Financial Renaissance: AI, Machine Learning, and the Transformation of Finance in the 21st Century

Financial Renaissance: AI, Machine Learning, and the Transformation of Finance in the 21st Century

Helen Yu 28/02/2024
Financial Renaissance: AI, Machine Learning, and the Transformation of Finance in the 21st Century

Double-entry bookkeeping, where every entry has an opposite one in a different account, is common practice in finance.

What some may not know, however, is that this accounting concept hails from Roman merchants during the 13th and 14th centuries, a time when the Middle Ages became the Renaissance.

Note the transition from one age to another.

Because, while most of us don’t live in – or even near – a castle these days, not much has changed when it comes to how organizations keep their books – until now. A modern renaissance is quickly unfolding for financial leaders brave enough to make the leap.

This bit of history was one of many interesting points shared on my show CXO Spice where I sat down with Rob Zwiebach, VP Product Management, Financials Management, at Workday. We explored “The Future of Finance” with some surprising revelations. The computer science graduate from Harvard and former VP of Oracle’s financial applications pointed out that while double-entry bookkeeping is more than 500 years old, he is seeing a shift – or what I call a renaissance – underway for financial leaders leveraging data, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to drive growth.

Zwiebach has a front row seat to this renaissance. He spends his days leading the product management team at Workday Financials, a fully functional financial management suite that medium to large organizations use to run their businesses. Much of his attention is spent talking to customers and translating their needs into Workday’s technology solutions.

According to Zwiebach, more and more finance leaders are redefining the role of finance by leveraging technology, specifically AI and machine learning.

AI, Machine Learning and the Future of Finance

Chief Accounting Officers (CAOs) are emerging as strategic leaders effecting transformational change across the organization. As enterprises move from on prem to cloud, many are realizing the “lift and shift” approach is good enough to keep the wheels of business moving forward – but falls short of reaping the benefits of true transformation.

So what does transformation look like?

Companies operate more efficiently, they gain deeper intelligence for better decision-making and they become more forward looking for greater momentum. Finance then becomes a strategic partner to the business that goes far beyond recording past transactions, month-end reporting, and regulatory compliance.

As in most renaissance periods, there is a “before” and an “after.” Tech innovators like Workday are shaping the future of finance, reimagining the “after” in big ways. Zwiebach shared that AI and machine learning have “moved beyond the buzzword stage” into “true enterprise-strength technologies.” From automating transaction flows and processes that historically required hours upon hours of work to empowering people within an organization to access data they need with up-to-the-minute real-time tools – without waiting days or weeks for analysts or IT professionals to run queries for them.

Transformation Begins Here

Having spent my career in technology, I know that you have to turn ideas into action. Here’s where Zwiebach shows how to lead in this new renaissance. He outlined five steps financial leaders can take to create transformational change across an organization. Each one builds on another.

  1. Adopt a transformational mindset

  2. Reimagine your data management

  3. Unlock the value of intelligent automation

  4. Democratize data across your enterprise

  5. Build business resilience through agility

Let’s take a closer look at each of these.

1. Adopt a Transformational Mindset

Accounting and finance have long had a “conservative” reputation (I’ve worked in accounting and let’s just say, people don’t always see our softer side). Yet, there's a significant transformation happening in how organizations, not only manage their finances, but also view financial leaders. The renaissance unfolding demands a transformational mindset for leaders looking to drive success, emphasize analytics and adopt strategic thinking.

If organizations truly want to leverage technology, then migrating to the cloud, adding to the tech stack or deploying a new app will not be enough. The words of musician Frank Zappa apply here: “The mind is like a parachute; it doesn’t work unless it’s open.” And open the mind must be to drive growth through the lens of a transformational mindset.

Being cloud native, Workday Financials enables financial leaders to become growth drivers and strategic partners to the business.

2. Reimagine your Data Management

Data management goes hand in hand with a transformational mindset. Again we see a shift in practice – from summarized processes using the least amount of data needed for financial reporting to a focus on data’s true value. Data, then, is not a means to an end, but fuel to perform better for the entire organization.

For example, Workday allows banking customers to preserve rich attributes alongside transactions: brokerage transactions, customer deposits and loans. They are driving internal financial management, reporting, and analysis, ultimately gaining valuable insights for more informed decision-making.

3. Unlock the Value of Intelligent Automation

In a Gartner report, 86% of finance executives are working to achieve a zero-day close (where procedures necessary to close the books like data entry, reconciliation and other manual processes are automated) by 2025. This is exciting!

Operating in a continuously closed state provides up-to-the-minute financial information with the help of machine learning and AI. Workday is focused on making zero-day close possible to streamline financial operations.

4. Democratize Data Across your Enterprise

Democratizing data provides tremendous organizational value for the CAO and the business itself. It puts the power of data into the hands of real decision-makers who need it. Instead of data being tightly controlled or sitting in silos, data is available in real-time.

AI and machine learning automates tasks such as account reconciliation and error correction. This frees people up to do more strategic work, increasing efficiency. There is another reason why this is important for the future of finance: intelligent automation is one strategy for filling the talent pipeline with Millennials and Gen Z-ers who regularly use it in their daily lives.

5. Use Real-Time Data to Mitigate Risk

Real-time data gives finance leaders a way to manage risk effectively and make proactive decisions by providing immediate insights into ongoing business activities. Waiting for a 15-day close means reacting to past events. It’s like a runner looking backwards to see where they are in the race. With real-time information, opportunities appear. Workday focus on real-time data access, facilitated by products like Accounting Center, streamlines integration processes, enabling faster data updates and empowering users to react swiftly to changing circumstances.

Were the Early 2000s FinTech’s Middle Ages?

The renaissance in the finance industry is amazing. During the early 2000s, I worked in the accounting department of a global company. Month-end was a vicious cycle. It would take days to complete. We were locked in a room for 12 hours a day for three to four days. The books wouldn’t be closed until the 7th day of the next month. There was so much to do: interactions with customers, taking care of suppliers, validating payment dates – all before the last few days of month.

Now, most of those processes can be easily automated. Zero-day close means closing the last day of the month, shifting energy from manually intensive work to more strategic, growth-driven decision-making using data as insight. You free up people to focus on the story data is telling. With AI and machine learning, financial decisions become more robust. AI can pick up anomalies when doing reconciliation and reduce human error for entries.

What is the value of acting in real-time? As a board member, I can do scenario planning sooner and not wait until mid-January to evaluate the previous year. We can forecast the next year sooner and focus on being forward looking instead of looking back on past performance.

Data analytics and strategic thinking will define the future of finance through automation and AI integration, freeing up professionals to focus on deriving insights and guiding strategic decisions rather than manual tasks. This transformation will lead to a more forward-looking role for finance professionals.

Successful financial leaders will architect the renaissance by embracing automation, predictive analytics and the journey toward a zero-day close. Until now, these were just hopes and dreams. Today, they are real tools, supporting a true transformation for future growth and performance.

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Helen Yu

Innovation Expert

Helen Yu is a Global Top 20 thought leader in 10 categories, including digital transformation, artificial intelligence, cloud computing, cybersecurity, internet of things and marketing. She is a Board Director, Fortune 500 Advisor, WSJ Best Selling & Award Winning Author, Keynote Speaker, Top 50 Women in Tech and IBM Top 10 Global Thought Leader in Digital Transformation. She is also the Founder & CEO of Tigon Advisory, a CXO-as-a-Service growth accelerator, which multiplies growth opportunities from startups to large enterprises. Helen collaborated with prestigious organizations including Intel, VMware, Salesforce, Cisco, Qualcomm, AT&T, IBM, Microsoft and Vodafone. She is also the author of Ascend Your Start-Up.

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