Data analytics, RPA top list of 2021 digital priorities, survey finds

Dive Brief:

  • Advanced data analytics and robotic process automation (RPA) technologies to accelerating digital skills among their teams lead a challenging list of digital priorities for finance executives next year, according to a Gartner survey of 173 CFOs.

  • Most CFOs have mixed confidence in meeting their highest priority digital objectives in 2021 despite the time they’ll dedicate towards meeting them, according to the survey, conducted in October.

  • “The COVID-19 pandemic has forced CFOs to abruptly assess both their organizations’ and functions’ current digital capabilities, and they have clearly found many areas lacking,” said Alexander Bant, chief of research in the Gartner Finance practice. “Next year will be about accelerating digital investment timelines from the pace of a multi-year marathon to a 12 month sprint. However, most CFOs aren’t sure they will successfully cross the finish line in many of these areas.”

Dive Insight:

Gartner’s survey asked finance chiefs where they will spend more time in 2021 compared to 2020, and where they anticipate the most difficulties in meeting goals. Among exec’s digital priorities, the top three areas for greater time investment were all also accompanied by significant levels of doubt, with half or more anticipating difficulties and setbacks.

While 82% of respondents named advanced data analytics technologies and tools a top priority, 78% expected it to be difficult to achieve their goals in this area next year. 

Jane Thier, CFO Dive / Gartner data

“CFOs are realizing they need to make tech investments rapidly, which is scary,” Bant said. “CFOs have to reduce the cost of their function in light of COVID-19, and tech is the key way to do that across standard and routine activities.”

Simultaneously, Bant said, the business is demanding faster agile planning and insights to help the business find and respond to challenges and growth opportunities, which puts additional on finance to provide advanced analytics.

“We don’t think it’s a funding challenge; boards and CEOs are willing to spend on digital transformation next year, at a company level, and within the back office,” Bant added. “I’m not as worried about funding as I am about improper leverage.”

Usually, in Gartner’s CFO surveys, respondents name routine challenges regarding cash and capital organization structure, Bant said. But in this study, for the first time, all five top CFO priorities concern getting tech right.

“The message we’ve been touting is that 2021 is the year of make or break for CFOs to leapfrog forward on finance tech,” he said. “The business will not slow, the need for faster, more dynamic insights data and analytics will only accelerate as growth returns.” 

Many CFOs hope to “revive stalled growth investments while optimizing costs to better reflect new business realities,” the release said. A selection of these new realities include meeting new customer preferences shaped by the pandemic, including greater expectancy for speed, multichannel delivery and “always-on” availability.

“CFOs face dual demands in funding the broader digital enterprise, while also ensuring their own function is equipped with the tools, technologies and talent for successful transformation,” Bant said. “Fortunately, many digital priorities, such as RPA, should also be supportive of CFOs’ cost optimization goals, at least long-term.”

Finance executives should primarily focus on identifying the investments that will drive positive business outcomes and enhance employee performance within new hybrid working models, the researchers wrote.

CFOs will also need to reassess how they measure business performance while also encouraging new business models that support digital growth.

Bant suggested accelerating the use of RPA to free up team member time on repeatable and transactional tasks, a long-time finance department axiom. 

Advanced digital analytics technologies can also help finance teams gain long-term competitive advantages, researchers said. Attracting the digitally savvy finance talent required to maximize value from analytics and automation may be more feasible in light of a newly open and remotely available global talent pool.

“Most CFOs have by now conducted small-scale experiments in either RPA, artificial intelligence (AI) or advanced analytics technologies, and they have seen the potential for significant ROI,” Bant said. “Now the key will be achieving scale with these technologies while ensuring that CFOs have the talent in place to run an always-on, fully digital business.”