Influence of technology on the finance function of companies

In July, finance professionals from a host of companies came together at the Landmark Hotel in London to hear how a range of technologies is helping a global business behind some of the world's best-known brands to steer its finance function towards a more efficient, effective and innovative future.

The event focused on 'Future Finance: Unlocking value in a digital world', and was supported by global technology business Sabre. The company's technology has become indispensable to the travel industry and its applications are used by more than one billion people around the world. Every minute, 132,000 flights are searched on its systems and $428,000 of air travel is booked.

Though it may not develop technology as Sabre does, consumer goods company Unilever relies heavily on systems to bring some of the world's most popular brands to customers in every corner of the globe. It is estimated that on any given day, 2.5 billion people use Unilever products.

In today's exciting and challenging times, technology fuelled by data is creating new opportunities for value creation across all business sectors, through increased speed, control and insight, as well as the ability to re-imagine business models. For Steve Dixon, then-VP of future finance at Unilever, the greatest challenge was to deliver that value in a way that helps the finance function to partner with the rest of the business to help deliver on a strategy that is focused on long-term goals, sustainability and innovation.

"We are living in really exciting times. Gone, hopefully, are the days of big ERP and SAP implementation, and we are entering a new period for the next 20 years in terms of technology unlocking new potential," he said. "At the same time, there are bigger challenges externally - such as environmental, water stress and societal challenges that need new solutions. In terms of where this fits with Unilever, we have a transformation programme to get more decision-making to our local markets and a programme in finance around how we partner, how we connect finance to business people and create agility, so finance people go to where the value at risk is. That is then supported by introducing centres of excellence to take our core processes away from finance people to free them up. The last part is where I step in to focus on how we use technology, analytics, business models and sustainability to unlock value."

Dixon's role is to focus full-time on using technology to unlock value, enable transformation and create a more innovative finance culture. His starting point was to divide different technologies into discrete categories. Firstly, there are cognitive and internet systems for making the physical world digital and sensing what is happening. Secondly, there are advanced analytics and process automation. Then come systems to share, visualise data and connect. Beyond that, there is a need to consider how to scale through cloud-based systems and increase speed using in-memory processing and other techniques.

A journey of discovery

To gain the necessary understanding of technology's potential to enhance the finance function, Dixon spent three months immersing himself externally, away from the day-to-day rigours of finance. He experienced eye-opening technologies such as blockchain for diamonds, which has huge implications for traceability, trust, sustainability, logistics and finance through connecting data across enterprises. He also looked closely at robotics and process automation (RPA), of which Unilever already makes use.

Of the company's busiest bots, one is helping to book deliveries on-time with customers, another is helping suppliers to get paid on time, and more are used in the help desk to improve the efficiency of IT. The company is also using internet applications to create savings. It has, for instance, connected 350,000m globally that provide four billion data-points on energy and water use, which has driven significant savings.

"The immersion phase meant going to tech groups, talking to vendors, attending conferences, networking and doing courses to understand things like machine learning. It also meant talking to the data scientists in our organisation and helping translate the business challenges in a way they could understand, and vice versa. It gave me deep insight and taught me that what I thought was over the horizon when I started the job is, in fact, here and now," he remarked.

"Then we ran a lab, where we brought experts in to share insights and demonstrations with people on the ground. This created not only clarity around how we would work, but also advocates around the business who were inspired by the opportunities and who would help with delivery around the world."

The second leg of Dixon's journey was to bring his new understanding to bear on Unilever's internal challenges before moving on to programme mobilisation. He had gained insights into areas such as advanced analytics, which he feels can move the finance function up the value chain from being informed about the past to having a deeper explanation of what is happening now and then predicting the future.

"Now, we are in the mobilisation phase. I am focused on analytics and a cognitive front end using natural language, which gets to know you and your role, so that the information finds you. Forecasting, analytics and RPA will also have a massive impact in driving value, precision, speed and simplification," he said.

"Alexa was launched three days after I started my job here, and you can see the opportunities of having that kind of system sitting in the middle of the table. Data can also be analysed and put through a document engine to produce natural-feeling commentary. You can see that technology going a step further with exception-based analytics providing an email each morning to tell you about what the issues are, what you need to be worrying about and where the control risks are," he noted.

A focused approach to innovation

Having gained a broader insight into what technology can offer and how it is evolving, Dixon came away with a clear idea of how systems and analytics that had previously been firmly anchored in delivering more value to customers could now unlock great potential in finance.

"I see it being about faster and smarter decisions to really increase the clock-speed of the organisation between an issue arising and action being taken, or being more readily able to see an issue that is going to arise," he explained. "It could be about taking bias out of decision-making. It could increase the speed of productivity, much of which is in the manufacturing area and, with RPA and other technologies, we could bring that into the office. For example, it could create reports about how you have spent your time in the office to help you be more productive. In fact, lawyers are already using it to help them reduce unbilled hours. It can help you to become more efficient.

"In risk management, it could help you move from audits of small samples to full data sets, and help identify the exceptions and value risk on a more individual basis. Then finally, there are business models. We have done some cool stuff with a start-up in the US around 'Uber for trucks' to use capacity that is available on the road to reduce our costs and our environmental footprint." He fully accepts that there are many challenges that come with unlocking these opportunities, not least in choosing the right technologies and how to apply them among the myriad options. Deciding what to scout, what to experiment with, then what they pilot and scale up is no simple task.

"Then there is a challenge about making the finance function more experiential - learning, moving fast, adapting and building. Being experimental and scaling up, but being able to adapt, is a challenge for a business on the scale of Unilever. Scaling fast is hard when you are operating in so many countries. Finally, skill and capabilities are needed to be more tech-savvy, and be the link between data scientists and the business. That is really important in terms of capability," he said.

These challenges are familiar to Sabre, as vice-president of global accounts EMEA, Julie Reeves, noted: "Life moves quickly and technology moves even faster. People frequently ask us, what is the future of travel technology and where is it going? To be completely honest, we are not quite sure. It is a tricky question, but what we do know is we are keeping a keen eye on the future. The future is created by what you do today. The future of Sabre is about freedom of choice."

Dixon's story resonated with many attendees, raising issues they are grappling with as they strive to keep their businesses ahead of the curve. Given the complexity of Unilever's business and the strides it has made in identifying specific technologies and strategies, many have left with a clearer vision about how to define their own journey.

Delegates discuss finance technology trends at London’s Landmark hotel.