12 Nov 2018
Despite her youthful looks, Ms Ma Wei-Shan, APAC Head of Cross Divisional & Client Reporting, UBS AG Singapore (UBS), has over 15 years of experience across finance, operations and IT functions. She has seen and experienced for herself how finance functions and jobs have changed. A decade ago, traditional finance functions in banks included product control, treasury, taxation, reporting and accounting. Today, finance teams in banks enjoy new job roles like risk management, business partnering, restructuring and project management.
She is excited to be right at the heart of this exciting transformation journey and shared with us her key insights on future skillsets that can be expected of accountants.
Technology and offshoring complementing the work done by local accountants
Wei-Shan remembers that the finance team previously spent an average of seven to ten days on month-end closing. To meet tight deadlines, it was a common sight for employees to “burn the midnight oil.” Despite doing so, a month would have passed by the time the business units obtained the necessary monthly financial reports. The lag in the reporting was not optimal for timely and effective decision-making. The advancement of technology has now made it possible for the finance team to shorten the monthly closing cycle to under seven days, and with less manpower to boot.
Through offshoring, work that is purely transactional in nature has been shifted away from the local finance team. For example, transaction-based tasks which used to be executed by the local product control team, which could comprise five to ten controllers per product, have been outsourced to other countries like India. The product control team in Singapore is leaner now, with only one to two controllers per product.
Both the use of technology and offshoring have enabled Wei-Shan’s current team to spend more time and have greater focus on strategic matters which is critical to banks, exception-handling of transactions, and higher value-added tasks such as investigations on large transactions, assessing risk exposure and assisting in end-to-end new business roll-out.
Technology skills and ability to work with virtual teams increasingly important
With technology increasingly comprising an essential part of businesses and work, Wei-Shan sees an increasing need for accountants to blend business and technology skills. In her opinion, there is currently a technology skills gap, such as for skills on Python programming, for accountants. Ideally, accountants should understand basic information technology (IT) or programming concepts, possess the requisite data analytics skills to work with and interpret large volumes of data and perhaps be able to do simple coding. IT personnel should also have a basic understanding of business and accounting. This will enable both accountants and IT personnel to communicate effectively, thereby facilitating smoother and more synergistic finance-IT department collaborations.
Going forward, Wei-Shan expects many more opportunities for finance and IT to work closely together. For example, similar to how UBS’s Operations department implemented few robots to perform highly repetitive jobs, such as sending out invoices or client confirmations. Finance has also introduced robotics within the region recently to help with process automation and digitalisation mandates. On this front, Wei-Shan believes there will be improvements to finance processes from the application of robotics within the next two years.
With robotics and virtual teams becoming more prevalent at the workplace, another important skill-set highlighted for accountants was the ability to manage and work with robots and virtual teams. Good communication and collaboration skills, be it within virtual teams or across departments, will become essential. Such developments would have implications on the future hiring and talent development strategy for finance personnel.
Creating value for business units through business partnering
Gone are the days when accountants were just number crunchers seated behind a desk. It has become increasingly important for accountants to be in constant dialogue with the business units, understand their business drivers and make recommendations which impact business decisions. The ability to make sense of data and to develop a story around the numbers which can be understood by the business function would be especially helpful. As Wei-Shan aptly puts it, “Rather than simply producing aesthetically-pleasing analytics and a report that no one is able to understand or decipher, communication skills and understanding the business are more critical”.
Wei-Shan constantly engages the business units in UBS to understand which reports are value-adding to them, while being mindful of the risk of a “reports and information overload”. She also embraces the view that it is more important to generate reports that support the business unit’s purpose and decision-making, than to simply generate reports which accountants are familiar with.
This approach, and the increasing involvement of the finance team in the strategic budgeting process together with the business units over time, means finance is being valued as a business partner, rather than being seen just as a book-keeper. This is apparent from the increase in the number of business partnering roles within finance, compared to three to five years ago.
“Initially, there were only a handful of business partnering roles created. Now, on a regional level, almost every business unit has a business partner from finance. Unlike the role of a product controller who focuses on month-end closing, employees who are in a business partnering role get greater opportunities to be involved in the business planning process and to provide strategic advice.” - Ms Ma Wei-Shan, APAC Head of Cross Divisional & Client Reporting, UBS AG Singapore (UBS)
As described by Professor Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, “This Fourth Industrial Revolution is, however, fundamentally different. It is characterised by a range of new technologies that are fusing the physical, digital and biological worlds, impacting all disciplines, economies and industries, and even challenging ideas about what it means to be human. ”
In today’s technology-driven era, the accountancy profession and likewise, the role of accountants has evolved. There is increasingly more emphasis on business partnering and collaboration between stakeholders. To continue staying relevant, the accountancy profession and members will need to embrace technology and transform itself accordingly, as the wheels of the Fourth Industrial Revolution are set in motion.
This article is part of the ISCA-CIMA “Embracing Change: Evolving Jobs and Skills” series.
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