If machines were people, they would be on the executive fast track program in your company and would have gotten promoted before you. They work harder, learn faster, cost less, and are full of limitless, untapped potential. That’s a problem, because their rapid career trajectory is starting to make a few people uneasy, particularly in finance.
It was fine for most of us when smart machines began to replace blue-collar workers in factories and assembly lines, but they’ve been steadily working their way up the corporate food chain and have already assumed some lower level finance tasks. Even outside of finance, jobs that had once seemed the sole province of humans, such as pathologists, petroleum geologists, and law clerks, are now being performed by computers.There’s a hint of uneasiness in the white-collar air.
As CFOs, it’s natural to query whether we’ll experience job displacement in our wage-earning lifetime due to the rise of machine learning, process optimization, and robotic innovation. My personal view is yes. It will displace us. But it won’t push us out the door, providing we adapt. It will change the way we do what we do and where we add value, and it will cause a major shift in the balance between humans, machines, and our definition of work.
However, the more nuanced issue, in my view, is the impact it will have on our existing skillsets and what it will demand from us to successfully co-exist, collaborate, and keep our jobs, albeit in a different way. Knowing whether (and when) to assert your own expertise -- or to step out of the way and go where the data and technology take you -- is fast becoming a critical executive skill.
Change is uncomfortable, but it’s not always a bad thing. On the whole, I think it will make our profession more creative. If you’re a number crunching CFO in a small organization, you will need to rapidly broaden your skillset as the brave new world will be here faster than you think. If you’re a strategic CFO, you’ll need to broaden your horizon because so much more will be possible so much sooner. Likewise, I think we’ll see much greater demand for commercial CFOs who support sales teams at the coal face of customer deals and come up with creative financing ideas, while machines handle internal approval chains.
I don’t think we should be afraid to surrender some elements of our role. There’s a trade-off to be had between machines assuming greater responsibility for predictive analytics and automation, while human CFOs drive the business innovation and vision. Of course, all the while, we will still need to use people to challenge and check the machines for us.
Machines are giving the finance discipline a wake-up call. Many of us will be tasked with creative thinking and leadership skills that have not traditionally been associated with a finance-based role. Some of us will thrive. And some of us will hate it. If you think about it, when the Industrial Revolution took place in the 18th and 19th centuries, it meant we could overcome the limitations of our muscle power. Two hundred years later, we’re now in the early stages doing similar things with our mental capacity, thanks to the virtue of technologies to infinitely multiply it.
I became a CFO knowing full well that at some point in my career, I will be displaced by intelligent machines, but not replaced. Just like you, it will force me to adapt and evolve. That, in my view, is an extraordinary opportunity for growth, commercial gain and reinvention.
Dr. Mana Mojadadr is the CFO and member of the Executive Management Team for SAP Italy. In this role, Mana leads the financial activities and profitable revenue growth and is responsible for approximately 650 employees and half a billion Euros of revenues.