This article was first published in the January 2019 International edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

Rapidly evolving technology is changing our lives – and our jobs – and the finance function is no exception. The role of accountants in finance departments, as well as the skills they need, is evolving as technology permeates the workplace, and forms the central focus of ACCA’s ongoing ‘Professional accountants – the future’ project.

So what does this mean in practice for finance functions in organisations across the world? Are their day-to-day talent strategies already reflecting the trends that ACCA’s research has highlighted? With finance functions in India an excellent barometer of global trends, a new research report from ACCA and HR media platform People Matters, Understanding the development strategy for your finance talent, seeks to understand how the role of finance teams in the country is evolving.

The study, which includes the in-depth perspective of prominent HR leaders and heads of finance in organisations in India, as well as an examination of industry trends, identifies Indian finance functions’ main priorities for the coming 12 to 18 months and the changes needed if they are to be achieved.

It is clear from the study that HR and finance leaders in India feel strongly that the role of finance teams within their organisation is expanding and becoming more critical to the business. Many are making significant changes to the way that finance talent is hired, developed and retained as a result. They are also pushing to prioritise learning, as concerns grow about the shortage of critical new skills.

Organisations are taking a methodical approach to meeting the challenges. Some 61% of the research participants say that the fundamental requirement is to deploy a well-defined talent strategy, which will ensure that their finance teams have the strongest possible impact within the organisation. In most cases, the responsibility for developing this strategy lies with HR (58% of participants); the finance team is responsible for its own talent management in only 29% of organisations.

Sandeep Batra, an experienced CFO now with Crompton Greaves Consumer Electricals in Mumbai, says the first step in developing a talent management strategy is to define the principal requirements, attributes and knowledge that the organisation needs from the finance team: ‘What is the role of the function? What are the expectations from the organisation for the function? And what do we expect from individuals?’

The next step, says Batra, is to retrain and upskill existing talent within the function wherever possible, although he stresses that this is a joint responsibility. ‘The finance professional is a co-pilot on the journey,’ he explains. ‘If you want to learn how business is done and how money is made, you need to spend time on the shop floor and understand how products are made and what customers want. This is vital to developing your emotional intelligence quotient.’

Skills gap

As previous ACCA research into the evolution of the professional accountant has highlighted, the skills needed by finance functions are changing as automation increases. Participants in the India study name the top three most desirable skills in a finance team today as good judgment and ethical behaviour, effective and appropriate governance abilities, and good communications skills (see box). But in each case there is a significant gap between the current level of skills in finance teams, and the level that organisations would like to see. ‘The skills with the largest gap in current vs desired levels are the ones that have become more critical in the business scene today,’ says the report. ‘Those relate to managing stakeholder relationships, contributing to strategic planning and maintaining tight performance management systems, along with the ability to find new avenues of innovation.’

Given this skills gap, it is hardly surprising that HR and finance leaders in India who took part in the study identify the design of learning initiatives as their top priority (59% say it is top of their agenda). Retaining top talent is a priority for 51%, while 41% are focused on building the digital proficiency of modern-day finance teams.

Overall, the study shows that learning initiatives are becoming critical, both as a way of developing the skills that finance teams need, but also as a tool to retain and attract talent. Half of those taking part say they already have a well-defined career path in place for finance employees, and 36% say they are implementing individual, personalised learning and development plans. Perhaps surprisingly, online training is not an automatic first choice for organisations – most rely on on-the-job coaching and mentorship programmes, followed by experiential and simulation-based training, and encouraging employees to work towards a professional qualification.

‘The focus today is on hiring individuals who can bring more to the table than just a commercial insight,’ says Rajita Singh, head of HR at Broadridge Financial Services. ‘Reskilling has become an important tool, and many companies like us have begun looking for ways to effectively build expertise in-house.’ Broadridge, she explains, has developed a programme of networking opportunities, workshops, expert-led classroom sessions, external speakers and self-study courses. ‘Employee experience has become our key concern as it plays a critical role in helping companies differentiate themselves.’

It is clear from the report that investment in learning is seen as vital for India’s finance functions to meet the new demands of the digital age. Learning is seen not only as strategically sensible, but an essential ingredient for modern organisations. As Maggie McGhee, director of professional insights at ACCA, says in the report’s introduction: ‘To be truly effective, employers must ensure that learning is part of the culture of the organisation… The encouragement of growth, in whatever field, undeniably supports performance and innovation within the organisation.’

Liz Fisher, journalist

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Skills gap

Skill Desired level (1-5) Current
level (1-5)
Ethics and professionalism 4.750 3.713 1.038
Governance, risk, control 4.725 3.463 1.263
Financial management 4.700 3.400 1.300
Corporate and business reporting 4.713 3.475 1.238
Audit, assurance, advisory 4.675 3.538 1.138
Leadership 4.625 3.375 1.250
Tax advisory 4.563 3.663 0.900
Stakeholder relationship management 4.525 3.175 1.350
Strategic planning and performance management 4.475 2.988 1.488