This article was first published in the September 2017 China edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

At a roundtable discussion with finance and IT executives in Bangkok in June, I was struck by the comments of the CFO of one regional hotel chain. He said that when his company deployed a financial-management software suite, several long-serving members of the finance function resigned.

And the CFO did not stop them. ‘They had become too dependent on Excel,’ he said. ‘They were experts in navigating the spreadsheets to get the answers.’ They were lost when faced with software designed to generate up-to-the minute dashboards and reports.

But wasn’t the new system supposed to be user-friendly and automated? That meant the finance team would be freed from the grunt work, giving them more time for business partnering, analytics, forecasting and other higher value activities.

The reality, at least according to this CFO and several others in the roundtable, is that not everyone is willing to give up on spreadsheets and manual processing. And that is something that CFOs transforming the finance function must be sensitive to in the context of change management.

This was partly the reason why another CFO, whose company is in the agriculture sector, had set the timetable for technology transformation at five years. ‘The end-state is clear: everything will be on the cloud,’ she said. But the pace of deployment and change will be slow and deliberate.

The preference was to retain as many of the finance team as possible, given the talent shortage in Thailand and elsewhere in the region, and given the company and industry knowledge and historical memory that could be lost if existing staff were to leave.

The agriculture sector CFO said the plan was to win buy-in from the finance team by involving them in the selection, design and deployment of the new systems, which would be cloud-based, in order to leverage on the flexibility, automatic upgrades, opex rather than capex, and other cloud benefits.

Is there room for spreadsheets? ‘Excel is the enemy,’ declared one chief information officer, who was perhaps only half-joking. If he had his way, his logistics company would ban spreadsheets entirely. From experience, he said, finance folks would neglect the new system in favour of Excel if they could.

Manual spreadsheets can also cause confusion if they differ from the new system’s outputs. One of the vaunted advantages of deploying a cloud-based ERP and other new systems is that the company is supposed to have only one version of the facts – something that rogue spreadsheets could impair.

But it seems that even purveyors of real-time software recognise that Excel is far too ingrained in finance.

So where does that leave finance? Nowhere, if finance professionals remain mired in Excel. But for those willing to let go of the past and move on to analytics, forecasting and business partnering, expertise in the digital world  could bring new levels of influence and respect. 

Cesar Bacani is editor-in-chief of CFO Innovation