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Finance leaders are in charge of turning business data into actionable insights. If you think that sounds simple, think again. The past 18+ months have catapulted senior financial decision-makers into the spotlight as organisations struggled to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gone are the days of presenting quarterly spreadsheets to the company board; shareholders want real-time and relevant data communicated to them sensibly. It’s a challenging expectation that’s compounded by the shift to remote working and online customer engagement, both of which have increased data security and cybercrime concerns among finance leaders, many of whom are already overseeing digital transformation initiatives.

Digital transformation can be a bit of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, businesses that were further along their digitalisation journeys when the pandemic struck have been able to continue their operations out of the office with less disruption than some of their peers.

On the other hand, operating in a digital world means more and more data everywhere. Not only does the volume of data grow 24/7, but it also changes all the time as customers update their details, preferences, or orders. Finance functions labouring under on-site, fragmented, and disjointed financial systems are struggling to access the data they need remotely – let alone process it in time to glean its useful intelligence.

It’s a challenging reality for finance leaders who are juggling massive changes in their roles and responsibilities – and some are faring better than others. With that in mind, Sage spoke to 313 senior finance leaders from businesses with 50 to 5,000 employees during August 2021 to get to grips with some of the main issues facing the financial leadership role.

Drowning in data

As if managing their boards’ expectations while trying to stay cool, calm, and collected in the face of ongoing market-related business uncertainties wasn’t tough enough, finance leaders are also concerned about their teams, who are feeling overwhelmed by the vast amounts of data they have to deal with. In fact, 95% of these employees suffer from ‘data overload’. What’s more, 94% of finance teams spend far too much time on manual work such as data collection and inputting rather than on pulling business intelligence from the data – the latter of which helps finance leaders meet their roles’ new requirements.

According to the Sage survey, the reason why so many finance functions are drowning in data is because they lack an effective (41%) and integrated finance system to support remote working (39%). As a result, over 90% of finance teams don’t know how to unpuzzle their data or what data to trust, which is why they struggle with insufficient information to make good decisions. If finance teams are unable to get the granularity that they need from their data to understand problems and identify patterns, they can’t provide finance leaders with strategic and relevant information to construct into compelling stories for their boards.

The data doldrums

In the past 18 months, the South African government has enforced the Protection of Personal Information Act (POPIA), which adds another level of complexity to data security, access, processing, sharing, and storage.

According to the recent ‘Rising to the challenges of change’ HR and payroll research report from Sage, 91% of businesses are fully compliant with POPIA and the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), and yet 48% are still worried about compliance. Added to this, 45% of senior financial decision-makers are increasingly concerned about data security and the growing threat of cybercrime – and yet it’s vital that their teams are able to remotely access and share the data they need to do their jobs.

The successful evolution of financial leadership from background number-crunchers to strategic storytellers owning the spotlight depends on the support of collaborative, accountable, and empowered teams. When data is stored on-site and/or in silos, hybrid and remote teams can’t get the information they need when they need it. Instead, they must jump through various hoops like sending access requests and then waiting for a yay or nay. This is unproductive; time is wasted, customers are left hanging, and the data loses its relevance.

It’s no surprise then that finance leaders are determined to empower their teams with automation, real-time data access, and greater data accuracy and security. How? Over the next year, 89% of businesses using non-cloud-based finance systems plan to move their operations to a cloud-based solution.

Data in the cloud

Cloud-based software offers finance leaders numerous benefits that resolve most, if not all, of the data-related issues keeping them up at night. By democratising data access, finance teams can access the information they need from anywhere at anytime, collaborate in real-time, and deliver faster results, which boosts their teams’ overall productivity. Automation contributes to improved productivity by freeing finance teams from manual, repetitive tasks and enabling them to see and share business intelligence quickly. But don’t just take our word for it: 65% of finance leaders who have already made the switch to the cloud said that it provides them and their teams with better access to data and insights than on-site systems.

Cloud-based systems are also being lauded for mitigating finance leaders’ cybersecurity concerns. An impressive 88% of senior financial decision-makers already operating from the cloud said their systems and processes are more secure now than before. What’s more, as other technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) continue to advance, they could potentially complement cloud-based financial systems and bolster their abilities to increase usability, improve performance, and protect data.

The upshot of our talks with finance leaders has revealed a bewildering, exciting, and empowering time for senior financial decision-makers. Their new roles as front-and-centre business leaders depends on their and their teams’ abilities to access real-time data, discern its actionable intelligence, and communicate insights for strategic success.

As the numbers clearly show, investing in cloud-based financial systems is vital for finance leaders to meet their shareholders’ expectations and stay relevant in an unpredictable working world.

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