Few events in recent history have challenged controllership functions on the scale of the pandemic, testing the ability of controllers and their teams to provide value to their organizations even amid significant change and uncertainty. Disruption has sparked not only challenge but also an opportunity for leaders to rethink many aspects of how they function.
“As organizations begin to consider how they can move forward from the pandemic, many finance and accounting leaders are reflecting on what they learned through this experience, reimagining how they can operate, and repositioning the controllership function,” says Beth Kaplan, managing director, of the Center for Controllership™ at Deloitte Risk & Financial Advisory, Deloitte & Touche LLP, during a recent Deloitte Dbrief webcast. “Organizations can take this opportunity to reprioritize activities—deciding what to eliminate, what to begin, and what to accelerate—in a controllership reboot.”
The unprecedented circumstances of the past year have led to many new insights for controllership leaders, says David Cutbill, a principal with Deloitte Risk & Financial Advisory, Deloitte & Touche LLP. “We’ve seen an acceleration in automation as organizations identified new ways of working and collaborating remotely,” he says. “We’ve also seen an increased need for real-time reporting, including data analysis and predictive forecasting, and new ways of sourcing and developing talent.”
Lightning Rod Insights
Dan Hopgood, senior vice president, chief accounting officer, and controller at Eaton Corp., says his teams have achieved key transformation goals, including the deployment of global business services and implementation of new systems and tools, even while working in a remote environment. Agility and adaptability have become more important than ever. “We learned we could leverage the concepts of centers of excellence or shared service centers to group resources remotely, and we’re accelerating some of these activities to better leverage assets and continue to evolve,” he says.
Through this period of significant change and disruption, leaders like Chris Gullotta, vice president of corporate headquarters accounting and analysis at IBM, have recognized the importance of focusing on their team members’ well-being. “The lines between home and work have blurred during the pandemic, and we’ve seen a focus on empathy across the organization,” he says. “Many of our meetings begin with checking in on people—asking about their health and their families. As we go forward, we want to continue to foster that engagement with our people.”
Talent management has also shifted, giving controllership leaders some new priorities as they develop and hire people, says Robin Kramer, senior vice president, chief accounting officer, and head of global business services and treasury at Biogen, a biopharma company. The organization is giving more consideration to skills required in the future, especially analytical and business partnering skills, and generally taking a broader approach to location considerations. “For positions that might be suited to a fully remote work situation, we may be able to recruit talent from different geographies to widen the pool of candidates without requiring relocation,” she says. “We see this as an opportunity.”
Scenario-based reporting that focuses on critical metrics and value drivers in real time is an important part of how we monitor and manage the business.
In many controllership functions, skills that are in demand include data visualization and storytelling, data science and analytics, business partnering, and management of AI. “We are looking for people who can uncover data and turn it into insights and then partner with the business to deploy those insights and turn them into action,” says Hopgood. “To help us identify candidates with that kind of mindset, we sometimes perform simulations during interviews and ask candidates to explain to us how they might solve a particular problem.”
Managing culture when people are working remotely has required a more proactive approach, says Kramer. “We have taken a more intentional approach to communicating and interacting with teams to help people continue to feel connected,” she says. This includes increased frequency of skip-level meetings, periodic updates, and other types of events to engender teamwork.
Changes for the Future
In light of rapidly evolving business needs, many controllership leaders are considering various types of changes, says Cutbill. “We see finance and accounting leaders identifying what activities they can automate or amplify as well as which they can initiate or eliminate,” he says. As an example, some organizations have rationalized reports or set aside the production of materiality thresholds while initiating new activities to meet new needs, such as scenario planning, real-time cash flow and working capital analytics, and forecasting.
At IBM, some activities have become automated to reduce or eliminate the need for manual activities, while oversight activities have been implemented to ensure automated tools are functioning properly, says Gullotta. “We’ve eliminated some low-value, labor-intensive activities with robotic solutions, but we’ve replaced them with high-value analytics and accountability measures performed by people,” he says.
To help identify opportunities to deploy robotics, IBM established digital squad leaders who could liaise with the business and technology development teams. “Their role is to help people move automation from the idea phase to the execution phase, even with self-service tools, to achieve digital transformation,” he says. “This approach has helped accelerate the incubation and completion of projects, which is empowering for people.”
At Biogen, finance and accounting teams have increased their focus on scenario planning and forecasting to provide more strategic value to the organization, says Kramer. With respect to capital allocation forecasting, Biogen focuses on identifying opportunities for transactions that support the company’s growth strategy. “We had mechanisms in place for those activities, but we have enhanced the synchronization of the capital allocation process with the company’s strategic planning process,” she says. “We are also updating our scenario planning more frequently than before the pandemic.”
As a manufacturer, Eaton is focused on reporting that provides insights for forecasting and analysis because of continued volatility in global markets and sensitivities in raw materials, commodities, and supply chain issues, says Hopgood. “Scenario-based reporting that focuses on critical metrics and value drivers in real time is an important part of how we monitor and manage the business,” he says.
Organizations that are increasingly focused on forecasting and analytics often are also concentrating on how they can improve data and information governance for decision-making. “Ledger-based information is the backbone of reporting, but some of it can be more meaningful if it’s augmented by curated data from other sources,” says Gullotta. “We’re working through how we can develop improved insights by bringing information together in a data pool that’s informative and responsible. Governance is critical.”
As controllership functions assume elevated roles in data analytics and forecasting to increase strategic value to organizations, the roles and responsibilities for finance and accounting are beginning to blend and overlap with those for financial planning and analysis, says Kramer. “Accounting is evolving beyond the numbers to support strategic aspects of the business, including finance and forecasting, in a more fulsome way,” she says.
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