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Crunch Time 11: The finance workforce in a digital world

Preparing to modernise your finance workforce

A series on digital transformation in Finance


Digital technologies can help your team operate better, faster, and at lower cost than you might have imagined. But it has to be the right team. And there’s the rub. CFOs need to align today’s Finance talent to the promise of tomorrow’s technologies—while still maintaining a workforce that can fulfill the company’s basic financial and regulatory requirements. That’s no easy feat. But those who get it right stand to benefit enormously.

As you’ve seen elsewhere in our Crunch time series, technology has been a catalyst for much of our thinking. Finance organisations today are rapidly adopting new tools and capabilities, with cloud making it easier than ever to try new things and implement them. But that doesn’t mean technology should be the most important thing on a CFO’s plate. For all the new benefits and capabilities technology brings, it’s still people who shape business outcomes.

One CFO we spoke with had this insight: “In 2017, we jumped heavy into automation and AI, starting new projects right and left. A year later, we realised we were on the wrong path. What we really needed to do was stop, take a breath, and focus on our workforce.”

In other words, technology without talent can fail, but talent with leadership direction can overcome technology shortfalls. Another CFO added: “We’re just beginning our journey. We have the learning platforms in place, and the leadership culture and mindset are there. But the softer skill sets—the ability to understand other people’s motivations and help them work through change—don’t exist broadly across the finance community.”

The robots are here. Now what?

In a recent Deloitte CFO Signals survey, 73 percent of respondents said they’ll implement technology to replace humans in their workforce this year—up from 58 percent a year ago. In another CFO Signals survey, CFOs said they’re planning to do more contracting and other kinds of outsourcing over the next three years.

So, yes, technology will replace some humans, and the finance workforce will likely be net smaller. But the skill sets needed among those who remain are also changing—and managing this change is equally important. Simply cutting headcount and adding technology won’t work from a talent perspective. Companies need to both adjust their existing workforce and create space to bring in new skills that aren’t typically found in Finance.

The robots are here. Now what?

As we enter the third decade of the century, CFOs know that technology is providing opportunities for Finance to change. They know digital is happening, and that their people need to evolve accordingly. But what this means for specific functions and processes is less clear. The devil is in the details.

Meanwhile, CFOs know one thing for certain: business partnering will continue to be exceedingly important. Yes, technology tools like automated reporting will give business leaders faster access to important information, but the real value of Finance still comes down to helping others interpret the data, so they can use it to make informed decisions.

Here’s a blueprint some CFOs are following as they try to balance basic regulatory and shareholder requirements with the need to generate deeper business insights.

  • Revisit expectations. 
    Which Finance customers need renewed attention?
  • Redefine deliverables.  
    What do those customers actually want from Finance?
  • Retool machines. 
    What routine information could be made available automatically to business users?  
  • Rethink operations. 
    How could shared services add more value? What about centers of excellence? 
  • Reimagine talent sourcing.
    Where might you find untapped talent—within and beyond the business?

To deliver tech-enabled work, your first instinct might be to build your workforce by upskilling your team through training and development. That means identifying people critical to future operations and ensuring they get the learning experiences they need to step up. “Upskilling” should be part of any future workforce plan, but it probably won’t be enough to meet all your talent needs.

In addition to building, you might borrow resources from other parts of the business. Do you need a storyteller who can bring financial information to life? This role is becoming increasingly important across all aspects of Finance. Talk to your marketing and public relations people to gauge available talent. Do you need a technical person to drive big automation projects? Check with your manufacturing colleagues. They may have an experienced leader who is eager to take on new challenges.

Finally, it may be necessary to buy workforce resources, including robots and machine learning tools, on the open market, either through full-scale outsourcing or targeted hiring of employees, contractors, and freelancers. Buying talent may be part of your workforce solution, but be prepared for intense competition. Finance organisations around the world are looking for similar kinds of people, and these individuals are being pursued by other functions and technology companies.

There’s no question Finance will continue to offer significant career opportunities, but those opportunities may be different than today’s. So it’s important that your people understand what the future may hold. As finance organisations become flatter and more dependent on technology, traditional career paths will become less linear. Those paths might even extend outside of Finance.

Instead of moving from a contributor role in accounts receivable to a management role in accounting, a future career might evolve circuitously. A financial planning analyst might, for instance, move into IT to round out their technology skills. From there, they may move into commercial or marketing analytics – and then back into Finance with the goal of a business-unit CFO role.

The key is to help ensure your people get the experience needed to understand financials, the business and technology. Critical finance jobs in the future are likely to demand a wholistic business education, as opposed to specialising in one area, like accounting or treasury.

Figuring out who will thrive in a digital world —and how to prepare them—may be tougher than prioritising technology investments. Here are some actions you can take right now to get started.

  • Name a leader in Finance as your “chief human resources officer.” Find someone who understands the business, is passionate about the future of work, and can advocate for Finance with HR.
  • Create mentoring programs. With as many as four generations in the workforce today, there are ample opportunities for older and younger workers to learn from each other.
  • Encourage rotations. Set up job or role rotations for finance staff both within and outside the function and across financial disciplines. Workers gain exposure to different parts of the business, and a more rounded view of Finance.
  • Assign people to special projects. They can offer great opportunities for employees in non-leadership roles to gain leadership experience, acquire new skills, and build their networks.
  • Add AI to sourcing. Predictive analytics can evaluate the quality of different recruiting sources and forecast the results of tweaking certain qualifications, like required years of experience.
  • Redesign the work environment. As familiar as cubicle farms may be, they are typically designed with full-time permanent employees in mind. With the rise of tasks being performed by contingent and contract workers, make sure your workplace accommodates a variety of flexible arrangements.
  • Update job postings to attract digitally sophisticated recruits. Given the evolving nature of finance jobs, emphasise proficiency with analytical software, data management, and data analysis.
  • Look in your own backyard. Consider collaborating with local universities to build programs that yield candidate with both finance acumen and technical skills.

If modernisation seems like a moving target, it is. But it’s not moving fast. You have time to work hand-in-hand with internal departments to cover your bases. Start by getting the attention of your HR organisation and work with them to articulate the new competencies you require. HR should also be able to help you determine the mix of build, borrow, or buy that’s most effective.

When it comes to developing the “machine” part of your workforce, IT can be invaluable. Use their experience in automation and big data to guide decisions about technology investments and integration. And be sure to keep your risk, compliance, and audit colleagues apprised each step of the way. You’ll need their support from both a regulatory and a change management perspective.

Operating in new and different ways

In the future, some finance roles will be filled by combinations of people and machines. For example, you might think the role of storyteller, described below, would be uniquely human, but many companies have begun using AI to produce investor communications. They’re automating the laborious parts of data gathering so their people can spend more time adding human value. As technology continues to improve, people will be pushed to operate in new and different ways—while creativity, intuition, and judgment will remain high on the human value chain.


  • The goal
    Deeply engage finance customers and stakeholders
  • Where they’re needed
    Business partnering, reporting, investor relations, tax, treasury
  • Potential balance
    80% human, 20% machine
  • Human competencies
    Business acumen, unpacking complexity, impeccable writing, visualisation skills
  • Technology enhancements
    Natural language generation, advanced visualisation tools, social media
  • Principal customers
    Executive leadership, boards of directors, investors, employees
  • Sourcing
    Resist the desire to own these resources. Consider sharing with other parts of the business, or contracting with specialists in financial communications. 


  • The goal
    Protect the enterprise against risk, while promoting and enhancing quality 
  • Where they’re needed
    Audit, compliance, forecasting
  • Potential balance
    30% human; 70% machine
  • Human competencies
    Interpret and comply with regulatory guidance, investigate anomalies in data, and suggest corrective actions
  • Technology enhancements
    Big data, neural modeling, artificial intelligence
  • Principal customers
    Finance leadership, audit committee
  • Sourcing
    Requires combined accounting and risk management perspective, so use your extended finance talent pipeline or consider outsourcing to enhance bench strength in key areas. 

Machine managers

  • The goal
    Integrate automation and machine learning initiatives with your talent model
  • Where they’re ne
    Tax compliance, transfer pricing, payables, treasury, risk management
  • Potential bal
    50% human, 50% machine
  • Human competencies
    Ability to operate under pressure in real-time, technology acumen
  • Technology enhancements
    Transaction processing, exceptions reporting
  • Principal customers
    Finance leadership
  • Sour
    Look to manufacturing and distribution for people and machines with the capability to control fast-moving processes.

CFOs who want to accelerate their readiness to operate in a digital world have a clear path forward. Build your brand. Visualise the future. Understand the mix of humans and machines you need to meet changing expectations. Update roles and job descriptions. And, importantly, make sure your next hire is ready now for the future you’re planning to create.

Like any transformation, workforce modernisation will be disruptive. But the payoff for those who get it right can make it worthwhile. It’s the surest path toward creating the finance organisation your business leaders really want.

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