Ready for change

ACCA Singapore’s annual conference saw leading experts in finance and technology reinforce the importance of embracing agility as Industry 4.0 takes hold

Rufus Tan, journalist

Suntec Singapore was the venue for the ACCA Singapore annual conference, which brought together more than 450 professionals from the finance, law and technology sectors to discuss topics on the theme ‘Prepare for the Future of Finance – Agility for Industry 4.0’.

By marrying together the already familiar concepts of ‘Industry 4.0’ and ‘agile’, the conference – held in May – provided fresh insights for finance professionals on how to be better prepared for the future. This included leveraging on the power of digital to stay agile, keeping skills up to date, and the importance of agility for both individuals and organisations.

Mariam Riza, vice president of intergenerational consulting at Wattleshire and conference chairperson, provided a helpful definition of Industry 4.0 and its implications for business. She said that in Industry 4.0, internet connectivity was not only blurring the lines between technology and systems, but also removing the boundaries between work and life. ‘It makes your job easier, but it also changes your job requirements,’ she said.

‘If we don’t become more flexible than our environment, then our environment does what it wants with us’

As for how agility fits in with Industry 4.0, John Williams, CEO of the Agile Business Consortium, defined it as the antidote to dealing with the volatile environment around us. ‘If we don’t become more flexible than our environment, then our environment does what it wants with us,’ he said.

Riza added that it was necessary for finance professionals to adopt an agile mindset which could adapt to changes that were ‘occurring at a significantly higher rate’. Tying it back to the conference agenda, Riza prepped attendees with two key points to take away: ‘It’s about getting your organisations ready for that change, and getting yourself ready for that change,’ she said.

Agility for success

Emphasising the need to embrace was guest of honour, Indranee Rajah, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office and Second Minister for Finance and Education. She said that agility was important for businesses because what made them successful in the past was unlikely to work in the future.

‘Today, the success of any business hinges on how well and effectively it manages the waves of disruptions,’ she said. ‘Businesses need to see the impending disruptions and respond to them promptly by taking the first step to transform.’

Indranee went on to provide practical advice on several areas that both businesses and individuals could focus on in their agile journey. The first was in the area of upgrading. Making reference to one of ACCA’s seven quotients – digital – she said that in light of rapid technological developments, it was important to constantly evolve one’s technology skills to stay competent.

New mindset

Two other areas she drew attention to were agility in both business transformation and in capturing new opportunities. To be successful in the former, Indranee advised leaders to move away from traditional hierarchical mindsets and consider looking to younger associates and employees for ideas and inspiration. For the latter, she said that agility should not be limited to improving internal processes but applied also to developing external business opportunities.

Paula Kensington FCCA, ACCA Council member and CEO at LBD Group, in a separate panel discussion, further elaborated on the importance of agility for the individual. She said that, for her, being agile was about ensuring her future as a finance professional and her relevancy as a CFO. Predicting the growing importance of the CFO, Kensington said that in this new environment, ‘the CFO would be the new CEO: the person who is driving the business’.

She described how she had spent the past five years on a personal development journey to ready herself. ‘Leadership from the CFO is more important than ever. Identify your weak areas, whether it’s communication or something else, and work on it,’ she explained. ‘Start with yourself and your teams. It’s better to disrupt ourselves than to let ourselves be disrupted.’

‘Opportunities make it possible for you to succeed, but in order to succeed you need to do’

Encouraging delegates to face these changes positively, Indranee said that in spite of the many uncertainties of Industry 4.0, there was much that accounting professionals could look forward to. ‘It’s time to say goodbye to loads of mundane work, loads of unnecessary stress and little sleep, and say hello instead to a future when robotic process automation frees you up to focus on what is truly important,’ she said.

In addition to broad-based discussions on the importance of agility in Industry 4.0, several sessions were dedicated to the more practical and technical aspects of deployment. In his session on the power of digital in enabling agility’, Jamie Lyon, the then interim director of Professional Insights at ACCA, shared several insights into specific technologies that finance professionals could leverage on to effect change.

Among these technologies was robotics and its potential beyond enabling cost reductions. Lyon noted that with the ability to deploy robotics 24/7, finance teams would be able to have better control and process flexibility. ‘It’s a great platform and base for the finance team to operate from, and it frees people to do higher value stuff,’ he said.

Minister Indranee Rajah (centre) attended the signing of a memorandum of understanding between ACCA and NUS SCALE.

Lyon also talked about how the cloud enabled better data integration and, in the process, providing finance professionals with superior insights to assist organisations in decision-making.

On a cautionary note, Lyon emphasised that technology in itself was but one part of the agile equation. While investing in technology was important, he said that companies also needed to ensure that staff were equipped with relevant digital skills, that a data strategy was in place to support the organisational strategy and that the entire culture of a company from top down embraced flexibility.

Be creative

Providing a memorable wrap up to the conference was Fredrik Haren, a speaker and author on creativity. To demonstrate how agility involved a complete shift in mindset, he announced that he had decided a week before the conference to can the slides he had prepared. Instead, he put together his presentation that day because, as he explained, ‘Agile is the opposite of sending slides one week ahead.’

Acknowledging the risks involved with such an endeavour, he said that this was in fact the very essence of agility: to be prepared to try, as well as fail, in the pursuit of progress.

A panel discussion considered the challenges and successes of agility with various industry experts.

During his closing remarks, Haren also reiterated the importance of people in implementing agility. This was supported by case studies of how system changes often failed because the mindset of staff had not been aligned with the implementation of new technology. ‘If people are not agile, nothing can happen,’ he said.

He added that while investing in technologies such as artificial intelligence was crucial to Industry 4.0, it was perhaps even more important to invest in creativity training for staff: ‘The opposite definition of agile is clumsy, stiff and dull.’

In a final call to action, Haren urged the audience to look beyond the volatility and uncertainty of the current landscape, and focus instead on grabbing the wealth of opportunities that were presenting itself.

‘Opportunities make it possible for you to succeed, but in order to succeed you need to do,’ he said. ‘Agile is about doing things in a new way. It may work, it might not, but you have to try.’