies are bringing their services online and disrupting business models. Ecommerce, social selling, and the overall theme of digital transformation was everywhere.

However, do we pay a lot of attention to the reality of digital transformation, which involves the entire business process – not just the parts we kind of understand. This is where corporate accounting can be overlooked or at least, not given the same resources and attention as it should be.

We had a chance to speak to Dr. Josh Heniro, Senior Director of Southeast Asia and Australasia of IMA (Institute of Management Accountants) about all of this. They just published a new report on how short-term adaptions rooted in the COVID-19 pandemic can accelerate financial transformation with respect to corporate reporting. The report, Building Financial Reporting Resilience through Collaborative Cloud-Based Solutions is available for those who want to learn more.

In this interview, we had a chance to delve into the industry and the nuances that are not usually discussed in the general discourse. Find out what he had to share below.

What are the trends we’re seeing in this space in Southeast Asia? Could you elaborate on the findings in the region?

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen broad and rapid adoption of automation and cloud-based accounting to provide the tools for successful remote work, which has the side effect of allowing finance professionals to focus on providing data-based critical and analytical thinking to support business planning. 

With the emergence of the post-COVID economy, finance leaders will have the strongest business case yet for investment in technologies like intelligent automation, RPA, data analytics, and blockchain.

In IMA’s recent report on “Building Financial Reporting Resilience Through Collaborative Cloud-Based Solutions,” which is an online survey of 275 financial reporting professionals, of which 11% of the respondents were from Southeast Asia, more than 30% of our respondents expressed interest in other technology-based solutions for financial reporting, particularly around the documentation of management review processes. A notable portion (about one in four) expects a significant or moderate budget increase for corporate reporting solutions into 2021 and the post-pandemic period. Most of this appears to reflect an interest in cloud-based solutions. 

Digitalisation has bred an ever-changing technology landscape where upskilling and reskilling is essential in order to keep up with the pace of the technology industry. The pivoting from value stewardship to value creation requires finance professionals to constantly upskill and acquire competencies related to communication, decision making, and leadership. Companies would look into hiring prospects equipped with specific digital capabilities and skills that one can bring to the organisation. There will be more opportunities for finance professionals to prove that they can add value to an organisation beyond reporting and disclosure. There will also be greater demand for upskilling and continuing education for professionals. To become and stay relevant in the future, accounting and finance professionals will need to make a concerted effort to expand their knowledge beyond the traditional accounting curriculum. 

Could you share more about the types of technology that we are seeing in the corporate accounting world?

Through investments in advanced technologies, finance is undergoing a shift from being reactionary and transactional to becoming a more proactive and analytical function with the agility to respond to business needs as they arise.  

In a survey conducted by IMA and Deloitte, the insights gathered show finance at the precipice of a huge reset, spurred on by new technologies and more pressure to add value while containing costs. The survey, “From Mirage to Reality: Bringing Finance into Focus in a Digital World,” captures critical data on finance’s progress towards intelligent automation and the adoption of technologies like robotic process automation, cloud-based accounting solutions, blockchain, machine learning, and AI.

Given that there is an expectation to expand the budgets for digital solutions, how do you think corporates would be able to adapt?

Technology empowers accountants, and in turn, accountants wield technology as the powerful, meaningful weapon that it really is. This doesn’t eliminate the need for accountants but rather empowers them. It frees up time in their day to work with stakeholders in a more effective way. But for the finance function to capitalise on new technologies and thus keep pace with the changes in the business world, the finance professionals within those departments must continue their education. To align with the ever-shifting needs and innovations of the workplace, the desire and motivation to learn are necessary.

Drawing reference from IMA’s report on the impact of COVID on the finance function, 12% of the respondents believes that their skills will not be relevant. To align with the ever-shifting needs and innovations of the workplace, the desire and motivation to upskill are necessary. It’s paramount that accounting and finance professionals expand their capabilities and skills in this increasingly disruptive Digital Age to adjust and adapt to the new norm or become obsolete.

What are some of the hurdles or challenges you see for the sector?

Implementing the right technology and processes can help financial reporting teams move towards greater operational resilience. As technology is speeding up our world and the way we do business, cybersecurity is becoming inextricably linked to such fundamentally important tasks as protecting the safety and continuity of the business, ensuring confidentiality of sensitive data, and helping clients understand and manage a wide range of cyber-risks. 

Cybercrime is becoming an increasingly persistent business risk and defending against it is by no means easy and is not limited to merely solving purely technical issues. Accounting and finance professionals have to step up to the challenge and play an active role in ensuring their businesses, as well as confidential information of their clients, remain safe. To do so, they need to be fully aware of the cyber-threat landscape and be mindful of any knowledge gap. 

Technologies are only useful when they are in the right hands as they will not implement themselves; finance and accounting professionals must make the case for their implementation where upskilling and reskilling is essential in order to keep up with the pace of the technology.

Do you believe that these pandemic-fueled changes will become the norm for corporate accounting?

Investment in technology can bring about competitive advantages by enabling corporate accounting and finance professionals to deliver sophisticated analyses and decision-critical insights with agility and in a timely manner. The right tools can enable these teams to apply their valuable expertise as fast-paced, changing conditions likely will continue long after the pandemic conditions ease. Though these technologies require new skills, for many in finance and accounting, the efficiencies they can bring are a welcome change.