AI has cast a spotlight on the current state of financial software and on the changing role of the CFO as well. More than ever before, CFOs are responsible for major technology decisions—so, it’s the CFO’s mission to see their organization adopt AI and begin leveraging it now to achieve the greatest possible success in the future. From the CFO’s perspective, deploying AI and automation is essential to managing financial operations effectively, driving growth, and maximizing value for the organization.


Most significantly, AI holds the promise of helping CFOs to focus on high-level strategic decision making no less than the day-to-day mechanics of transaction management, recordkeeping, and reporting. What does this expanded focus mean to the CFO? How are organizations, financial teams, and even third-party partners dealing with its impact? As AI grows increasingly important across the financial industry, these questions are well worth exploring. 


AI and Finance Technology: The Big Picture


Before we delve into the ways in which forward-looking CFOs are leveraging AI-powered technology, it might be useful to evaluate AI’s place in the financial industry today and where it’s headed. Adoption of AI has more than doubled since 2017, according to a 2022 McKinsey survey; in 2017, 20% of respondents reported using AI in at least one business area, compared to 50% in 2022. Investment in AI has increased accordingly, as more than 50% of the McKinsey survey respondents reported spending more than 5% of their digital budgets on AI in 2022, up from 40% in 2017.


Gartner predicted that 50% of organizations will use AI to replace “time-consuming bottom-up forecasting approaches” by 2028 and suggested that AI will mature as a “practical, off-the-shelf innovation” over the next five years. Further, the same Gartner survey found that 80% of CFOs expect to increase spending on AI over the next two years.


While 85% of financial services providers are currently using AI, over the next two years 77% expect AI to become essential to their operations and 64% expect to become mass adopters of AI, according to a global survey from the World Economic Forum and the University of Cambridge Judge Business School.


Among banks using AI applications, the aggregate potential cost savings was estimated at $447 billion by 2023, Insider Intelligence reported. The global AI financial services market is projected to reach $130 billion by 2027, growing from $8 billion in 2019, as reported in a 2021 Emergen Research market analysis. Although many organizations have yet to fully embrace AI, a 2019 Deloitte Insights report declared that AI’s early adopter phase was already coming to a close. Now that AI is everywhere, and here to stay, it has surely leapt into a top-of-mind position for savvy CFOs. Indeed, more than 60% of finance executives expect AI and automation to have a profound impact on their industry over the next 10 years, according to a 2023 survey conducted by Trullion—more than cybersecurity, analytics, Big Data, biotech, and renewable energy combined.


The CFO’s Role in the Age of AI


Interestingly, the drive to embrace AI and explore its potential happens to come at the same time as another key change affecting corporate leadership: the evolving role of the CFO. In the past, key technology decisions belonged to the chief information officer (CIO), which would plant AI firmly in the CIO’s bucket. Today many tech decisions are dispersed across the C-suite (for example, the chief marketing officer owns the direction and selection of the marketing technology software), with the CFO—perhaps the most pragmatic role in the C-suite—owning the overall technology stack. (A specialized IT finance role has emerged as well, reflecting the growing importance of fintech.) As technology spending power shifts, the CFO is ideally positioned to advocate for investing in advanced fintech solutions—and to champion the unique opportunities AI provides.


From a day-to-day perspective, the CFO’s role in the age of AI doesn’t look dramatically different in the way that, say, the database administrator’s role changed with the advent of the cloud. Rather, AI has accelerated the fruition of operational goals that CFOs have long aspired toward—becoming increasingly strategic and lean. 


AI-powered systems help CFOs achieve those goals by providing a stable, consistent, and cost-effective platform that not only introduces new efficiencies within organizations, but can also be shared with external partners as needed. In the context of accounting and audit workflows, for example, CFOs are empowered to work with auditors and advisory firms in a more synchronous manner, with less of the stop-start inefficiency that often hinders workflows with external partners. Moreover, the AI platform in effect offers a shared language, which reduces friction in general when finance teams and third parties collaborate. These efficiencies result in leaner organizations and ultimately free up time for CFOs to sharpen their focus on strategic decision making or leverage their increased bandwidth to accomplish other value-add objectives.


As recently as 2020, MIT Sloan research indicated that CFOs didn’t necessarily see themselves leading the charge for AI. Today, however, with assessing, evaluating, and implementing technology solutions within their sphere, CFOs clearly play a vital leadership role in adopting AI. It’s the CFO who ensures that AI is leveraged to align perfectly with their organization’s strategic objectives and financial goals.


Understanding AI


What precisely is AI? And why should businesses aim to understand and leverage this modern technology? Although it isn’t truly new, having been conceived in 1950 by famed mathematician Alan Turing, AI is continuously and rapidly evolving as a branch of computer science that “teaches” machines to do work as humans usually do. (AI arguably broke through to mainstream consciousness in the form of ChatGPT, a generative AI platform that began making headlines in 2022.) We focus on core technologies at the heart of AI: machine learning, natural language processing, and computer vision. 


Machine learning enables computers to learn from data and apply what they learn; natural language processing enables them to understand, analyze, and generate humanlike language; and computer vision enables computers to recognize, classify, and respond to images. With these combined capabilities, machines can not only digest information but use it for problem solving and decision making, just as Turing theorized. AI solutions recently released also include Bard, a large language model conversational AI tool from Google that can be prompted to create content; Claude, an AI assistant from Anthropic thats capable of conversational and text-processing tasks; and LLaMA, a large language model from Meta that provides a foundational performant model for AI researchers. 


In any industry, AI and automation can process the routine and “labor-intensive” aspects of data management—described by MIT Sloan Management Review as “cleaning, extracting, integrating, cataloging, labeling, and organizing data, and defining and performing the many data-related tasks that often lead to frustration among both data scientists and employees without ‘data’ in their titles.” Finance professionals identified automating data entry and financial reporting as their top priority, according to the Trullion survey. With its ability to organize massive data sets, mine data, and analyze the value of data, AI promises to have an especially powerful impact on workflows in the CFO’s world.


AI in the CFO’s World


CFOs are forecasting a bright future with AI because, among its many abilities, AI is highly effective at three functions that are particularly relevant to finance. 


Aggregating and centralizing widely varied types of data. AI has the power to upload structured data from all documents generated by departments across the enterprise, and to extract and interpret information from unstructured sources like contracts, emails, and financial reports. Thus, it becomes possible to extract and tag detailed data from any type of file quickly and efficiently—which becomes more and more important in the age of a digital data explosion. 


As Bank of England executive Mark Carney once noted, it would be impossible to keep up with the flood of data constantly flowing into the bank without AI, since that would be tantamount to “each supervisor reading the complete works of Shakespeare twice a week, every week of the year.” Further, leveraging AI ensures that all transactions are supported by a full audit trail, so outputs are reliably audit-ready. 


Automating repetitive tasks with a high degree of accuracy. Among the Trullion survey respondents, 50% say the most important role of financial tools is to reduce the time spent on manual work, as shown in Figure 1. AI-based solutions do exactly that by automating a full range of routine yet mission-critical accounting practices, from data entry, bookkeeping, and financial reporting to audits, forecasts, and tax compliance. 




AI algorithms can even detect anomalies and identify patterns that may indicate irregular activity and flag them for investigation. By taking over manual accounting activities, AI streamlines processes, cuts down on errors and duplicated efforts, and reduces costs. According to a 2023 report, the global market for AI in fintech is estimated to reach $9.8 billion in 2023 and expand to $30.6 billion by 2028—driven in large part by a growing demand for process automation in financial institutions.


Gathering, analyzing, and interpreting financial data in real time. AI data analytics tools help accountants analyze vast amounts of financial data more quickly and with greater accuracy than ever before. CFOs can expect enhanced access to accurate, up-to-the-moment information promptly, no longer waiting days for critical answers. A 2022 global survey from Workday revealed the importance of that development, as it found that accessing “clear information that they can act on quickly…continues to be a struggle” for finance leaders; 64% of respondents reported that it took weeks to see results at the close of reporting periods, while a mere 31% considered themselves “confident in their teams’ ability to model multiple scenarios.” AI changes the game by providing CFOs with the kind of meaningful insights they need to make informed, data-driven decisions and make them quickly.


There’s a newly ubiquitous AI technology now in play as well: generative AI. As explained in a recent Deloitte report, generative AI can create original content—not only “concise and coherent” text, but audio and video images as well—and “add contextual awareness and human-like decision-making to enterprise and finance workflows.” Because generative AI is extremely smart about synthesizing financial data and answering questions in real time, it’s easy to see how well it can meet the needs and objectives of any CFO. Indeed, a recent survey of senior AI professionals from Dataiku and Databricks found that 45% are “working actively” on generative AI use cases, while more than 60% plan to use that technology over the next year. To the researchers, this “widespread use of technology not even a year old” at a global level seems “nothing short of amazing.”


Putting AI to Work 


CFOs may rely on AI to optimize high-stakes data analysis and for financial and operational counsel, but this technology has a significant impact on every role across the finance organizational chart as well. Thanks to continuous advances and increasing competition in AI technology, it’s no longer seen as too risky or too expensive to adopt. CFOs who have a deep understanding of AI’s concrete advantages should be leading their teams to leverage AI technology across the enterprise—even if it requires pushing employees past any anxieties and doubts.   


On a practical level, that means seeking out the most promising areas to automate without necessarily aiming for a dramatic return on investment (ROI) from the start. It’s worthwhile to begin by automating areas that will result in a modest ROI, as they can open up the option for high-ROI use cases in the future. For example, it makes sense early on to invest in extracting critical data from leases, invoices, contracts, documents, systems, and databases. Bringing together high-level data as never before—and connecting it to accounting workflows as well—is one of AI’s greatest powers. As the process of introducing automation proceeds, it’s important to ensure a smooth integration with existing platforms in the finance technology stack, as nearly 40% of the Trullion survey respondents noted.


Successfully implementing AI extends beyond the organization itself when CFOs decide to promote its benefits to their auditing and advisory firms. Why would finance leaders encourage auditors and advisors to adopt third-party AI technology? For one thing, after auditors have collected a wealth of comprehensive financial data, most CFOs could find more high-value uses for that data in a heartbeat. The information collected during annual audits offers one more opportunity for CFOs to glean strategic insights from their data.  


Many professionals are ready to embrace this technology, according to 60% of the Trullion survey respondents, who indicated they would spend the time freed up by AI and automation for planning and developing high-level insights, as shown in Figure 2. Even so, CFOs can expect to encounter challenges throughout the AI adoption process, including the need to foster company-wide buy-in and to choose the best implementation partners. But the potential rewards are great: a new level of operational efficiency, enhanced compliance, and significant competitive advantages. Moreover, CFOs who collaborate with innovative cross-functional teams and keep their eyes on emerging technology trends are the ones most likely to capitalize on new opportunities for growth and to keep honing their competitive edge.




The Human Factor


Of all the challenges AI implementations may present to CFOs, the very human uncertainty surrounding this new frontier is proving to be one of the more complex. At times the term “AI” itself seems able to inspire cultural resistance among the workforce, as some people wonder: Is this technology actually smarter than I am? Will it hurt my long-term job stability? Fortunately, this reaction seems to be diminishing as AI technology becomes more familiar and less intimidating to many employees. 


At its most fundamental level, AI relieves accounting professionals of repetitive manual processes, those routine clerical tasks that become increasingly tedious when performed day after day. (Some 95% of finance professionals spend at least an hour a day working with Excel spreadsheets, the Trullion survey found, and for 61% of them it’s actually more than four hours a day; among controllers, that jumps to 70%.) By absorbing such work, AI frees accountants to spend their time on more creative and strategic responsibilities. CFOs need to help people understand that their jobs will not disappear—they’ll just become more interesting. Moreover, it appears that generative AI technology may actually create new jobs.


Brookings Institute advises CFOs to create corporate cultures based on the understanding that “humans should not cede significant decision-making to machines. Rather, experts should use technology to help prioritize their own efforts and enhance their work.”


Even as CFOs are focusing their attention on AI, human accountants may be a greater source of concern at the moment, as those in traditional roles are leaving the profession in ever-growing numbers. This troubling trend has contributed to an ongoing accounting staff shortage; some industry experts suspect it may explain a recent spate of substandard internal control over financial reporting disclosures. In fact, financial executives currently consider finding and retaining top talent their greatest challenge, according to more than 30% of those responding to the Trullion survey. Deploying AI technology may be the key to filling the gap by reinvigorating the industry and attracting the brightest talent. (Of course, recruiting AI tech talent has become a challenge unto itself.)


AI can have a significant impact on another top priority for CFOs—regulatory compliance. Given the myriad federal and international standards governing accounting, the compliance bar is high. AI provides an extra layer of accuracy and insight by pulling large amounts of data from the widest possible scope of sources easily and efficiently, cross-referencing data and accounting judgments, and verifying and validating information. It can help ensure that regulators understand how key conclusions are derived and demonstrate that the findings are repeatable. AI technology thus enables finance teams to generate financial reports and disclosures that are more precise and reliable than ever before, and make them accessible in real time to finance teams and external stakeholders alike. Still, it’s highly likely that CFOs will always be needed to direct and guide the process, and make sure it’s as complete and cost-effective as possible. It takes a human executive to navigate the unique complexities of regulatory compliance within any institution. 


Could AI take over the CFO’s job? Until recently, the complexity of the CFO position insulated it from any possibility of automation. Academic research finds that C-suite roles fall within the top 12% of positions that could eventually be eliminated or altered by generative AI. At this moment, however, AI “isn’t ready to negotiate contracts with your suppliers and customers, evaluate your employees, or allocate your company’s capital,” according to Fortune. Legal expert David Wilkins wonders if AI will ever “make us feel that we have been heard, been valued, been judged by something we can understand, meaning another human being?” One thing is clear, however: A human CFO and AI technology together make a powerful team. For the foreseeable future, that combination of strengths seems to offer the best chance for a stable, efficient, and productive organization.


The CFO’s Journey 


The majority of business leaders surveyed during Workday’s 2022 study remarked that it’s hard to stay ahead of changing business needs without a “timely, clear view” of organizational finances, or while IT is still struggling to “free data from silos” to support more informed decision making. AI offers practical technology solutions to those dilemmas, which are available today. More advanced capabilities—those designed to leverage generative AI to enhance financing planning and budgeting—are more futuristic. CFOs can’t yet try out various “what-if” scenarios (i.e., What if we adjust the head count in a certain department? How would that affect our budget?), but it’s only a matter of time until they can.   


Despite the attention and excitement surrounding AI at this moment, CFOs should really be looking five, 10, or 20 years ahead at this point in their technology journey, establishing long-term road maps to adoption. Businesses are choosing sophisticated AI-enabled tools as harbingers of things to come, setting themselves up for success tomorrow. Businesses are preparing to thrive in a new AI-powered world just as they prepared to thrive in a cloud-based world years ago—and they’re securing an invaluable competitive advantage in the process. 


AI is among the most powerful new technologies we’ve ever encountered. It isn’t a magic wand that will change a business overnight in one broad stroke, but it certainly offers the remarkable ability to facilitate change through one incremental gain after another. It’s brought us to the edge of a fundamental transformation that promises to have a more far-reaching impact than any technological advancement in recent memory, including the cloud. It’s safe to say that CFOs who embrace AI today will be well-prepared for the future—and those who hesitate are destined to be left behind, with the more discerning and decisive CFOs stepping up to take their place.

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