EY CFO survey: Investment in trusted technology and talent critical for Irish CFOs as they respond to ongoing COVID-19 disruption

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Disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting macroeconomic uncertainties are providing an opportunity for organisations to rethink the traditional role of the CFO (Chief Financial Officer) and that of the finance function. The adoption of technology, the attraction and retention of talent and ESG (Environmental, Societal and Corporate Governance) data and reporting are among the new areas of focus for Irish CFO’s. This is according to a survey conducted by EY at its recent virtual CFO Forum which attracted the interest and participation of over 500 CFOs and business leaders across Ireland.

The CFO role has evolved dramatically from a decade ago, and the pace of change in this key leadership position has accelerated further still since the start of the pandemic just over 12 months ago. CFO’s now face an extremely demanding balancing act as they manage traditional mandates such as corporate reporting, with new ones including overseeing digital transformation and growth initiatives across the enterprise, as well as an increased focus on non-financial reporting in the form of ESG data.

Of the 224 respondents to the survey, more than half (53%) said that managing a hybrid work model that sees employees combining working from home and the office, was the biggest challenge they foresee for their organisations in the post COVID world (over the next 24 months), with a further 20% saying that technological disruption posed by COVID was their number one concern.

Commenting on the findings, George Deegan, Assurance Partner, EY Ireland said:

“There is no doubt the rapid transformation many Irish organisations have had to undergo since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic has been remarkable. Investment in, and the widescale adoption of technology systems and processes to ensure continuity and productivity for remote workers has been significant. With the prospect of some return to the office on the horizon, organisations are having to rethink traditional workplaces with substantial investment likely to be required to retrofit office spaces to accommodate the ‘new normal’.

Risk in a post-COVID World

When asked about risk, which was surveyed across eight categories, more than a third (34%) of respondents identified talent as the most significant risk to their organisation’s growth strategy and long-term stakeholder value. Disruptive technology and regulatory risk came in at second and third place respectively. The full overview of perceived risk and its impact on long-term growth and value by Irish CFOs included:

Commenting on the impact of talent risk to Irish organisations, George Deegan said, “The issue of skills shortages is not a new concept but it has become more prevalent as a result of COVID so it’s no surprise it has come out on top here. Factors including Brexit were already exacerbating the skills shortages in the finance sector with more companies establishing operations here. The biggest future challenge we foresee for the future of finance will be attracting candidates that have a broader range of skills that incorporate both the relevant finance qualifications, together with expertise in technology”.

Future of Finance

When it came to financial reporting, two common findings emerged. The first was in terms of ESG data, (Environmental, Societal and Corporate Governance) with 40% of respondents confirming that their business’ finance function already reports on ESG data, and a further 30% claiming they have plans to do so over the next 12 months. While this represents an interesting and positive trend, there’s still more to be done with the remaining cohort of respondents stating they don’t report on ESG data, nor do they have plans to do so right now.

The second finding relating to financial reporting was regarding AI (Artificial Intelligence) and RPA (Robotic Process Automation) technology adoption. While only 5% of respondents confirmed they have already implemented these emerging technologies extensively in their financial reporting function, a further 70% indicated they are already using it to a limited extent. This means a sea change is on the horizon, and reinforces the point that the role and skillset of CFOs and finance leaders will soon need to pivot to an increased knowledge and aptitude of technology enabled systems and processes, and their potential impact for all facets of the business.

George commented, “There’s no doubt the future finance function is going to look very different to how it does today. Emerging technologies are having huge impact on a number of core business functions including finance. Not only are technologies such as AI and data analytics helping to unlock greater insights based on ESG data, this is also leading to growing evidence and awareness of the positive impact of ESG on performance. In addition, we are seeing a growing propensity for employees to gravitate towards companies with a clear purpose. Companies that are more willing to report on the likes of ESG data, while also demonstrating a continued investment in innovation through technology adoption, represent a very attractive proposition to potential candidates.”

“Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic the changing nature of the role of the CFO has been seismic. There has never been a better time for CFOs to reframe what value really means for their organisations, and similarly set out their stall when it comes to the future of finance and what that should look like. Smart investments in technology and innovation together with a renewed focus on talent attraction and retention have never been more important for organisations as they respond to disruption with agility.”

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