Your finance team isn’t immune to digital transformation

Financial management is necessary. But it doesn’t need to be clunky.

Despite the innovations currently fuelling tech, it’s an unfortunate reality that business finance departments often aren’t prepared for change: a study by Serrala found that nearly half of organizations (49 percent) lack a finance team digital transformation strategy and 45 percent face internal resistance to change from finance employees.

However, this doesn’t imply it’s necessarily the fault of the finance department: 55 percent of those surveyed acknowledge their current processes are highly complex and, as a result, digital transformation would be helpful once done but painful to implement.

This is an issue Julian Weber, CEO of SELISE Digital Platforms, a development consultancy founded in Bangladesh that operates globally, faced throughout his decade-plus in business. In a recent conversation with Zoho, a cloud software provider for businesses, Weber shared his journey and how he digitized his finance function in a way that helped grow the business.

The trends forcing finance to digitize

The pace of digital transformation is accelerating—and it impacts the whole organization regardless of size. This pace of acceleration, said Weber, is due to multiple trends converging all at once.

First, the continued growth of remote work means less centralized office infrastructure and more global collaboration that requires additional digital tools to succeed. From there, a shortage of engineering talent is pushing the need for more automation, collaboration tools, and coding co-pilots to help people get more done with less.

Another trend is that coding has become easier, particularly with the rise of no- and low-code programming, meaning more people can build their own apps using APIs. Finally, Weber said more blockchain business cases are coming to light, particularly in the financial sector, meaning increased demand for technology that will facilitate completely decentralized, blockchain-based solutions.

“All of that has been here for a while, but it has really, really taken off with very, very innovative concepts that have come to the front after COVID,” said Weber.

Build financial systems

When Weber founded SELISE in 2011, the company operated largely from Bangledesh before methodically expanding to have team members in other countries. However, the COVID-19 pandemic pushed the company from “10 percent work from home to 100 percent work from home, all within one month,’ said Weber.

“The moment you stop learning, you will stagnate.”

This rapid shift in working style led Weber to think about how it could streamline the organization’s operations, including financial operations, to stay compliant and continue growing without skyrocketing costs.

Weber explained that two key changes started the SELISE finance team’s digital transformation journey. The first was bank integrations, specifically connecting SELISE’s bookkeeping software directly with its bank so all transactions could be reconciled quickly. This simple shift was so impactful that Weber estimates the same work done manually would take a full-time employee two months every year.

The second was implementing an OCR (optical character recognition) engine for receipt capture. SELISE’s distributed team was then able to send in as many receipts as necessary, which were then matched to a person’s account and banking details—all of which could then be quickly reconciled. From there, any vendors who send invoices are also automatically matched so bookkeepers can easily approve payments while time-consuming reconciliation work is automated. Weber estimates the same work done manually would take a full-time employee four months of accounting work per year, particularly as the business grew.

Weber runs all of the company’s financial management with Zoho’s various platforms. He said he’s been a champion of Zoho since its early days, not just because he was inspired by its founder Sridhar Vembu as a fellow entrepreneur but also because Zoho routinely adds new features or tools that integrate seamlessly with the rest of the platform.

“I love this feeling of ‘there’s always a new feature coming,’” said Weber. “Every other month there’s something new that makes my life easier.”

Digitize to grow your business

Zooming out beyond the finance department, Weber’s advice for entrepreneurs is to take a business-growth approach to digital transformation.

In particular, Weber thinks about business growth along four different pillars. It starts with building resilience in the portfolio, having multiple potential service offerings (or geographies) so that the business is capable of absorbing shocks. From there, Weber advocates collaborating with different providers in order to grow and build processes that prioritize teamwork over individual hero employees and build capacity for learning rather than relying solely on past experience.

“The moment you stop learning, you will stagnate,” said Weber.

Getting high-quality, trustworthy data is a compliance exercise but it also helps build resilience because businesses can then see issues as they form. When your financial data is clean, collaboration is easier because you can share things quickly. From there, you can also build processes based on what the data is telling you.

All of this leads to reduced overhead with increased transparency, two things that are critical for building a sustainable business.

“It saves really substantial work,” said Weber. “It makes work much easier, much lighter, [and] reduces operation cost, which is the key thing for us.”

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Stefan Palios

Stefan Palios

Stefan is a Nova Scotia-based entrepreneur and writer passionate about the people behind tech. He's interviewed over 200 entrepreneurs on topics like management, scaling, diversity and inclusion, and sharing their personal stories. Follow him on Twitter @stefanpalios.

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