Point of View

How finance leaders should think about emerging technology

Steve Gobbo is Head of Finance for Oxford University Press (OUP), leading the North American region in Treasury, Financial Accounting & Reporting, Tax, and Finance Operations responsibilities. Prior to OUP, Steve directed transformation and growth initiatives within leading multinational consumer product organizations ranging in size between $1B to $20B+ of revenue. He has served as President of the North Carolina Treasury Management Association, where he remains a Board Member. Steve has been a frequent speaker at regional conferences and events, sharing a passion for endlessly learning and perpetually teaching. Steve has been recognized as a “40 Under 40” award recipient in the Triad Business Journal and holds the Certified Treasury Professional (CTP) designation. He has extensive experience in orchestrating digital transformation at companies, including OCR and adaptive training models for Accounts Payable processing, Accounts Receivable cash application, and automated balance sheet reconciliation. Steve has led dozens of M&A integrations, system conversions, and continuous process improvement initiatives, including database integration, enhancement, and big-data dashboarding with drill-through capabilities.

We’re getting ahead of ourselves. A few months ago, ChatGPT took the world by storm. The technology amazed the public with its ability to provide (mostly) accurate answers, save them time by writing emails and essays, and generally entertain, prompting broad discussion about what this means for everyone’s lives and jobs.

A public release of ChatGPT is exciting, to be sure, but it’s not necessarily new technology. AI researchers and curious developers have worked with artificial intelligence models for years. While this is the first time everyone has had easy access to a quality chatbot, the underlying, unreleased technology is certainly more advanced than the general public realizes — and moving fast.

So how should executive teams be thinking about AI? Two things can be true: ChatGPT is not an organization game changer (yet), and executive teams need to spend time learning how to use it and considering what this and other technological advances can do for your organization. 

Lean into new technology, but not too hard

Implementing a new technology just for the sake of implementing new technology doesn’t do anyone any favors. When approaching any new tech, you should know what you want it to do and what your needs are. What it’s capable of doing and what your needs are may not be the same thing. Start by sandboxing the tech. Find out what it’s capable of and how other people are using it. Then, consider how that applies to your organization. If it isn’t helpful as-is, keep an eye on it until it’s evolved into something useful for you.

If you think the technology might be a good investment, start assessing the risks and opportunities associated with implementation. How is it going to make your life better? Is it worth the time and effort it would take to implement? How can you use the tech to make things better for your team or your organization?

Doing this well requires a deep understanding of your own organization. You need to know where exactly your pain points are and what it would take to eliminate those pain points. You might find that it’s not a tech thing at all. It might be a problem with the structure of your organization or process inefficiencies. If you restructure the organization or change processes, will you have a different outcome? For example, if you begin documenting processes and find that there is duplicated work across siloed teams, AI won't fix that. Technology won’t fix people or culture issues.

Diagnose the real problem and figure out how to solve it. Maybe tech is part of that solution, but maybe it’s an opportunity to look within instead. 

Successful implementation depends on a strong foundation

Times are tough. The tech industry, especially, is facing economic headwinds that require many companies to reassess their financial positions. Many organizations have pivoted from a growth-at-all-costs model to one focused on operational excellence and profitability. 

​​If you’ve been operationally challenged, you understand it’s essential to prioritize foundational operational and financial tasks before piling on and introducing potentially more complex technology. Just as you wouldn't construct the roof of a house before laying the foundation, organizations should focus on building their foundations before implementing emerging technologies. Perhaps technology can help solve your fundamental operational challenges and is critical to consider, but this is where you need some self-awareness to ensure proper resource allocation principles are adopted to fix problems that need solving instead of solving problems that do not yet exist.

Many times, the best solutions are the most simple. In software development, less can be more to avoid inefficiency and error. It can be easy and tempting to overengineer solutions in software and digital transformation efforts when a simple process change would be the more effective path.

When you have the right structure in place, implementation is easier and adoption is more successful. Don’t get caught up in a trap where you’re trying to implement before you’re ready. For example, consider if you have a team member with enough bandwidth to drive implementation forward when bringing on a new software tool. Paying for software only to let it languish because of a lack of resources may not make sense.

How finance leaders should think about emerging technology

For finance leaders considering technology specific to the finance team, again, know what you want it to do and what your needs are. Finance has to report numbers accurately and in a timely manner. Your company has a significant advantage if you can report accurately and faster than others. 

Your data needs to be structured in a way that allows you to make decisions before it’s too late — you need to stay ahead of the curve, but it’s absolutely essential that the information is accurate. Any technology that can improve speed and accuracy will put you in an advantageous position in the market because you’ll have more time to spend in business partnerships, helping them make better decisions. You should be less focused on the minutia. Anything you can do to align across the business is better.

When you find that synergy, finance teams can then perform a critical role in keeping the business aligned around a single objective. Excellent finance leaders are really good business partners that stay the course. They’re steady and focused on what works.

Large language models like Bard and ChatGPT aren’t game changers organizationally. They act as a daily task helper and save some time. These large language models are only as good as the information they’ve been trained on. Information missing by omission or lack of context can be just as important as the information that has been provided, and it’s critical that an end-consumer of an output understands when the information provided is incorrect, biased, or incomplete. 

Right now, finance leaders should be learning everything they can about AI to prepare for its rapid evolution and the widespread changes that are coming — and they are coming. As it stands, utilizing ChatGPT for sensitive information comes with serious privacy concerns. Organizations should start building policies around emerging tech now to ensure employees are properly educated on the risks and benefits and understand what the expectations are for appropriate use.

Having a firm sense of what matters most is becoming even more important. Employees across the organization will be hearing all kinds of hype about the latest thing, and it’s easy to get caught up in the fear of missing out. Whether you’re a CFO, an IC, or a people manager, you have to discern how to block the noise and figure out what’s relevant to you. As a leader, communicating with your team is really important. Align around messaging that tells the organization, “Yes, you’re going to hear about X or Y new thing, but here’s our focus.” Orient your teams around a single direction and move

Guiding organizations through the AI transformation

As we stand on the cusp of a new era in AI-driven technology, the role of finance leaders becomes even more critical in guiding organizations through this transformative landscape. Embracing change while remaining true to core objectives requires agility, foresight, and resilience. The key to success lies in harnessing the power of AI technologies like ChatGPT, not as a magic pill, but as a catalyst for innovation and growth. With a thoughtful, strategic approach to adopting new technology, finance leaders can empower their organizations to not only navigate the AI revolution but also emerge as trailblazers in the dynamic, digital future.

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